Back in 1972, the war was raging in Vietnam, and many prisoners were taken from the ranks of the United States Army by their enemy, including the son of Colonel Cal Rhodes (Gene Hackman). Now the conflict is over, there are still a great number of those soldiers missing in action who the authorities believe are mostly dead, although the Vietnamese government in 1982 have released a few prisoners which rekindles Rhodes' hopes that his son may still be alive somewhere in a Laos compound. But what could he possibly do about this?
If you've seen enough of these back to 'Nam movies you'll likely have more than an inkling of what they had in mind here, although Uncommon Valor had the distinction of featuring a fairly original plot back when it came out, a boast which rapidly became obsolete once the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action were unleashed on moviegoers soon afterwards. So much so that this has largely slipped from the public consciousness despite having a number of star names in its cast, lead among them being Hackman in one of the increasing number of military roles he took from the late seventies onwards.
He had served in the military of course, in his younger days, which might have been the appeal of getting to play officers, for as far as this went it was hard to see what other appeal the script might have had for him. It was director Ted Kotcheff's next film after another with a Vietnam War veterans connection, First Blood, except this was not as big a hit as that, and Rambo's first sequel which took the same premise of that only with a one man army rather than a whole team, was a huge blockbuster. Kotcheff's thoughts on this are unrecorded, but Uncommon Valour was not a forgotten classic of the genre anyway.
What it was played out as more The Dirty Dozen in the Far East, although there was a strong element of the gung ho drawn from its Reagan era climate, a wish to refight the Vietnam War and win this time, even if it was on a smaller scale: America losing in the eighties, at anything, was simply not to be considered. So the Colonel recruits his son's old buddies to build an elite fighting force - the explosives expert, the helicopter pilot, the heavy drinker, and so forth - and trains them in a makeshift training camp designed to resemble an actual outpost where the P.O.W.s may well be kept. Once their training is through, they're ready for anything.
Including a mission that didn't much resemble what they'd prepared for aside from the shootiebangs, but you could have predicted that part. Among those recruits was Fred Ward, a sculptor whose wife doesn't want him to go - women have trouble understanding what drives these men, or that's the idea - and Patrick Swayze as a dismissed soldier from the real Army who wants to find his M.I.A. father, although it's Reb Brown as the detonation-happy Blaster and Randall 'Tex' Cobb as a brawling ex-con who steal the movie. Once they get to their destination, it's all very much by the numbers; it might have seemed a little fresher at the time, but nowadays it leans on the hackneyed side, and the macho displays of supposed character development are more camp than anything. Interestingly, however, the mission is not quite a complete success, as if a small part of this acknowledged that war wasn't as simple as it sounded in the planning. Music by James Horner.