I was browsing around blogs a few weeks ago and tripped over a new one (for me anyway), Jack J's fantastic site When the Vietnam War Raged... in the Philippines. This guy watches and reviews nothing but vietnam war movies that were filmed in the Philippines, of which there are many. In one of his many posts he pointed readers to an eBay seller that was auctioning off some rare Japanese VHS tapes of some of his favourite movies. After reading all I could on Jack's blog I decided to take a punt and won the videos. I've always had a soft spot for VHS and had known for a while that Japan had some of the rarest movies released there and often released them in their original aspect ratio - a rare thing for the time. The first of the videos I got was this one, Phantom Soldiers. So, was it worth the effort?
In a word, yes. This movie was fantastic and simply makes me eager to see more like it. I don't think I've seen this many explosions in the one movie since... well, ever I think. It's quite insane! We start in "Vietnam" (obviously, the Philippines) where a team of solders in all black gear and black gas masks begin laying waste to a small village. Not content with machine-gunning the villagers, the soldiers blow up their homes - every last one of them - and then heard the survivors to the beach and gas them. Pretty full on!
Cut to the Mexican/Texas border where the movies' hero Daniel Custer (Max Thayer, star of B-classic such as Martial Law II, No Retreat No Surrender 2, Sworn to Justice) and his team of undercover law enforcers are about to infiltrate a Mexican drug-running operation and catch the leader Castro. Custer feigns injury to confuse the guards while his compadres sneak around the back, but they are spotted and a shootout takes place though is quickly put to rest when Custer's team take out most of the enemy with missile launchers. So many explosions. I'm in heaven.
American soldiers arrive on the scene in Vietnam to survey the damage caused by the phantoms and find a painted skull on a pike. The prop is so obviously made of plastic. The Captain is informed and smashes his fists on the table in annoyance. I've seen some bad acting and awful ADR in my time but this guy takes the cake. His portrayal is so downright hilarious I burst out in laughter whenever he's on the screen. The soldier shows the Captain the painted skull and the Captain simply says: "Ah. Just like The Phantom. Well, this is another for my collection" and puts the skull on a shelf behind his desk with five others! Bahaha!
More army guys arrive in Vietnam and search for those responsible for destroying the village. One soldier sees a masked man in the bushes and fires wildly at him, and in a scene lifted right out of Predator the rest of his platoon fire wildly as well. Following the trail they watch from a clearing as more phantom soldiers are slaughtering farmers, and although they've been strictly informed they are on reconnaissance only, the team leader - who I should mention at this point is Daniel Custer's brother, Michael - go in to assist. Chasing the phantom soldiers into another forest they run into a guy (in all black...) that says the phantoms are on a secret mission for the CIA. This of course is a lie and the American soldiers are trapped in gunfire with only three survivors (Michael being one of them).
So much violence and we haven't even made it to the main plot point yet. Daniel Custer, returned from his jaunt in Mexico, gets a visit from an army guy who tells him his brother is missing in action in Vietnam. Daniel, a former soldier himself, goes to see his old Captain for permission to go to Vietnam and find Michael. He gets denied but the very next scene he is wearing someone else's uniform and cowboy hat and stealing a plane ride to Vietnam. Arriving at the American base he is immediately, and randomly, thrown into the chaos of war as hundreds of Vietnamese attack. This is a superb piece of war action that does not let up; machine guns, mortars, missiles, you name it. I'm not sure if the attack was a response to the phantom soldiers attack on the village or just the war in general, it's not explained. America wins in the end and Custer interrogates a POW who tells him about the phantom soldiers.
This is such a great flick, perfect war action fodder and a definite repeat viewer. The acting is generally bad, though the star Max Thayer is pretty good (and a really nice guy too; check out this interview I found). There is a hilarious fat Russian chef later who you have to see to believe when he insists on death by firing squad for swearing. They even manage to get a titty bar with bar fight into the movie, and the final shootout is just awesome with Custer firing a missile launcher at close range at a guy who literally says "Eep!" before being gibbed.
If the other Philo' war movies I got are anything like Phantom Soldiers I will be extremely happy. The director, Teddy Page, has a solid B-movie biography with at least five movies starting with the word "Blood". Happily I also picked up another of his Philo' war movies on Japanese VHS, Blood Debts, so expect a review of that in the near future.
Make sure you check out Phantom Soldiers. Dig out the VCR and find yourself a tape. It's worth it.
As I mentioned above, this is a Japanese VHS. It looks great and is in widescreen with mono English audio and burnt in Japanese subtitles (you forget they are there after a while). As far as I'm aware this is the best way to see this movie. I thought I could clean the video up a little so have spent some time encoding it and running it through some filters to correct the colour a little, fix the VHS chroma ghosting, stretch it out to 16:9 anamorphic widescreen and apply a light sharpen filter. Call it a hobby I guess. I'm pretty happy with the end result and the screenshots above are from my new DVD edition.
eBay from a Japanese VHS collector.