The heedlessly invigorating Bat*21 is fundamentally a role-reversal prequel to Behind Enemy Lines with Gene Hackman evading enemies on the ground while Danny Glover is his audio guide back to safety. Although Lieutenant Colonel Iceal E. Hambleton (Hackman) was a consultant for the film, it never panegyrizes him with untoward hero-worship. The film doesn’t sputter over prolonged introduction to Hambleton before he is deployed into North Vietnam. After a round of golf, Hackman is reconnoitering ahead of a bombing strike when missiles penetrate his aircraft.
I wouldn’t harshly adjudicate the character of Hambleton based solely on this film but anyone other than the venerable Hackman in the role would probably caricature him. He would be the chicken-hawk who is typically circumventing the warfare from afar. Similarly, director Peter Markle doesn’t overstate the urgency into Tinseltown histrionics. When the scouts are prowling the jungle for Hackman, it is suspensefully non-alarmist.
Markle parcels the race-against-the-clock trepidation in increments such as when the Vietcong are eavesdropping on Hambleton’s coordinates via the communications signal in his helmet. While they are strictly confabulating through radio surveillance, Hackman and Glover are an affable duo. Usually Hackman isn’t one to be at the mercy of someone else, it is evergreen to for him to be the susceptible one while Glover is the exhorting mentor in the sky.
William C. Anderson and George Gordon’s laudatory script is tactful about the treatment of Vietnamese civilians such as when Hambleton forages provisions from a native and must decimate him in self-defense. The man’s children witness this territorial transgression and the moment profoundly reverberates with how our involvement there was a trespassing violation.
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