A downbeat, instantly forgettable Australian-Taiwanese variation on The Guns of Navarone, Attack Force Z (1981) is distinguished only by its cast, which features early starring roles for Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, as well as cult actor John Phillip Law. It's one of those movies rife with genre cliches and where, at the climax, characters are killed off in direct reverse order of their billing. Although the Australian and British DVD releases are 16:9, Image's disc is presented in 4:3 matted widescreen format, in a murky transfer from a PAL source.
Five commandos in two canoes -- Dutch Lieutenant J.A. (Jan) Veitch (John Phillip Law), Aussies Captain P.G. (Paul) Kelly (Mel Gibson), Sergeant D.J. (Danny) Costello (Sam Neill), Able Seaman A.D. 'Sparrer' Bird (Chris Haywood), and Sub Lt. Ted 'Kingo' King (British actor John Waters, not the Baltimore-based director-actor) -- slip into a South Pacific island settled by the Chinese but occupied by the Japanese military with a mission to locate the survivors of a downed Allied plane whose passengers include a Japanese defector, Imoguchi (Yu Wang) may hold the secret (never revealed) for bringing about an early end to the war.
Veitch is soon separated from the other men, falling in (and falling in love with) Chien Hua (Sylvia Chang), while the rest meet up with her father, Lin Chan-Lang (Koo Chuan Hsiung), a resistance fighter whose martial arts moves seem more than a bit out of place.
Attack Force Z (pronounced "Attack Force Zed," you silly Americans) goes through the motions inherent in such films. Veitch finds love in war, first-time commander Kelly has doubts about his ability to lead, Costello questions the costs of a mission whose goal is to protect a Japanese traitor, etc. Chinese peasants wonder aloud whose side they should back given that if the Allies are successful they'll face reprisals from their occupiers who in turn are atrocity-committing monsters with little shading.
Original director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) was fired on the first day of shooting and his replacement, Tim Burstall, gives the film little in the way of style, relying on zooms and other cinematic shortcuts that give the picture the look of a TV-movie.
The film is the sort low-budget producers made in the wake of the gargantuanly successful Guns of Navarone when filmmakers like Roger Corman realized it was possible to shot small-scale war movies cheaply in exotic-looking places like Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Attack Force Z would likely be all but forgotten were it not for Gibson's international stardom following Mad Max and Gallipoli, which were apparently shot immediately prior and after this was shot (in late-1979), respectively, but both released prior to Attack Force Z's theatrical run in most markets. The film soon turned up on home video and late-night television, where it attracted a minor following.
Nonetheless, except for the love scenes between the seemingly ageless Law and Taiwanese star Chang, the film's screenplay offers little for Gibson and Neill to do beyond standard war movie battle shtick, though both Neill and Law convincingly speak Mandarin through much of the picture, better in fact than the Taiwanese actors are with their phonetic Japanese. Technical credits are adequate but no better.
Video & Audio
The matted letterboxed transfer (with possible PAL speed-up) on Attack Force Z is a big, unneeded disappointment. The resultant image is soft and murky, with drab color. The original mono audio is okay. There are no subtitle options, though the Mandarin and Japanese dialogue has been subtitled, for the most part, into English.
None are listed, but included is 27-minute documentary, also in 4:3 matted widescreen, called The Z Men Debriefed (unceremoniously listed as "Interview" on the DVD menu) which features executive producer John McCallum and actors Chris Haywood and John Waters. They talked about the film's future stars, have unkind things to say about John Phillip Law, marvel at the royal treatment given the Taiwanese stars, and discuss Noyce's departure from the project.
Attack Force Z is the kind of film a year from now you'll remember having seen without remembering a single thing about it -- except, perhaps, for its early appearances of several actors on the verge of worldwide stardom. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is due out in June.