It’s a no-budget, politics-free ‘Namsploitation action flick starring “American Ninja.” What more do you need to know?
Somehow, someway, I find myself referencing Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” for the second time in about a month. I didn’t really plan that, to be frank -- in fact, I don’t think I’ve actually seen the movie in about 15 years.
Alas, as was the case when discussing the NES adaptation, we must once again refer back to Ollie Stone’s 1986 war drama as a necessary launching point for our analysis of “Platoon Leader.”
Now, there are shameless attempts to capitalize on the success of an existing property, but at least MOST firms try to come up with some kind of title that steers away from the obvious inspiration source. Needless to say, calling a movie “Platoon Leader” just two years removed from a movie just called “Platoon” is a bit on the brassy side, even if the film itself is actually based on a non-fiction book that actually predates Oliver Stone’s movie.
Of course, there are quite a few differences between “Platoon,” the 1986 Best Picture winner, and “Platoon Leader,” the 1988 straight-to-VHS cornball action flick that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t win any awards of any variety.
The flick was released by the Cannon Group -- a low-budget, anti-Hollywood film distributor best known for right-wing action flicks like the myriad “Death Wish” sequels and virtually every Chuck Norris film ever made. “Platoon Leader,” as very much a conservative rejoinder to “Platoon,” is definitely indicative of the company’s general political oeuvre, albeit a much better little neo-con exploitation film than their typical offerings.
The film starts off with our main character, Lieutenant Jeff Knight, arriving at a makeshift base in Binh Dinh. He’s played by Michael Dudikoff, who any early 1990s video store patron would immediately identify as the protagonist of the long-running “American Ninja” franchise. There, he runs into his sergeant, who has the sleekest caterpillar lip ’stache this side of Freddie Mercury. From there, we’re introduced to the rest of the crew: an Italian dude who may actually be black and a redheaded dude who smoke weed, a dorky radio operator (NO IDEA where the idea for that one came from!) and a black dude who is always shaving. This being a war movie and all, at first, nobody respects Knight, even though he graduated from West Point. They go on their first overnight ambush as a company, and during daybreak, the entire Viet Cong army runs atop them while they lay low in the weeds. This leads to a second raid, where they wind up chasing these two villagers through the jungle and torching the grasslands in slow motion. A tree top sniper gets capped and Knight almost gets done in by a snake booby trap (don’t worry, it gets grenaded real good) and then, he winds up getting royally messed up by a tripwire explosion. So, he ends up in the infirmary, where his old West Point major shows up and gives him some words of encouragement.
So, he heads back to ’Nam and the Bravo team is kinda’ miffed because they don’t think he’s really an effective leader. After they find out their 18-man operation is about to get raided by 200 Charlie, the crew starts loading up their base with barbed wire, sharp sticks and explosives -- it’s a hell of a montage sequence, really. Out in the jungle, they find a dead villager and they exact revenge on the V.C. by tossing 50 grenades at them while they shower under a waterfall. This leads to an all-out firefight in the wilderness, with the dorky radio operator getting killed. Knight tells his superiors more men are needed to guard the compound, but he ends up only getting three more, including this greaser kid who just does not give one inkling of one iota of a shit. In probably the best scene of the entire movie, the sergeant makes the whippersnapper hold down a live mine while he takes forever to pee, telling him that “death is the ultimate alarm clock.”
After Knight admonishes the Italian guy for smoking weed, he proceeds to head out into the jungle and mainline a lethal dose of heroin. To give him a fonder send-off back home, the crew decides to shoot the shit out of his corpse and tell the higher-ups “the enemy got him.”
This is a natural segue to our balls-out compound raid semi-finale, which considering the estimated $8.37 budget, is actually pretty nice. All you need to know here? We’ve got bazookas, we’ve got rockets, we’ve got machine gun fire and we’ve got midnight air strikes a plenty. Afterwards, Knight and Sarge have a discussion about the military being in the “idea manufacturing” industry. “If they don’t buy into our ideas,” the second-in-command says, “we put a bullet inside ‘em.”
From there, the team embarks upon their final mission, a jungle raid in which the sergeant gets capped and the titular platoon leader has to wait in a rice paddy forever until helicopter rescuers arrive. After that, we get a decent village raid closer, with multiple exploding huts and bridges, but don’t worry, it ends on a positive note: Knight saves a baby from the flaming rubble! I mean, his mom and dad and entire family are probably all dead, but still!
And the movie ends with Knight visiting his right-hand-man in the hospital, telling him they lost the village, but hey, at least they are still alive and get to continue being all homoerotic together and whatnot.
As I was saying earlier, the film is actually based on a real book, which was penned by James R. McDonough, who strangely enough, went on to become Florida’s drug czar. The screenplay itself was penned by three separate writers, including David L. Walker, who is probably best known for his work on the old Nickelodeon sitcom “Hey Dude.”
The guy playing the sergeant was Robert F. Lyons. He’s had a ton of film roles over the last four or so decades, but the one he’s probably most recognizable from is his immortal portrayal of Skeeter in “Dark Night of the Scarecrow.” Probably the most prolific actor in the entire movie, of course, is the guy playing Knight’s old West Point instructor -- that’s William Smith, whose filmography includes roles on “The A-Team,” “Walker, Texas Ranger” and the first Conan flick, where he played Ah-nold’s papa.
Speaking of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” this film was directed by Chuck’s sibling, Aaron Norris, who is also responsible for vehicles like “Missing in Action 3,” “Sidekicks” and “Top Dog,” which was pretty much “Turner and Hooch,” only this time, the dog was a better actor than the main lead.
I admit, this is some serious guilty pleasure material. It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I appreciate its refreshing lack of political subtext. Nobody in the movie ever goes off into existential monologues about the nature of man, and really, you’re never more than five minutes removed from something having a grenade lobbed at it at any point in the picture. It’s not quite as egregious as something like “The Green Berets,” and unlike the Braddock films, there’s actually SOME semblance of plot and character development. It’s still a B-movie, through and through, but it’s a smarter kind of B-movie, that actually puts a little effort into it.
Yeah, yeah, “Full Metal Jacket” this thing may not be, but by that same token, there are far, far worse movies out there about ‘Nam. It’s just a big, dumb, loud, no-budget action experience -- when you’re feeling a war movie that’s more “Contra: Hard CORPS” than “Apocalypse Now,” it’s waiting for you.