Gene Hackman made a Rambo movie, and only a year after the original. Maybe it's best to think of 1983's Uncommon Valor as the missing link between The Deer Hunter and the first Rambo sequel, two extremely fucking different takes on the idea that there are still prisoners of war in Vietnam, and we need to bring our boys home. But Hackman wasn't crawling around in the jungle with a bazooka and his shirt off (awesome as that might've been), and he wasn't losing his mind and his will to live, playing Russian Roulette with his old best friends. Instead, he was a grizzled commander with a mission at the front of his mind, but he was also dealing with some serious loss and doubt, and because he's a great actor, he made you feel all of it.
Uncommon Valor might actually be the first rescue-the-Vietnam-POWs action movie, which would turn out to be a pretty big '80s subgenre, what with 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II and Chuck Norris's Missing in Action series and all. And weirdly, it's the movie that director Ted Kotcheff made right after the original First Blood, still perhaps the best movie Sylvester Stallone ever made. (I will ride for it over Rocky; your mileage may vary.) Kotcheff did not exactly have a hall-of-fame career: He went on to make Weekend at Bernie's and a bunch of Law & Order: SVU episodes. But with those two flicks, he really had something.
In terms of its tone, Uncommon Valor is closer to The Dirty Dozen (with Hackman in the Lee Marvin role) than it is to the jingoistic, awesomely dumb action spectacles that would follow. Hackman had extremely solid action-hero credentials: He'd won an Oscar playing Popeye Doyle in The French Connection a decade earlier. And here, he gets to shoot machine guns and duck behind things. But he's also supposed to lead, to convince his team to do things that will definitely get some of them killed. There's also some heist-movie in the DNA here: Hackman assembles a team and then breaks the law by sneaking into a secure location to seize precious cargo, figures out an intricate plan and then finds himself forced to improvise when it all falls apart. The big difference here is that the cargo is people, and he's motivated by patriotic regret and fatherly love, not money.
In the movie, Hackman is an old military guy whose son never came back from Vietnam. He's spent 10 years going to and from Southeast Asia, bartering with criminals for information and trying to convince diplomats to exert some pressure, and he finally gets a vague tip that his son might be alive in a Laotian prison camp. So he rounds up the survivors from his son's battalion, convinces them to return to the shit, and then mounts a rescue mission, even though the government keeps trying to stop him.
The best moments here aren't the actual rescue—they're in the preparation, where Hackman finds everyone and gets them to put their lives back on the line. There's an explosives guy, a loose-cannon brawler who's now a convict, a couple of helicopter pilots. Most of them don't want to go back, at least until they decide that they've got unfinished business. But the convict practically begs to be let on the team. Fred Ward is a former tunnel rat with bad PTSD who will obviously have to go back into a tunnel; a very young Patrick Swayze is a ringer who's been brought in to train the team but didn't see any war action himself, and thus has to prove himself. (A pre-American Ninja Michael Dudikoff is in there somewhere, too, but I didn't recognize him.)
John Milius, the legendary conservative-blowhard auteur, worked as a producer on the movie and may have done some uncredited work on the script. And as with anything he does, the flag-waving gets to be a bit much sometimes. But you can always count on that guy for a few quiet-but-macho moments that linger. When Hackman goes to find a helicopter pilot who's working as a cropduster, the guy's henpecking alcoholic wife complains that he hasn't taken off his sunglasses in years, but as soon as she leaves the room, he takes them off to listen to Hackman. And when Swayze's rookie character finally decides to throw down with the bruiser convict guy (Randall "Tex" Cobb, who always plays parts like this and always rules at them), he busts out a few judo throws, and it looks like a prime opportunity for Swayze to overcome the odds and do some proto-Road House martial-arts asskicking against a bigger foe who's underestimated him. But Cobb just growls, "Boy, using that oriental martial bullshit on me is gonna get real expensive," and starts throwing karate kicks and whipping Swayze's ass, at least until Hackman tells him the reason Swayze's so eager to go to battle.
But the very best moment comes at the very end, and it's a moment that wouldn't work with any other actor. Without spoiling anything, Hackman, who finally has a moment to breathe, looks around and does a quick mental calculation as to whether his whole crusade was worth everything it cost. He's not sure if he failed or succeeded; he doesn't say anything, but you can see it all on his face, and it's one of those great kick-you-in-the-gut / it's-OK-to-cry moments. The best thing I can say about Uncommon Valor is that it mostly earns that moment.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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