Born American (1986, USA / Finland)

Born American - from left, Steve Durham as Mitch, David Coburn as KC, Mike Norris as Savoy Brown, and a blonde extra

There are so many genres that Born American tries to cover, it’s exhausting. There’s the road-trip-that-goes-horribly-wrong movie, the patriotic, xenophobic Cold War movie, the prison fight club movie, and the old fashioned blow-up-the-bad-guys action movie… with a little romance (and some counterbalancing cynicism about world powers’ espionage agencies) thrown in for good measure. It finishes as a bit of a messy disaster on all counts.

Three American friends head off on a road trip north from Helsinki towards Lapland and the north pole. Savoy Brown (Mike Norris, son of Chuck) and Mitch (Steve Durham) are recklessly in search of adventure; KC (David Coburn) is more cautious, bespectacled (naturally), and a bit of a nerd. KC takes photos while the other two fire guns and a giant crossbow at stuff, as most people do when they’re on holidays overseas. When they reach the border with Russia, Savoy and Mitch decide to go for a closer look at the Russian territory, despite signs saying that entry is prohibited. And KC reluctantly tags along.

Their stupidity is duly rewarded. After almost getting caught at a Russian guard post, they jump on a truck which stops in a small village, and instead of pleading that they’re lost, Savoy grabs a young local woman to prevent her from screaming. When the menfolk seize Savoy and Mitch they are taken to a church where it’s apparent that they’ve been accused of murdering a young woman. KC, meanwhile, has bumped into the dead girl’s sister, Irina, who tells him that the preacher was the real murderer. The dorky KC (who can’t shoot) shoots the preacher with an arrow and mayhem erupts, with half the village burnt down and ten locals left dead.

The boys get away, but are apprehended before they can make it back to Finland. Savoy and KC are keen to cooperate; Mitch not. So the interrogator attaches electrodes to Mitch’s nipples and Savoy is soon admitting to being part of a US terrorist cell and agreeing that Irina was their Russian contact.

Surprisingly, they’re not executed, but are sent to a prison, presumably in Siberia, where they have to work in the mines. KC’s leg is badly wounded but he receives no medical attention. Their warm clothes and boots are stolen from them by other prisoners. And too few prisoners and guards speak English, which understandably makes Savoy frustrated and angry.

Mitch gets carted off after a fight with another prisoner, and has to fend for himself in a bizarre underground section to which all the baddest and maddest prisoners are dispatched, and where there is a massive human chess game in which the pieces that are taken are summarily killed. Fortunately, Savoy is put in touch with a former American agent, ‘The Admiral’ (Thalmus Rasculala), who lives in a bunker beneath the jail and has written a book that tips the bucket on both the CIA and the KGB… but needs someone to smuggle it out to the west. KC succumbs to his injuries, with a little assistance. The Admiral tells Savoy how he and Mitch can escape.

First, they have to rescue Mitch. Next, they have to take a young Russian girl, Nadja (Piita Vuosalmi), along with them. Nadja’s only connection is as a friend of the innocent Irina (who was arrested and later took her own life in the prison), and Savoy clearly needs to have sex with her before any of the plan will work. They find Mitch, who has changed into a unrecognisable, deranged Russian and manages to get killed by the guards before the escape really gets going. Savoy, Nadja and The Admiral kill truckloads of guards and set fire to the prison before escaping in a truck. Well, The Admiral choses not to go with them, claiming that it will be too dangerous for him to be at large until his book is published.

And the only reason the story can now be told is because, clearly, Savoy and Nadja made it to safety, never to be held to account for the deaths for which they were responsible. Hooray!

Yes, I know that it was made in a different era, before the thawing of the Cold War, but Finnish director Renny Harlin tries too hard to please his American collaborators. Somehow we’re supposed to identify with these brash young men who gamble with the Russians’ notoriously easygoing security forces and kill scores of Russian citizens who object to being fired upon by legitimately held prisoners.

If “their only crime was to be born American”, as the film’s publicity apparently asserted when it was released, it follows that Shoe Bomber Richard Reid’s only crime was to be British. And so on. It’s a dangerous message, and a poor film.

Born American - the underground human chess game Born American #3 - Mike norris as Savoy Brown, Piita Vuosalmi as Nadja, and Thalmus Rasulala as 'The Admiral'

Posted on March 1st, 2015 at 4:50 pm. Updated on March 2nd, 2015 at 7:57 pm.

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