“Uncle Sam” (1996) has Sam Harper, a soldier fighting in one of the more recent Gulf War conflicts, found dead due to “friendly fire”, meaning he was shot down by his own side.
We first see Sam, or what is left of him, in the wreckage of a helicopter downed by that friendly fire. While the commanding officer tells his men that these kinds of things happen in combat, Sam uses the last of his strength to kill both a soldier examining him and the commanding officer and to say, “Don’t worry. It’s only ‘friendly’ fire!”
Next, the film lands in a generic small town in the USA. Sam Harper’s hometown. The town were his nephew Jody worships Sam as a hero. Where Sam’s sister and wife fear the return of Sam and his cruel, abusive nature. Where Jed, an aging veteran, regrets fueling Sam’s bloodlust with tales of brutal combat and sudden death.
As Sam’s body is brought home, we are introduced a series of characters who fly in the face of everything Sam held dear: A weak-willed draft dodger who is now a kindly teacher, a pervert on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam, the leering military officer assigned to inform Sam’s widow that her husband’s body has been located and is being returned, a slimy politician under investigation who is looking to rack up some votes at the small town’s Fourth of July gathering, some young punks who feel spray painting swastikas and burning American flags are fine ways of working off some teenage energy, as well as other, lesser troublemakers.
When Sam begins picking off these miserable excuses for humans, the viewer can feel a pinch of pride that the American way is being upheld.
“Uncle Sam” skips the slow psychological burn of a film like “Deathdream” (1974) for in-your-face splatstick and unsubtle commentary on patriotism and blind acceptance of “America: Love It or Leave It” jingoism. The film was directed by William Lustig, director of equally unsubtle films such as “Maniac” (1980), “Vigilante” (1982), and “Relentless” (1989), and written by genre veteran Larry Cohen. If you need an introduction to what you are about to get involved, watch “Maniac Cop” (1988) made by the same dynamic duo, and I think you’ll understand the territory you are wandering into.
Larry Cohen is a great writer for exploitation flicks. He manages to work in social and political commentary into a lot of his films like “Q: The Winged Serpent” (1982), “It’s Alive” (1974) and “God Told Me To” (1976). Admittedly, he also directed his own screenplays in those instances, but even in “Maniac Cop”, directed by William Lustig, Cohen managed to include a few well-placed digs at social ills.
Here, he sets up a number of characters primed for fleshing out to make some biting commentary on patriotism, military swagger, and honoring the country you live in, but the script does little more than give you a fast set up, present characters with bull’s eyes on their heads for the underplayed death scenes, and let the games begin.
By the time Sam starts his “Save America” mission, the film then attempts to feed the established victims into the woodchipper so fast that more offenders are created to maintain the pace. Essentially, the film comes across as mostly plot points with little depth or nuance, giving the film all the impact of a toned-down variation on the slasher genre. That Larry Cohen opted to go this route is such a shame given the split in the USA over the Gulf War, somewhat similar to that of Vietnam, with one side pro-America with the ideal that we are right in our involvement overseas compared to those who feel the war was designed to protect the status of American petrodollars and bolster corporate bottom lines.
Once it is over, “Uncle Sam” feels like a misfire that wanted to blend comedy, satire, and horror into something greater than its parts, but squandered its power in rapid-fire, mindless kills with minimal consideration towards any focus or commentary. Best used as background video during a party or while doing light housework.