The film is noted for starring Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, who were relatively unknown in the US at the time but who went on to become international stars.
Captain P.G. Kelly (Gibson) leads a team from the elite Z Special Unit. Z Special Unit often known as Z Force, was a joint Australian, British and New Zealand commando unit, which saw action against the Empire of Japan during World War II. Its main brief was for reconnaissance and sabotage, today its role is taken by the Special Air Service Squadrons of Australia and New Zealand respectively.
In the Straits of Sembaleng, five men are dispatched by submarine in Klepper canoes to rescue survivors of a shot-down plane on a nearby island which is occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Led by Paul Kelly (Gibson), an inexperienced commando officer, the team secretly lands on the island and hides their kayaks. As they venture in land, Ted 'Kingo' King is hit by fire from an unseen machine gun post, the team quickly eliminates the Japanese defenders and return to their wounded comrade. King has been hit on the leg, the bullet smashing his kneecap. King cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands and compromise the mission under interrogation, and after sharing a cigarette with him, Costello shoots him. The four remaining men return to their search, coming across a rice farmer they learn of the area in which the plane crashed. The rice farmer is also killed in order to preserve secrecy.
But as they near their destination they come across a Japanese squad at a local house, after the Japanese leave they enter the house and meet the local resistance leader Lin, his grown up daughter Chien Hua and her younger brothers and sisters. With a guide to lead them to the plane, they head off to the plane but are attacked by Japanese soldiers at a Buddhist Temple. Separated from the rest, interpreter Jan Veitch ends up returning to Lin's house only for him to be hidden by Chien Hua from the returning Japanese. After the deaths of their soldiers the Japanese officers Watanabe and Imanaka torture Chien to tell them the location of her father, who they believe is hiding the survivors of the crashed plane but Chien Hua refuses. Only for Lin's son Shaw Hu tell the Japanese that Lin, the Z men and the planes survivors are heading for the islands capital (but it is false information). All the Japanese leave except for two soldiers guarding Chien Hua who Veitch kills with help of Shaw Hu.
Meanwhile, within sight of the plane, Kelly watches as locals blow up the wreckage. Lin is evasive, and after quizzing the inhabitants of a village between the plane and them, the team head on to the plane. Kelly manages to get Lin to tell them that the two survivors are being taken to his home, so they turn around and head back. In the capital, Veitch is led to the survivors. One of them is a defecting Japanese government official Imoguchi, and he is believed to hold a secret that could end the war faster. Only Kelly knows he must be rescued at any cost - or killed. As the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall together, Kelly must persuade his own men that Imoguchi is worth rescuing and the local resistance that it is worth fighting against their Japanese enemies.
Z Special UnitJohn Phillip Law - Lieutenant J.A. (Jan) Veitch, Royal Netherlands East Indies Army
Mel Gibson - Captain P.G. (Paul) Kelly, Second Australian Imperial Force of the Australian Army
Sam Neill - Sergeant D.J. (Danny) Costello, D.C.M., Second Australian Imperial Force of the Australian Army
Chris Haywood - Able Seaman A.D. (Sparrer) Bird, Royal Navy
John Waters - Sub-Lieutenant E.P. (Ted) King, Royal New Zealand Navy
IslandersSylvia Chang - Chien Hua
Koo Chuan Hsiung - Lin Chan-Lang
O Ti - Shaw Hu
Ku Chun - Rice farmer
The script was based on a real-life commando rescue raid, Project Opossum, where a team of commandos rescued the local sultan on the Japanese-held island of Ternate near Borneo.
The film was originally entitled The Z Men and was to be directed by Phillip Noyce. Pre production commenced in Taiwan where for six weeks Noyce worked on the script with writer Michael Cove. However, Noyce clashed with the producers - McCallum later claimed in particular that Noyce refused to use one of the Chinese actors who had been cast in a small role - and was fired the night before shooting was meant to start. He was replaced by Tim Burstall in November 1979.
Filming was further delayed by constant rain and re-writing of the script. Among the changes made were adding a fifth character to the team - a soldier played by John Waters who would be killed within the opening ten minutes by one of their own men.
Attack Force Z was only released theatrically in Australia in Melbourne, where it took $88,000 at the box office, which is equivalent to $256,080 in 2009 dollars. After the film's release, Tim Burstall was quoted as saying;
It sold everywhere, sold all over the world, and it got its money back. And it did perform the task of getting some co-productions going with the East, which was useful and very important. But it's always awful when you take over from somebody else - and Phil is a friend - but he really wanted to do something quite different and I was regarded as much more of a whore, I suppose.
Mel Gibson later called the film "pretty woeful... it's so bad, it's funny."
John McCallum later said he and Robinson wanted to make another film in Asia, about drug running in Thailand "starting from the poppies and the hill factories where they distil the damned suff and send it down to Bangkok" but were not allowed to make it because of the dangers involved in filming in Thailand.