During WWII “Attack force Z” was a joint Allied special forces unit designated to operate behind Japanese lines in South East Asia. Predominantly Australian, Z Special Unit was a specialized reconnaissance and sabotage outfit that included British, Dutch, New Zealand, Timorese and Indonesian members, principally operating around Borneo and nearby islands and was under the direct command of General Douglas MacArthur. This early precursor to today’s Special Forces carried out a total of 81 covert operations with soldiers inserted by parachute or submarine to provide intelligence and conduct guerrilla warfare. The most infamous of these missions were Operation Jaywick and Operation Rimau, both of which involved raids on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbor; the latter of which resulted in the deaths of twenty-three commandos either KIA or by execution by the Japanese after capture.
While many will immediately flock to Mel Gibson’s performance in this lower budget war film, I believe the best performance is by Sam Neil—whose acting credentials are also as impressive as Gibson’s in my opinion.
Within the first five minutes of this film we see just how serious these chaps are about their mission (which is to find a crashed plane). Led by Paul Kelly (Gibson), an inexperienced commando officer, the team secretly lands on the island and hides their kayaks. As they venture in land, Ted ‘Kingo’ King is hit by fire from an unseen machine gun post. King cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands and compromise the mission under interrogation, so instead of taking him back or finding him shelter until they return to shore, his companion, D.J. Costello (Sam Neill) simply shoots him after sharing a cigarette so the mission can continue uncompromised. The execution of one of their own doesn’t even so much as raise an eyebrow. The four remaining men return to their search, after coming across a rice farmer and assuring him they are friends, the teams learns of the area where the plane crashed, but not after the rice farmer is also killed in order to preserve secrecy.
While following the (now dead) old man’s directions, the squad sees some Japanese soldiers leave a house and when Force Z storms in, they meet the local resistance leader Lin and his family. Now they have a guide to lead them to the plane, but are attacked by Japanese soldiers at a Buddhist Temple. As Force Z makes quick work of these soldiers, the bodies begin to start piling up and the Japanese Command begin to intensify the search for the parties responsible for all these dead men.
Meanwhile within sight of the plane Kelly watches as locals blow up the wreckage. The local non-English speaking resistance leader leads them to a defecting Japanese government official Imoguchi, and he is believed to hold secrets that could end the war faster. Only Kelly knows he must be rescued at any cost or killed. As the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall together, Kelly must persuade his own men that Imoguchi is worth rescuing and the local resistance that it is worth fighting against their Japanese enemies.
However, as the excitement should carry the action onwards, Attack Force Z blunders mightily in the second act. It should be building up to a thrilling climax, but instead it devolves into a tired and clichéd war romance between Law’s American commando, Jan Veitch, and a local village girl, while the script leads the rest of the group in a contrived circle to delay the final exposition and eventual showdown with the Japanese occupiers.
Featuring a couple of strong performances (especially by Neill) yet only intermittently effective, Attack Force Z has aged poorly, more so than many other war films from the same period. It has significant technical handicap and wavering directorial conviction draws away from what should be an otherwise interesting story, leaving behind a somewhat murky film.