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.