PLATOON LEADER & SOLDIER BOYZ: A Dudikoff Double Feature

Kino Releases A “Fans Only” Michael Dudikoff Blu-ray 2 Pack

This image is the highlight of this entire package. And totally misrepresentative of the film!

I adore Cannon Films. And their ilk. Stuff like American Ninja is my cinematic bread and butter. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are probably the two most rock star film producers of my entire life. So yes, I’d someday like to have seen every last Cannon Films production. I generally try and take the opportunity to see a new one (to me) whenever that chance arises. So when Kino announced they were releasing a Michael Dudikoff 2-pack that included Platoon Leader, a Cannon film, I was pretty much destined to cover it.

Michael Dudikoff was the titular American Ninja for Cannon Films. But aside from that role (which is seared into my childhood mind), I really only knew him as the star of the car-action TV series Cobra. Otherwise Dudikoff’s filmography was largely unknown to me back in his heyday. I’ve since taken in all of the canonical American Ninja movies, and even checked out the more dramatic River Of Death not too long ago. He’s not a great actor, but he’s a pretty face in the James Dean mold, and he represents an era and a kind of film I love beyond all reason. I was very much looking forward to taking a deeper dive into his filmography with this double feature. That anticipation was… ill advised.

Platoon Leader (1988)

Proving himself to be a much better actor than fellow Cannon star Chuck Norris could ever dream to be, Dudikoff headlines Platoon Leader as Jeff Knight, a fresh-from-the-Academy Lieutenant sent to Vietnam, where he’ll have to learn to graduate from the school of hard knocks.

Directed by fellow Cannon alum and brother to Chuck himself, Aaron Norris does an adequate job with a very paint-by-the-numbers script adapted from James R. McDonough’s original book. Bizarrely, I personally worked under Aaron Norris for a brief time when film festival ActionFest existed. Norris was a co-founder of the festival. He’s a massively amiable guy prone to bear hugs and big dreams. Between watching a ton of Chuck Norris films (and side-eying his current political stances), being a Cannon Films mega-fan, and having worked with Aaron Norris, I feel like I was potentially even more aware of the dreams being reached for with this film. As much as Cannon loved making exploitative films, they also had their eyes on awards-worthy drama. Runaway Train is a wonderful example of Cannon Films reaching for the skies and achieving lift off. It’s also well known that Chuck and Aaron lost a brother in the Vietnam war. So Platoon Leader probably meant a lot to those crafting the film.

And it’s totally fine. Dudikoff turns in the best performance of his career by a substantial margin. Norris captures the Vietnam vibe pretty authentically. The trouble is that the entire movie just feels rote. There’s absolutely no surprises. Nor is there really much of a hook. I guess the “point” is that leaders are made on the battlefield and not in the classroom. Or that being “in the shit” is what truly makes the man. The problem is that the viewer never for one second believes that Lt. Knight won’t become the man his men need him to be. It’s all very pre-determined and becomes a fairly dry watch with little to cause one to invest in the drama, while also eschewing lots of the Cannon Films trademark excess. At least Cannon films from 1988 looked and felt like real movies, with legitimate cameras and set design.

At worst, it’s boring. At best, it’s sincere!

Soldier Boyz (1995)

Where Platoon Leader was sincere without a great hook, you can probably guess at Soldier Boyz’ hook based solely on its name. That’s right: Dudikoff is going to team up with some minorities for a little “urban” action. Right from the tagline (“A dirty half dozen, only twice as deadly”), Soldier Boyz wears its inspirations (and its quintessential 1990s-ness) on its sleeve. Dudikoff is some kind of retired career soldier who is working to rehabilitate hardened prisoners. When some suits need him for “one last job”, he violates probably two dozen federal laws and brings a bunch of convicts (each a different racial profile/makeup) with him out into the jungle to rescue a kidnapped girl and maybe get their sentences commuted.

Gloriously R-rated, Soldier Boyz is really only watchable as a companion piece to Platoon Leader. Exploitative and laced with humor, violence for entertainment, and a nice villain turn from Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, it is both a perfect counterpoint to Platoon Leader and also not really worth watching at all. There’s a little less of an air of prestige coming off of this one, what with it not being a Cannon film and coming a decade later than its counterpoint in this double feature. The only real appeal is the silliness of the premise, the stereotypes depicted in blatant ways, and the distasteful language and violence sprinkled throughout.

I probably had a better time with Soldier Boyz, but it’s unquestionably the worse-made and more dated of the two films.

The Package

This Michael Dudikoff double feature is strictly for the Dudikoff and Cannon apologists of the world. It’s a couple of hella deep cuts that even this reviewer, an avowed Cannonite, can’t really recommend (at least as a purchase). Kino did a perfectly good job of pairing up a couple of titles that feel right together, and they look better than either of those movies probably ever have before. They’re just cinematic footnotes of interest to likely a very narrow audience.

And I’m Out.

The Platoon Leader / Soldier Boyz Blu-ray double feature is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

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