The Best Movie You Never Saw: Uncommon Valor

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at UNCOMMON VALOR!

THE STORY: A retired Marine colonel (Gene Hackman) is convinced his MIA son is a POW in Vietnam that’s never been returned by the government. When he receives intel proving that, indeed, he is still being held captive in a camp in Laos, he recruits his son’s old platoon to help him liberate the camp.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Gene Hackman, Fred Ward, Randall “Tex” Cob, Robert Stack & Patrick Swayze. Directed by Ted Kotcheff.

THE HISTORY: Back in the eighties, the notion of POW’s in Vietnam still being held captive, years after the war, was something that weighed heavily on the pop culture. With a new political landscape, many directors were exploring the legacy Vietnam for the first time, and gradually stories involving the war crossed over from the high-brow (APOCALYPSE NOW, COMING HOME, THE DEER HUNTER) to something more populist. In that regard, the fantasy of going back and liberating missing soldiers, in effect re-fighting the war, became a common theme in action films of the era.

The studio changed the campaign at the last minute. UNCOMMON VALOR was released inappropriately with limited publicity over Christmas. In February, the New York Times called the film “the year’s biggest movie surprise,” but it was too late. Barry Diller, who was running Paramount at the time, later apologized to me for the studio not spending enough money on marketing. “I didn’t realize the picture would have such a broad appeal,” he said. – Ted Kotcheff – Director’s Cut: My Life in Film

UNCOMMON VALOR was probably the first one to really plunge into that fantasy scenario. Released over Christmas of 1983, UNCOMMON VALOR wound up becoming a sleeper hit, grossing $30 million at the box office, a pretty solid figure for that era. However, once the more jingoistic MISSION IN ACTION and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II hit theaters, covering the same territory in a more comic-book way, UNCOMMON VALOR sunk somewhat into obscurity.

WHY IT'S GREAT: Imagine if Gene Hackman had played Rambo. Sounds cool right, if maybe a little ridiculous? Well, it actually kinda happened in UNCOMMON VALOR. Coincidently directed by the same guy who made FIRST BLOOD, Ted Kotcheff, this does the same thing as the RAMBO sequels, albeit in a more serious vein. Instead of Hackman ripping his shirt off and becoming a one man army, he stays clothed (thank God) and enlists a team of bad-ass vets to help him out, played by a who’s who of eighties tough guys in early roles. There’s Fred Ward, two years before REMO WILLIAMS, as the PTSD-afflicted tunnel rat who can’t get over a mission gone wrong. Then there’s Tim Thomerson, a year before TRANCERS, as the ladies’ man hot-shot copter pilot. And let’s not forget a young Patrick Swayze, a year before RED DAWN (while DIRTY DANCING and ROAD HOUSE were years away), as the youngest recruit, a new-school army officer tasked with keeping the unruly vets in line. Best of all is the great Randall “Tex” Cobb, in one of his few good-guy parts, as the hulking head-case of the unit, who actually gets a lot of the best scenes.

What Gene did on UNCOMMON VALOR was not acting; it was being. He plays a colonel who sets out to rescue his son, a Vietnam POW. He wasn’t acting the colonel; he was the colonel. – Ted Kotcheff – Director’s Cut: My Life in Film

The movie is thoroughly grounded by Hackman, who plays his obsessed family man colonel with total commitment. He may be starring in a fantasy action flick, but he plays it utterly straight, showing why he was in such high demand before retiring (too early) in the early 2000’s. He doesn’t have the physique of a Stallone or Norris, but he doesn’t need it as he’s so intense you thoroughly believe him in the part. Hackman also conveys a certain sense of recklessness that’s outstanding. Everything for him, be it the safety of his men or even the other POW’s, comes secondary to getting his son back. You believe him as a tortured dad who loves his child and just wants to reunite his family (kudos to Kotcheff for not giving it a typically Hollywood ending too).

BEST SCENE: For those of you that only know him by his tough guy parts in the eighties, Randall “Tex” Cobb had quite the career, first as a boxer, then as a kickboxer, and finally as an actor. You wouldn’t think a big guy like him could move so well, but check out this scrap with Patrick Swayze to see some of his kickboxing prowess in action. Swayze also handles himself pretty well.

SEE IT: UNCOMMON VALOR is on DVD (no Blu-ray), but you can watch it in HD on Amazon Prime or buy it on iTunes.

PARTING SHOT: The cast, coupled with a A-picture studio-level budget, solid tech credits, a strong screenplay and an amazing score by a young James Horner, make this a rock solid eighties actioner that time forgot. Its well-worth watching even if you’re not super into eighties exploitation Vietnam flicks. This one tries to be serious and even handed (imagine it halfway between RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and PLATOON), and, in my opinion, holds up pretty well.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.