The My Lai Massacre is, arguably, the most infamous occurrence of the Vietnam War, a conflict that was unpopular in America to start off (and, certainly, I would imagine in Vietnam, as well). On March 16, 1968, between three-hundred-and-forty-seven and five-hundred-and-four civilians were killed in two hamlets of the Quang Ngai Province, including infants, children, and women. The massacre was set off, at least in part, by a bloodlust the soldiers of Charlie Company felt due to recent, heavy casualties of their brothers in arms. These losses were perpetrated largely by booby-traps set by the Viet Cong, engendering a hatred for the enemy and their guerilla tactics. Using specious reasoning and sketchy intelligence, the soldiers performed some of the most inhuman acts possible, partly in the name of vengeance/payback. Despite protests from certain of the men and reporting of the extent of the carnage to superior officers, the My Lai Massacre was covered up for roughly a year before it was exposed to the world. Of all the soldiers charged with criminal offenses, only one was convicted, and he wound up serving about three-and-a-half years under house arrest (that doesn’t feel balanced, now does it?). At any rate, the massacre is the jumping off point for Teddy Chiu’s (under the alias Irvin Johnson) Phantom Soldiers (aka Commando Phantom). In fact, a character is even named Barker after Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the officer in command of the My Lai operation. Once this set up is done, however, the film essentially becomes a Missing in Action film, for better or worse.
A platoon of silent, black-clad, gasmask-wearing soldiers march into a small Vietnamese village, leveling the place and murdering everyone in sight with everything from bullets to nerve gas. Investigating the titular troopers, Lieutenant Mike Custer (Corwin Sperry) and his men are captured behind enemy lines. Meanwhile, back in the States, Mike’s brother Dan (Max Thayer) is a Texas Ranger, busting up drug cartels on the border. He receives news of his brother’s disappearance and decides to go to Nam incognito and get his brother back.
It’s a little startling, though just a little, that American war films from the Seventies through the Eighties that were set in Vietnam very often focused on going back and winning the war. Barring the righting of a perceived wrong in the minds of the more jingoistic, many of these films also centered on rescuing those soldiers who were MIA and forgotten about by all but their family members. The two are not entirely mutually exclusive, both being seen as slights against the young men and women who gave their lives (literally and figuratively) in an “unwinnable” war. Those who came back were not universally hailed like those who served in World War Two, and this only compounded the sour resentment of the veterans. Likewise, this sort of film plays to the viewers who didn’t serve but still had strong feelings about America’s defeat. Dan, then, is both a veteran and a patriot. When not wearing his Stetson, he wears baseball caps, one that’s camouflaged and a blazing white number with the NFL logo on it. He’s an all-American in every way. He dislikes injustice, and he asserts at least twice that, “Nobody’s above the law” (I cannot imagine from whence this bit of dialogue came). Dan has no real feelings about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, except in that his brother is involved in it. Once he gets in-country, Dan winds up machine-gunning a slew of Viet Cong from a helicopter. They are, after all, the enemy. Yet, Dan’s first priority is his brother, so this bit of violence can be looked upon as survival rather than as any sort of soldierly duty.
Importantly, the American soldiers in the film are clearly distinguished from the Phantom Soldiers. They do not fire on unarmed noncombatants. They play by the rules. They get irritated that the villains are making them look bad (and, y’know, that they’re blatant murderers). Conversely, the Phantom Soldiers are ruthless, sadistic, and quasi-superhuman. In their first scene, the Phantoms are shot and beaten with gun butts, but these things have no effect on them, shrugging them off like gnats a-buzzing. Their uniforms are meant to inspire fear and call back to several reference points. First, the gas masks are reminiscent of those creepy ones we’ve all seen in photos of the soldiers in the trenches and the civilians at home during both World Wars. Two, the masks evoke images of death in their implacable brutality and lifeless visages. Three, they recall memories of Star Wars in the audience with their similarity to Darth Vader and his stormtroopers, not only in the skull-like faces but also in the Nazi-esque helmets. Their actions in the film, and the explanation behind it all is a way for Americans to say, “See? We were the good guys here!” It’s the sort of exculpation of America and some its soldiers that, I would suggest, they needed to have in order to deal with their involvement in Vietnam and to vindicate themselves to those who hated them for it. Naturally, it’s also a power fantasy to reinforce that America is the best ever.
Phantom Soldiers excels in the action department. The scenes of carnage are exciting, well-shot and edited, and impactful. They are also overlong (and, I’m sure, fans of action films will argue that this is impossible) to the point of stopping the story dead in its tracks. Some would say that’s just fine and dandy in this sort of movie (and to some degree, it is), but for my money, it also winds up becoming a vague blur and, ultimately, pretty boring. It’s simply too much of a good thing, which I hate to say, because of the insane amount of talent involved in these sequences. The actual plot, then, just meanders along, bopping from action beat to action beat, barely holding together just to fill the spaces between explosions and gunfire. Thayer does a solid job as the good ol’ boy maverick, but even what charisma he musters isn’t quite enough to compel an audience along through the whole of the film. He does blow things up real good, though.
MVT: The action.
Make or Break: The opening sequence is rock solid across the board, despite the remainder of the film not quite paying off on this potential.