By: John M Jerva
“What we have here gentlemen is a real clusterf@ck.” With a quote like that, it must be time to Action Rewind once again and since I’ve been down for the count with medical issues I’ve had a lot of time on my hands and thus have been dusting some massive dust of some oldies but goodies in the action genre. I’m proud to say that I’m a product of the 80’s and that decade gave us some classic VHS bang for our buck. Video stores were the it thing (I still wish they were) and film companies big and small were looking to fill the shelves with product for the masses that were hungry for more.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the star of the 80’s action-comedy series The Greatest American Hero was looked at as an action star. That’s right. William Katt, who played bumbling superhero wannabe Ralph Hinkley on the short lived series, took a stab at being Rambo in the 1988 jungle warfare flick White Ghost. Don’t get me wrong, Katt definitely did his homework for the film and was in great shape when he took on the role of MIA soldier Steve Shephard. That along with a great supporting cast that included Rosalind Chao, the late Wayne Crawford, Martin Hewitt, Avenging Force’s Karl Johnson, martial arts pro John Barrett and the one and the only Reb Brown made for a bloody, bombastic good time with firefights and blood squibs galore.
White Ghost stars Katt as Steve Shephard, who while on a spec ops mission during the Vietnam War disappeared without a trace on said mission. Fast forward 15 years later and Shephard is alive and well living in the jungles. It would appear that Shephard had had enough of war and wanted to live a quiet life. During the years, locals told stories of a White Ghost, or spirit of an American soldier who roamed the jungles collecting the souls of other fallen soldiers like him. It’s an urban legend, or jungle legend if you will, but it allows Shephard to do his thing and live out his remaining years in tranquility.
Shephard has even hooked up with a local female soldier named Thi (Chao) and she’s pregnant with his baby. It would be a perfect life if there wasn’t a border war looming between Cambodia and Vietnam that threatened their peaceful existence and on the urging of Thi, Shephard breaks radio silence to extract himself and Thi to safety.
Upon receiving the distress call, Major Cross (Brown) urges the higher ups to consider a recuse mission for Shephard due to the fact that he’s American and would most likely have endless intel on the region. The mission is a go and Cross assembles an elite group of mercenaries led by Walker (Crawford) to go in and bring Shephard out alive all the while trying to avoid the ruthless Vietnamese army run by an even more ruthless camp commander played by Raymond Ma.
With the mission a go, there’s only one problem that threatens the op. It seems that Shephard and Walker have some rather nasty history together as Shephard tried to court martial Walker for war crimes. Walker unfortunately went a little off the grid and started seeing everyone as a threat in the war and believed that the only way to win it was to kill ‘em all. When Walker realizes that it’s Shephard that he’s been sent to get, a new war emerges that puts the White Ghost against not only the Vietnamese army but the mercenaries as well.
White Ghost was a lower budgeted affair that took advantage of the Vietnam War movie craze that flooded the market and delivered audiences such action flicks as Rambo: First Blood Part II, the Missing in Action series with Chuck Norris, POW The Escape with David Carradine and Uncommon Valor which also starred Reb Brown. This particular war has always been a touchy subject seeing as we didn’t win it so filmmakers took it upon themselves to deliver a victory, albeit in film and TV, to the masses.
Even though White Ghost wasn’t a big budgeted product, it still delivers a hard R rated action massive kill count good time for genre fans and Katt is more than up to the task in the lead heroic role. It’s a wonder why Katt didn’t take advantage of this film and do more action related fair because he was solid and most importantly believable as Steve Shephard. He’s not necessarily a one man army here as he does get help from Thi and Waco (Martin Hewett) who is one of the mercenaries that doesn’t believe in what Walker is doing but he still does one bang up job and pretty much does eradicate an army almost single handily.
The supporting cast are game as well with the late, great Wayne Crawford (Jake Speed) chewing up the scenery as the far gone Walker who makes it his personal mission to get vengeance on Shephard not caring who he has to kill to get it. Rosalind Chao does start out as a cliche damsel in distress but turns it around in the end as her character gets some to say the least. Hewitt is adequate as Waco but he does seem out of place as a mercenary even though it’s known to us that he’s a kid and newer to this sort of life.
Karl Johnson, who co-starred in Avenging Force with Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, plays Brownie who is sort of Walker’s right hand man but he’s given little to do and dies unceremoniously. John Barrett, a black belt under Chuck Norris, starred in a variety of action movies during this era and kicked some ass in titles like American Kickboxer 1, Gymkata, and To the Death. Unfortunately here, he is wasted also and even though he sees some action, I would have liked to see him do some empty handed destruction but his character is killed rather easily as well which has always been a sore spot with me. I would have liked to see Barrett team up with Shephard in the finale instead of Hewitt’s Waco but this is a minor gripe.
Reb Brown has a smaller role as Major Cross who green lights the mission but he’s only in a hand full of scenes which mostly take place in offices. Thankfully, the makers of this movie rectify this by having Cross go in to extract Shephard himself and the 80’s action star gets to engage in some warfare at the end as he tussles with Walker in a helicopter and then gets to mow down some badddies with double fisted machine guns a blazing while he lets rip his trademark war cry that he’s known for for. Any film that lets Reb Brown loose, even if it’s only the end, gets bonus points in my book.
White Ghost was helmed by BJ Davis who was also a battle tested stunt professional and it shows as Davis concentrates all his efforts on the action and there is action let me tell you. Davis, who served as a stuntman for such stars as Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones and Michael Caine, knows where his strengths are and with that loads the movie with numerous firefights and fisticuffs that gets seriously bloody at times. This is the 80’s of course and White Ghost is a true testament to doing an action movie the practical way with dangerous stunt work and massive blood squibs. This is one of those great examples of when somebody gets shot, you see it in all its blood splattered glory. Not only that, but many characters buy the farm through other gruesome means like getting impaled by sticks and succumbing to explosions and fire.
The action is relentless in White Ghost and after the initial intro, the gas pedal is pushed to the floor and the chaos ensues. Sure there’s the occasional talking scene because you do have to have a plot but there isn’t too much time that passes between scenes of war inflicted carnage. Katt and company dispense ridiculous amounts of ammunition and even though it’s not realistic in the sense that our hero probably would have been punctured by hundreds of bullets at any given time, that’s the beauty of a movie like this.
The finale is an over the top killing ground just like the rest of the film as Shephard and Waco assault the Vietnamese compound to free Thi and even more bodies drop amidst a hail of machine gun fire and explosions that catapult stuntmen into the air. There’s a lot going on and Davis wrangles it all in for the epic conclusion culminating with the eventual showdown between Shephard and Walker as Brown yells and fires away from a distance.
Overall, White Ghost is a product of the 80’s and in turn is a prime example of what made that decade of decadence great. Sure you had action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger but give me a movie that turns The Greatest American Hero into a bad ass and then you’ve really done something. It’s a bullet and blood splattered kill fest that is prime grade A 80’s action cinema. Throw in Reb Brown screaming with machine guns blasting away and what you have here is essential golden era action cinema viewing.