By: Anthony Francis
“You are committing a genocide on a people you don’t know, for somebody you don’t know anything about. Does that make you feel good?”
In the “cannon” (forgive me) of Cannon Films, there are not many action entries that have a statement to make.
1988’s “Mercenary Fighters” is an exciting yet sadly forgotten action film that, inherently, has a bit to say about choosing the moral side (if there is one in a war) and what is truly worth fighting for.
Mind you, the film does this under the guise of a big guns-a-blazin’ action piece from a studio (and an era) that knew how to do it.
A fictional African nation is infected with a bloody civil unrest. In a departure from usual protocol when this type of pushback occurs, the government hires mercenaries to put a stop to the rebellion.
The government is desperate to find and kill the leader, Jaunde played by an excellent Henry Cele (who played the Zulu king from the great 1986 miniseries “ShakaZulu”), as they have bigger and more sinister plans afoot.
The main cast is fantastic. The late great Peter Fonda is the cynical and “gives no fucks” Virelli, the leader who accepts the task and assembles his team of rugged professional gunmen for the dangerous mission that will bring a big financial payoff.
The always excellent Ron O’Neal (an actor who should have been a household name) is Cliff, the expert pilot who wisely brings in his buddy T.J., the treasure that is Reb Brown. Both Brown and O’Neal become the two most interesting characters, as they discover that the government has not been honest, and the rebels may not be the villains. T.J. and Cliff become the conscience of the film.
The rest of Fonda’s team is rounded out by Graham Clarke and a fun James Mitchum.
Robert DoQui (another actor who was always incredibly good) is the colonel working for the government who guides the mercenaries down what becomes a preplanned path. DoQui’s work here is noteworthy, as he turns in a quite serious performance that gives his part more weight than perhaps was written.
Once morality comes into play, it is Ron O’Neal and Reb Brown who carry the film, especially Brown. Cliff and T.J.’s reality check goes against Fonda’s leader earning his blood money no matter who has to die.
Lines are drawn and sides are taken, as greed versus doing what is right splits the team “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” style.
The action scenes are well handled and give each actor (especially Reb Brown, who also gets a love interest in the form of a nurse played by Joanna Weinberg) some big moments.
Brown has many a great moment and the sight of the screaming actor machine-gunning the “bad guys” while an explosion lights up behind him is a powerful image for the action fan.
While this is a pure action exercise, it did mirror serious issues going on in Africa at that time, which makes it a bit unique in the way director Riki Shelach keeps thing grounded in a (sort of) reality while the firebombs blast and the bullets fly.
There is a fantastic sequence where the rebels attack a small convoy of jeeps led by the mercenaries and DoQui’s crooked and bloodthirsty colonel. As the convoy gets closer, a bomb explodes one of the jeeps. On the surrounding hills, hundreds of rebels emerge from behind the rocks, opening fire as the soldiers and the mercenaries return it.
It is a well-designed sequence that plays out with explosions, a helicopter attack, and some truly dangerous stunt work.
There are many great action set pieces (including a final rescue/firefight to settle all scores) that make this film stand out from many of its type during that time.
If the film has flaws, one of its biggest deficits would be the score from Howard Morgan. It does not have the full-onorchestrations that would have really elevated the already thrilling action scenes.
But we never review the film we wanted; we review the film that is before us.
“Mercenary Fighters” is an extremely entertaining action film with a bit to say.
With solid performances from Peter Fonda, Robert DoQui, Ron O’Neal, and Reb Brown, this is one of the finest Cannon Films productions from the ever so explosive Eighties.