“Uncommon Valor” (Ted Kotcheff, 1983)

Fans of early-eighties “bring the POWs back from Vietnam” type-films are very well served – in the space of three years, a trio of near-identical films were produced. “Uncommon Valor” (1983), “Missing In Action” (1984) and “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985).

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Uncommon Valor is the first, but most definitely the least of this series. Having never seen it, I was intrigued by the promise of a performer of Gene Hackman’s standing appearing in a knee-jerk right-wing fantasy, the likes of which sprung up repeatedly during the 80’s (It’s no surprise to see gun-nut and famous right-winger John Millius’ receive a producer credit). Hackman seems to have a wild hair in his bum about this kind of film – he’s made variations of it two more times – “Bat 21” (1988), “Behind Enemy Lines” (2001).

But ultimately it comes across no better than a cheap Canon knock-off. The locations are quite dull – the way they are captured is incredibly bland, and technically it is very shoddy in places. All of the Bangkok-set scenes seem to use very poorly implemented looping. Examples abound of forced editing decisions to fill gaps that remind the viewer of 80’s TV – where footage was repeated, slowed down and reversed, to fill gaps, or hide jarring shot clashes.¬†Hackman looks thoroughly bored, and is certainly wasted. He only gets to show emotion once in the film, the rest of the time he is like a apathetic version of Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen“.

Plus points? The supporting cast is quite spicy – Fred Ward, Tim Thomerson, Patrick Swayze, Randall Tex-Cobb; and Robert Stack in an enticing denim onesie. These are the ragtag team of Vietnam Vets brought together by Hackman to rescue his POW son who’s been MIA for ten years. They gel wonderfully in a shower scene (stay with me) where Tim Thomerson decides they should all dance together in various states of undress. Verdict? Thomerson dances like he is repeatedly killing the same ant – stepping back periodically to check out it’s guts, and Ward probably hasn’t seen a nightclub in his life (or much sun, he’s lily-white compared to the others).
swayzeOne marvellous scene has Swayze witnessing just a bit too much pointless death and destruction for his liking, rushing out of his sniper spot waving his gun around screaming “I’m gonna kill all you motherfuckers!”, before abruptly stopping on the spot and firing a thousand rounds into a nearby bush. It’s quite an existential moment – the character coming to the correct conclusion that some higher power is ultimately to blame, so why not take it out on His plants. The same theme Terrence Malick was reaching for with “The Thin Red Line” but fell short.

The soundtrack is by James Horner – which means you’re either going to get one of two scores – “Conan The Barbarian” or “Predator“. This time it’s “Predator” (Although I noticed a variation on the famous countdown theme from the ‘nuke from orbit’ scene in “Aliens“.)

So why would we want to put this in our film session line up? Well, Fred Ward and Tim Thomerson are reason enough. But the real beacon that drew us ¬†was the director Ted Kotcheff. Famous for making “First Blood“, he went on to make one of the most oft-repeated fixtures of the 24 hour film session – “Weekend At Bernies“.

If you can only choose one ‘Bring those POWs back’ film today, then go for “Missing In Action“. It’s more fun, and has more elements of exploitation that this kind of film benefits from. Hackman really did make any old shit in the 80’s didn’t he?

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