Completely divorced from the already thin continuity of the first two films, Braddock: Missing in Action III forgets its titular character (played, as always, by Chuck Norris) was missing in action from 1972 to 1984. Instead, it opens with a surprisingly well-rendered recreation of the fall of Saigon in 1975. While Braddock manages to get to the Embassy and flee with the other American soldiers (apparently never ending up missing at all), his Vietnamese wife, Lin (Miki Kim), is left behind. Thirteen years later, Braddock finds out she’s still alive, has a son, and faces the possibility of death at the hands of the brutal Vietnamese dictatorship. He has no choice but to mount a rescue mission.
The similarities between the three Missing in Action films made me feel like I’d witnessed the evolution of art (if one can call a Chuck Norris trilogy art). Remember that the production sequence went two, one, three. In that order, each film gets successively better as it moves away from wanton, meaningless violence and closer to something like a resonant emotional core. In Missing in Action (the “second” film made), Braddock’s guilt fuels his vengeance. In Braddock…, screenwriter Norris and longtime collaborator James Bruner give him a wife and child—something worth fighting for.
During the fall of Saigon, Lin packs for her trip to the U.S. She works as a translator for the American embassy and has married an American, so she leads a life of relative luxury. As Lin packs, her servant steals jewelry and greedily accepts Lin’s offer to take any clothes she can’t fit in her suitcase. Braddock, meanwhile, fights his way through the mobbed streets to get back to his new wife. He arrives at their apartment shortly after it gets bombed. He looks at the charred, unrecognizable remains of his servant, dressed in his wife’s recognizable clothes and jewels. Believing she’s dead, he returns to the embassy to help the Army get everyone out of Saigon. Lin arrives at the gates of the embassy, but just when a soldier (a cameo from Keith David) recognizes her, desperate Vietnamese finally scale the huge concrete walls surrounding the embassy. The soldier disappears, and Lin is lost in the crush of people.
In 1988, Braddock has abandoned government work. He doesn’t believe it when a kindly old reverend (Yehuda Efroni) tells him that not only is Lin alive, but she gave birth to a son six months after the fall of Saigon. However, when CIA goon Littlejohn (Jack Rader) shows up hours later, asks if a reverend visited him, and then tells him anything the reverend said was a lie, Braddock believes it. Against Littlejohn’s orders, he heads over to Thailand, connects with an Australian pilot, and finds himself parachuting into Vietnam.
Unfortunately, his daring entrance gets him literally on the radar of General Quoc (Aki Aleong). After reuniting at the reverend’s mission, Braddock manages to flee with Lin and Van (Roland Harrah III), his 12-year-old son, but their escape is short-lived. Quoc kills Lin to show his power, then imprisons Braddock and Van, torturing them for the fun of it. Braddock escapes and returns to the mission to free the children, but Quoc raids the boarding house first and takes all the children hostage. Braddock spends the rest of the movie killing people and attempting to lead the children across the border into Thailand.
I normally balk when a film uses children as a sympathetic crutch. Braddock… managers to overcome that by continually putting Braddock into more jeopardy than Van. Van mostly looks on, wide-eyed, as his father is shot, beaten, maimed, and bombed. Braddock willingly puts himself in harm’s way to protect his son, instead of allowing Van to fall prey to Quoc. That’s really the key difference between this film and the usual portrayal of the hero’s children in action films.
It helps that director Aaron Norris manages to wring a bit of emotion out of his taciturn brother. As in Missing in Action, Norris gives the character a visceral quality by making his emotional pain plain and palpable. Most action films involve some sort of personal stakes, often the death of someone very close to the hero, but it always rings hollow when the hero in question continues to wisecrack and wander into each action sequence with a sarcastic smile on his face. Braddock doesn’t wisecrack. His life is nothing but misery—is it any wonder he never developed a sense of humor?
As with the recreation of the fall of Saigon, the production values for this film’s climactic action sequences are much higher than in the previous two films. The fact that the stunts aren’t cheesy or poorly staged helps to create an air of excitement and suspense entirely lacking in Missing in Action 2: The Beginning. (Of course, the action sequences do have their hilariously over-the-top moments, as when Braddock bayonets a Quoc disciple with a combination machine gun/grenade launcher/bayonet, then fires a grenade at him with enough force to send him flying out of his rickety shack, only to have the disciple explode a few seconds after hitting the ground.) It’s the combination of Braddock’s real stakes and surprising professionalism behind the scenes that make this movie easily the best in a so-so series.
Braddock: Missing in Action III has so little to do with its predecessors, and is so much better, you might as well not bother with the previous films. They’re just rough drafts leading up to this, the quintessential Chuck Norris action flick. Accept no substitutes.