Who doesn’t love The Dirty Dozen? The original 1967 classic has lived on for decades now as one of the most badass WWII movies ever made. Its influence was immediate, seen in movies like 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards, and still seen in big-budget movies like Suicide Squad. But what if you don’t want a movie that’s inspired by Robert Aldrich’s original, and you’d rather have another true blue Dirty Dozen movie? I know that I’m not alone in thinking it’s a shame that we never got a big-budget sequel, following Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) as he ropes together another band of criminals to fight filthy Nazi scum. Well, much to the surprise of myself and fans around the world, we actually did get that sequel. We got three of them in the mid to late ’80s! Now, immediately lower your expectations.
Unfortunately, these three Dirty Dozen movies didn’t have that big budget — they were made for TV action movies of the week. Yes, we have a small-screen trilogy of WWII-set Dirty Dozen films. I take no pleasure in reporting that these movies do not do the original justice. If you’re coming to this sequel trilogy in hopes of finding anything resembling the ’67 film’s all-star cast, the chemistry between the Dozen, fun and charming training scenes with the team, epic feel, or killer action scenes, please run for your life. The Dirty Dozen sequels are like three separate hour-and-a-half-long naps. What is the deadly mission, you ask? Trying to recapture the magic of the original classic on the small screen, that’s what.
The Dirty Dozen is one of the coolest movies of the 1960s. If you still haven’t seen it, stop everything you’re doing, go fire it up, and bask in all of its glory. This 1967 film was directed by the mid-century studio filmmaker Robert Aldrich, a man who endlessly innovated the action genre with movies like The Flight of the Phoenix and Attack (or Attack! if you’re fancy). Aldrich’s film follows a group of prisoners who are banded together and sent on a suicide mission to kill a bunch of highly important Nazi officers at a mansion in France. The catch is that if they live, they will be pardoned of their crimes.
The Dirty Dozen doesn’t just work because it’s a fun action movie. After you fire it up, you might be surprised to find that most of the story is spent at their home base. The Dozen spend about two hours of this 150-minute movie training for their big mission. In the meantime, we get to know each of them well, laugh with them, watch them bond together, and invest ourselves in their survival. By the time they’re ready to attack the Nazis, we don’t want them to because we know the odds that they’re up against. It helps that the cast is made of a killer ensemble, featuring the faces of Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Trini López, and Telly Savalas. There’s no world in which a movie with this cast sucks.
Which is exactly what tanks the Dirty Dozen TV movies of the ’80s. The original might have great action, but it earned its legacy because of its fantastic cast. Now imagine a series of TV movies that not only lack thrilling battle sequences, but also force the audience to hang out with a bunch of B and C-rate small-screen stars. That’s what you get with these three. And while there are instances when old TV movies are still held in high esteem in the eyes of modern audiences, you won’t find that with any of these. It’s as if these movies lived and died the night that they aired. That being said, they had to be successful to some degree. How else could we have ended up with three of them?
The first of these sequels is The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. Not “the” Next Mission, just… Next Mission. That should be your first sign that things are very wrong. This first sequel came out in 1985 and was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a mid-century Hollywood filmmaker who specialized in Westerns and adventure films. Well, even though he has a sea of credits that predate 1985, it seems as though McLaglen brought none of them to Next Mission. Instead, this is a lifeless, drab, 95 minutes that feels even longer than the original’s 150-minute runtime. The first Dirty Dozen sequel follows Major John Reisman as he is tasked with banding together a group of convicts to assassinate an SS general. Okay, so there’s a more focused action movie premise this time, but that doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things.
This movie thought it could get away with having little action like its predecessor, but unlike that movie, this one doesn’t have the cast to pull that off. Next Mission stars Ken Wahl, Sonny Landham, Larry Wilcox, Ricco Ross, and a bunch of other names that will keep making you ask, “Who?” These guys were all on relatively successful TV shows and played bit parts in hit movies. That might have made this a fun watch in 1985, but today I just feel like I’m looking through my aunt’s best friend’s high school yearbook. This wouldn’t be such a crime if we at least got to know their characters well, but hardly any effort is put into investing us in their individual stories. I don’t feel anything about any of these characters. They’re all just soldiers to us, that’s it. No defining traits or anything to make us care about anyone in the titular Dozen. That is this movie’s biggest sin. Don’t get excited about the prospect of Wolf Kahler (one of the villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark) as an evil Nazi officer, either. He’s given nothing to do.
That being said, Next Mission isn’t an entire failure. The biggest thing this movie did right was rope Lee Marvin back into the mix. While he’s giving the movie his all, it doesn’t seem as though McLaglen or anyone behind the scenes felt as though his character was all that important. Instead, Major Reisman just kind of shows up, and his first line is delivered while the camera is shooting him at an awkward angle from behind. At least he gives Next Mission his all. Other vets from the class of ’67 make appearances, including Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel, but they aren’t given all that much to do. There is one somewhat thrilling action scene in the middle of the film, but that might also be because the rest of the movie feels like a bottle of NyQuil. Despite Marvin’s best efforts and a single good action setpiece, Next Mission is exactly what you’d expect — a mid-80s TV movie of the week.
Next Mission had to be a hit to some degree because, some way, somehow, it earned a sequel. The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (someone at the studio woke up and realized it couldn’t just be Deadly Mission) was released in 1987, two years after the first sequel. You’d hope that maybe that gap year gave them some time to reflect, maybe get their priorities straight, and come back swinging with a killer sequel! Well, prepare for a film that’s as thrilling as retirement home bingo, because The Deadly Mission is a nothing movie. One of the defining aspects of The Dirty Dozen is Lee Marvin’s involvement. Unfortunately, Major John Reisman is nowhere to be found in this movie. Instead, to fill this massive void, we have… Telly Savalas as the lead character, Major Wright? Okay, so Savalas is playing a different character than the one he portrayed in the original? He’d have to, considering he dies in the third act of that movie! We’re also bringing back Next Mission’s Wolf Kahler, but making him play a different character too? Okay, so we’re off to a confusing start.