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Posts in: December 31st, 2010

Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988)

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.

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Save the Last Dance 2 (2006)

The first Save the Last Dance may not have been a masterpiece, but it did two things exceptionally well. It took the tropes of a stale, cliché-ridden genre and turned it into a thoughtful, character-driven drama. It also allowed the characters to learn from each other, rather than having one character serve as the driving force for change. When Derek abandons his gangsta thug friends to arrive at Lucy’s Juilliard audition at just the right moment, audiences could breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed like these two crazy kids were going to make it, and what’s more—we wanted them to make it.

Save the Last Dance 2 starts off on the absolute wrong foot. In an opening sequence that combines a weird documentary-style interview with our new Lucy (Izabella Miko) with even weirder (and strangely inept) chromakey to show Lucy dancing over colorful yet silly imagery matching whatever topic she’s discussing in the interview, she announces that she and Derek split up almost immediately after the events of the last film, because of the long-distance relationship problems (and because she needs to meet a new love interest at Juilliard).

Though made five years after the first film, the sequel picks up with Lucy arriving at Juilliard for a heaping helping of Fame-like good times and hard work. She meets her wacky roommate, a Texan acting student named Zoe (Aubrey Dollar), who serves no other purpose than comic relief (on the plus side, Dollar actually is pretty funny). She meets her mentor, Katrina (Maria Brooks), a seeming ice princess who actually does look out for Lucy’s best interests—until their patrician ballet teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) starts to take Lucy more seriously than Katrina.

During a weird scene, new love interest Miles (Columbus Short) predicts Lucy is a trombonist and is not pleased when she tells him she dances. This artificial conflict is extended when Lucy learns Miles has taken over her “Introduction to Hip-Hop Theory” class. While not an official instructor, he was hand-picked to teach the class during the absence of the usual professor. If you’re wondering why this revelation angers Lucy, you’re not alone. But, hey, romantic movies need conflict, so let’s roll with it, shall we?

Miles collects sounds like John Travolta in Blow Out in the pursuit of what the movie wants us to believe are riveting aural collages, when in reality they merely sound like generic hip-hop. He talks a lot about music theory and music history, and although it impresses Lucy, it comes off like pretentious posturing in light of the Tesh-esque music he creates. At any rate, when Miles sees Lucy bust her fresh moves at a local club, he becomes entranced. He spends the bulk of the movie trying to convince her to blow off her studies to work with him on goofy performance-art installations, dancing to his undanceable (Lucy’s word) music. Lucy’s torn between the man she’s falling in love with and the opportunity to dance the lead in Giselle. If you can’t predict the breakup and get-back-together, you’ve never seen a teen dance film.

I know part of the problem stems from my enjoyment of the original film, but wouldn’t anyone seeking out Save the Last Dance 2 feel the same way? The film’s central conflict—Lucy having to choose between a boyfriend and the education she’s worked her whole life to get—could have worked just as easily with Derek in tow, moving with Lucy to New York and struggling to do something with his life while he watches the woman he loves get a bunch of opportunities he’d love to have. Our advance knowledge of the way the relationship developed in the first film could only enhance the conflicts in the second. Although played well by Short, the Miles character just doesn’t have the same resonance.

Keep in mind that I gave favorable reviews to both Breakin’ movies. I can appreciate a silly, energetic dance film when I see one and embrace incomprehensible plotting, forced conflict, and all manner of other bad drama if the film keeps a light tone and has good dance sequences. Save the Last Dance 2 has it half-right—veteran TV director David Petrarca captures the right tone, but the dance sequences feature distractingly poor choreography that Petrarca tries to mask with rapid-fire, Michael Bay-style editing. It’s hard to tell the choreography’s no good if you can’t tell what the hell is going on, but that doesn’t make the dancing any more engaging to look at. I could easily forgive the film’s myriad problems if not for this unforgivable sin, a dance film with no dancing worth watching.

Though Miko dances well (bad choreography or not), her acting chops leave a bit to be desired, especially following Julia Stiles. In a situation where nobody in the film can act (as in the aforementioned Breakin’ films), this might be easier to overlook. However, alongside the excellent Short, Bisset, and Brooks, and the funny presence of Dollar and Ian Brennan (as Miles’s DJ friend), Miko doesn’t hold her own anywhere but on the dance floor. Sadly, she doesn’t even look like she’s enjoying herself, focusing too intently on the dancing instead of just having a good time. I don’t disagree with Gene Kelly’s belief that seeing a dancer work his or her ass off will impress the audience more than gliding effortlessly across a ballroom, but Miko’s consternation doesn’t match the genial tone of the film—and even Kelly and the dancers he directed imbued a playful sense of fun on the hard work.

I had some hope that maybe Save the Last Dance 2 would have some of the same nice, character-driven storytelling of the first film. The opening seconds dashed that hope but replaced it with a new hope—that it’d be an absurd heir apparent to the Breakin’ films. It has some goofy moments and fun performances, but I can’t consider it anything but a disappointment.

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