I went into this supposed trash 'Nam actioner with low expectations and had a pleasant surprise. It's actually one of the better Vietnam films out there, simply because it combines both and drama evenly without an over-reliance on either aspect.
Colonel Rhodes (Gene Hackman, A BRIDGE TOO FAR) recruits a band of Vietnam veterans to head back to Vietnam and rescue POWs. The team includes memory-plagued Wilkes (Fred Ward), young hotshot Blaster (Reb Brown, STRIKE COMMANDO), rough-'n-tumble Sailor (Randal "Tex" Cobb, THE DIRTY DOZEN: DEADLY MISSION), decent guy Johnson (Harold Sylvester), and aging Charts (Tim Thomerson, ZONE TROOPERS). Joining up at the last minute is new recruit Scott (Patrick Swayze, RED DAWN)
The film is pretty well-paced, dedicating the first 30 minutes to the recruitment of the men. Each on establishes their unique character as Hackman recruits them. Some jump on immediately; others don't want to return to Vietnam because of haunting memories, but do the decent thing in the end. There are some pretty efficient training scenes, and then it's off to Laos for the explosive finale.
The high point of the film is the climactic POW rescue, which involves a well-planned raid on a huge prisoner compound. Complete with lots of gunfire, explosions, shouting and one especially good bridge destruction shot, this tense scene will keep you on the edge of your seat. Instead of completely relying on guys getting shot for impact, though, there's also a few men who sacrifice themselves for their fellow soldiers - even though it's no longer their duty.
There's plenty of comedy, supplied by "Tex" Cobb as a slow-witted, incredibly strong oaf who participates in some good sight gags. I also liked the part in which the men get their weapons confiscated, so they must purchase a crate of dusty, WWII-era weapons to use.
The most powerful scene is when Hackman heads to recruit Fred Ward, who is at first unwilling to go back to Vietnam. His wife looks and acts the part of a troubled veteran's spouse perfectly as she tells of how she had to live through hell as her husband suffered nightmares and the like. Ward makes an impact throughout as he sleeps outside rather than in the barracks with the men. Why? It turns out he was trapped inside an NVA tunnel in the dark. He felt two bodies and knifed them. It turned out they were a mother and child. And even after he realized it, his men couldn't pull him out for hours because they were under fire. The way Reb Brown recounts the story made my jaw drop.
Hackman also delivers the good. I forgot to mention that he is so passionate about the mission because his son is one of the POWs. The grief is evident on his face as he runs throughout the burning camp finding other POWs - but not his son - as time runs out.
This film made me realize just how tough it was on families and comrades in arms to lose a son, father or husand in action.
Overall, a solid, well-directed, excellently acted and plenty entertaining helping of action and drama.