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Down among the Z men
A region 2 DVD review of ATTACK FORCE Z by Slarek
 

It goes something like this.

It's the 10th January, 1945. A small team from Z Special Force, a secret operations unit of the Australian armed forces led by Captain Paul Kelly, land on a South West Pacific island occupied by the Japanese. Their mission is to locate a plane that has crashed in the island's jungle region and either rescue the two survivors or confirm they are dead. It's first light when they land in their canoes, but mid-morning in the jungle a few yards away. Well, never mind that.

They don't get far before they're shot at by a Japanese sentry post. They kill the Japanese soldiers, but the battle leaves one of their number incapacitated. He's no use to them any more, so they kill him too. They convince a local farmer that they are here to help, get directions from him and then shoot him as well.

A short while later they invade a house occupied by Chinese girl Chien Hua. She's nice and speaks English, which is handy for our boys. It's not long before her dad Lin appears. He's nice, too. He's also spiritual and talks to his dead wife for guidance. Then some Japanese soldiers turn up. They're not nice, not at all, so squad leader Captain Kelly and the boys kill the lot of them. Lin even lends a hand with some rather iffy kung fu. He's not only nice, he's useful, and he knows where the crashed plane is. Will he take Kelly's heroes there? Sure he will. He hates the Japanese as much as they do. After all, they killed his wife.

Kelly, the boys and Lin set off to find the plane, but on the way they have to take cover from a Japanese army patrol. When their cover is accidentally blown by Veitch, a Dutch member of the team, Kelly, Lin and the boys kill all the Japanese. Well, all but one. Veitch chases after him and kills him with a telephone cord, taking out another for luck and hanging him on the back of a door.

With all these bodies turning up, the occupying Japanese realise that there are Allied soldiers about and that they are looking for survivors from the crashed plane. They ask the locals what they know, but the Japanese are nasty people and do everything from threatening to behead a child to repeatedly shoving Chien's hand in a hot wok to get the information. Just for that, Veitch emerges from his hiding place and kills some more Japanese. He's become separated from the rest of the boys by then and trots off with Chien to find the crash survivors and fall in love with this nice, pretty Chinese girl. They have so much in common. After all, Veitch's parents were killed by – you've guessed it – the Japanese, and he thus really hates them. Meanwhile, Kelly and the boys continue with the mission, pausing only to kill some more Japanese. And so on. It all builds to a climax in which Kelly, the boys and some noble Chinese locals get to kill loads and loads of Japanese.

I'm not claiming the film itself is racist – the attitudes and situation are no doubt authentic to the time and location, but that's as far as it goes. For the most part it's tiresomely one-dimensional stuff – the Force Z soldiers are tough, resourceful and heroic, the Chinese are brave and spiritual, the Japanese are ruthless and evil and referred to only as "Japs" or "Nips." The action is by the numbers, the script is clunky, the music a tacky symphony of pomp and cheese, and the performances, save for a chirpy turn from the always enjoyable Chris Hayward, are functional at best, despite the teaming of rising newcomers Mel Gibson and Sam Neill.

There is a potentially interesting touch of irony to the Z Force mission (which the plot saves until later but the DVD box reveals right up front) and it all ends with a sense of "war, what is it good for?" But for the most part this is a work depressingly out of its time, a 1940s propagandist flag-waver time-hopped to 1982. We can only speculate on the film that might have been had the original director Phillip Noyce – he of Newsfront, Heatwave, Dead Calm and Patriot Games – not been fired and made the more strongly anti-war film that was originally intended.

sound and vision

The DVD box states that the transfer here has been "digitally remastered." I have a feeling that most of you will have specific expectations of that claim, and that they will not be met by what we are presented with here. Sunlit exterior scenes are not bad in terms of colour, contrast and detail, but when darkness falls or the action moves into the shade the bitrate drops, the contrast greys out and compression artefacts start dancing around the picture. Dust spots are visible, more prominently in some places than others, and there are even some odd shot-to-shot variances in brightness and contrast, making it look almost as if these moments have been rescued and spliced into the print.

The sound is Dolby 2.0 mono and does the job without either shining or offending.

extra features

Attack Force Z "The Z Men Debriefed" – An Interview with Cast and Producer (26:55) kicks off with a warning of spoilers contained within and the advice to watch the film first, a move I applaud, despite my belief that you should always watch the film before even tampering with the extras. In the absence of stars John Phillip Law, Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, it's left to producer John McCallum and members of the support cast – namely Chris Haywood and John Waters – to deliver the goods. And to a large part they do, with some nice on-set stories, a little insight into the unfortunate dumping of original director Phil Noyce and a couple of amusing anecdotes regarding John Phillip Law's ego and concern over his hair. An engaging inclusion.

Picture Gallery contains over 40 production stills, including some on-set photos. The quality is a tad soft, but they are presented in anamorphic 16:9 and fill the screen, which itself should be cheered.

The Theatrical Trailer (2:38) is in anamorphic widescreen but iffy quality, the opening shots being plastered with dirt. This appears to be an American trailer, hence the pronunciation of the title as "Attack Force Zee."

summary

Made just one year before Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg examined the wartime relationship between the Japanese and the Allies with intelligence and depth in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Attack Force Z feels horribly out of time and touch, a simplistic presentation of a based-on-fact story in which the Japanese are demonised and function mainly as objects for Mel and his boys to slaughter en masse. The film has clearly been dug out to cash in on Mel's continued fame, as his name is plastered larger than the film's title on the DVD cover, even though John Phillip Law got top billing on its original release.

The DVD is no great shakes, with the picture quality not impressing much, though I did enjoy the retrospective featurette, not least for Chris Haywood's mourning for the Phillip Noyce version that never was. I'm with you, Chris.

Attack Force Z

Australia / Taiwan 1982
90 mins
director
Tim Burstall
starring
John Phillip Law
Mel Gibson
Sam Neill
Chris Haywood
John Waters

DVD details
region 0
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English, Mandarin and Japanese
subtitles .
none
extras
Making-of featurette
Gallery
Trailer
distributor
Argent Films Ltd.
release date
20 March 2006
review posted
9 March 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews