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Retro Review: DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR (1987)

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DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR
(US - 1987)

Directed by Terry J. Leonard. Written by John Gatliff and Lawrence Kubik. Cast: Fred Dryer, Brian Keith, Joanna Pacula, Paul Winfield, Mohamad Bakri, Kasey Walker, Joey Gian, Peter Parros, Sasha Mitchell, Rockne Tarkington, Tuvia Tavi, Yossi Ashdot, Jullianno Merr, Dan Chodos, Haim Geraffi. (R, 95 mins)

"Go home, Sergeant. Bury your dead and go home. This isn't your war."

"It is now." 

Released in the spring of 1987, DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR was New World's attempt to get a piece of the Reagan Era's "America! Fuck yeah!" flag-waving counterterrorism action so jingoistic that it made THE DELTA FORCE look like a Costa-Gavras film. One of the most Cannon-esque '80s actioners that Cannon somehow didn't make, DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR was the lone big screen starring vehicle for former New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams defensive end Fred Dryer, then in the midst of a successful run as the title character on the NBC cop show HUNTER. A 13-season NFL vet who remains the only player to score two safeties in one game, Dryer was 34 when he retired from football in 1981 and, like many of his contemporaries inspired by the likes of Jim Brown and Fred Williamson some years earlier (Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, Alex Karras, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, etc), parlayed that gridiron success into an acting career. He nabbed some supporting role in a few TV-movies and in 1982, was almost cast as Sam Malone on CHEERS before Ted Danson ultimately won the role (Dryer did appear in several episodes as one of Sam's buddies from his baseball days). But it was HUNTER that proved to be his breakout acting gig, with Dryer perfectly cast as a tough, plays-by-his-own-rules cop with the obligatory DIRTY HARRY-inspired catchphrase ("Works for me!"). DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR was developed specifically for Dryer by his HUNTER producer Lawrence Kubik, but despite the show's popularity during this period, the audience didn't follow Dryer to the multiplex. The film opened in seventh place and was out of the top ten its second week.






Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR proved a durable video store and cable favorite in the late '80s, but amidst the RAMBO and Chuck Norris movies that came out around the same time, it's more or less fallen through the cracks over time. Dryer relies a lot on his HUNTER persona as Gunnery Sgt. Jack Burns, a hardass Marine who's tough with those under his command but also doesn't shy away from occasional camaraderie and goofing off. He's all business when base commander--and his dad's Korean War buddy--Col. Halloran (Brian Keith) is dispatched as a defense attache to the fictional Middle Eastern country of Jemal (the film was shot in Israel), which the US government has been arming in their fight against terrorist insurgents. Burns and some of his men are sent along as Halloran's security detail, and Burns immediately ruffles some feathers and almost causes an international incident when he intervenes in a weapons hijacking by Arab insurgents led by the nefarious and not-very-subtly-named Jihad (Rockne Tarkington) and his associates Gavril (Mohamad Bakri) and Maude Winter (Kasey Walker, Kubik's wife at the time), a pair of international terrorists-for-hire. Burns blows up one of their getaway Jeeps with a rocket launcher, killing several Jihad followers, prompting spineless US Ambassador to Jemal Virgil Morgan (Paul Winfield) to order him to stand down. Of course, Jihad wants revenge for his murdered men, so he orchestrates the kidnapping of Halloran and his driver Sgt. Ramirez (Joey Gian) hostage, demanding the release of his imprisoned comrades in exchange.


Needless to say, Burns has neither the time nor the patience for Morgan's dithering brand of diplomacy--especially after the US embassy in Jemal is destroyed in a suicide bombing--and he becomes a virtual one-man Delta Force in his pursuit of Jihad, Gavril, and Maude. Caught in the middle is Elli Bauman (Joanna Pacula), an embedded Israeli photojournalist who's caused some controversy for her stance as a Jihad sympathizer, but has information that Burns needs. The lone directing effort to date for veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator Terry J. Leonard (still active in the industry today at 79, and whose plethora of credits date back to the 1963 John Wayne western MCLINTOCK!), DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR doesn't disappoint in the action and explosion department, and even more so than most similar Cannon titles of the time, the violence is pretty over-the-top, whether it's a shot of splattered chunks of brain sliding down a wall, or Jihad's men taking a large power drill to Halloran's left hand. The politics are such that Dryer makes Chuck Norris look like Bernie Sanders, and the casting of blaxploitation actor Tarkington (BLACK SAMSON) as an Arab terrorist and TV character actor Dan Chodos (who played a few different bit characters on HUNTER) in brownface as a would-be despot named "Amin" are decisions that have "canceled" written all over them. But DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR is a product of another time, and taken on its own terms as a brain-dead, flag-draped '80s action movie, it's entertaining enough that it's a surprise Dryer didn't at least have a career as a lead in the world of straight-to-video.


HUNTER ended up running several more seasons before its cancellation in 1991. In 1995, Dryer starred as a cop-turned-private eye in the one-season syndicated series LAND'S END before concentrating on TV guest spots, TV movies, and an occasional supporting role in a DTV outing, like 1999's Roger Corman-produced actioner STRAY BULLET or 2000's Playboy-produced erotic thriller WARM TEXAS RAIN. HUNTER remained popular in syndication and NBC ended up doing a pair of reunion movies with Dryer and co-star Stepfanie Kramer in 2002 and 2003. That led to a 2003 revival of HUNTER--a good decade before the "TV series reboot" became a trendy thing--but lightning didn't strike twice and it was a ratings disaster, prompting NBC to pull the plug after just three episodes. Now 74, Dryer is a frequent guest on sports talk radio, particularly in the L.A. area where he remains an NFL legend, and as an outspoken conservative, he made the rounds on Fox News during the Colin Kaepernick controversy. He's still an occasional presence on TV, with guest spots on shows like AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and NCIS, and was most recently seen on the big screen in a supporting role in the 2018 TRANSFORMERS spinoff BUMBLEBEE.




DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR opening in Toledo, OH on 3/13/1987




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