'Land of Bad' Updates 'Bat 21' for the Global War on Terror

(The Avenue)

After an important mission goes the wrong way, a valuable U.S. military asset faces imminent capture at the hands of the enemy. Even worse, he has no idea where he is or where he can go to make his way to safety. Luckily, he's got a friendly voice to talk to, one that happens to be airborne around his location.

That's the story of "Land of Bad," a new military action-thriller starring Russell Crowe ("Gladiator"), Milo Ventimiglia ("This Is Us") and Liam Hemsworth ("The Hunger Games"). Crowe plays Reaper, a drone operator supporting a U.S. special operations rescue mission of a CIA asset. Hemsworth plays Kinney, an Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) who is part of the op. When the mission is compromised, Reaper's the only thing standing in the way of Kinney being captured or killed.

While details surrounding the plot of 'Land of Bad' are sparse, it appears set amid one of the extant U.S. military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, namely operations in the Philippines. Indeed, the primary antagonist of the film is Saeed Hashimi (Robert Rabiah, "Chopper"), leader of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist separatist group that's become the most violent of the rebels in the southern part of the country and the target of years of U.S.-backed counter-terror operations there.

A formidable and vicious foe, the inclusion of Abu Sayyaf raises the stakes for our American heroes on the ground. Hemsworth is pretty lucky he got an armed drone to spot him, though: When something similar happened in real life during the Vietnam War, everyone except the North Vietnamese would have probably reveled in having a drone overhead.

In March 1972, North Vietnam launched the largest invasion of another country since China intervened in the Korean War, with 300,000 Communist troops swarming into South Vietnam. In response, the U.S. launched Air Force EB-66 Destroyer electronic warfare aircraft to jam the North Vietnamese's radar for aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Most notable among these was Bat 21, which went up in the air with Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton as its navigator.

But Bat 21 was shot down -- and that was a huge problem for the U.S. military.

As it turned out Lt. Col. Hambleton was himself a trove of top-secret information. In his brain, he stored a wealth of knowledge about America's Cold War posture, like the U.S. Strategic Air Command, SAM countermeasures and nuclear missiles. If he were captured, he would definitely end up in the hands of the Soviet Union, the information extracted by hook or by crook -- or worse.

Hollywood dramatized Hambleton's rescue in the 1988 film "Bat 21," starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. In the movie, Glover is Capt. Bartholomew "Birddog" Clark, the pilot of an O-2 Skymaster on a forward air control mission. Clark becomes Hambleton's only hope of rescue. To communicate his intended path to freedom, the downed pilot uses a code involving his favorite golf courses (which is pretty much the only accurate part of the silver-screen rescue).

The rescue operation to get him to safety was far messier than it was depicted in the movie. It took 11 days to rescue Hambleton and cost the lives of 11 airmen, with two more captured. The rescue also required two Navy SEAL missions; one to rescue Hambleton, the original subject, and another to rescue a forward air controller who was shot down during the rescue operation. Since it all happened during the largest combined arms operation of the Vietnam War, it's one of the watershed moments in the history of combat search and rescue.

Like the drone pilot in "Land of Bad," Glover's Birddog in "Bat 21" is at once a friendly voice, eyes in the sky and proof of life, our hero's only connection to freedom and safety. What could potentially be the coolest part of "Land of Bad," however, is the idea that we finally have a movie where the U.S. Air Force is both the badass special operator and the rescuer from on high, not just a nerd sitting in front of a computer somewhere -- just like in "Bat 21."

Catch "Land of Bad" in theaters on Feb. 16, 2024.

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