Chuck Norris was once bitten by a cobra. After five days of agony, the cobra finally died. FACT.
Hilariously, though quite accurately billed here by Anchor Bay on their UK region B release of A Force of One as The Original Expendable, we can take a look at Chuck’s film in the first of a series of reviews that I am devoting to the ginger god of destruction in the run-up to his return to the screen in Sly’s explosive follow-up to 2010’s macho mega-hit, The Expendables.
As I said back when I reviewed Stallone’s testosteronal throwback, the only thing missing from the tsunami of brawn was the great Chuck Norris. Well, my prayers have been answered and now, even at the ripe old age of 72, he is making a comeback. Let’s face it, when the Grim Reaper comes to call on Super-Chuck, he’d better be wearing Kevlar and packing some serious firepower! He may be getting a little cranky in his twilight years, what with that misguided attempt to derail the “fun” stuff from The Expendables 2 -the swearing and the violence - but the Chuckster is still the original one-man-army, and possibly the guy we owe it all to for the likes of the violent actioner as it came to be … and how we came to know and love it. Of course, there had always been Bond, but the spectacle, gadgets and family-pleasing credentials of 007 had meant that Chuck’s knuckle-bashing, chest-beating excesses were something new. He was a man’s man, through and through. Never really a lady’s man, we have to be honest, as his rare, but altogether clumsy and somewhat uncomfortable loves scenes in certain films would show. However, the time was right for the working class alpha male to fight his way to the top of the heap and there was nobody more suited to such calm, well-mannered underdog status as Chuck. Having gone toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon, and shown the cinematic “potential” that his brand of chop-socky could attain, it was a cinch that Hollywood would let him kick the door down to bigger screen opportunities.
A series of low, low budget thrillers swiftly followed – none of which were really very good in the grand scheme of things, but showpieces with enough clout to ensure better, more high-profile offers would always be just around the corner. Picked up by savvy exploitation assembly-line producers, American Films, he became their immediate poster-boy and, together with solid action credentials – 6 times World Karate Champion – and a willingness to go the distance to help market their output, he became the unlikely superstar of bone-breakage, staunch morals and a charismatic spokesman for his sport and for fitness in general.
Nobody would argue that Chuck’s heyday was during the mid 80’s, when things like Lone Wolf McQuade, Code of Silence, theMissing In Action series, Invasion USA and the awesome The Delta Force from Golan-Globus were routinely enlivening Dad’s home video viewing. Personally, I always loved 1982’s Silent Rage – a madcap mix of martial arts and Michael Myers, as Sheriff Chuck tackles an unkillable maniac on a super-serum-fuelled rampage - and long for it to appear in hi-def.
Suddenly, his films are kicking their way onto Blu-ray on both sides of the Atlantic, aided no doubt by his inevitable joining the ranks of Super-Sly’s team of uber-mercs, The Expendables. In the US, they’ve definitely had the better bunch of titles – Code of Silence, the MIAs and The Delta Force – but the UK is digging a little deeper into the Norris back-catalogue and working up a vintage sweat with the espionage-with-ninjas caper The Octagon and this, 1979’s, karate-crime-fighter, A Force of One. The posters for these martial arts outings, in which the authorities would regularly find themselves having to turn to Chuck’s renowned champion to help them smash a crime syndicate that they couldn’t, otherwise, crack without the aid of copious roundhouse kicks, always had something of a mysterious allure to me. They hung inside our local cinema in dusty glass cases for a long, long time, along with Chuck’s first post-Lee picture The Good Guys Wear Black and An Eye for an Eye – somebody had just forgotten to take them down, I suppose – but they would always draw me over to work out just what they were about. Enigmatic titles, a bizarrely deadpan looking bloke with ginger hair and little pockets of very faded action dotted about them. As a kid who virtually lived in the Phoenix Cinema I couldn’t make head nor tail out of them. The “X” certificate was certainly enticing, but I had missed their theatrical run (X’s and AA’s never represented a problem to me with my contacts, so I would definitely have seen them if I had been around when they debuted) and it wasn’t until a groovy little video rental that I finally caught up with The Norriser’s early kick-abouts over a private weekend festival that saw many vases smashed, a few pulled muscles and the cat very nearly hoofed all the way to Mars.
To say that I wasn’t all that impressed would be an understatement. But you have to remember that, by now, I had seen First Blood and three Rocky films so Stallone was pretty much the main action-man for me, as well as that other muscle-mountain who cleaved the screen in two in Conan The Barbarian, and these just seemed more talky than head-smacky, more plot-heavy than action-packed, and the fact that they were also heavily infused with that 70’s ethos of conspiracies and traitors in high places, and were structured around slow-burn dramas that were designed to build up to a climactic showdown instead of having lots of little set-pieces liberally sprinkled about meant that I found myself clock-watching and impatiently awaiting something exciting to look at.
Over the years, however, your appreciation for films and their various styles changes, and you can often find that the shortcomings that once irritated your younger mind (and, perhaps, its thirst for carnage) no longer seem so bothersome. In fact, you can find, as I have done with this and certainly The Octagon, that there is much more to enjoy than you once believed.
So let’s get stuck in with vintage Chuck doing what he does best – breaking heads and mumbling … and just being a ginger shade of awesome. With his younger brother, Aaron, taking on the fight choreography chores, as well as a small part as Chuck’s training buddy, the Norris brand-name was getting itself known as the guiding force in the genre, Stateside.
It is Christmastime in sunny San Diego, and it appears that someone with extensive hand-to-hand combat skills has no festive cheer and has been assassinating the members of an undercover team of cops engaged on a vital narcotics investigation. So who better to root out the evil traitor that has been conducting his own clandestine hit-and-run operation than karate champion Matt Logan (erm … have a guess), who is drafted-in by clueless Clu Gulager’s imbecilic Lt. Dunne to help train the surviving members of the squad in the ways of the dragon. But Logan has a major fight coming up with his arch-rival Sparks (real-life kick-boxing champ Bill Wallace) and is, at first reluctant to get involved with these dunderheads. However, spending a day accompanying the sexy but cold and ridiculously named Mandy Rust (Jennifer O’ Neill) as she goes about her investigations, exposes him to the “horrors” of the drug trade and the effects it has upon its victims … and Logan gets angry at what it is doing to the kids. Suddenly, he wants in.
He gives those cops whose broken bodies haven’t been fished out of the sea a couple of pointers in how to use their fists and feet as weapons, and begins his own quest to track down the killer who is bringing his beloved sport into disrepute. There are a couple references to ‘Nam, as you would expect, but the identity of the neck-crushing, windpipe-severing assassin is a little closer to home than Logan expects. Though I’m pretty certain that anybody who watches this movie will have already guessed who is behind the spooky balaclava long before the major reveal.
The film was a huge success when it debuted, being a big hit with both the martial arts crowd and the thriller fans. It boasted a major sporting success story – hero in karate becomes crime-busting hero too - and it also adhered to the 70’s trend of lifting the lid on corruption in the supposedly hallowed halls of authority. It had a champion who didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, a commodity that would become increasingly rare in the developing genre, and it tried to get across the message that drugs weren’t good for you. And that the discipline of karate was. American martial arts pictures were few and far between at this stage. Kung Fu, Tai Kwon Do and Karate were massively in vogue thanks to jaw-dropping capabilities of Bruce Lee, of course, but there had been a gulf opened-up in the wake of his untimely death, meaning that Hollywood had to quickly nurture another star to feed audiences’ desires for bodily mayhem. And, with Chuck, the humble beginnings of the American Action-Star ethos were born.
But, going against this concerted and very welcome push, the film has a few downsides. The dialogue is risible and, in a great many cases, the acting in A Force of One is just plain dreadful.
Admittedly, we aren’t expecting much in an ultra low-budget Chuck Norris vehicle from the seventies, but the standards here are frequently quite embarrassing to witness. When Norris, who clearly still can’t fathom out why filmmakers keep asking him to appear in front of their cameras to do anything other than kick somebody in the face, is the best and most believable performer in the film … then you are in trouble. A slew of familiar faces make up the erstwhile and rather pathetic narcotics squad. James Whitmore Jnr never really emerges from the background as the severely unthreatening Moskowitz, though he would become a solid and dependable fixture in virtually every action TV show that the 80’s could conjure. Former Superfly Ron O’ Neil allows his sideburns to evolve a little further as dippy rozzer, Rollins. He would play the sympathetic Cuban commander at odds with William Smith’s sadistic Russian warlord in 1984’s occasionally entertaining what-iffer, Red Dawn. In his first film role esteemed martial arts Bill Wallace gives some needle as Sparks, Logan’s rival in the ring. Bigger built than Chuck and packing a meaty punch, he makes for a formidable opponent during the extended battle finale. Yet perhaps his most effective scene comes during a post-match party when he boastfully lashes a foot out until it stops just shy of Logan’s chin in a bit of posing bravado. I’ve done lots of martial arts and I have to say that I’ve met many people who have done this sort of thing to both show off and/or to incite you into responding. Wallace struts and preens with precisely that same cocky, self-assured arrogance, which means he’s doing it with proper authenticity. Needless to say, Chuck doesn’t flinch and merely regards him with that curious half-smile of his.
Bill “Superfoot” Wallace would go on to portray mainly heavies in action films, notably Jackie Chan’s The Protector and Chris Mitchum’s American Hunter.
It’s great to see Eric Laneuville playing Logan’s adopted son, Charlie. Laneuville was the sacrificial lamb-to-the-slaughter in the awesome I Am Legend Chuck Heston adaptation The Omega Man and although he has grown up a little bit since then, he is still hot-headed and impulsive enough to do what he believes is the right thing … which in Force puts him directly in harm’s way just as it did in OmegaMan. Norris may make a hash of the poignant backstory that links them together, and even evaporates any and all emotion that should emanate from what is, admittedly, quite a horribly formulaic arc that they both go through, but Laneuville is more than decent at enabling the competitive and determined Charlie to become one of the warmest, most interesting and best rounded characters in the film. And even he’s just a cliché.
Before the Boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet and looks under his bed to make sure that Chuck Norris isn’t there. FACT.
She may be a looker, but Jennifer O‘ Neill couldn’t act her way out of a paper-bag. One of the worst things in the already lacklustre John Wayne/Howard Hawks oater, Rio Lobo, and dreadful in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, in which she tended to just sit around and look tiredly concerned, she was probably at her best in Lucio Fulci’s reasonably suspenseful The Psychic, giving quite a compelling performance in spite of not really knowing what was going on. Unfortunately, she is givena large role here, but there is next to nothing that she can do with it. Almost every scene that she is in falls completely flat, and considering that she has to deal with her character’s own personal grief as well as Logan’s and strut her stuff as some tough narcotics cop who knows her way around the seedier side of town, this lets the film down quite badly. Leaving a female citizen (albeit one who happens to have had karate training) to guard over a captured but still dangerous drug-lord just shreds right to the bone what little credibility she ever had as a detective!!!!! To make matter worse, there is scene in which she has to convey her grief over the killing of yet more of her comrades. Matt Logan offers her a shoulder to cry on but the moment is made all the more tortuous and wince-inducing by the fact that Chuck is clearly just watching O’ Neill’s dire performance of facial ticks, gasps and agonised expressions. Is he watching her in order to learn the tricks of the trade? I don’t think so, folks. I think this is the moment when Chuck Norris decided that he would keep one expression and one expression alone throughout his entire acting career, no matter what the circumstances his character happens to be going through. In this scene he vows never to be as bad as Jennifer O‘ Neill.
And if she wasn’t inept enough, there’s the normally reliable (that’s reliably likeable) Clu Gulager, a veteran of dozens of Westerns and low-grade thrillers, who makes a complete hash of portraying a credible police chief. His fumbling, ever-aggravated line delivery in Dan O’ Bannon’s cult classic The Return of the Living Dead worked very well, but here it makes him sound like some mildly irritating office-worrier trying to locate a biscuit crumb in a mouth full of cotton-wool. The script doesn’t help him at all, and maybe he is just trying to get too much mileage out of a poorly written character, overplaying his hand, as it were, but it just drags the police procedural element down to sub-A-Team or Murder She Wrote levels of frank banality and disbelief. What should be a tense and edgy scene when Mandy Rust (still can’t get over that name!) comes to him to talk of her suspicions regarding a possible inside-man is reduced to a school-play farce. Neither “actor” knows how to convey the gravity of the situation and the sequence, like so many others involving this amateur bunch of Keystone Cops, is allowed to go on for far too long and to simply founder. Ernest Tidyman wrote the screenplay, and he should be ashamed of himself.
But, by far, the worst sequence is the one that depicts the undercover team going to karate class and learning some moves. Oh sweet Jesus, this is bad. I mean really bad. Aaron films this almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary with Norris and his buddy (his own brother and another Aaron) genuinely showing a bunch of proper actors how to deflect and block attacks and how to take an opponent down. Chuck convinces at this because he is, in reality, just showing a group of novices how to use karate like he would with any class of students … but in the context of the film, Aaron allows his cops to become giggling school-kids who stand there agog at the agility of their tutor and making supposedly improvisational dialogue up on the spot. It is utterly cringe-worthy and a severe low point.
There is no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard. There is only another fist. FACT.
Possessed of tight, practical working muscle, as opposed to the inflated and often incalculably awkward physiques of Stallone and Arnie, Norris also looked a damn sight more realistic as a cop, or a soldier or a counter-terrorist operative. I mean, come on, nobody is ever to buy Arnie as a CIA agent turned Sheriff in Raw Deal or, if we are honest, as an agile, think-on-his-toes Special Forces veteran in Commando. Stallone was perfectly in-shape for the first Rambo adventure, but this swiftly ballooned out of control (although it looked good!) in the subsequent tours of duty. Chuck may take every opportunity to strip off to the waist, but even back in the late seventies it was unlikely that men would grit their teeth with envy or the ladies swoon.
Matching this un-inflated physique, Chuck’s low-key, wooden style is at its most un-evolved. He maintains an expression of someone who still cannot believe that he is in front of the camera and making a movie. Even as late as 1982’s Silent Rage this semi-incredulous can’t-quite-believe-my-luck demeanour would actually serve whatever film he was in by having you warm to him all the more. Chuck Norris has never been the extravagant showman that Sly or Arnie have been, or the endless legions of macho heroes that have come along since. He understates every line, underplays every role. His martial arts skills are never in question and because of this quiet confidence it is, perhaps, easier to fall for his pleasingly undemanding brand of heroics. When Logan takes out a villain, there aren’t usually any explosions making fiery rainbows out of the frame behind him. In these early roles he eschews the crude ‘n’ rude cheating of the use of firearms, opting to get in-close and use his own body to lay waste to those in his way. “Whoever did this is as good as dead,” he growls at one point, but the threat is devoid of simmering righteous menace that he may as well be mumbling, “Hmmm … ought to pay that phone-bill,” to himself.
So, come on, Chuck … show us what you can do.
It is tempting to label Norris without the cosy beard that would become his trademark from Missing In Action onwards as being akin to Samson with a haircut. Neglecting the high-velocity hardware with which he would bring about mass-destruction (and without ever once changing expression) in the 80’s, he has to use his own body as a weapon. Not as limber, or as super-quick as Bruce Lee, and with a considerably limited repertoire of moves by comparison, early Norris was never very cinematic when it came to putting down his enemies. Some occasional spins would elevate his game, and it was always quite amusing to see him deliver that crafty little drop down low, pivot ‘n’ roll, upward snap to a baddie’s unprotected groin. Here, his fighting is downplayed more than ever. A championship bout only incorporates the real McCoy with purely workmanlike style and without any flair, and beyond his training scenes (pounding away at a speedball with flashback thoughts of the evil destructive power of drugs to aid his moralistic aggression) and the final confrontation, the only real skirmish of any worth is a back-alley ambush that sees him reacting instinctively to a set of nun-chucks whirling at him in the hands of the hooded karate-killer. Beyond this, the action is fairly mundane, and even quite tepid. But like the song tells us, those kicks were fast as lightning!
So nobody is ever going to claim that A Force of One is a classic even of its own genre.
Although a low budget meant something different in those days – the difference between this and Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption is like the gulf of space in comparison – there is no mistaking the decreased ambition and audience expectation that spurred Paul Aaron’s scuttlebutt production onwards to drive-in and sleaze-pit appreciation. Hollywood was still trying to understand the appeal of the martial arts flick and the promise of such exotic action, and was therefore quite reserved in its approach to hurling it across the screen. You only have to compare their relatively few cinematic scrappers with what was coming out of Hong Kong during this decade to see how conservative they were. They knew they could rely upon Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood to clean up the streets in that purely American fashion of the relocated Western vigilantism, but wanton indulgence in pure rough-house brawling was still a unique and troubling concept to them. To shoot someone was clean and heroic. To face up against them and then launch an attack via fists and feet and choke-holds and pressure-points was still viewed as …well … essentially street-level thuggery and amounted to just glorified mugging. Bruce Lee made it a work of pugilistic art, a bone-breaking ballet that could be appreciated on visual, emotional and even spiritual terms. But when Westerners practised it, it looked dirty and clumsy and cruel. And Chuck Norris had that half-smile on his face when he did it … which was like a flirtatious pre-annihilation tease. Let’s see what you got, he seemed to be saying, and then watch how I dislocate, snap and shatter it before your very eyes. This was quite an unnerving device before it became just as much of a trademark as that devastating roundhouse-kick. Which is why these early movies shovelled-in so much plot between each impact, when all anybody really wanted to see was Chuck spinning and kicking and knocking bad guys into the next screening! Then again, the story here is actually a pretty naff excuse to bring in karate. Cops can’t cope … call for the kick-boxer!
Nowhere near Chuck’s best … A Force of One is just a slightly more brutal TV movie with a rambling plot that is full of completely unnecessary scenes, some terrible dialogue and even worse performances. But, this is one of the first of what would go on to become a uniquely American form of strong-arm cinema and, as such, action-fans need to acknowledge its historical status.
Chuck would move on, and more heads would break. He would carve out a career that would swerve unforgivably into straight-to-video fodder, but his cult status would be set in stone so hard that only he could break it. We will be back for The Octagon, Lone Wolf McQuade and Code of Silence.
A final word regarding the packaging of this movie. In a bewildering move, Anchor Bay’s PR people tell us the plot on the back of the box and give us the identity of the mystery killer, and even bung on a still of the very final moment in his confrontation with Logan. Now, we can safely assume that most people tempted to buy this have probably already seen the film, but this is still marketing of the most untactful kind.
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