CANNON MONTH: Missing In Action (1984)

Once upon a time, the story goes that James Cameron wrote a treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part II and everyone in Hollywood wanted to make it. The people that wanted to make it the most were our beloved friends at Cannon, who somehow rushed this out two months before Stallone’s character returned to rescue the POWs still left behind.

Cannon may have not been at the level of working with a star of Stallone’s calibre — and pricetag — as of yet, but they would be.

As for star Chuck Norris, he was approached to make the film by Lance Hool and the idea of making a movie that redeemed American soldiers in Vietnam spoke to him, as his brother Wieland died during the conflict. “Vietnam was a tragic mistake. If you don’t want to win the battle, don’t get involved,” said Norris.

Hool and Norris took the project to Cannon Films, who liked the project, and seeing as how they already had a similar script in development, they signed Norris to be in not one, but two movies. Except that the movie intended to be the first movie, the Hool-directed version, ended up being the prequel, released under the confusing title of Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

But man, talk about stacking the deck. The film that was the sequel that became the first movie — welcome to the world of Cannon — was directed by Joseph Zito, who mastered the slasher genre between The Prowler and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter before making this as well as the perhaps even better — or wilder — Invasion U.S.A. and Red Scorpion.

This movie is everything Cannon in one film, outside of hiring someone like John Cassavetes to direct it or Norman Mailer to write it.

Colonel James Braddock (Norris) is a US military officer who spent seven long years in a North Vietnamese POW camp — if you want to see that, watch Missing in Action 2: The Beginning — a place that he somehow escaped a decade ago. Against the objections of Senator Maxwell Porter, he joins a government team that has come to meet Vietnamese officials in Ho Chi Minh City about the existence of still-living American POWs.

I love that Braddock has no time for the normal action hero cliches of romance. When he’s invited by Ann Fitzgerald (Lenore Kasdorf, Amityville Dollhouse) up to her room for a nightcap, she feigns mock indignation as he strips down, thinking that she’s about to get some of that sweet Chuck Norris karate directly below her belt. She turns and sees him dressed in full black commando gear, ready to climb out her window and start doing some work.

In order to get the dirt he needs on General Vinh (Ernie Ortega) and General Tran (James Hong, always a welcome actor in any movie), he must go into Thailand and recruit his old buddy Jack “Tuck” Tucker (M. Emmet Walsh), who has become the king of the black market. Then, Chuck does what Chuck does, including blowing up more of the Phillippines than ten other movies shot there and the famous moment when Chuck rises from the water holding a M60 machine gun and blowing gigantic holes in nearly everyone.

“One of the biggest thrills of my life came when I went to a theatre to see Missing in Action, and all the people stood up and applauded at the end. That’s when my character brings some POWs he’s just rescued to a conference in Saigon, where the politicians are saying there aren’t any more prisoners of war,” said Chuck. And you know, more than thirty years later, as I watch this movie on my couch, I shouted in pure joy out loud and I’m pretty much so left wing that I’ve become right and then left again.

Such is the magic that is Chuck Norris.

You can learn more about all of the Missing In Action movies in Austin Trunick’s The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon podcast about this movie here.

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