Release Date(s)1988 (September 18, 2018)
Studio(s)Eagle Films/TriStar Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
Based on a true story, Bat*21 finds middle-aged Iceal Hambleton (Gene Hackman), a reconnaissance expert and career colonel with no frontline experience, holding a high-level desk job in Vietnam. Reports arrive of a major enemy troop movement along a jungle highway. Knowing that his expertise will be valuable, Hambleton, code name Bat 21 Bravo, decides to go along on a surveillance flight and have a look. His plane gets shot down behind North Vietnamese lines and he ejects, parachuting into enemy territory. Stranded in the jungle with only a survival kit, radio, and pistol, he can only hope to be rescued.
Because he has access to Strategic Air Command operations and is an expert in surface-to-air missile countermeasures, his rescue is top priority. The Air Force and Navy combine forces to extract him despite bad weather, bad luck, and an imminent plan to carpet-bomb enemy in the vicinity.
Spotter pilot Capt. Bartholomew Clark (Danny Glover) flies over the area, sees a signal from Hambleton and makes radio contact. Using code language, he tells the grounded colonel how to get to the river, where the Navy will pick him up.
Most of the film deals with the relationship between these two men. Hambleton is clearly out of his element and scared. With Vietcong troops passing close by, he must hide and move stealthily toward the rendezvous.
Unlike many war movies, Bat*21 doesn’t portray the main character as a John Wayne type, fearless in the face of danger. Hambleton is near retirement and would rather be on the golf course. Now that he is in peril, he is almost completely reliant on others. Clark is determined to see that Hambleton reaches safety, knowing the many obstacles. When the chain of command frustrates his obsessive goal to save the colonel, Clark resorts to methods that aren’t exactly by the book.
Director Peter Markle (Youngblood) gets the story moving quickly and builds suspense with Hambleton alone and nearly defenseless in a hostile environment. There are a number of well-staged sequences involving the spotter plane, fighter jets, and a couple of helicopters sent to aid in the rescue. These scenes are exciting and realistically portray the difficulties involved in the jungle rescue. Director of photography Mark Irwin includes shots both from the pilots’ point of view and from the ground and the editing meshes them together so well that viewers feel like they are in the midst of the action.
As Hambleton, Hackman conveys the right balance of fear, anger, expectation, and impatience as time and again his rescue is postponed for one reason or another. There are only three options – rescue, capture, or death.
Glover’s Clark has the job of encouraging Hambleton and guiding him to safety through radio contact from several hundred feet in the air. Though the two men never meet during the mission, they develop a rapport based on mutual trust and respect. The colonel, used to giving orders, is now taking them, his life dependent on following them precisely.
Released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the R rated theatrical presentation, the widescreen video quality is sharp and consistent, whether in jungle scenes, pouring rain, or sweeping low-level passes over the jungle. The Malaysian locations feature lush, thick jungles and rice paddies, credibly standing in for Vietnam. Too often, war movies suffer from poor sound mixing, resulting in obscured dialogue. In Bat*21, sound is clear and well balanced throughout.
The Blu-ray release contains audio commentary by Markle and five theatrical trailers for movies starring Gene Hackman: Bat*21, The Package, Company Business, Prime Cut, and The Hunting Party.
Markle’s commentary is fairly routine, telling us what we’re seeing. He does, however, provide some interesting information. Malaysia was chosen as the film’s location because the Philippines, also under consideration, received more rainfall which would delay production. In an early scene, non-golfer Gene Hackman had to drive a ball as if he’s an experienced golfer, all while a helicopter lands in the background. An interior set of a plane hit by a missile was built on rockers to suggest its erratic trajectory. Shooting days began at 4 A.M. to contend with 95-degree temperatures and high humidity. The landing strip shown was built expressly for the movie. Exterior shots of planes and helicopters were filmed at the end of principal photography.
- Dennis Seuling