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Synopsis: Five commandos alight on a Japanese-held island in the Dutch East Indies to recover two important men from a downed airplane. One soldier is killed immediately but the others press on with the mission. Lt. Jan Veitch (John Phillip Law) becomes separated from the others and accompanies beautiful local girl Chien Hua (Sylvia Chang). Her martial arts-trained father Shaw Hu (O Ti) accompanies Captain Paul Kelly (Mel Gibson) and Sergeant Danny Costello (Sam Neill) to the downed fliers. Fooled twice by the commandos and the helpful villagers, the Japanese troops close in as the band tries to make good its escape.
Despite good photography and an able cast, Attack Force Z isn't much different from other low-budget action sagas about jungle fighters. Watching half a dozen armed men marching through the forest gets old, even when writer Roger Marshall (The Avengers, The Sweeney) has everyone speak the proper language. Director Tim Burstall begins the film well when one of the commandos is badly wounded: Sam Neill shoots him without hesitation. It's a fitting switch on the kind of 'civilized' warfare practiced in commando fantasies like The Guns of Navarone, and it's a shame that the movie doesn't continue in this gritty vein.
Athletic Mel Gibson looks even younger than he did in the original Mad Max but clearly has what it takes to be an action star. Top-billed John Phillip Law is adequate but undistinguished. The only actor to really grab our attention is New Zealander Sam Neill. All Neill need do is break into a half smile or shoot a reaction across the jungle path, and the movie comes to life. Respected actors John Waters (Breaker Morant) and Chris Heywood round out the squad. Heywood is the commando who makes wisecracks: Gibson: "We're rescuing a very important man who crashed on that plane." Waters: "Roosevelt?"
Attack Force Z supposedly honors the fallen fighters of a real WW2 outfit but is far too unrealistic to be taken seriously. The knife-wielding, black-suited O Ti has a couple of exciting and suspiciously anachronistic kung fu fights with the Japanese. He objects to John Phillip Law's getting affectionate with his English-speaking daughter Sylvia Chang, but not much comes of it. The commandos survive one skirmish after another with nary a scratch, beating their Japanese foes to the draw with silenced grease-gun weapons that never miss.
Later gunfights simply drone on with random, strategy-challenged mayhem. Even though the film avoids the usual upbeat heroics, the final battle hasn't much impact. Editor David Stiven also cut the razor-sharp visuals of The Road Warrior and does his best to keep up the excitement level, but he can't disguise the movie's low budget. We never see very many enemy soldiers on screen together, which leads us to think that the same twenty Japanese actors are being "killed" over and over again. It's perhaps unfair to harp on the lack of high-end production values, but the film's submarine and some vehicles are too modern and the Japanese are outfitted with American machine guns. Action-hungry war film buffs dote on those kinds of details.
Image and Cinevision's flat letterboxed transfer of Attack Force Z is good but not outstanding, and doesn't hold up well on a large monitor. The absence of subtitles or closed captions means that auditors unfamiliar with Cockney and Aussie accents will also strain to understand some of the dialogue. The heroic martial score too often sounds as if it's been adapted from the nursery song, I'm a Little Teapot.
The extra is an okay featurette with executive producer John McCallum and actors Chris Haywood and John Waters reminiscing and remembering details about working with up 'n' coming actors Gibson and Neill. Attack Force Z is definitely for confirmed fans of Mel Gibson.
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by Glenn Erickson