Attack Force Z Review

World War II, the South Pacific. Led by Captain Kelly (Mel Gibson), a team of Special Forces commandos lands on a Japanese-occupied island. Their mission: to locate the survivors of a plane crash, which include a Japanese official defecting to the Allies who holds secrets which could end the war.

When this film went into production, it was called The Z Men and the director was Phillip Noyce. However, due to that age-old reason “creative differences”, Noyce left. His replacement was Tim Burstall, who had spent most of the 1970s making films for his company Hexagon, a joint venture with distributors Roadshow. (Most of Hexagon’s productions were released in a box set which I have reviewed for this site, beginning with Stork. Leading the cast were two up-and-coming antipodean stars: US-born Australian Gibson and Irish-born New Zealander Sam Neill. Attack Force Z was shot in November and December of 1979, the year when his breakthrough roles in Tim and especially Mad Max were first shown to the public. Neill had made an impression in My Brilliant Career and was just about to land his first lead in a major-studio production, The Final Conflict. The rest of the cast was made up of the rather out-of-place imported American John Phillip Law, the Taiwanese-born veteran of the Hong Kong film industry Sylvia Chang, plus two stalwart character actors of the Australian Film Revival, Chris Haywood and John Waters.

Based on fact, Attack Force Z is a modestly-scaled film that concentrates on telling its story as efficiently as it can, and not browbeating the audience with its own self-importance. As such, at an hour and a half it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Burstall was never a critic’s favourite as a director and was a determined audience-pleaser, but even in a work-for-hire like this one he does an able job, handling the action scenes with aplomb. It’s interesting to see Gibson with the bloom of youth still on him, in a role that demands more of his athleticism than his acting ability. Although this film is really an ensemble piece, you can’t take your eyes off him when he appears. A star in the making.

Argent’s UK DVD release of Attack Force Z is encoded for all regions. It is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The original ratio appears to be 1.75:1 or 1.85:1 – either way, this transfer isn’t far off. The transfer isn’t the same as the one used for Umbrella Entertainment’s Australian Region 0 release, having more chapters (sixteen instead of twelve) and bearing small flaws like scratches in different places. However, both transfers are comparable, faithful to the low-key color scheme of the film. Argent’s transfer is a little brighter, though neither is especially good with shadow detail. Screengrabs follow, Argent first.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was shown theatrically. Some may complain that there’s no 5.1 remix here, and certainly the many gunfights in the film would lend themselves well to a directional sound mix. However, the film was made in mono, and Burstall isn’t here to supervise a remix, so I’m happy for the track to be left the way it is. Unfortunately there are no subtitles, apart from the fixed ones translating dialogue exchanges in Mandarin.

The extras on the Argent disc are imported from the Umbrella disc, including a stills gallery and a theatrical trailer (2:38) that’s in particularly bad condition. The main extra is an interview featurette, “The Z Men Debriefed” (26:55). This is limited by the interviewees who were either available producer John McCallum and actors Haywood and Waters. However, it tells the story of the film's making well enough, considering the absence of the director due to death and that of the main actors for other reasons. The featurette comes with a prominent spoiler warning. (The only additional extra on Umbrella’s disc is their usual trailer reel for other releases.)

Fans of either of the two leading actors, or of war movies, could do well to give Attack Force Z a look. The Argent and Umbrella releases are comparable in quality, so price and availability will likely be the deciding factor.

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