By: John M Jerva
I don’t know how many times I’ve said growing up in the 80’s was a fantastic time to be an action lover but, HEY!, let me say it one more time. During that marvelous decade, Cannon Films was the leader in over the top, exploitive action fare with company gurus Meneham Golan and Yoram Globus leading the charge. Watching the documentaries about how these two ring leaders ran their company is probably more entertaining then the actual flicks they put out. From ninjas to breakdancing and Chuck Norris in between, these two filmmakers pile drived through the 80’s like a glycerin filled truck going 200 down a narrow road on the side of a cliff.
One film I have a fond memory of from the Cannon explosion factory was 1986’s P.O.W. The Escape (AKA Attack Force ‘Nam and Behind Enemy Lines). This lesser known entry in Cannon’s film arsenal starred the late, great David Carradine. I still to this day can’t believe how he left this earth. That’s another story all together but I’m here to talk about one of his greatest DTV actioners as it’s bombastic, bullet riddled and pro America all the way. It’s funny that such a flag waiving film comes from a company run by two Israelis. Boy how they loved this country and what’s not to love?
Carradine stars as Col. James Cooper who, during the last days of the Vietnam war, leads a helicopter assault on a supposed NVA installation where they are holding American prisoners. Cooper is appalled that the brass have changed the mission and instead of going in quietly, they want the biggest spectacle ever so Hanoi hears it loud and clear. Even though the plan is complete bullshit, Cooper still goes because he has a moniker that’s never been broken. “Everyone goes home.”
It’s a good thing for the audience that the Army changed the plan because this leads to a great opening sequence where Cooper and his men storm the gates of the camp with Huey attack choppers which leads to countless exploding huts and guard towers. Cannon definitely knew their audience and man did they give it to them, complete with gratuitous, synth filled 80’s action music. Pure heaven if I do say so.
The only problem here is the camp is empty and when Cooper and company raid the camp on foot it’s clear that it’s a trap. The NVA show up to give the unit a firefight of extreme proportions and during it, a rookie soldier is injured and Cooper goes back to fulfill his moniker but is subsequently left behind himself when the last chopper out is blown up by an RPG. Now the rescuer has become the prisoner too. What a turn of events.
So goes the standard plot of the film as Cooper is inserted with the rest of the prisoners which includes Sgt. Lee Johnston played by the late, great Steve James and the weaselly Sparks (Charles R. Floyd from The Delta Force). Johnston is on board with Cooper and his mission to escape but Sparks is out for himself and will railroad anyone to save himself. This leads to some subplot drama to go along with the blood squibs and stunts.
Running the camp is NVA Capt. Vinh, played by the also late, great Mako, and he’s both excited and pissed that he’s got the highest ranking captive at his camp. Hanoi wants him in a big way but he sees Cooper as his ticket out of Nam. You see, Vinh has relatives in Florida and he wants to retire there and live out the rest of his days basking on the beach in the country he tried to destroy. Is that hypocritical? I’m not sure. Did I mention the cache of gold he has that that was stolen from dead soldiers and CIA agents? Yeah there’s that too.
Cooper will more than oblige the Captain and help with an escape but either they all go or nobody goes. Vinh reluctantly agrees and so Cooper, Vinh, his men and the POW’s embark on a perilous journey to reach American lines. Things go awry, of course, and the group is split up with Cooper trying to get his men to safety, Vinh hot on his trail and Sparks looking out for himself.
P.O.W. The Escape make no apologies just like it’s Cannon heavyweights behind it and the film is locked and loaded with several firefights, explosions and countless NVA goons getting shredded by thousands of rounds of ammunition. Once again, this is a sure fire example of most of the budget going to the action set pieces. A movie after my own heart.
Carradine is at his machine gun toting action hero best as Cooper and even though this is a straight up shoot ‘em up, the martial arts aspect still finds its way into the mix as Carradine still gets to execute some patented kicks. There isn’t a shortage of heroic close ups either when the star is involved in the action and Golan and Globus make sure that their star of the hour gets to get some as much as possible.
It’s always great to see Steve James and even though he’s relegated to right hand man duties once again, he still shines in many action sequences as the Gung Ho Lee Johnston who backs Cooper up right from the get go. James shoots and even gets the ample opportunity to beat the snot out of some faceless NVA goons too. James was a welcome fixture in 80’s Cannon fodder and with this movie, he gets to kick ass and take names like usual.
The music is a definite plus as well. The main title theme that is played throughout is perfect action/military heaven. It’s loud and deafening just like the movie. It is funny that the score is filled with music from other movies like Revenge of the Ninja and The Delta Force but hey it’s the same company so why not. Even though it’s familiar, it still works in the long run.
Like I said, there’s countless sequences of machine gun fire and grenades exploding to satisfy genre fans and the highlight is a scene where Cooper leads a charge up Radar Hill that is being overrun and in true patriotic fashion, Cooper, I kid you not, literally covers himself with an American flag as he proceeds to mows down hordes of commie villains with an M-60 machine gun. How’s that for in your face patriotism? Only the best here and accept no substitute.
This all culminates in the, you guessed it, bullet and grenade filled finale as Vinh ambushes Cooper and his men as they try to catch some helicopters out of there. This leads to the usual exchange of gunfire which also ends in the complete 180 heroic turn for one of the characters. If someone says that there’s no action in this movie, they haven’t seen it. The Radar Hill scene would have been a fine climax but Golan and Globus want you to get your money’s worth. God bless them.
If you’re my age, then there’s the good chance that you’ve already seen P.O.W. The Escape but if by chance you haven’t, seek it out on Tubi right now or if you can find a VHS copy, even better. The version on the streaming service was clearly taken from an old video store copy but it’s still watchable.
This classic Cannon action pic is David Carradine at his bravado best, Steve James leading up the rear and enough military action for two movies and a direct example of what made the ‘80’s fabulous. Golan and Globus knew what they were doing when they made these films and with this one, it’s locked and loaded with firepower and patriotic heroism and bloody action aplenty. “Everybody Goes Home!”