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Uncommon Valor (Blu-ray) (1983)
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Details At A Glance
Year Of Production
||Cast & Crew
Randall 'Tex' Cobb
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1983's Uncommon Valor is a real meat and potatoes action movie ingrained with macho themes of brotherhood, honour and heroism, plus a considerable side order of testosterone. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright) and produced by the inimitable John Milius, this is a satisfying manly movie in every sense of the word; a live-action iteration of "Soldiers of Fortune" magazine, packed with guns, explosions, helicopters and plenty of attitude.
A decade after the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War, some 2500 American soldiers are still listed as "missing in action," and might still be imprisoned in Vietnam. Retired Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) firmly believes that his son, Frank (Todd Allen), is still alive and being held at a POW camp in Laos after being listed as MIA. After years of searching and gathering information, Rhodes discovers a promising lead but receives no assistance from the U.S. government. Determined to bring Frank home safely, Rhodes secures financial backing from a wealthy oil businessman (Robert Stack) and assembles a team of Vietnam veterans who were a part of Frank's platoon. Joining the group is former Recon Marine Kevin Scott (Patrick Swayze), whose father is also MIA in Vietnam. Under Rhodes' leadership, the team begins extensive training for the dangerous operation before flying into Southeast Asia hoping to bring home their missing countrymen.
The notion of American prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam became a full-blown action subgenre in the 1980s, leading to the likes of Missing in Action, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and other minor action titles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since this is an action movie first and foremost, the intricate political situation surrounding the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue is only briefly touched upon, and is not explored with any depth or significance. Furthermore, the Rhodes family angle is undercooked and cut down to the bare essentials. Hell, Rhodes' wife (Gail Strickland) only receives about a minute of screen-time in total. Indeed, the screenplay (credited to Joe Gayton, from a story by actor Wings Hauser) is more focused on the mission at hand, tracking Rhodes as he determinedly assembles his squad and begins training before they travel to Laos. It's pretty formulaic, but that's par for the course - and even though some clichés are apparent, the movie manages to circumvent other obvious genre tropes. Uncommon Valor delivers what matters the most in this genre: it's brisk and no-nonsense, without any distracting pretensions or subplots to weigh down the narrative.
Kotcheff, who was fresh off directing 1982's First Blood, shows a firm command of the movie, making the most of the generous (for the era) $11 million budget. Aside from the opening scene depicting a battle in Vietnam, the action is reserved for the third act when the squad heads into hostile territory, and it is worth the wait - the finale at the POW camp is genuinely exciting and well-crafted, with competent production values to boot. The set-pieces are captured with sturdy cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, who often collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola (he even shot Apocalypse Now) and became Brian De Palma's go-to director of photography. Uncommon Valor was produced before the digital filmmaking revolution; therefore, it's a showcase for practical effects, with several helicopters even featuring in the climax. There's a certain grit and charm to '80s action movies with real pyrotechnics, location shooting and sets, which makes this a hugely entertaining watch in the 21st Century. Plus, although the action sequences still exhibit '80s filmmaking sensibilities, the shootouts are more believable than a more standard-order goofy action film, and are not outright ridiculous. Uncommon Valor also features one of James Horner's earlier film scores, and it's characteristically rousing work by the late composer. There's genuine majesty to the music, ably driving the film and amplifying the sense of excitement during the action scenes. The film even closes with a cheesy but effective Ray Kennedy song called "Brothers in the Night," which is note-perfect for the end credits.
A men-on-a-mission movie of this ilk heavily relies on a memorable ensemble cast, and Uncommon Valor delivers in this respect. Veteran actor (and former real-life Marine) Hackman is great in anything, and he's a superb leader as Colonel Rhodes, bringing reliable gravitas to the role despite the movie's B-grade origins. The colourful ensemble also incorporates a demolitions expert (Reb Brown), a traumatised soldier who prefers stealth kills (Fred Ward), an ace pilot (Tim Thomerson), a token African-American soldier (Harold Sylvester), and a crazy but loyal machine gunner (Randall "Tex" Cobb). Cobb is a scene-stealer as the unhinged Sailor, and he's lovable in his craziness. Meanwhile, Swayze is surprisingly terrific as the by-the-book Marine Corporal, even though this was only his third feature-film appearance (this was a year before Red Dawn). The actors all hit their marks confidently, ensuring that we have a firm grasp of the characters before they carry out the dangerous mission in Laos.
There's more heart and emotion to Uncommon Valor than expected, and these qualities anchor the narrative - it's the most believable Vietnam POW/MIA movie from the 1980s. Aside from Rhodes being haunted by the absence of his son, it's also effective to see how the men are impacted by returning to military life after a decade of living as a civilian. A minor box office success in 1983, Uncommon Valor rapidly faded into obscurity, and is only remembered by avid genre fans. Those who enjoy this brand of macho '80s action film will get the most out of Uncommon Valor, as it's supremely entertaining, but everybody else need not apply.
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Uncommon Valor has long been relegated to VHS and DVD releases of increasing rarity, and now the film finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment. At the time of writing, this is a worldwide exclusive Blu-ray release, which makes Umbrella's disc all the more welcome. For its high definition debut, Uncommon Valor does not appear to have been given a fresh new scan and remastering - instead, this is presumably the old HD master prepared for the movie's DVD release in the early 2000s. (The master has been streaming on iTunes for a few years.) Although that's not the most promising notion, the resultant AVC-encoded, 1080p high definition presentation is actually great on the whole, and much better than I was anticipating. Presented in 1.78:1 (the original aspect ratio was 1.85:1), the movie has an entire dual-layered BD-50 to itself, resulting in a sensational average video bitrate of 32.84 Mbps. For those like me who've lived with the DVD for so long, this Blu-ray is a welcome revelation.
Naturally, there are minor limitations and shortcomings, though the key word here is minor. Print damage is occasionally noticeable, with minor telecine wobble that's especially evident during optical shots featuring on-screen titles, while other small flecks and spots are evident from time to time throughout the movie (though the print damage is most noticeable during the opening credits). However, none of this is especially bothersome, especially given the B-grade grindhouse feel of the movie. Luckily, Paramount left the grain in-tact when they prepared this master, so grain is prevalent throughout the movie. Grain does spike at times, particularly under darker lighting (see 53:15) or when optical shots when grain sometimes swarms in and overwhelms the image (see 5:43), but these instances aren't common. Funnily enough, the on-screen titles look extremely crisp, and I was left wondering if Paramount actually redid said titles during the remastering process. (Luckily, these titles are burned in and not player-generated.) There's also a bizarre slow-motion shot of Hackman at 52:15 that exhibits chunky grain, and is soft and poorly-defined, but that's just the nature of optical shots. I'm not even sure why this shot runs in slo-mo since the dialogue accompanying the shot isn't slowed down. But hey, the imperfections of '80s filmmaking, right?
Some slight shortcomings aside, this is a handsome, stable, sharp transfer boasting outstanding clarity and finely-resolved textures. Close-ups fare especially well, with the presentation beautifully resolving the finest of details on skin and clothing. Just see a close-up of Stack at 49:43, as the detail on his denim jacket looks incredibly tangible. Even in mid shots, textures look nicely resolved, while wide shots are still pleasingly sharp, boasting strong object delineation. There are some soft-looking moments, for instance a scene in a club at the 54-minute mark that's deliberately hazy due to the camera filters and lighting, but that traces back to the creative choices. Surprisingly, the transfer ably handles scenes set at night, with respectable shadow detail despite the limitations of 1080p encoding. Since it was shot on 35mm film in the early 1980s, Uncommon Valor is covered in a gorgeous layer of film grain, and, thankfully, it looks beautifully resolved and fine - especially for the first-generation material (as previously noted, the opticals are less precise). Happily, I could not detect any significant digital manipulation, with no evidence of digital noise reduction or edge enhancement. At times, it does look as if light DNR was applied to some optical shots involving transitions, such as the montage at the 58-minute mark as the squad travels through the jungle, but it's possible that these scenes were just shot with fine-grained stock, since the textures don't look smeary. Additionally, colours are strong, looking faithful to the movie's '80s celluloid origins. Indeed, there is no garish oversaturation, nor is there any "teal and orange" revisionism to the colour palette - rather, it looks like '80s film stock, with slightly muted primaries and neutral skin tones. Some darker shots, such as Wilkes climbing into the pipe at 70:33, could do with a bit more balance since black levels suffer, but that's something that only High Dynamic Range could rectify. Other than moments like this, blacks are relatively healthy, and contrast is superb, with strong image depth.
Since Umbrella allotted the movie such a generous bitrate, there are absolutely no encoding anomalies to speak of. I was on the lookout for the slightest technical glitches, but there's nothing - no aliasing, crush, banding or ringing, nor does the image ever exhibit macroblocking. Would it be nice if Paramount eventually remastered the movie in 4K from the original camera negative? Sure. But can I live with this Blu-ray if no 4K remaster ever materialises? Hell yeah! I adore this flick, and I love Umbrella's Blu-ray presentation, which looks better than any number of other films of a similar vintage. Without any unsightly digital manipulation, and with strong textures and sharpness, this is the best that Uncommon Valor has ever looked, and it's a dream come true for genre fans. It's time to retire your old DVD and pick up this disc, as it's inarguably worth the upgrade.
Umbrella supplies an English SDH subtitle track. At times, the subtitles are positioned over location titles in a given shot, but that's a minor complaint. It's extremely encouraging to see subtitles returning to Umbrella discs (this trend started with their release of the Ozploitation film Hostage in May 2020).
Video Ratings Summary
Uncommon Valor debuts on Blu-ray with two audio options: a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 (stereo) track. The movie was remixed in 5.1 for home video in the early 2000s, thus the 2.0 stereo track presumably represents the original cinema mix. So you can pick your poison. (These audio options actually mirror the U.S. Region 1 DVD release, which also features both 5.1 and 2.0 tracks.) For the purposes of this review, I concentrated on the 5.1 track, though you can rest assured that the 2.0 mix is also quite good, and actually mixed noticeably louder.
First things first: the audio clearly underwent competent remastering, as the track sounds clean and precise throughout. There's no hissing or popping, nor are there any sibilance problems, drop-outs or sync issues. The 5.1 mix does push to the surround channels at various times for environmental ambience, music, and other sound effects, though this is not exactly the most dynamic track I've ever listened to. However, the track is a bit unbalanced and unpolished at times, and some of the stock sound effects are pretty bad. Additionally, during the sequence of Rhodes meeting various individuals as he searches for his son at the beginning, there appears to be a significant amount of obvious ADR, with the dialogue not always perfectly matching the actors' lips (see Rhodes on a bench). However, at least the dialogue is clear in these instances, and you can rest assured that there are no problems with prioritisation at any point during the flick - the dialogue is always perfectly comprehensible. The track packs a punch at times, as well - for the most part, the firearm sound effects are loud and impactful, while explosions and helicopters are likewise deafening. Just see Brown's character setting off the massive bridge explosion during the climax, for instance. The surround channels are effectively engaged during the action-heavy climax at the POW camp, and Horner's original score consistently comes through with pleasing clarity.
Although the mix does not rise to demo-worthy status, it is an effective and satisfying track which nicely complements the gorgeous 1080p video transfer. I couldn't detect any compression issues with the track, though the recording equipment of the era does slightly limit the overall quality. Fans should be chuffed with the upgrade to lossless audio on this one.
Audio Ratings Summary
|Surround Channel Use|
Unsurprisingly, there are no extras - just like the DVD. There's no disc menu, either. However, there is a trademark reversible cover sans ratings logo, which is always appreciated.
R4 vs R1
NOTE: To view
non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually
also NTSC compatible.
This is a Blu-ray exclusive as of June 2020, so it's a win for Umbrella by default. And there has never been any extras aside from a trailer.
Time has been surprisingly kind to Uncommon Valor - it's an exciting men-on-a-mission action flick with a macho cast and hard-hitting action sequences. Those who enjoy '80s action movies should enjoy the hell out of this one.
For its Blu-ray debut, Uncommon Valor looks and sounds surprisingly good. Although the HD master is slightly dated, textures are strong and the movie looks pleasingly sharp. The lossless 5.1 soundtrack, too, is satisfying despite a few shortcomings. I wish there were extras, but I'll live. On the whole, this is a smart buy, especially considering the low price point. Recommended.
© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
|DVD||Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output|
This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver.
This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
|Amplification||Samsung Series 7 HT-J7750W|
|Speakers||Samsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up|