Director(s): Aaron Norris/Louis Morneau
Kino Lorber

The American Ninja headlines a lesser Cannon war flick and takes juvenile delinquents into battle in the Kino Lorber Blu-ray double feature PLATOON LEADER and SOLDIER BOYZ.

Just out of West Point, Lieutenant Jeff Knight (Michael Dudikoff) is dropped directly into the leadership of a platoon protecting the one village not controlled by the Vietcong. His inexperience is not the only reason his men – ornery Sergeant Michael McNamara (Robert F. Lyons, 10 TO MIDNIGHT), smartass Bacera (Michael DeLorenzo, NEW YORK UNDERCOVER), bespectacled radio engineer Parker (Jesse Dabson, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN), depressed Hayes (Rick Fitts, SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE), and psychotic Roach (Brian Libby, THE OCTAGON) – do not have confidence in him since his predecessor never left his bunker for the last two months of his stay. Knight asserts himself by ordering daily patrols with some positive results until he recklessly runs afoul of a tripwire. Returning to commission to the disappointment of his men at the urging of his superior Major Flynn (William Smith, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE), Knight resolves to earn the respect of his men and the new ones that he demands to aid a first strike.

A departure from Cannon's other action flicks in that PLATOON LEADER is based on the memoir of James R. McDonough – as adapted by producer Harry Alan Towers (99 WOMEN) under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym and scripted by Andrew Deutsch (KILLING STREETS) and Rick Marx (DOOM ASYLUM) – and lacking the more over-the-top villains and substitutes some sentiment in place of the usual Chuck Norris stoicism. Reportedly titled NAM before the success of PLATOON inspired the title change (as the book was published in 1985), the film takes a deadly serious approach that does not entirely succeed in the face of flat characterizations, a lack of suspense, and the apparent compression of the narrative which has Dudikoff's hero transformed into hardened veteran instantly upon his return without suggesting that he may be acting the part. Produced during the period when Towers and Cannon were exploiting tax breaks in South Africa, the locations are suitably anonymous but picturesque, and the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians are relegated to extras who usually only given a close-up when they are killed or about to be. The gunplay and pyrotechnics are proficiently staged and shot but only a few performances actually manage to lend a sense of gravity to the setpieces. Dudikoff gives a better performance here than as the American Ninja, and plays well off Lyons, but the film is ultimately a would-be serious war drama, in the style of their larger-budgeted HANOI HILTON the previous year, approached with the means of a B-level action flick.

Dudikoff returns in SOLDIER BOYZ as retired Major Howard Toliver working as a counselor for the California Youth Authority when he is approached by General Gaton (Don Stroud, GAMES) on behalf of billionaire Jameson Prescott (Hank Brandt, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ) whose volunteer daughter Gabrielle (Nicole Hansen, THE SLEEPING CAR) went missing when a UN food supply plane was shot down in the Vietnam jungle by the National Liberation Front, a guerilla army lead by Vinh Moc (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, MORTAL KOMBAT) dedicated to disrupting trade agreements between the United States and Vietnam. The conversation is overheard by some of the young lifers who believe they have nothing to lose and volunteer to go to Vietnam in search of Prescott's daughter. Toliver relents under the condition that he can take some of the kids and train them with the guarantee of a full pardon for those who return. He chooses gangbangers Butts (Tyrin Turner, MENACE II SOCIET) and Lopez (Demetrius Navarro, FRIDAY) – who are at each other's throats after Lopez shanks Butts' buddy in retaliation for the murder of his brother before they were imprisoned – skinhead Brophy (Channon Roe, BEHIND ENEMY LINES: COLOMBIA), rapist Monster (Cedrick Terrell, TAKEDOWN), pimp killer Vasquez (Jacqueline Obradors, RED SUN RISING), and Lamb (David Barry Gray, LAWN DOGS), a straight-laced kid who claims that he was wrongfully imprisoned for the murders of his parents. The kids think they have seen battle on the streets, but quickly find themselves in a firefight once they have been dropped in the jungle amidst bandits and guerillas. They start to bond under Toliver's command in spite of the beefs between them and their own issues including anger and self-loathing as they make their way through the jungle to the National Liberation Front's heavily-guarded base where Vinh Moc is using Gabrielle's capture and the ransom she can bring to rally more people to his cause in order to take over Hanoi.

SOLDIER BOYZ is probably the more entertaining film in the set as brainless fun however much is strives for social commentary. It is hard to take the film seriously with Tagawa's admittedly amusing scenery chewing and Stroud's general whose move to the private sector is signified by his matching black eyepatch and Armani jacket, but the script by BIG MAMA'S HOUSE franchise writer Darryl Quarles has an interesting spin on diversity, with the six young soldiers as two black characters, two Latino ones, and two white ones and killing off one of each while redeeming them with the actions they take before their heroic deaths. The action scenes are well-staged and the siege on the base and rescue of the hostage is a fairly gripping sequence. Director Louis Morneau's career consisted largely of sequels from CARNOSAUR 2 to THE HITCHER 2 and JOY RIDE 2 apart from the Jim Belushi pairing MADE MEN and RETROACTIVE with the animals attack flick BATS as one of his few subsequent theatrical releases. Director of photography Mauro Fiore also started on the camera crew with a handful of Corman's New Horizons titles but has moved on to the likes of SMOKIN' ACES and AVATAR, along with composer Terry Plumieri (MIDNIGHT HEAT) whose synth accompaniment is supportive but not spectacular.

Released theatrically by Cannon and on video by Media Home Entertainment, PLATOON LEADER remained unavailable on DVD stateside (a German disc was English-friendly but derived from a fullscreen transfer). Kino's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode derives from an MGM HD master that looks okay during day exteriors but the night shots and interiors are ridiculously dark, so much so that sometimes one only hears voices on a black screen with perhaps a highlight here or there on the screen. The theatrical trailer is brighter during these scenes, but the paleness of the daylight shots suggests that the old video transfers were brightened more than intended. While Cannon could be cheap, especially in the late eighties, basic cinematographic competence was usually a given (the film was shot by Arthur Wooster who had only lensed documentaries and one feature before this as a cinematographer but had shot second unit on larger British features including a number of James Bond Films), so something may have gone wrong with the grading that was never addressed since the film never made it to DVD previously. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track of this Ultra Stereo film does what it can with a serviceable mix, with directional effects largely confined to the action scenes and some depth from the synthesizer score of George S. Clinton (RED SHOE DIARIES). SOLDIER BOYZ was released direct-to-video by HBO and also did not have a digital release until Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray. The master is not new but probably of more recent vintage since it would likely have been acquired and mastered by MGM at the same time as fellow Motion Picture Corporation of America production PUMPKINHEAD 2. It looks better than PLATOON LEADER, and the Philippines-lensed jungle scenes look better than the flatter-looking stateside bits but this really is not the sort of film that MGM would remaster anytime soon nor of a caliber that Kino would commission a new master as the B-flick on a double feature disc. Fans would best seek this one out on sale. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track of this Dolby Stereo film has a somewhat more adventurous mix with more atmospheric background in both the stateside and Vientam scenes as well as directional activity from the gunfire and explosions. Neither film has subtitle options. The only extras are trailers for both films (1:36 and 1:48, respectively) as well as trailers for the Cannon flicks RIVER OF DEATH and DELTA FORCE 2. (Eric Cotenas)