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'Bat 21'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 21, 1988


Peter Markle
Gene Hackman;
Danny Glover;
Jerry Reed;
David Marshall Grant
Under 17 restricted

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"Bat 21" is a dove in hawk's plumage, an action-adventure that glorifies America's fighting men while it protests the war in Vietnam. With both left and right wings flapping, it is a dandy thriller for political moderates.

It's a tense -- but not too tense -- two-man drama enjoyable for the solid performances of action pros Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. Adapted from the best-selling novel by William C. Anderson, "Bat 21" is a fictionalized account of the largest one-man rescue operation in military history. It's smart, but not too smart, like a Chuck Norris movie if Chuck got a PhD.

Anderson, who cowrote the screenplay with George Gordon, bases the story on the actual experiences of Air Force Col. Iceal Hambleton. Hackman portrays this top-notch military strategist who is shot down during a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. The Air Force can't let this prize colonel fall into Viet Cong hands. But rescue attempts repeatedly end in disaster.

"Ham" knows how to take care of himself 30,000 feet up, with a cup of coffee in his hand, but he's 53, out of shape and lost on the ground. A career airman, he's never seen the results of the missions he's flown or the mayhem he's plotted. Now less than six months away from retirement, Ham finally comes face to face with the enemy and the sad realities of war on land. As he attempts to walk out of danger, he turns to a man upstairs.

Glover is as dashing as Han Solo in the role of Birddog, a daring spotter pilot who maintains constant radio contact with the colonel. They form a "Diehard-esque" comradeship, a couple of right guys spiritually connected by wireless. Birddog is the first to locate Ham, code name Bat 21, when he goes down. "I'll get you out," he swears, eventually stealing his CO's chopper to make good on his promise. After an ill-fated rescue attempt that destroyed a village, Ham decides to make it out alone. He wants no more killing on his account. Birddog tracks his progress.

Unlike Hambleton, Birddog is a composite of several real-life heroes, a jaunty but bitter captain who has been passed over for promotion. He suspects it's because he's black. But on the other hand, he's never been one to follow orders. He's still a 40-year-old hot dog among a flock of gung-ho fledgings, while Ham is a cool old hand. The odd couple, again.

Peter Markle, whose career went from promising ("The Personals") to wretched ("Hot Dog ... the Movie"), seems to have found a niche in action-adventure. Mostly he keeps both pace and interest up, though the story becomes pedestrian. Markle chooses the misty look of a Shangri-La for Vietnam as seen from the sky. But under the mists is the muck of the rice paddies mixed with the blood of innocents and combatants like.

Though well made, "Bat 21" is no "Platoon." It doesn't pack a wallop, though it does have something to say in its old-fashioned, rather wishy-washy way -- War is heck.

Bat 21 is playing at area theaters and is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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