As fans of this Canon Films franchise will already know - Missing In Action 2 was actually the first of three films to chronicle the Rambo-esque adventures of Col. Braddock (Norris) as he battles his way out of a Viet Cong prison camp and then returns to Vietnam to find and free more captives and lay waste to as many nefarious, typecast Asian actors along the way as possible. What happened was that MIA:1 and 2 were filmed pretty much back to back, but with the vagary of low-budget B-movie distribution deals, part 2, deemed the stronger movie, was put out in an attempt to catch the wave created by Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II and the first film, which was actually made before Rambo, detailing Braddock's fearsome captivity and violent bid for freedom, was then released as a prequel. Braddock: Missing In Action 3 was, and still is, part 3 in the grand scheme of Norris' Southeast Asian exploits. And Intrada will be releasing the other two scores as well, both by Jay Chattaway, further down the line and all three in their proper chronological, and production order.
Brian May used to be very busy and his name would appear in the credits of many smaller-scale genre efforts during the early to mid eighties. Whilst his claim to fame was definitely scoring the first two Mad Maxers for George Miller (the hugely acclaimed Maurice Jarre took over for the third post-apocalyptic instalment with and awesome and horribly unappreciated score), May seemed to have been the one and only composer working down under as seemingly every Aussie flick carried his unique brand of COD orchestral brash 'n' crash, from The True Story Of Eskimo Nell in 1975 to Blood Moon in 1990. But his hallmark was crafted on the likes of the chillers Patrick, Harlequin and The Survivor and the actioners Road Games, with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, the wildly nasty Turkey Shoot and the gung-ho Death Before Dishonour with Clint Eastwood's former double and TV's Hunter Fred Dryer. His transition to Hollywood was only partial, however, with Dr. Giggles and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare coming in at the tail-end of his career. May died in 1997 but he certainly leaves some scores that are ripe for rediscovery.
The weird thing is that, whilst I have always loved his scores for Mad Max 1 and 2, I used to find his trademark fanfares rather juvenile and often cringe-worthy. Things like the afore-mentioned Road Games and Death Before Dishonour have a distinctly “naff” quality to their basic themes that is, sadly, instantly recognisable as May's. Yet, over the years, as my love for, and knowledge of, film scores has grown, I have come to understand and appreciate the talents and the skills that May so certainly had in abundance. That cash-on-delivery style that I used to roll my eyes at is, in fact, anything but a jobbing technique, with May's orchestration - he tended to orchestrate his own scores a lot - actually quite detailed, intelligently written and stunningly realised. His fanfares and main title themes still strike me as both underwhelming and vaguely odd, but the wealth of musical narrative that he employs is beyond question and, divorced from the visuals so as to allow full appreciation of the music itself, actually incredibly vibrant, colourful and emotive. His work for this Golan/Globus production is possibly the strongest of his canon (if you'll pardon the pun) and this is best presentation that it has ever received.
Boldly stated and aggressive, MIA 2's score is propulsive, adrenal and full of orchestral flair, but one of the issues that I have with Brian May's work is still prevalent with this album. His nine-note signature fanfare is terrible. It is heroic, yes, but it is also reminiscent of something akin to Sunday afternoon TV-fodder. There is a hint of The Love Boat incidentals to it, or Highway To Heaven, even. I hate being disparaging about film-music and, believe me, May's score is excellent when it is not deploying this theme, but something about this just strikes the wrong chord. However, much better is the secondary theme which bleeds out of this, the tone settling into a better judged appreciation of the predicament of the main characters and sending that out-of-place jollity away in favour of a darker and more militaristic stance. Soon Teck Oh's gleefully brutal camp commander, Yin, rules with an iron fist and the harsh draconian regime that he presides over is immediately reflected with mournful trumpet laments and sentimental strings for the caged and tortured troops, some wistful and melancholic quasi-Americana which lends a credible and affecting weight to the drama. Indeed, this secondary theme, and one that works very well at cutting to the heart of the then-hot-potato-topic, counterbalances the gung-ho antics that Chuck will indulge in (in that fantastically calm manner of his) with the distressing imagery of the stricken POWs. Heard essentially across the first few tracks, but with signature returns throughout to remind us of their plight and their camaraderie in the face of it, the theme is lush and emotional and possibly influenced by Ennio Morricone's work on One Upon A Time In America and The Untouchables. May intersperses it with a deftness that often sees him switching a track from pure dread to all-out action, or those stirring moments of anger-management and strength building as our bearded super-warrior, Braddock, plots and schemes escape and revenge, to sombre defeat and the haunting truth of such vile captivity. The temptation to compare and contrast this score with Jerry Goldsmith's awesome music for Rambo or with James Horner's rousing and moving compositions for the similarly themed Uncommon Valour (starring Gene Hackman and Patrick Swayze) is strong and not altogether unwarranted. If you listen out during the epic and exhilarating Track 13, Braddock Escapes, you will hear a little homage on a rapidly-played digital piano to Goldsmith's main action motif from his First Blood score, a tip of the hat from Brian May that is both pleasing and reassuring to note, with the films, main characters and scores all blood-brothers-in-arms, as it were.
Whilst the first few tracks are populated by emotional and physical suffering - harrowing violence, illness and rats for lunch - there is great underlying theme coursing through this otherwise harrowing scene-setting ... of the seething desire for not only liberation, but revenge. Thus, once we reach Track 8, the album opens up into a full-blooded action score that rarely lets up. May is certainly packing some heat and even if some of his refrains are obvious evolutions of his pulsating auto-aggression music from Mad Max 2 they are welcome phrases that leave us in no doubt about the driven nature of Braddock's desperate mission. Stabbing brass - furious and vindictive trumpets and trombones - spur things on until drums and strings swing into gear. Chimes and bells - even something that sounds like either a fire-alarm or an old-style telephone - add interest, embellishing the suspenseful mood of much of the score. He even brings in the xylophone to spice up some tense periods during the triple-threat of tracks 10-12, supplying eeriness to the sense of jeopardy and menace. Action-packed then, for sure, but also quite ominous and dark with the tone sometimes becoming that of hidden movements, whispered plots and heinous acts observed by helpless eyes. Track 12, Franklin Is Burned Alive, even ends with a great, shivering crescendo that some people may find deliciously topped-off with an echoing fall-away very reminiscent to the final scurrying notes of the theme to the Hammer House Of Horror TV series.
Considering that the movie was known to be straight-to-video material in certain territories, May's score does not reflect this lack of ambition at all, being far richer and better designed than the music to many A-pictures doing the rounds at that time. His complex and seamless use of multi-cues inside single tracks offers lots of little flashes of inspiration and mini-episodes of both grandeur and action, or pathos and cool fury. In fact, it is no overstatement to say that he is similar in this respect to John Williams. Both composers have a unique way of shifting direction and instrumentation within a piece to tell a story that retains its integral flavour and overall theme whilst still adapting to the nuances of the visual action. For MIA 2, May often gives the impression of something terrible occurring, followed by a moment of poignancy that is also laced with barely restrained anger and then building tension with some covert acoustic creeping-about, before then letting rip with the dazzling surges of righteous kick-ass. Or all of this in the reverse order.
There is a strange little error - or, at least, what sounds like an error to me - at the start of Track 21, A Leg Up And Finale, when the theme seems to get dialled-down very noticeably for a couple of seconds before then returning to its proper volume, but this is only a fleeting discrepancy in an otherwise wonderful re-recording from Intrada's Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson. This same track, mid-point, offers some great rolling deep bass drums and edgy strings as Braddock returns to the decimated camp he and his comrades have mostly demolished to face Yin, who is also, as it turns out a bit of a martial arts practitioner. The military style of much of this is wonderfully treated - May's music never forgetting that these battered and dishevelled guys are still soldiers. Even if the pace and intensity never quite reaches the fever-pitch levels of Goldsmith, the Australian understands the mechanics of the patriotism involved. I still maintain that the main theme is lacking in strength - the more you hear it, the more softened around the edges it seems to become, reinforcing that cosy TV-show vibe - but the racing collisions of strings, brass and percussion still genuinely quicken the pulse throughout much of this soundtrack.
What you won't find in this score is much in the way of ethnic colour. Barring some occasional Eastern-orientated percussion licks and the glistening ring of finger-cymbals, May eschewed the more typical approach of incorporating Asian-flavoured sounds to convey a sense of time and place. Instead, he settles upon character and incident, and in this respect he is one of the most “immediate” and un-flowery composers to have scored an action movie revolving around the conflict in Vietnam. This is no detriment, of course, as it means that he concentrates on the set-pieces themselves, the rage of the characters and their capacity for violence against one another, and that his music matches the film perfectly and also makes for an engagingly sustained listening experience on album. Track 17, Braddock & The Worms, does, however, get accentuated with twisting percussion, jangling chimes, rattles and some unusual warping sounds that grant a truly unique and inspired ambience to a piece that packs a lot into a brief running time. Track 18, Home Base, is perhaps the most exciting on the album, combining driving drum-lines and jittery brass and percussion before pausing to take stock, as though surveying the mission objective amid a couple of sustained notes, before then rising to the attack with the backing of Braddock's heroic theme, powered by a toe-tapping beat. May then manages to smooth things over with the secondary theme of painful melancholy, perfectly capturing that multi-layered texture that I was talking about earlier all in one fell swoop. But there are many other high points on the album, and the most memorable thing about May's music here is the effectiveness of both the heroism and the lamenting and how well these tonal opposites merge to colour what was, in essence, a simple excuse to have Chuck Norris crack some heads and make America feel like it was finally doing the right thing about that squalid and best-forgotten little war.
MIA 2: The Beginning offers what is probably Brian May's most exhaustive and bombastic score. The ideas that he first utilised in Mad Max 1 and 2 find even more room to breathe here and he expresses enough new ones to have impressed even Jerry Goldsmith - apparently they had a lot of admiration and respect for one another. Whilst I haven't seen the movie in a long while, listening to this score proved to be both an incredibly fresh and exciting experience as well as being warmly nostalgic of those halcyon VHS days of Chuck Norris supremacy. May has this reputation of being the Aussie equivalent of our own Roy Budd as far as film-scoring goes - never hitting the big time or getting the recognition that he deserved. Working steadily and consistently, he adhered to one simple principle - enhance the story. Hardly a glory-seeker that actively drove his music until he, and his work, became bigger than the films, themselves, May was the quietly diligent type, providing inventive and emotive scores that he never once believed would have a life of their own beyond the visuals that they had been designed to accompany. And it is somewhat comforting to note that, all these years after I first winced at one or two of his main themes, his style is now as immediately recognisable as that of Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner or John Barry.
With great evocative artwork and some nice stills, the small accompanying six-page, foldout booklet gives some background to the film, its star and its score. The production on the disc is tremendous - except for that curious drop in volume in Track 21 - with lots of instrumental clarity, assured separation and a level of acoustic buoyancy that is exciting and aggressive. Taken from the original multi-track masters, this release trounces the former edition from Edel and presents May's score at its best and its fullest.
Full Track Listing -
1. Airstrip and Main Titles 5:53
2. Memorial Day 3:44
3. The Traitor 2:00
4. Homesick 1:46
5. Braddock's Dilemma 4:56
6. Sometimes You Gatta Fight 1:33
7. Rat for Lunch 3:53
8. Emerson's Arrival 5:03
9. I'm Tired Of Playing Footsie 2:03
10. Braddock Signs Confession 2:33
11. Yin Poisons Franklin 1:12
12. Franklin Is Burned Alive 1:33
13. Braddock Escapes 5:47
14. Yin Gives Mazilli the Bird 2:27
15. The Burning Bridge 0:56
16. Braddock Releases Mazilli 4:01
17. Braddock & The Worms 1:50
18. Home Base 3:42
19. 30 Seconds to Live or Die 1:43
20. Nestor Dies/Final Battle 2:21
21. A Leg Up and Finale 5:53
22. End Titles 3:55Brian May delivers a knock-out score to Chuck's vengeance-fuelled combat-brawler. It manages to get past the awful main theme by virtue of presenting practically wall-to-wall action material around a simple but plaintiff voice for the lost and the fallen. Almost every track has the composer's heart and soul presented to us - May delivering cues that constantly switch around, change pace and pile-in interesting effects and mini-motifs.
Hats off to Douglass Fake and Intrada for once again bringing some superb and unexpected music into the arena. Right now, after years of stagnant releases and play-it-safe editions, the environment for score-fans is truly electric. With so many fine soundtracks making their way onto disc - in complete versions and often festooned with bonus tracks and extensive notes, too - it is incredibly difficult to keep up with them all. But for collectors, it must be immensely exciting to know that we are definitely entering a golden (and expensive) period. Long may it continue, and with the likes of Intrada, FSM, La-La Land, Tadlow and TFC finding the resources and the expertise to produce such outstanding presentations, the future looks - and sounds - bright indeed.
Brian May's entry in the Missing In Action series is strong, rousing and full of his trademark drum-line action. Thankfully his score is no longer missing in action ... and now that it has escaped from MGM's vaults you'd be advised to pick it up quick as it is a seriously limited edition.
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