May 25, 2013

The Chuck Norris Power Pack, Part 1: MISSING IN ACTION


"Do you mind?  I'm a bit shy."
So my best friend from high school (who also officiated my wedding) is a guy named Bart.  We were born a mere two weeks apart, so every February we engage in a little birthday tradition: we give each other the shittiest movies we can find on DVD.  Seriously terrible stuff.  Ice Spiders.  Death Bed.  The Uwe Boll Collection.  Just the absolute worst of the worst.  

This year Bart outdid himself.

Along with The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (on blu-ray no less), he gave me one of those combo packs with multiple movies in one case.  Henceforth it shall be known as The Chuck Norris Power Pack.  It contained three movies starring the great bearded one: Missing In Action, Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, and The Delta Force.  There was simply no way I was going to watch these movies by myself, so when I recently went over to Bart's to break in his new TV, it seemed appropriate to bring them along.  Since I suspect that The Delta Force will probably turn out to be the best of the bunch (it's got Lee Marvin!) I figured we should start by lowering the bar a bit.  And thus we battled through Missing In Action.  

It only seemed fair to let Bart voice his own opinions on the movie, since he's the one who brought it into our lives.  I'm hoping to do a few more of these "conversational" pieces in the coming months, so let me know what you think.

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Daley
Lets start with the following question: how in the hell did Chuck Norris ever become a leading man? Strike that, how did this guy become THE LEGEND he is today? His physical prowess is certainly legit. He's got serious karate skills (the guy was was an undefeated World Professional Karate Champion for six years, plus he fought Bruce Freakin Lee) and was famous for doing most of his own stunts. In his heyday, which definitely includes Missing In Action, I have no doubt that he could have broken me into many small pieces in a dozen different ways, but the guy has all the charm of a tree stump. Like the early work of Channing Tatum, Chuck Norris comes across as a walking absence of personality. I don't get it. Did people really respond to Norris? He barely speaks in this movie, and spends a lot of time silently taking in his surroundings or pensively staring into the middle distance. I can't tell if this was an intentional move to minimize the amount of "acting" or if director Joseph Zito honestly thought that Norris was pulling off some kind of smoldering Steve McQueen thing. (Note: IMDb claims that McQueen, who was a karate student of Norris, urged him to get into acting. Thanks a lot Steve!) Either way, it just doesn't work. Also, was Norris a legit sex symbol at this point? He's certainly treated like one, since his glistening chest hair is on display for much of the film's running time.

What's really surprising is the lack of actual fighting in Missing In Action. There's plenty of Norris stalking around the jungle with large automatic weapons and a hilarious bulletproof inflatable raft. (This was 1984, so one of the characters actually has to stop and explain what kevlar is for the sake of the audience.) However, there's very little actual hand-to-hand combat. That's Norris's ace-in-the-hole, yet somehow the movie suffers from a pronounced lack of roundhouse kicks to the face. Instead they've got Norris...climbing the sides of buildings? It reminds me of all those long, dull shots of the Enterprise flying through the many chambers of V'Ger in Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture, but here it's a black pajama-clad Chuck Norris shimmying up drainpipes. It's impressive I guess, but not exactly exciting stuff. I did enjoy that he spends the entire opening scene silently watching a Spider-Man cartoon, which I'm pretty sure means that Peter Parker is his spirit animal.

What do you think? Were you as let down as I was by the absence of sweet Norris fisticuffs, or was the absurd military action entertaining enough? Also, do you have a theory as to why Norris's James Braddock is somehow able to walk away from gunshots and grenade explosions without so much as a scratch? I'm thinking gypsy curse...


Bart 
The first thing about the Chuck Norris Legend is the man's borderline absurdity. I think it works like this: when I was in college, I briefly dated a girl with dreadlocks...a redhead with dreadlocks. These are things that should not go together, and something about the awkward juxtaposition made it interesting, even if only in a fleeting way. Chuck Norris is, fundamentally, an actor who can't act and a martial arts master who isn't Asian. That's interesting...for a time. This was a large part of the problem with MIA -- it's only interesting when he's illustrating the contrast by fighting Asian guys or trying to act, and he simply isn't doing either of those things for most of this movie. Even on a conceptual level the direction of this movie shows a lack of understanding of this simple idea -- why would you include so many shirt-off shots of your leading man -- a sweaty, muscular action hero -- if the audience can't see his chest because Chuck has that bearskin-rug catcher's pad?

The next pillar of The Chuck Norris Institution is the simple idea that he is all that is Man. Remember that scene in Louie where the teenager harasses Louis CK in the donut shop and makes him beg not to get beaten up? What is Louie's date's reaction to this mother-creature of emasculation? She appreciates that Louie probably did the mature thing in avoiding the confrontation, but she has to dump him just the same because it was just so wimpy. She can't stay with him, just out of instinct. This is a function of natural selection, not choice. I go to this example for two reasons - first, because I love that show, and second because it illustrates the point that simply having a red beard does not grant you man-powers. It follows that being afflicted with big-fat-ginger-ugly-itis really comes from within. Chuck Norris doesn't have that gene. In the same scene, Chuck would have stared at the kid dead-pan until his eyeballs popped out of his head and pummeled the kid and all his little yelling friends. Mature decision-making wouldn't enter into the equation. Somebody threatens you, you beat him up. Hulk Smash!! And then you FUCK the plant.

I almost hate to say it, but all the Spider-Man stuff in this movie actually makes a ton of sense if you think about it. That's what Chuck Norris is in this movie -- a superhero without a face. Everything he does is superhuman - the careless violence, puzzling invulnerability, questionable motivation, and, of course, the inexplicable lack of consequences. Oh, and the needless climbing. And Chuck does it all without his face moving, just like Spider-Man. He just stares at you with those emotionless eyes and stone-faced...err...beard. And then you die, and he climbs away. The real problem, as you said while we were watching this, is that he only gets to fight minions, and he dispatches them far, far too easily and quickly because he's a superhero. There's no big baddie to legitimize his quest, no grand evil for him to defeat, no sleek Asian yin to his fuzzy ginger yang. He has no equal, and that makes the movie boring.

...that and the script, direction, acting, editing, and horribly misleading blu-ray box.

Daley
So who else was in this masterpiece? Can we officially classify M. Emmet Walsh as the strangest possible choice to pair with Chuck Norris in an action movie? I mean the guy was already 50 years old and about 260 lbs. when this movie was shot. They have to be the greatest odd couple in the history of Vietnam revenge movies. If they cast the tubby Walsh to make Norris look even more badass, it definitely backfired. Walsh easily gives the most convincing performance in the entire movie and I love that his refusal to go back to Vietnam eventually gets whittled down to, "I ain't gettin' off this raft."

Best of all, after some careful frame-by-frame examination, I think it's safe to say that during the big final stunt jump on the shark-faced battle raft, the AARP-eligible Walsh was doubled by a 24 year old Jean-Claude Van Damme! I'm deadly serious, Van Damme is a credited stuntman on the film and there is some heinously incongruous stunt doubling at play for pretty much everyone who isn't Norris. Can we confirm this?

And I would be remiss if I left out the great James Hong, who can soon be seen playing Ryan Reynolds alter-ego in the upcoming RIPD. He gets a few choice scenes as a smarmy Vietnam general who accuses Braddock of war crimes, but he gets dispatched (too soon) as a result of Chuck Norris's uncanny climbing ability. Somehow he's not even the real villain of the movie! It's actually some underling who tortured Braddock when he was a POW (this time it's personal!) played by a guy named Ernie Ortega. Is it possible they hired a Mexican to play Chuck Norris's Vietnamese nemesis? That would certainly explain why we couldn't understand A SINGLE WORD HE SAID. He was just speaking straight up gibberish!

Any theories on why all the minions kept trying to fight the assault raft by driving their trucks into the river? And how about that love interest? Can we even call her a love interest? I think we can call her a breathing human woman, but I'd hardly imply she was in any way interesting.

Bart
First things first -- that raft. We have to talk about Imperial Death Raft (...Raft Punk?).

We've already established that its kevlar hide made it nigh-indestructible, but somehow no one ever mentions its slipstream technology. I don't know how, but somehow it carried our bearded champion and his be-chubbered sidekick Lord-only-knows how many miles in a very, very short time. The convoy of trucks carrying the POW's had left, what, a half a day before Chuck blows up the camp they'd left? He catches the trucks in minutes. I think there's literally only one day-for-night shot in the interim. That's...no passage of time.

And about that convoy: one would think that, upon seeing Chuck coming, they probably should have just, you know, turned away from the river. But one would be wrong! Obviously they had jungle intel that Raft-narok wouldn't be stopped by something so pesky and trivial as land. So they decided to turn the whole motorcade into the river itself. Really, 90-degree turn directly into the river. Perpendicular. Maybe their plan was to limit his maneuverability by putting obstacles in his way -- I dunno. It's also moot, because, unsurprisingly, that sucker immediately went into super pursuit mode and started jumping over stuff and doing bombing runs. Too bad it didn't start making snarky comments at Braddock. That probably would have been better.

I'm not really sure what to make of the other characters. They were mostly there, I think, for the sake of audience expectation. None of them had any particular impact on the story at all. But a movie with no one for Chuck Norris to fight or befriend probably wouldn't be that interesting. Probably. There was that raft. Maybe if Mr. Feeney was involved.

Daley
Alright, final thoughts: single favorite Missing In Action moment? You already know mine: Chuck Norris is idly staring out the window of his hotel room in Thailand. He slooooowly buttons up his shirt, wanders over to a large maple wardrobe and then stands there methodically rolling up his sleeves in silence for approximately eternity. This prompted me to say, "Man, if there's not an angry Asian guy with a knife in that wardrobe, I'm gonna be VERY disappointed." Then, right on cue, Chuckles reaches for the wardrobe and a flurry of sharp-edged Vietnamese fury bursts forth from inside the wardrobe and I promptly take a screaming victory lap around the couch, arms raised in triumph. It was downright sublime.

Finally, what are you hoping for from Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, a.k.a. the movie that was shot first but released second as a prequel because the producers realized that THIS WAS THE BETTER MOVIE?!? Maybe if we're lucky Braddock will wander past someone painting the shark teeth on the front of a kevlar assault raft. Then he'll stare off vacantly over the horizon and whisper, "Next time..."

Bart
I want jungle warfare from the next one, plain and simple. And at least one roundhouse kick to the face. I'm pretty sure we didn't get any from this one.

My favorite part, wardrobe notwithstanding, was when the Robin to Chuck's hirsute Batman declared, unceremoniously, that he would not be getting off the raft. This seemed an odd choice to me, seeing as his much larger, much more comfortable, much more not-baking-in-the-Vietnamese-sun-without-any-water boat was, oh, 30 yards away.

But it was a pretty cool raft, though. I'll give him that.

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Stay tuned for Missing In Action 2: The Beginning!

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Title: Missing In Action
Director: Joseph Zito
Starring: Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, James Hong,  Lenore Kasdorf, Ernie Ortega, David Tress
Year Of Release: 1984
Viewing Method: Blu-Ray