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Retro Review: OPERATION NAM (1987)


(Italy/West Germany - 1986; US release 1987)

Directed by Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis). Written by Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis) and Erwin C. Dietrich. Cast: Oliver Tobias, Christopher Connelly, Manfred Lehman, John Steiner, Donald Pleasence, Ethan Wayne, Gordon Mitchell, Enzo G. Castellari, Enio Girolami, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Aldo Massasso, David Light. (Unrated, 87 mins)

"Forget about it, man. It's Vietnam." 

This Italian-German Namsploitation actioner was shot in 1985 as COBRA MISSION but unreleased in the US until 1987, when it went straight to video courtesy of Imperial Entertainment, who retitled it OPERATION NAM, as Vietnam movies were in vogue in months after PLATOON. In West Germany, COBRA MISSION was known as THE RETURN OF THE WILD GEESE in an effort to tie it in with Antonio Margheriti's WILD GEESE ripoff CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984), as both films shared German co-producer Erwin C. Dietrich. An unusually downbeat and cynical example of the '80s P.O.W. rescue movie, COBRA MISSION/OPERATION NAM avoids the flag-waving, "Born in the USA,""America! Fuck yeah!" jingoism of the Reagan era, when blockbusters like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II went back to Vietnam to refight the war with a guaranteed American victory. OPERATION NAM shares the distrust of the powers that be exemplified by Charles Napier's duplicitous Murdock in RAMBO, but it goes further by letting the corrupt US government and military win and having the good guys lose the war a second time. The heroes of OPERATION NAM aren't killing machines like Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo or Chuck Norris' James Braddock in the MISSING IN ACTION movies. They're normal, everyday guys like the Vietnam vets in Ted Kotcheff's UNCOMMON VALOR. OPERATION NAM has some valid points to make and its finale is an unexpectedly subversive gut-punch, but it's still a Namsploitation B-movie directed by Fabrizio De Angelis, under his usual pseudonym "Larry Ludman." Much better known as a producer (ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) than a director--something he didn't start doing until 1983's FIRST BLOOD ripoff THUNDER WARRIOR-- De Angelis blows things up impressively, but the film is ragged and filled with amateurish continuity gaffes (like one character going back and forth from light stubble to a two-week beard, often in the same scene) and sloppy corner-cutting, often glossing over important details just to get to the next explosion.

Unable to adjust to civilian life in the decade-plus since they returned home from Vietnam, three Arizona men impulsively decide to mount a hastily-planned P.O.W. rescue mission: henpecked Roger (Christopher Connelly) plays video games all day and hates his wife, his daughter, and his life in general; drifter Mark (Manfred Lehman) just walked out on a shitty job at a desert bar; and unemployed James (John Steiner) has just pawned his service medals so he can afford a suit to wear to Roger's daughter's wedding. The vets share crass, vulgar war stories and offend the other guests--all rich friends of Roger's nagging wife--who drop unsubtle lines that scream "MESSAGE!" like one pompous asshole declaring "Those Marines are trained for combat, but they're only happy when they're fighting in war." The three men ditch the wedding and pay a visit to their old commander, Major Morris (cult director Enzo G. Castellari), who was railroaded out of the Marines for his persistence in pushing the issue of rescuing P.O.W.s still left behind in Vietnam, a topic that those high up the military chain of command, like stern Col. Mortimer (Gordon Mitchell), refuse to discuss or even acknowledge. The guys visit another vet buddy, Richard (top-billed Oliver Tobias of THE STUD), who's crashing in a mental institution for free meals and easy sex with the nurses, improbably break him out of the facility and head to Bangkok. "There's only one problem...how do I get outta here?" Richard asks, as De Angelis immediately cuts to the four men driving around Bangkok, never bothering to show how they managed to get Richard out of the hospital.

Taking $30,000 from a corrupt, Bangkok-based contractor (Enio Girolami) who cons grieving families of their hard-earned money by promising to find their MIA sons, the quartet head to Vietnam meet up with Father Lenoir (Donald Pleasence), a French priest who's been in the region since the 1950s and supplies them with weapons, ammo, and maps to still-operational P.O.W. camps. Typical Namsploitation antics ensue, with the guys mowing down numerous Viet Cong soldiers and eventually finding a camp with several Americans still being held captive. In a plot development that echoes RAMBO and the untrustworthy Murdock, Roger and the others find out that the US government and military are fully aware of the remaining P.O.W.s, and that they were left behind and labeled "war criminals" as part of the agreement to end the war. US inspectors visit the camps every year or so to check up on everyone, always promising that "We're gonna bring you home soon," and they never do, and Roger and the others who went on this unauthorized rescue mission find themselves in over their heads with a government that needs them to keep their mouths shut.

Perhaps because European producers didn't have an American flag to fly behind tough guy stars like Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and David Carradine (who's literally draped in an American flag at the end of the 1986 Cannon production P.O.W.: THE ESCAPE), bleak endings were nothing new with Italian Namsploitation movies. Two films by Antonio Margheriti--1980's THE LAST HUNTER and 1983's TORNADO--have bum-out final shots that send the audience out sulking. Even taking those into consideration, OPERATION NAM is a little more subversive than you might expect, going full PARALLAX VIEW in the home stretch and boasting one of the more ballsy downer endings you'll see in the Namsploitation genre, one that not only paints the government as not giving a shit about those who risk their lives fighting for their country, but actively silencing those who pose a risk of shattering the illusion of America. Until then, it's fairly typical of mid '80s Italian action, complete with some of the same Arizona locations seen in films like THUNDER WARRIOR and HANDS OF STEEL, location work in the Philippines filling in for Vietnam, questionable dubbing choices (Tobias, Lehman, and Steiner are all dubbed, with British Steiner given a ridiculously overripe Southern good ol' boy accent), a slumming guest star cameo (in this case, Pleasence, who's in the movie for five minutes, tops), and Connelly ad-libbing the same bizarre insults he used in almost all of his many Italian trash movies of the period (yes, his old standbys "flyface" and the ubiquitous "suckfish" make appearances here).

Ethan Wayne hanging with his dad on the
set of 1973's THE TRAIN ROBBERS
When Imperial Entertainment's VHS release of OPERATION NAM video stores, the pre-release promo and the cover art hyped the presence of Ethan Wayne. The sixth of John Wayne's seven children and named after his father's character in THE SEARCHERS, Ethan Wayne (who's also gone by "John Ethan Wayne") has a supporting role as one of the P.O.W.s and figures prominently in the depressing finale, but Imperial's tag line screamed "In the John Wayne action-packed tradition comes his son Ethan Wayne," plastered over a pic of Oliver Tobias blowing someone away. Born in 1962 to John Wayne and his third wife Pilar, Ethan Wayne started out with bit parts in some of his dad's late-period westerns like 1970's RIO LOBO and 1971's BIG JAKE, and eventually moved into stunt work. He made a brief detour to Italy in an attempt to restart his acting career, but all he got were roles in two Fabrizio De Angelis films, starring in 1984's Arizona-shot THE MANHUNT, plus his supporting role in OPERATION NAM. Wayne got a few TV guest spots over the years and had a lengthy run on the daytime soap THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, but his things never took off for him and he never even got as big as Patrick Wayne, let alone their old man. These days, Ethan is in charge of overseeing his father's estate and all of its business concerns, and he runs the John Wayne Cancer Foundation charity. Tobias, meanwhile, would reunite with De Angelis for 1990's insane THE LAST MATCH, without question the greatest football commando movie ever made, with Tobias as a superstar QB whose daughter is abducted in a South American country, prompting him to take his team--played by off-season members of the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, including then-Bills QB Jim Kelly--on a rescue mission as they attack the villain's compound in full game-day attire, complete with their coach (Ernest Borgnine) calling coordinated plays ("Hut! Hut!") and their kicker punting footballs stuffed with grenades.

Under its original COBRA MISSION title, the film was enough of a success in Europe and Asia that De Angelis produced the 1988 sequel COBRA MISSION 2, directed by Camilo Teti (a production manager for Sergio Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER and for Dario Argento on THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) under the pseudonym "Mark Davis," with the younger and more Stallone-esque Brett Clark (BACHELOR PARTY, EYE OF THE EAGLE, DELTA FORCE COMMANDO) as someone named Roger--though it doesn't seem as if he's playing the same Roger as Connelly, who died of cancer in 1988--who's off the grid and working black ops for the US government, sent to help freedom fighters depose a Latin American dictator. COBRA MISSION 2 can be found on the bootleg circuit, but was never released in the US and has fallen into total obscurity.


Note: the version of OPERATION NAM that's streaming on Amazon Prime, under the original title COBRA MISSION, has a bizarre edit in the final scene that eliminates crucial information and inadvertently gives the film an anticlimactic and confusing wrap-up that significantly cushions the blow. After the men leave Vietnam and head home, forced by the military to leave the P.O.W.s behind, Mortimer is shown arriving at a hospital and saluting an apparently shell-shocked, motionless, wheelchair-bound Richard. The Amazon version eliminates a POV shot of Moritmer walking down the hallway to Richard's room as captions reveal that Roger and James both died mysterious deaths immediately after their attempted rescue mission, the implications being that they were murdered and Richard has been given a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST lobotomy and dumped back in the V.A. hospital to keep quiet about what he knows. This scene is actually shown in full in the COBRA MISSION trailer above, so it's odd that it's incomplete in the Amazon Prime version, which actually runs two minutes longer and has more violence and gore than Imperial Entertainment's 85-minute VHS release of OPERATION NAM. 

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