Here’s a trivia question for you. Are there more movies about the Vietnam War, or more movies about rescuing Vietnam War POWs? With the Rambo movies, the Missing in Action flicks and others, there were plenty of the latter. Lost in the shuffle at times is an underrated war film from 1983, Uncommon Valor.
It’s 1982 and after 10 years of one frustrating roadblock after another, retired U.S. Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) has finally had a breakthrough. His son, Frank, was captured in Vietnam in 1972 and has been missing in action ever since. Rhodes finally has been able to gain military intelligence that his son — and other missing Americans — are being held at a prison camp in Laos. Assembling a small team of specialists, including several members from Frank’s old unit, Rhodes begins to plan a dangerous mission into Laos to rescue the long missing Americans. The odds are stacked heavily against him, but for Rhodes, it’s been too long. Something needs to be done.
Where Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action movies are basically thinly-veiled excuses for Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to kill people in a variety of gruesome fashions, ‘Valor’ goes for a more straightforward, no frills approach. It’s the better for it. It doesn’t try too hard to pander to viewers, simply laying things out and going from there. Director Ted Kotcheff turns in a good one here, a film audiences went out to see in droves in 1983.
So if you’re new to movies, Gene Hackman is the Man. He’s always awesome, always able to play a variety of characters. His Col. Rhodes is the glue of ‘Valor,’ a career military man who’s tortured by the memory of his son. Is he alive? Dead? Why is nothing being done to bring him — and other prisoners — home? It’s a subtle part, mostly underplayed, as he holds his team together, all in hopes of them working together to accomplish something truly worthwhile. The sacrifice involved, well, that becomes the issue. Like in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ is it worth to save a life if it costs several more to get the job done? A solid leading part for Hackman.
In the men-on-a-mission angle, ‘Valor’ borrows from The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven and many others. Assemble the team, train them and unleash them on their mission. If the recipe ain’t broke, why fix it? Right?!? There are some cool parts amongst the team, including Wilkes (Fred Ward), the hand-to-hand combat specialist and tunnel rat, Blaster (Reb Brown), the explosives expert, Sailor (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), the burned out fighter, Scott (Patrick Swayze), the weapons trainer, Johnson (Harold Sylvester) and Charts (Tim Thomerson), the helicopter pilots, Jiang (Kwan Hi Lim, a Hawaii Five-O regular), a black market operator and trail guide, and Lai Fun (Alice Lau), Jiang’s more than capable daughter. A fun, oddball, rag-tag group to fill out the team!
I’ve always been a fan of this one. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it doesn’t need to. ‘Valor’ gets its message across without being heavy-handed in its delivery, especially as we get to know these Vietnam vets and the struggles they’re going through. A potentially suicidal mission into Laos? Yeah, maybe that’s the redemption they need, or at least some sort of closure. The forming of the team and the training sequences are excellent, but the best is saved for the chaotic attack on the POW camp in the final act. A big twist in the final minutes, as well as some surprises with who makes it out and who doesn’t.
Not a classic, but an excellent flick, especially its unsettling, almost wordless opening sequence set in 1972 Vietnam. Also look for Robert Stack as MacPherson, Rhodes’ payroll and financial backer who’s also hoping to reunite with his son, also believed to be a POW in Laos. Well worth tracking down/watching.
Uncommon Valor (1983): ***/****