18 July 2009

Platoon Leader

Platoon Leader
US – 1988
Director – Aaron Norris
Video Treasures, 1990, VHS
Run time - 1 hour 37 min.

Aaron Norris was a busy monkey in 1988, dropping the threequel to Missing In Action, (the ‘Namsploitation franchise that started it all and made his brother Chuck a household name) and squeezing out this nugget of rapid-fire ‘Nam mayhem based on the actual memoir of the same name by James R. McDonough. The book was good enough to read twice, but the films parasitic association with the Norris family, and its crudely bifurcated Platoon mimicry pretty much eclipse the source material.

Not to mention the nominal lead, Michael Dudikoff who doesn’t have a beard or any of Chucks parlor tricks to offer, that might actually be worse. Dudikoff plays a green as grass Lieutenant fresh out of West Point and sent into the bush to command a platoon of the 173rd Airborne. Understandably all the GI’s at his new command expect him to get one whiff of the shit and scramble home. That’s what they’d like too, keep your head down and Leave Charlie alone so you won’t get shot. Our green Lt. won’t have it and institutes all sorts of regulation mickey-mouse bullshit that earns the ire of his men. But in the field you gotta learn by doing which doesn’t help the Lt. who manages to bumble-fuck himself into the hospital by tripping a mine on his first patrol.

Contrary to expectations he returns to command again, instituting more by-the-book operations including squad-sized night patrols and synthesizer war-movie trumpet music. Thankfully, Norris did do his research on visuals, there are lots of shots -particularly involving Hueys- that closely resemble any number of period photographs. There seems to be a musical divide here mirroring the greater conflict between the Americans and their enemies. First the tinny trumpet music that evokes Norris’ admirable attention to visual and historical accuracy (most movies can’t even get the type of chopper right) and accompanies tearjerking prideful militarism. Gradually however a two note synthesized pipe-organ theme begins to creep in, each time accompanying some scene of excessive explosions, bottomless rifle magazines and machismo.

As Lt. Knight (Dudikoff) attempts to inject some killin’ spirit into the men, he necessarily pushes them into more and more risky situations. The trumpets and organ grow closer together, closing the distance between the believable and bombastic, and groaning with a sickening gravity towards an ultimate devastating accretion.

Finally the climax breaches the dam, and like two volatile molecules the canned themes rush together with a terrible nauseating rush and explode into a delicate new isotope of pure ‘Namsploitation. Waves of faceless “gooks” pour onto the base camp and crash against American jingoism, our weeping sympathetic killer-men fire ceaselessly from the hip and clap each other on the back in cardboard stereotypes of touching macho camaraderie.

Some very nice foreign VHS covers courtesy The Cannon Films Archive.

And a trailer from the Cannon Films Archive YouTube channel prominently featuring the heroic trumpet music mentioned above.

If you search YouTube for the title of the film you can watch the whole thing in several parts, as well as a student video project to re-create one of the scenes from the book.

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