Saturday, June 11, 2016

Search and Destroy (1979)

Vietnam veteran Kip (Perry King) hasn’t gotten over the war in any meaningful way, working a bar in Niagara Falls with his war buddy R.J. (Rob Garrison) a shady uncle of R.J.’s has gotten them, and treating his future as a thing already over and done with. At least his girlfriend Kate (Tisa Farrow) is willing to put up with his mix of post-traumatic stress and plain bullshit.

Things go further downhill when R.J. is murdered by what will very soon turn out to be a former South Vietnamese officer (Park Jong Soo, who obviously isn’t Vietnamese but Korean) Kip’s unit left behind to die, now looking for revenge. There aren’t many of the old unit left anyhow – after R.J.’s death Kip and his other friend Buddy (Don Stroud) - also living and working in Niagara thanks to R.J.’s uncle - are the only ones left alive. The local police under Anthony Fusqua (George Kennedy) is well-meaning but of little help, so it’s for once rather difficult to blame our protagonists when they try to turn the tables on their hunter on their own.

William Fruet’s Search and Destroy is certainly a minor entry into the thriller and action movie sub-genre concerned with the consequences of the Vietnam War coming home to roost in the USA in a violent manner, and certainly didn’t spawn an inappropriate series of jingoistic action films like a certain other movie of the type, but it’s a fine little film nonetheless. Fruet tells his tale with a wonderful no nonsense attitude, spending no time at all on digressions, distractions and by-ways, instead establishing time, place and characters with broad but sure strokes and letting things develop from there with the appropriate cold and brutal logic.
Search and Destroy is quite good at evoking its time and place, mostly by actually showing a lot of its time and place in a way that looks authentic or at least not too artificial (workaday grubby comes to mind as a description), adds some sharp and direct late-70s style hardboiled dialogue, and then stops and doesn’t think about laying anything on to thick. There’s something effectively laconic about the film’s presentation, an understatement in direction and style that isn’t so much subtlety as it is a directness born of the knowledge that there’s really no need to add any flourishes to the narrative. It’s a film that does seem to know exactly what it wants to be and how to be it, and I think there’s a lot to praise about that approach.
But it’s not only a case of Fruet being in the right place at the right time with the right script. Search and Destroy also works as well as it does thanks to a fine low-key cast of character actors that fit the fine low-key action film they are in to a t. Why, even Perry King gives one of his better performances, while George Kennedy gives his character’s slow realization that he’s failed Kip and his town, and now can only let things play out for the worst, a surprising emotional punch. As someone who has seen quite a bit of Kennedy coasting in genre films, it’s a very pleasant surprise to see the veteran actor here clearly realizing his character is metaphorically standing in for the way his generation has failed men like Kip and running with that. Tisa Farrow breathes some life into the eternally unthankful role of The Girlfriend, Park Jong Soo does much with practically no dialogue, and Don Stroud is Don Stroud.
The action uses Niagara Falls to its full advantage with scenes that swerve around being generic by feeling specifically tailored to their locality, some good stunt work, and the gritty feel that is so typical of 70s genre cinema.
For a little US/Canadian independent production, that’s rather a lot of things going right, leaving Search and Destroy as a film that would deserve more of an audience than it has. 

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