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Retro Review: P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE (1986)

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P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE
(US - 1986)

Directed by Gideon Amir. Written by Jeremy Lipp, James Bruner, Malcolm Barbour and John Langley. Cast: David Carradine, Mako, Charles R. Floyd, Steve James, Phil Brock, Daniel Demorest, Tony Pierce, Steve Freedman, James Acheson, Rudy Daniels, Ken Metcalfe, Kenneth Weaver, Jim Gaines, Eric Hahn, Henry Strzlkowski.  (R, 89 mins)

"He's got one rule that's never been broken: everybody goes home!" 

Released by Cannon in the spring of 1986, the Namsploitation outing P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE isn't a MISSING IN ACTION sequel but it might as well be. It shares one MISSING IN ACTION co-writer and its plot has quite a few surface similarities with MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING, but instead of Chuck Norris as Col. James Braddock, we get David Carradine as Col. Jim Cooper, a military legend and Pentagon strategist who volunteers for One Last Mission. It's 1973 Vietnam, five days before the cease fire, and the US is launching a last hurrah raid on a known POW camp out of concern that the men will be forgotten after the cease fire and declared MIA. Cooper's rule is "Everybody goes home!" but that's not the case when the small unit accompanying him is wiped out in a chopper explosion waiting for Cooper, who went back to save the injured young Teague (Kenneth Weaver), whose fate was sealed the moment he kissed a cross on his necklace and declared "I got my own insurance right here." Instead of freeing the men, Cooper ends up captured with them in a camp run by the ruthless Capt. Vinh (THE SAND PEBBLES Oscar-nominee Mako). Vinh is informed that Cooper is now the highest-ranking American in captivity and his commanders want him taken to Hanoi for a sham trial before being executed, but Vinh has another idea: he wants Cooper to take him to Saigon, where Vinh will renounce his allegiance to North Vietnam and defect to the US to join relatives in Miami.






Of course, Vinh has ulterior motives, mostly involving an ever-growing stash of gold and jewelry he's confiscated from American POWs over the years that he intends to cash in once he's in America, but for the time being Cooper agrees to the plan, with one caveat: the POWs go with them, because everybody goes home. Complicating matters is loose cannon POW Sparks (Charles R. Floyd), who attempts one failed escape before constantly putting everyone in jeopardy looking out for #1, basically functioning as this film's "Waingro from HEAT" before the filmmakers grant him an unlikely redemption in the end. Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE was the directing debut of Gideon Amir, who logged some time in the trenches for Cannon, doing first AD and second unit work on films like THE AMBASSADOR and MISSING IN ACTION, and co-writing AMERICAN NINJA before Menahem Golan gave him a shot at making his own movie. Amir does a serviceable job and keeps the film moving, but there's a couple of hiccups, namely a bizarre moment when a nighttime Jeep chase just abruptly ends and cuts to the next morning. Amir has only directed one other movie to date--1989's ACCIDENTS--but remains active in cable and streaming TV shows, most recently as a producer on Amazon Prime's CARNIVAL ROW and DC Universe's DOOM PATROL.


Shot mostly in the Philippines (as evidenced by the presence of Cirio H. Santiago regulars like Ken Metcalfe, Jim Gaines, Eric Hahn, and Henry Strzalkowski in bit parts), with some obvious reshoots in L.A. (the scenery's different and Carradine's hair is longer in some shots), P.O.W. utilized much of AMERICAN NINJA's crew and, most notably, co-star Steve James, again relegated to sidekick duty as Jonston, a POW who becomes Cooper's closest confidant en route to Saigon. It's always great to see James, a terrific actor with top-notch action skills who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1994 at just 41, and one who was always cited as a genuinely great guy by everyone who worked with him. Cannon gave James a lot of work, but they never used him to his full potential. Even when he finally secured top billing in 1989's Michael Dudikoff-less AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT, he was still saddled playing second fiddle to new American Ninja David Bradley, when simply handing the franchise over to James would've been a much smarter decision. P.O.W. seems more interested in making a star of "Charles R. Floyd," who had appeared on the last few years of the long-running daytime soap THE EDGE OF NIGHT under the name "Charles Grant," and who, according to Amir in a newly-shot interview on the Blu-ray, was seen by Golan as "a new James Dean." Not quite. Not helping Floyd/Grant--either an aspiring actor or the least cooperative person in witness protection--was the fact that he acted in three different Cannon films under three different names. He's "Charles R. Floyd" here, he was "Charles Floye" in THE DELTA FORCE, and he was credited in RAPPIN' as "Charles Flohe." Following P.O.W., he found consistent work on more daytime soaps like ANOTHER WORLD, SANTA BARBARA, and THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, reverting back to his "Charles Grant" name.


P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE would be one of the last times Carradine headlined a relatively wide theatrical release, even though he never stopped working until his death in 2009, and he was so prolific that he still turned up in over a dozen movies you've never heard of that were trickling out as late as 2013. He was still getting high-profile TV gigs like the miniseries NORTH AND SOUTH and NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK II around the time of P.O.W., but he would soon embark on a long stretch of mostly crummy B-movies and D-list straight-to-video titles. A supporting role as the villain in the 1990 Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn comedy BIRD ON A WIRE was his only dalliance with the A-list until Quentin Tarantino gave him a brief respite with the KILL BILL films in 2003 and 2004. That got him some better TV guest spots in the short term, but the resurgence that everyone was expecting never happened, and he was soon back to garbage movies, and that includes his supporting turn as "Poon Dong" in 2009's unwatchable CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE. He's a solid hero in P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE, and definitely brings more of a loose screen presence to the proceedings than the more stoical Norris did to the MISSING IN ACTION films. He even goes one step further with the blatant "America! Fuck yeah!" jingoism by spending most of the climactic battle literally draped in the American flag as he blows away VC commies before one of the guys leads them all in a "Proud Mary" sing-along. Suck on that, Chuck!




P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE opening in Toledo, OH on 4/4/1986





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