Having just graduated from West Point, Lt. Jeff Knight (Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja himself) is sent to Vietnam and takes over a battle-weary platoon. Lt. Knight has got his work cut out for him. The VC is all around, drug use is rampant, and the cynical members of the platoon have no respect for him. When Lt. Knight is injured during one of his first patrols, everyone is so convinced that he’ll go back to the U.S. that they loot his quarters. However, Knight does return, determined to earn the respect of his men and become a true platoon leader!
Though Cannon was best known for making B action movies (many of which starred either Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson), they occasionally tried to improve their image by releasing a prestige film. Platoon Leader is somewhere in the middle between Cannon’s usual output and their “respectable” films. It is based on a highly acclaimed memoir and, though the film was made in South Africa, it does a good job of recreating the look of Vietnam. For instance, Platoon Leader‘s version of Vietnam is more convincing than what Cannon later presented in P.O.W.: The Escape. Platoon Leader also spends some time developing its characters. Lt. Knight is more than just a stoic action hero, which already distinguishes it from 90% of Cannon’s usual output. At the same time, Platoon Leader was directed by Chuck Norris’s brother, Aaron, and he doesn’t hold back on the explosions and the gunfire that everyone had come to expect from a Cannon war film. The end result is an enjoyably hokey film that has a few more layers than the typical Cannon production but not too many.
This film was originally titled Nam but, after the success of Platoon, the title was changed to Platoon Leader. In typical Cannon fashion, Platoon Leader plays like a more jingoistic and even less subtle version of Stone’s film. The main difference is that Platoon‘s Lt. Wolfe never won the respect of his men and ended up getting killed with almost everyone else while Lt. Knight beats back the VC and shares a celebratory embrace with his sergeant.
One final note: keep an eye out for genre vet William Smith, who starred in The Losers (a film about a group of bikers who are recruited by the CIA and sent to Vietnam), in the role of Dudikoff’s superior officer. If Platoon Leader had been made in the 70s, Smith would have played Dudikoff’s role so his appearance here is almost a passing of the B-movie torch.