P.O.W. The Escape
(a.k.a. Attack Force 'Nam & Behind Enemy Lines)

Director: Gideon Amir  
David Carradine, Mako, Steve James

By this point of time, you have probably realized that I love a good action flick, in part because in my "genre" index of this web site, the "action" section lists the most movies in one category compared to the six other categories. And you have probably realized that I don't settle for one kind of action flick, but that I love all kinds of action movies. For example, I love action movies coming out of Hong Kong, which contain such pleasurable sights such as people beating the crap out of each other with kung fu. Another kind of action movie that I like is spaghetti westerns, which are filled with people blasting holes into each other. One other kind of action movie that I will happily sit down and watch are war movies. They have their own action charms, such as big explosions and war machines such as tanks and bombers in action and causing a great deal of destruction. Yes, there is a lot to like in a movie that depicts warfare, so it's kind of surprising, at least when you first think about it, that mainstream Hollywood has more often than not shied away from making war movies. During the silent era and the first decade of the talkies, with the exception of a few movies like All Quiet On The Western Front, Hollywood didn't seem very interested in war movies. Then for some reason around December 1941, all the major Hollywood studios got in their mind to make war movies, and they started to churn them out by the dozens. This went on for several years, but eventually the rate that Hollywood churned out war movies started to decline, eventually returning more or less to the rate war movies were made before December 1941.

Decades later, some distance into the twenty-first century, this reluctance of the major studios to make war movies still persists. The question that comes up from this is just why Hollywood is reluctant for the most part to do so. Actually, if you had thought about it just a little, you would probably come up with the same theories that I did while brainstorming about the topic. Probably the first theory that you came up with was my first theory too - the considerable expense it takes to make a high quality war movie. You need to scrounge up or construct for yourself a lot of war equipment, which can cost a lot - especially if you are making a war movie that has a setting not in modern times, which means proper war equipment can be hard to find. And there are other expenses that come up, ranging from hiring dozens or hundreds of extras to the likelihood that you would have to pick things up and shoot in another country, since America hasn't had that many wars happen on its home soil. A second possible reason that Hollywood currently isn't that enthusiastic about making war films is political correctness. If you look at many war movies in the past, parts of them are often hard to take because of their nastiness depicting the enemy of the war. Hollywood executives of today are more often than not very reluctant to depict a real life enemy, because it's possible that numerous real life moviegoers somewhere in the world have some sort of tie (such as ethnicity or religious beliefs) to the real life enemy, and would heavily protest in response even before the movie is finished and released to theaters.

Whatever the reasons might be, the fact is that we don't get that many war movies nowadays from major Hollywood studios. I find I have to depend on the B movie studios when I have a taste for warfare. But that's often okay with me, even though the B movie studios P.O.W. The Escapeconcentrate more on entertaining an audience than things like accuracy and sensitivity. When I got a copy of P.O.W. The Escape, I knew I wouldn't see a serious look at the war in Vietnam. For one thing, it was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group . Also, the top billed actor was David Carradine. As a bonus, Steve James (Riverbend) was in a supporting role! A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men, so all I was asking from this war movie was to be entertaining. The setting of the movie is Vietnam during the last years of the Vietnam war. David Carradine plays one of the American soldiers still in the country, one Colonel James Cooper. Not long after the movie has started, he is assigned a mission by his superiors: liberate American prisoners of war from a North Vietnamese prison camp. He accepts and subsequently begins the mission, but things go very wrong, and he eventually finds himself captured and joining the prisoners that he was supposed to liberate. He seems doomed to face the North Vietnamese military in Hanoi, but a glimmer of hope soon comes up. The camp commander, one Captain Vinh (Mako, Conan The Barbarian), has family in the United States and wishes to join them. So Vinh makes Cooper an offer: He will set Cooper free and guide him to the American lines if Cooper will subsequently help Vinh emigrate to the United States. Cooper eventually agrees, with one condition: that Vinh will allow Cooper's fellow prisoners to accompany them. Vinh eventually agrees to this condition, and everyone starts the journey to the American lines, though even with all those soliders it soon becomes clear the journey won't be easy.

According to the opening credits of P.O.W. The Escape, a total of five people are credited in the story and screenplay departments combined. You might think that with all these people responsible for the movie's writing that the final screenplay would have all bases covered. But surprisingly, the screenplay has several parts that have not been adequately written, starting with the principle characters. During the ninety minute running time, we learn next to nothing about the characters of Colonel Cooper and Captain Vinh. Colonel Cooper, for one thing, is barely introduced before starting his mission to free the prisoners of war, so we don't get a handle on his character before being thrust into action. Later in the movie, Colonel Cooper keeps repeating to his loyal soldiers that, "Everyone gets to go home," but we don't learn what makes him believe or stick to this mantra, and that's about it when it comes to fleshing him out. Equally disappointing is the portrayal of Captain Vinh. This character had a lot of promise, being from a different culture and having different motivations from Colonel Cooper. You might think that as a result, there would be a lot of interesting clashes between the two. But surprisingly, this never happens. Captain Vinh is more or less abandoned, with only a few subsequent sporadic appearances before he appears in the final sequence. What may come as an equal surprise is that this kind of afterthought also extends to David Carradine's character to a degree. Although the events of the movie surround him, he not only appears in somewhat less of the movie that you might think, there are a number of scenes where he does appear but never seems to take firm command of these scenes. He almost becomes a secondary character.

Maybe because these two characters were weakly written is why Carradine and Mako don't seem to be able to do much with them. Don't get me wrong, they aren't terrible in their roles, but they seem to be held back from putting some serious color in their performances. Generally their performances come across as mediocre. Steve James, on the other hand, shows what an underrated actor he was. Although he plays only a supporting role (one of the prisoners of war following Carradine) and doesn't get a great deal of dialogue, his great charisma really shines and he really livens up the movie whenever he talks or gets to participate in the combat. Had he been cast in Carradine's role, I think the movie would have been a lot better. But that's not to say P.O.W. The Escape as it is is overall a bad or disappointing movie. I have to confess that despite its shortcomings I had a fairly good time watching it. Although it's a Vietnam fantasy, it has some merit not found in some serious-minded major studio Vietnam movies. For one thing, the atmosphere of the movie is fantastic. Shot mostly in the Philippines, this movie really captures what jungle combat must be like. Everything looks wet, humid, and extremely dirty. The touches of civilization brought into this jungle environment, from bridges to prison camps, look weathered and with the right touch of sloppiness from this crushing atmosphere. The other production values of the movie look equally convincing. While the movie was low budget, these filmmakers really managed to stretch out every dollar, placing various visual spectacles throughout such as crowds of refugees to multiple helicopters flying through the air at once.

Director Gideon Amir (who previously wrote American Ninja) made his directorial debut with this movie, though he only subsequently directed one other movie before moving to producing and production management. Although he didn't manage to raise the enthusiasm of Carradine and Mako, and there are some other flaws that were probably out of his control (like the electronic musical score by David Storrs that more than twenty-five years later sounds very dated), generally he gets the job done well here. For one thing, he manages to make the movie move at a very quick clip; while this doesn't leave much room for stuff like character development, it does prevent the movie from having any slow moments. I can't say that there's one boring bit in the entire ninety minutes. More importantly, he manages to deliver with the movie's main selling point: having a lot of action. The action not only keeps coming at a regular pace, but this action is very well constructed. While Carradine was almost fifty years old when the movie was made, he seems very comfortable under Amir's control to engage in action, whether his character is firing a gun or engaging in martial arts moves. Interestingly, Amir often films the action without any of that dated musical score playing the background. With no music to distract us, we in the audience see just how well done the action is, not needing any crutch. It speaks for itself. P.O.W. The Escape is not a masterpiece by any means, but if you are looking for a movie with plenty of "pow" - Prisoners Of War as well as "Pow! Pow!" - this effort will make for a pleasing ninety minutes of your time.

(Posted March 16, 2014)

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Delta Force One, The Inglorious Bastards, Salt In The Wound