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The Octagon Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 12, 2012

  • Movies review


    The Octagon Review

    Chuck Norris has already been to Mars. That is why there are no signs of life there. FACT.

    The human weapon of mass destruction returns in 1980’s terrorist and ninja-stomping thriller The Octagon. Chucky-Mumbles is back with a spinny-kicky, head-smacky vengeance in Anchor Bay’s region B release on UK Blu-ray.

    “Before you go out there to save the world, I can tell you something. The world … it doesn’t want to be saved.”

    “Your world, maybe. Not mine.”

    And if you’re not part of Chuck’s world, baby … you’re not part of any world.

    Directed by Eric Karson with one eye on the espionage crowd, and one fixed squarely upon the martial arts fans, The Octagon aims pretty high and actually delivers a fair bit of bang for your Chuck-buck. Hollywood had been unleashing Charles Bronson and Michael Caine in gritty tales of covert shenanigans – The Mechanic, Telefon for the former, The Black Windmill, The Marseille Contract for the latter – and the likes of The Eiger Sanction, Scorpio and The Osterman Weekend also revolved around agents getting in over their heads and having to fall back on some special skills to save the day. But whilst Karson, working from a screenplay from Leigh Chapman (who had come up with the original story alongside Force’s director, Paul Aaron) likes to keep things shady and clouded in mystique – we are never sure precisely who or what Chuck’s character of Ninja-trained Scott James actually is (is he as secret agent, a covert assassin or a counter-terrorism expert?) - he is quite objective about the main martial arts side of the plot. Somebody is training wannabe terrorists in Ninja skills at a secret compound in the middle of nowhere that is known as the Octagon, and Scott has a pretty good idea who that might be.

    We see flashbacks to a childhood that Scott spent engaged in intensive ninja training with an adoptive father (John Fujioka) and brother out in the mystical orient. And when the trail of corpses cuts a little nearer to home, he begins to realise that only his estranged half-brother Seikura (Tadashi Yamashito) has the means and the motivation to be breeding such highly-skilled super-assassins. But as well as having a massive chip on his shoulder with the world, Seikura has it in for Scott, as well. Banished for cheating in a competition with the western protégé during their teens and thus bringing dishonour and shame upon their father, Seikura has long harboured a desire for revenge against golden boy Scott ... and this naturally meand that they are going to have to face one another again. To the death.

    Hey, good luck with that one, Seikura!

    Beyond Bond’s teaming-up with an army of them in You Only Live Twice, Ninjas really hadn’t been seen in American Cinema until this. The Japanese Mafia had had a terrific turn in Sydney Pollack’s cold and violent thriller, The Yakuza, and the Triads had made their presence felt in things like Starsky and Hutch, and the noble samurai had been immensely popular in the historical actioners of Kurosawa and even in their revamped iterations in Westerns and thrillers like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, with Alain Delon as symbolic samurai hitman, so American audiences were pretty savvy with many of these various outlawed factions. Ninjas were a different ball-game. These mysterious uber-warriors, who have now become such a worn-out cliché in movies (“Ninja? More like a Non-ja!” – thanks to John Goodman inSpeedracer, there), were still pretty fresh, dynamic and unique to audiences back in 1980. A sequence in which a hit-squad of these black-garbed killers scale the side of an apartment block to ambush Chuck and Co. is smartly handled and would have been quite something to behold back in its day. And seeing Norris taking on these ruthless, hooded killers is what the film is gearing up for providing. But the fact that the narrative takes such a long time getting to this point, which dominates the last twenty minutes, in which Scott James infiltrates the Octagon and proves that nobody is a match for the Ginger Whirlwind, means that those coming fresh to Karson’s jumbled brawler are apt to find themselves twitching and twiddling their thumbs for some considerable time beforehand.

    Chuck Norris can cut through a hot knife with butter. FACT.

    What happens is that the plot – and there is too much of it - mangles the momentum with a tedious scenario in which Scott crosses paths with desirable heiress Justine (the lousy Karen Carlson), who wants to hire him as a bodyguard after the threat of the Octagon cuts ever closer to her. She also wants revenge against them and hopes that this reluctant hero can even up the score. But this device is allowed to go on for far too long, with inconclusive exchanges and bizarre game-playing (dinner-table swapsies, a ridiculous trick involving car-keys and a high speed chase that goes absolutely nowhere fast) that just leave you scratching your head and wishing the good stuff would hurry up and get here. Scott’s involvement with Justine and his subsequent investigation into the ninja antics also takes a few confusing twists and turns away from this bogus romance. He has a best friend, called A.J. (played by Art Hindle), who is also some sort of agent, or operative, but the two waste precious time flitting about with the rich bitch to come up with anything solid. It is not until the great Lee Van Cleef appears, as militant right-wing mercenary-leader McCarn, that a new direction is afforded the plot and things begin to reassert themselves with shady shootouts, Ninjas playing Spider-Man, veiled threats and ominous warnings.

    Perhaps realising that the suspense is lacking in the realm of the good guys, Karson intercuts all of this with scenes set in the Octagon, itself. In a parallel plot, we follow a group of new recruits, including Brian Libby, who would go on to play the indestructible killer that goes up against Chuck in the ace Silent Rage, as they arrive and undergo rigorous training in the deadly art of quick, silent interpersonal mayhem. Amongst this TV show gaggle of goons is Aura (Carol Bagdosian), a woman who has merely been playing with the idea of terrorism – as you do, apparently, when you “Want to make a difference” – but will later find a reason to question such evil tactics and switch to the light side of the Force and help Chuck demolish the lot of them. Despite a couple of deaths in the ranks – training can be pretty tough in this place – and the use of sinister bladed weapons and throwing stars, these terrorist camp interludes play just like scenes from The A-Team show of even Police Academy. The Octagon is a purpose-built stockade that is supposed to be somewhere in Central America, but is quite obviously located in the Hollywood hills north of LA. The costumes are ten-a-penny combat smocks. And everybody sports big hair. Plus, these are the most unrealistic terrorists ever conceived. Rednecks and truckers? They are meant to be culled from international terrorists groups and extremist cells, but it looks as though casting just stopped by the nearest roadhouse and press-ganged into service all those who’d never heard of Chuck Norris. Oh, and there’s a token Parisian to add a little bit of doomed suavity. As if.

    When Karson finally turns up the heat – A.J. attempting to go it alone forces Scott to leap into action with Aura showing him the way the bad guys’ eight-sided encampment – the film shifts up a few very welcome gears and at last we get what we’ve wanted to see all along. Chuck taking on the Ninjas, and then facing-off against successively more dangerous experts until he gets to Seikura for the ultimate showdown. And in this spellbinding climax of nonstop roundhouse kicks, sledgehammer punches, sleek take-downs and sharp weapons gleaming in the fire-light the film does not disappoint.

    Chuck Norris regularly donates blood. Just never his own. FACT.

    Already, Chuck was showing much more confidence in front of the camera. Going hand-in-hand with this, his fighting was being showcased with more exuberance and skill, courtesy of his own stunt team, and this freedom and control meant that he was now able to completely hold his own in the acting stakes. That slightly vague, awestruck quality that he had previously brought to the screen had been transformed into a quiet form of restrained menace and rage. Norris now had the aura of a coiled snake and that subdued, even shy demeanour was like a booby-trap he had devised and constructed to lure in the unwary. His mannered and controlled exterior was the mark of an unflappable warrior who was afraid of nothing and nobody. I am obviously a massive fan of the ultra-wooden Chuck Norris (how much wood would a woodChuck chuck if a woodChuck could chuck wood?) but it was abundantly clear that he was now fast becoming the big, rock-hard ginger god of war that the martial arts crowd, the action genre devotees, the armed forces from all around the world, and even God, himself, would find themselves bowing down before.

    Although he was not actually the one providing the silhouette – the director’s own brother had to stand in for him – Chuck, the emerging superstar, was also supplying himself with a couple of opportunities to have his characters set against the setting or rising sun, his striding, victorious black figure becoming iconic amidst a frame-filling blood-red orb of fiery power. He would do this several times in his career, although I think my personal favourite would have to be when he rides his Special Forces trail-bike over the sand-dunes bordering the Damascus Road in full-on jubilatory mode in The Delta Force. There are even a couple of double-exposed, colour-bled shots of Chuck’s face in The Octagon, so that he actually comes to resemble the burning red surface of the sun!

    But the idea of having Scott James delivering a hushed, yet echoing internal monologue to himself as the film goes on is a very, very bad one. Karson was smitten with this echoplex effect – something that was usually a musical device and was favoured by the great Jerry Goldsmith in a few of his classic scores, and most memorably for Patton and Alien - and saw no reason why it couldn’t be applied to dialogue and the human voice to imply a stream of consciousness. However stylistic and unusual this trick may be, I just don’t buy that we even need this deranged talking thought-bubble shtick at all. Just the flashbacks are required to get the backstory across, and this mental warbling is just hysterical. Remember the freeze-dried skipper of the hippy spacecraft Dark Star, and how he used to communicate his comically rambling thoughts to the bemused Doolittle? Yep, well, this verbal fugue is funnelled in exactly the same aimless manner. You can imagine Leslie Nielson’s Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad and Naked Gun fame doing this sort of thing and then looking around to see where this ghostly voice was coming from.

    Still, I shouldn’t knock Karson for trying to give his film a little bit of distinction away from the fighting. Especially as the screenplay, itself, had a trick up its sleeve that was not of his manufacture.

    The sultry Bagdosian isn’t too shabby as the terrorist who sees the light. In something of a cinematic first, we actually have a strong female character in the action genre. Not only do we see her training in the deadly arts, but we also witness her moral turnaround and her subsequent wielding of an M16 and explosives, and also the severe kicking she dishes out to a few bad guys. Although the tough girl act would go on to become a complete cliché in action movies, and barely ever be believable, Bagdosian doesn’t seem to realise that she is something of a pioneer in this field. She isn’t a great actress, but she is more than adequate in the role – even if it is a role that eventually makes the clunking move of forcing her into an unlikely pre-war love scene with Norris – and she doesn’t look stupid hoofing blokes in the kidneys or sticking the barrel of an assault rifle at us. What tends to get overlooked here is that the screenplay was actually written by a woman. Leigh Chapman had been an actress and then turned her hand to scrip-writing. With a background that took in the loony excesses of The Wild Wild West and The Mod Squad, as well as the more intricately honed Mission Impossible, she knew a thing or two about action and intrigue. This knowledge, alongside her witty screenplay for the Peter Fonda/Susan George counter-culture drama Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry made her the ideal choice to pen an uber-macho actioner that elbowed espionage and terrorism and martial arts aside enough to allow a woman to indulge in all three, whilst still keeping its sights firmly on the leading man.

    Karson stages the various set-tos with more aplomb than Paul Aaron had done in A Force of One. Of course, Chuck and his younger brother Aaron were the ones who were choreographing the fights, and it is clear that they were being given more space in which to manoeuvre and be creative. There was more respect for what they could bring to the table – which makes a great deal of sense because what they brought was the very reason that people were coming to see the film in the first place. Incidentally, the Norris family were in pure take-over mode during this production. Not only did Aaron get his usual cameo appearance – as a mercenary known in the credits as Hatband, as well as donning the Ninja gear for the all-in finale – but Chuck’s own son would get in on the act too. He gets to play Scott James aged 18 in a couple of flashbacks, and it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice at the time that, in his white martial arts robes and sporting fluffy blonde hair, he is actually more of a deadringer for Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker than he is for his father.

    Chuck Norris doesn’t call the wrong number. You answer the wrong phone. FACT.

    The big series of fights that provide the long-gestating, but rewardingly action-packed climax showcases lots of varied moves, with Chuck really going to town on the Ninjas as he runs the gauntlet of the Octagon’s various traps and obstacles. Watch for some brilliantly staged one-take combos that see Scott slugging out one guy here, hoofing another behind him, and then sweeping the legs from beneath a third guy, before finishing him with a heel axe-dropped onto his head. The timing is immaculate on camera, but several of this close-knit stunt-team (all dressed as Ninjas so they could effectively die over and over again) really suffered for their art. Chuck knocked more than one of them out cold, and the moment when he flips a guy over the side of a wooden platform so that his head goes underwater with his foot pressing down on it almost drowned the poor bloke for real. The shot remains in the film. The confrontation between Norris and Richard Norton’s magnificently robed Octagon enforcer Kyo is an absolute stunner. Nowadays, this would probably be done with some wire-work, epileptic Bourne-style editing, under-cranking the camera and possibly even a touch of CG. But this was 1980 and you had two combatants who knew their trade inside-out and were totally committed and prepared to open an enormous can of whup-ass upon each other for the admiration of the masses. It may seem a little stilted when put up against the relentlessly creative and faster choreography that we get today, but this is still a delicious and delirious display of blocks and moves, attacks and take-downs, and with both katana and a pair of gleaming sais to punctuate the grunts and groans and add just that little bit more jeopardy.

    I have to say that I find it amusing that the dreaded Seikura opts to use a couple of sickles as his weapons of choice … but can’t resist twirling them around and around even when he is actually on the run and attempting to use the shadows of the woods as cover. The unmistakable spinning ffffuhhh-wohhlll sound they make as they swish, in stereo (he’s got two of them), would give his position away even to a deaf person. And he’s supposed to be a top Ninja!

    Lee Van Cleef sports the earring that would also be seen in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and, once again, it gives his character a sort of exotic, maverick quality that is genuinely appealing. As with Scott, we simply aren’t sure who this guy is? In some ways he comes to resemble Draco’s mob boss from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or even Topol’s Milos Columbo from For Your Eyes Only – somebody who has built his empire by unsavoury means but, perhaps due to the mellowing of age and the slow absorption of morals, has since found the backbone to occasionally do the right thing. With a gaggle of dependable foot-soldiers, he comes to Scott’s aid on a couple of occasions and provides chunks of valuable intelligence, but he is nevertheless a dubious ally who exists outside the law.

    Art Hindle had been taken over by the pod-people in Phil Kaufman’s excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and he had even done a tour of duty for David Cronenberg in the brutally superb psycho-thriller The Brood. Here he appears beneath such a colossal bouffant of wild hair that he must have been held secure on wires just so that he could stand up under its weight. So that’s why there were no wires used for the fight scenes, eh? As A.J. he represents the impulsive hothead to Scott’s monumentally steel resolve, and his lack of discipline gets him in severely hot water. He just can’t leave things alone, even roaring at Scott that “This is my fight!” when our boy finally shows up to save his already beaten ass. Let’s face it, even the SAS would be thankful it Chuck Norris turned up to help them out of a sticky situation.

    Chuck Norris has a grizzly bear rug in his house. The bear isn’t actually dead … it is just too afraid to move. FACT.

    There’s some very splashy gore during an early assassination. Bodies are literally bathed in what looks like red paint as they are machine-gunned by terrorists. I remember that around this time, lots of mainstream thrillers were adopting a similarly over-the-top approach to bullet-hits. It was probably as a result of Tom Savini’s elaborate effects in Dawn of the Dead, which was still sending out shockwaves around the world a couple of years later, but things like The Sweeney movie (the poor copper getting blasted in the head always bothered me in that) and Who Dares Wins had people regularly weltered with the stuff. It isn’t very realistic, but it does add a severe jolt at the start of The Octagon. Karson is proud of the fact that he was tackling terrorism at a time when it was still pretty untouched or referenced by action cinema. And although I think the terrorist angle here is quite sanitised and dumbed-down – we never hear any of the political doctrine that they adhere to, and these various terrorist cells may as well be rival cowboys in a range-war for all the causes that they expound. But he’s got a point, though. It was only after The Octagon that filmmakers really saw the potential for exploiting action-man heroics via the threat of global terror. After this, Stallone would tackle Rutger Hauer’s evil terrorist Wulfgar in Nighthawks, with Nigel Davenport on hand as the British counter-terrorism expert lecturing audiences on the growing threat from extremist groups. Here, of course, the theme is just set-dressing and it is doubtful that anybody even pays any attention to the laborious manner with which Karson attempts to spell out how such a network of hate-harbouring activists might actually operate.

    The Octagon gets a bit talky at times, and the whole set-up with heiress is a touch too silly and confusingly handled for its own good, but there is plenty of action here, once we get going. Chuck is definite force to be reckoned with, and this definitely feels like it is his movie, much more so than either A Force of One or Good Guys Wear Black. The terrorism angle is something of a token gesture, I feel, despite how Eric Karson views it, but the use of Ninjas in a modern-day American setting is well worth the drab and needlessly complicated plot that it takes to get them there. Despite the waffle and the crazy echoplexing of Chuck’s internal monologue, this delivers the goods once Norris is unleashed into the titular compound. He gets to fight the awesome Richard Norton in possibly the greatest Ninja costume ever conceived, and we get to savour plenty of his mass eliminations in a bravura showdown that you can’t fail to get a kick out of.

    The film gets some justified flack, but I’m quite partial to this meandering ode to the Karate-Star versus the Ninjas. It’s slow, but the finale is well worth it, and will surely have you reaching for the remote in eagerness to replay it.

    Another little note about Anchor Bay’s packaging. After giving all the twists and turns being away on the box for A Force of One, they now produce a quite hysterical take on The Octagon’s original poster art – they highlight the red of Chuck’s hair and make his face blue. He looks like a ginger Smurf! Don’t they know that’s CHUCK NORRIS they’re messing with?????

    The Rundown

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