Truly one of the great lost movies of the 1980s. I first discovered Gung Ho as a young lad by my father. I put it on HBO one day expecting slapstick Keaton zaniness in the manner of Mr. Mom or Night Shift. While there are certainly plenty of laughs to be had in this majestically heart-warming romp from director Ron Howard, the story itself is a kind of blue-collar epic that Hollywood rarely dares to tell.
Keaton works all his class and charm as Hunt Stevenson (great name!), the former foreman for a recently closed local auto plant. With ambitions to re-open the plant, Hunt travels to Tokyo to strike a deal with the Assan Motor Company only to find the Japanese powerhouse taking full advantage of the struggling work force. In a darker move, the new Japanese company does not permit them unions, lowers wages and demand impossible-to-meet standards. In a more comic display the crew is forced into morning group calisthenics and must eat their lunches with chopsticks.
Soon Hunt makes a deal with the Japanese executive Takahara Kazuhiro to unite the troubled workers with a little incentive. If the plant can produce 15,000 cars in one month (matching that of the most effective Japanese auto plants) then all the workers will be given pay raises and new jobs will open up for the others still unemployed. However if the workers fall just one car short they will get nothing.
I won’t give any spoilers for those who haven’t seen it but the third act features Hunt and Kazuhiro teaming up in a way that recalls Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa inThe Bridge on the River Kwai or Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific. In fact Kazuhiro is played by Soh Yamamura who most notably portrayed the fleet admiral in Tora! Tora! Tora!, another film analyzing the complicated historical relationship with America and Japan.
Keaton makes the perfect everyman. He can be hysterical and warm when he wants to, smug and assertive when he needs to. Hunt starts out caring about very little except keeping his cushy job. Seeing him transform into a noble, local hero is the true test of Keaton’s abilities. Luckily for us he hits every note perfectly and received exceptional reviews for his performance. The supporting players that make up the team of workers include the great George Wendt, fresh faced newcomer John Turturro and of course what Ron Howard movie wouldn’t be complete without Clint Howard.
The film is a surprisingly underrated little gem. Most of my experience with it comes from repeated viewings on HBO in the 90s. Since then however I urge every friend of mine to purchase it whenever it appears in the 5 dollar bin at Wal-Mart. Everyone who does so is never disappointed and in the canon of Ron Howard directed films this certainly ranks as one of his best.