By: John M Jerva
It’s time to Action Rewind! It is no question that the 80’s were a very patriotic time in the U.S.A. and with a president like Ronald Reagan in office, it was a period in history when movies reflected the sign of the times. Sometimes that wasn’t always a good thing as many action films portrayed America as the quintessential good guys while the rest of the world was evil. I’m not here to spur political agendas here however as I’m all about the entertainment value and it was the late 80’s when I was starting to develop my love for military action films and television shows. It was TV series like Tour Of Duty that originated my passion for all things military and around the same time a little known movie was released that starred former NFL player turned actor Fred Dryer.
The film was titled awesomely enough Death Before Dishonor and it featured Dryer, who was best known for the crowd pleasing 80’s cop show Hunter, in the lead role as go get ’em Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jack Burns. Dryer had the commanding presence for these types of films and it’s really a shame that he didn’t get to do more of them in his prime but here is one film that we will always have to reflect on. Burns is your basic no nonsense lifer who has bled for his country more than once and when duty calls, he’ll be the first one to storm the beaches and lead the charge.
The plot for Death Before Dishonor is simple and that’s the way it should be. When Burns’ commanding officer Col. Halloran, played by late, veteran character actor Brian Keith, enlists him to accompany him to the war ravaged Middle Eastern country of Jemal, Burns isn’t pleased but he follows orders and gathers Sgt. Manuel Ramirez (Joseph Gian) and his new recruits in the form of Ruggieri, a young and fresh faced Sasha Mitchell from the Kickboxer sequels, and James (Peter Parros) to provide protection for the Colonel and the embassy. Things aren’t made any easier as a terrorist cell led by the imposing Jihad (Rockne Tarkington who looks like a Middle Eastern Gene Simmons) are making things very volatile in the region and add in a couple of ruhless mercenaries named Gavril (Mohammad Bakri) and Maude Winter (Kasey Walker) who’ll kill anyone for the right price and the whole area is a powder keg waiting to explode. There’s even a photojournalist named Elli Baughman (Joanna Pacula) who is not all that she seems to be and she makes things difficult for Burns and his men.
When Burns, Halloran and their crew arrive in Jemal, they immediately find their hands hancuffed by diplomatic red tape and an American Ambassador played by the late Paul Winfield who basically tells them that they are only observers in the country and not to get involved in any hostile situations should they arise.
Never tell a Marine to stand aside and this becomes a very touchy subject when Halloran and Ramirez are kidnapped by Jihad and his ruthless band of cutthroats and subjected to torture. Burns and his men aren’t ones to stand back and do nothing and when Ramirez is brutally murdered, Burns makes it his personal mission to take down all those responsible and rescue Halloran before he suffers the same fate. This is reflected in one stand up and cheer scene where Winfield’s Ambassador and Burns are standing over Ramirez’s flag drapped coffin to which Winfield spouts off “I’m sorry Sergeant but you realize that this doesn’t change a thing” to which Burns coldly responds, “It does for me.” It is dialogue like this that pumps up the audience for all the carnage and mayhem to follow and Dryer delivers the line to perfection and the doors of the cargo plane close to punctuate the moment.
This leads to numerous bravado action sequences where Dryer goes into full on action hero mode and struts his stuff which includes a fist pumping sequence where he fires a LAW rocket from a speeding jeep amidst putting countless bullet holes in faceless terrorists at any given moment. Burns will stop at nothing to get the Colonel back and there is a fast paced firefight sequence leading up to the finale where Burns, Ruggieri and James attempt to rescue the Colonel only to be left standing out in the heat. Here, Dryer unloads with a sawed off shotgun taking down numerous baddies and it is but a teaser to the epic conclusion to come.
Now it is in the film’s final half an hour where Death Before Dishonor really shines and earns its stripes. Burns and his men team up with the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) to launch a final, do or die assault on the terrorists’ heavily armed compound. There’s no nighttime sneak attack here. Oh no. Burns and his men wage a brazen daylight hit and charge through the front door that they just blew off its hinges with all guns blazing. It is basically nine men against an army which in action film terms makes it even.
This is the big payoff for action fans as we are treated to an expertly choreographed, bullet filled finale that features explosions galore, soldiers firing machine guns from moving vehicles and bodies flying through the air as the terrorists get the comeuppance and this finale is everything that made the 80’s great. There is even no music played in the backgound during the scene so viewers can enjoy the sounds of machine gun fire going off and explosions leveling the playing field. Add in a slo-mo shot of one character’s ultimate sacrifice and Death Before Dishonor checks all the boxes for genre buffs.
Director Terry Leonard, a veteran stunt pro and coordinator, known for doing numerous episodes of Hunter with Dryer, only helmed this one film in his career but he does an admiral job with it and keeps the film running at a brisk pace with no filler to be had. Leonard brings a sense of realism to the proceedings and there is no flash in the stunt work which is served up stripped down good ‘ol fashoned practical effects and stunts that are sorely missed today.
The movie also reflects a taken from the headlines feel with the bombing of the American Embassy which echoes a sad reality and just like The Delta Force with Chuck Norris that dealt with a real life high jacking, we get to see the movie ending that we wanted to here that sadly didn’t happen in real life.
Death Before Dishonor is certainly one of the better military action films to come out of the 80’s and it’s a shame that it isn’t more recognizable among action fans. Dryer gives it his all in the role and I would have loved to see him do more of these during the heyday of VHS action. Yes the bad guys are a cliche and yes it’s heavily pro American but that’s what makes it great and entertaining. Life definitely isn’t like the movies and there isn’t always a happy ending but it’s good to see the an evil element like this get what’s coming to them even if it’s only on film. This is just one of those movies that knows what it is and makes no apologies for it nor it shouldn’t. Sometimes you just want to see stuff blow up and witness the hero fire a frigging missle as he’s driving a jeep and in that regard Death Before Dishonor delivers.
The music is even patriotic with the Marine battle hymn The Halls of Montezuma added in to full effect and it sets the tone of the film prefectly. This is a product of the 80’s and a movie like this could have only been made in that decade. There’s no thinking involved and it’s a Saturday night action drenched treat. It’s unapologetically patriotic with a final shot that was cut from some international versions but hey whatever. As long as people got to see it then it’s a small price to pay.
I remember the day I brought this one home on VHS when it first came out and it holds up today and it’s themes are more prevalent now as they were when it was made over thirty years ago. Fred Dryer was cast perfectly in the role and the supporting cast give it their all amidst the glorious roar of firepower and patriotism. Is it jingoistic? Yep, but who cares. Why can’t we be proud of our country and see that reflected on screen? The bombastic finale is worth the price of admission alone and if you haven’t seen it yet, then I encourage you to check it out if you like retro action films. Death Before Dishonor is a first rate military escapist film with real world themes sprinkled in to punctuate the action.