There is no shortage of missing in action prisoner of war movies from the 80’s, however, featuring a terrific cast and a director of note Uncommon Valour is far from your typical ‘Nam action.
I came to Uncommon Valour after catching Remo Williams: Unarmed and Dangerous, Timerider and Florida Straits in quick succession. Fred Ward had quickly zipped to favourite actor position for a spell and I had to see as much as possible. I happened upon an old ex-rental VHS copy for a coin or two and had to pick it up. The tape was simply mangled and the one viewing I had was not enjoyable or entirely successful.
It would be another 5 or so years before there was a UK retail release and picked it up on a budget label, Cinema Club if I am not mistaken. By this stage I was familiar with most of the cast and seeing a machine gun wielding Hackman traipse through Laos with Trancers’ Tim Thomerson, Patrick Swayze and Fred Ward for support in a film by the guy who did the first Rambo movie, First Blood, was dynamite.
Revisiting Uncommon Valour all these years later I’m happy to say was a pleasant experience. Maybe not as “dynamite” as it had been to my young ocular organs.
Gene Hackman plays a Colonel in the US army whose son has been left behind in the Vietnam conflict. For 10 years he has fought with powers that be to investigate and retrieve potential prisoners of war, with no positive outcome. Instead, he decides to put together a team from his son’s unit and go in and find his son. Robert Stack plays a rich oil tycoon who’s son is also missing and finances the operation.
The film is divided into two halves. The first is the setup and training as Hackman works his way around the 6 members of the team, each with different skills and differing levels of post traumatic stress. Randall Tex Cobb plays, as you might expect, a crazed biker type who has trouble adapting to the American way of life. Reb Brown is an explosive expert and Ward a Tunnel Rat and master of stealth… a bit like Remo. Thomerson and Harold Sylvester are a couple of helicopter pilots.
Once everyone has signed on, Hackman takes the crew to a training camp to prepare them for combat. The film shifts up a gear as it is a joy to watch Hackman beautifully navigating the lighter side of the film as the comrades, for whom he has tremendous respect, joke and prank each other whilst they struggle with training and connecting with Swayze. Swayze’s character is an interesting addition, whilst too young to be proven in war he attempts to teach newer tactics and skills to the veterans. Hackman eventually rounds out the unit and they are ready for the operation.
The second half of the film is, what you might expect, a war adventure. Arriving in Laos and having their gear confiscated almost immediately and the team must source alternative gear before setting out. This is welcome distraction as we are giving a little while longer with the team before the the mission kicks off as they clean up and prepare to crawl through jungle, infiltrate camps and engage the enemy.
Excitement, loss, anger and emotion. Yet, there are a few moments and plot details that add to the story and the drama. Before Saving Private Ryan, Hackman was there to weigh up the needs of the few for the needs of the one, to paraphrase Captain Kirk. We are given a look into Hackman’s eyes as he sees people gunned down, the daughters of an old colleague and some of his son’s buddies. It’s all building to a dramatic conclusion.
Uncommon Valour is terrific right up until the moment before the credits roll and it forgets to give the audience the concussion they need. The film ends abruptly, too abruptly. It’s a bad ending, not the type of ending that destroys your opinion of the movie, but an unfair conclusion to the story given the time and connection the film creates between the audience and the characters. Once back on US soil we are only given some closure regarding Hackman and Blake, the rest of those involved in the operation are forgotten about.
Director Ted Kotcheff has a tremendous body of work, during the 70’s and 80’s he made a continual line of enjoyable movies. However, something happened in 1993 with the Tom Selleck comedy Folks! and he would predominantly direct TV thereafter. What makes this a strange move was that the movie prior to Folks! was Weekend at Bernies, a massive hit!
This was the first of, what I call, Hackman’s Missing in Action trilogy and I will be looking at the rest in due time. I have always thought of Hackman as one of the highest quality of actors out there and love that he would take on something like Uncommon Valour. Ward and Thomerson were both great to see and each of the characters is given enough time on screen for the audience to get to know them, aside from Michael Dudikoff.
In hindsight, Uncommon Valour looked very much like just another Vietnam actioner from the 80’s, when it was the followup to the movie that started the craze. It does what Rambo II does and arguably better. I live in hope that one day a Blu Ray release will see an extended version of the film featuring an ending the studio had felt “went on too long” or some such included. Uncommon Valour is almost a great film.
A fairly over priced DVD is available from Amazon, the same DVD I purchase about 15 years ago for £6.
There is a listing of a Blu Ray released under the Umbrella label for the Australian market. As far as I can make out, this is a bare bones release.