“When I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you.”
Okay, now we’re talking. This is Chuck Norris stamping his mark on the mainstream in a market that had rapidly become dominated by a couple of super-inflated celebrity heroes. But when Chuck wants in … he gets in. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
After the slow-start Blu-ray debut in the UK of Chuck’s A Force of One and The Octagon, we can now move right up into the mid-80’s with the cracking urban thriller Code of Silence, which appears as a US release from MGM.
Directed by Andrew Davis, who would go on to helm Steven Seagal in Above the Law and then the awesome Under Siege, and Harrison Ford in critically lauded The Fugitive, this is a hard-kicking Chicago cop drama that sees Chucky-Mumbles in full beard-mode which, as any Norris fan can tell you, means that he’s gonna kill more people before breakfast than the Black Death ever could. He’d spent some time as vengeful Vietnam POW, Colonel James Braddock, in the MIA series, suffering sadistic torture and then engaging in some eminently righteous brawling in the steamy jungle, and now he was back on home-turf and taking on a more conventional role in the urban jungle. This was to be a gritty, more down-to-earth actioner, though his parallels to the Stallone trajectory would continue as Sly would also ditch the POW-rescuing Rambo-heroics for a spell and come back home to portray a hard-line cop in the disappointing pose-fest of Cobra. Norris certainly outclassed and upstaged in this category with this. Before too long, however, the Ginger War God would up the ante again and be seen fighting terrorists, protecting American citizens and even the nation, itself, in Invasion USA and The Delta Force. Code of Silence, therefore, is a refreshingly lower-key affair that allows him to relax a bit more in-between the bouts of bedlam and to make the sort of much-needed difference that mattered at street-level and not on the jingoistic global platform.
This time out Chuck plays noble detective Eddie Cusack, a cop with a strong sense of honour. On the streets he’s known as Stainless Steel because of his profoundly incorruptible nature, but this also means that he is something of a maverick amongst the cynical old-hands who know the score and perhaps don’t share the same moral fibre. Thus, whilst he is admired by many of his colleagues for his rigid stance, he is also loathed by others of decidedly weaker wills. However, something that nobody can possibly refute is that Cusack is the toughest man on these deadly streets, and that means that he’s just the guy the city needs when two rival drug cartels go to war and the bodies start piling up like its central Mogadishu.
Still, he’s going to have his work cut out if he wants to sort this mess out.
Children are warned never to run with scissors. Scissors are warned never to run with Chuck Norris. FACT.
Cops should never class an operation as being “routine”, should they? The minute they give these supposedly standard jobs that designation, something terrible goes wrong and the whole thing goes horribly pear-shaped. As is the case when Cusack and his squad go on a typically “routine” drug-bust that leaves them gawping at a room full of machine-gunned mobsters, totting-up the millions of dollars and the vast haul of drugs that have been stolen by another gang, wincing at the body of an innocent bystander accidentally shot dead by one of his men, and Cusack rueing the fact that his own partner got wounded in the line of duty. Oops. Routine = doomed. Remember that.
But as if an ass-chewing by the precinct chief, Bert Remsen’s Commander Kates, is not enough to take the shine off the day, further bad news is that the massacred mobsters belong to the Comacho family, headed-up by the vindictive Luis (Henry Silva), and that they will stop at nothing to destroy the gang they believe is responsible – Tony Luna’s (Mike Genovese) circle of slightly less violent hoods – and anyone who gets in their way. Luis goes on the offensive and Cusack finds that he has to protect Tony’s innocent daughter, Diana (Molly Hagen) as the Comachos attempt to eradicate the Lunas from history. That would be too easy, though. Thanks to Cusack’s peerless ethics in breaking the police department’s “code of silence” and blowing the whistle on a cop he believes is too dangerous to be out working on the streets – Ralf Foody’s reckless, trigger-happy Det. Cragie - he’s going to have to do this on his own. Nobody is going to stick their neck out for a guy who shops one of his own.
Gone is the low-budget feel and backlot look of those earlier Chucksters we took at look at. Gone is the rather ramshackle plotting that struggles to shoehorn-in a character that just happens to have extensive martial arts skills. Gone is the hesitant, bemused acting of the leading man. By Lone Wolf McQuade and the Missing in Action films of course, which had filled a couple of years of strenuous derring-do, Norris had become completely comfortable with his onscreen persona. He knew that he didn’t have to rely simply upon his ability to roundhouse kick somebody into another time-zone, and that his own quiet charisma was engaging enough to shine through the machismo and allow a more rounded character to emerge. Although the fans for Stallone and for Arnie, who now had The Terminator and Commando in his arsenal, far outnumbered his own, he was appealing to a dedicated core of followers who admired his less flamboyant, less self-conscious style of heroism … and, naturally, the fact that he was doing most of those stunts and certainly all of the fighting, himself. Once you had bought into the quiet aggression of Norris, you knew that his particular niche would always deliver the goods without relying upon cheesy one-liners and pyrotechnics.
No longer just a champion martial artist that the authorities need to help them get their job done, Chuck’s one-man-army is, for the most part, a relatively believable bloke this time out. In Silent Rage he was a quietly spoken sheriff who just happened to be a karate expert. Move down this courageous line a bit, and to find a city cop who trains hard in kick-boxing and karate isn’t such a stretch. Eddie Cusack, the character, could well have become fixated on fitness and fight-training by watching Chuck Norris movies, and these skills would certainly be a great asset on the mean streets of ol’ Chicago. Watching him kicking the pads in the squad gym actually has the tang of a proper end-of-day stress reliever. There’s nothing macho-glam about it – no 80’s pop-video hunk-adoration. This is a guy who can do this stuff … just doing it. Davis doesn’t oversell the fact that Cusack can clearly kick every shade of kickable ass, he simply shows our guy in cool-down mode. But it leaves us with no uncertainty that when things go bad, he can be a whole lot badder.
If it looks like chicken, smells like chicken and tastes like chicken, but Chuck Norris says it’s beef … then it’s beef. FACT.
Another fact is that Henry Silva has the face of a bad guy. There’s no getting around it. He was a wicked Draconian in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and he’s played a bevy of all-round sneeringnasty dudes in Westerns like The Hills Run Red andThe Bravados, mob-flicks like Love and Bullets and Johnny Cool and, best of all, he was a drug-snorting and murderous gangland enforcer in Sharkey’s Machine (a classic Burt Reynolds cop-thriller that really should be out on BD by now) so coke-addled that couldn’t feel the bullets entering his body and was, therefore, practically unkillable during the bloody finale. Here he is the mean-spirited and utterly ruthless Luis Comacho, a man who gleefully orders the execution of a rival’s entire family and taunts Cusack with the threat of bestowing upon him a Columbian necktie. He is a formidable presence … but he needs an army at his disposal if he wants to tangle with the Chuckster.
Funnily enough, Silva would go on to then oppose Richard Chamberlain in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Steven Seagal in Above The Law (also directed by Andrew Davis), Gary Busey in Bulletproof and to antagonise Forrest Whittaker in the cool, but unusual Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
Jack might be nimble. Jack might be quick. But he’s got no chance of dodging a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick! FACT.
Just before this, Sly had been saddled with a ridiculous robotic housemaid in Rocky IV, and of course Arnie made his name playing a cybernetic assassin, so it seemed that if you wanted to be a true cinematic action-man you had to have some sort of hi-tech mechanised element in your résumé. And, thus, Norris was awarded something that resembled the sort of Mars Rover that we would have sent to the Red Planet if they ever did threaten to start a War of the Worlds with us. Called Prowler, this missile-laden box-on-tracks is the Chicago PD’s new weapon in the fight against crime – a weaponised crowd-control tank with a lilting female voice that bewitches you whilst shredding your body with high-velocity machine-gunfire. With a fantastically self-assured marketing grin, Frasier’s dad John Mahoney does the ED-209-style promotional gig for the troops … a stunt that Eddie Cusack swiftly derails with old school animosity, having spotted the glaring vulnerability in the “human” element of the system, and ridiculing the whole thing from behind an intimidating Magnum revolver. But let’s not be too hasty in dissing the tech, shall we?.
Prowler is like a rocket-launching, gun-toting WALL-E, even down to the cute extendable photo-receptor eye that pokes up deceptively from behind cover to lull you into a false sense of gooey Pixar-related reverie before turning you inside-out with a high-incendiary round … and it really shouldn’t work in a tough guy body-count flick like this – a film that really wants to present us with an authentic feel for the city and its law enforcers. Yet, in spite of its hokey SF appeal, the sequence when Chuck uses it as a powerful ally against Silva’s legions of ne’er-do-wells is actually great fun to watch. And let’s face it - if the trundling robot riot-squad is good enough for Chuck, then it’s certainly good enough for us. And there's a distinct possibility that a certain Paul Verhoeven was more than just a little intrigued by this armoured law-enforcer of the future.
With a screenplay written by Michael Butler – who was the man that penned John Wayne’s London-based cop thriller Brannigan, as well as Clint’s The Gauntlet and Pale Rider, and even the fantastic supernatural road-rage of The Car – Andrew Davis manages to combine gangsters and robots with heroes, and to lift the lid on police procedures and etiquette, albeit superficially. As a Chuck Norris film, it does sort of stand apart from his usual adventures, and this is probably down to the fact that the idea was initially pitched for the all-too obvious Eastwood. But he had just done the S&M thriller Tightrope, and the comedy-thriller City Heat with Burt Reynolds, and then Pale Rider, and was too busy prepping his fawning ode to the Marines, Heartbreak Ridge, to take on the sort of role he had done a hundred times before. He had also expressed a jaded disinterest with the cop genre, although this didn’t stop him returning to play Harry Callahan one last time in The Dead Pool and then mentoring Charlie Sheen in The Rookie. The transition from Clint to Chuck is a smooth one, however. Whilst it is unlikely that we would have seen Clint performing any roundhouse kicks or plummeting into a river from the roof of speeding train, these elements do not seem at all out of place in the narrative of Eddie Cusack’s crusade. Davis didn’t really have the background to helm what would turn into a Norris vehicle, with the poor slasher-pic, The Final Terror, being about the only entry of note on his CV. Yet this lack of experience meant that he provided a relatively fresh approach to a genre that audiences thought they knew inside-out, plus he showed that he had an obvious affinity with Chicago and with macho cliques by the police department.
When Bruce Banner gets mad he turns into the Hulk. When the Hulk gets mad he turns into Chuck Norris. FACT.
Chuck even takes a dive in this one. After laying waste to a tavern-full of meatheads using a choice selection of pretty awesome kicks and punches - and watch how Chuck really moves well within a circle of enemies - some enterprising goon uses a pool-ball to send Eddie into semi-dreamland in a dirty, sly and underhanded move, and our boy suddenly learns what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a bunch o’ fives as the walking wounded then seize their chance to even up the score. Clint Eastwood routinely got bashed about in his films, Sly Stallone would often find himself taking more punishment than he was dishing-out, and now Chuck Norris was going to pretend that he had a chink in his diamond-hide … but, at the end of the day, this is just going to make the beard even angrier. He had a bag with a rat in it placed over his head in Missing in Action 2: The Beginning and when they tore the gore-drenched bag off again, where was the rat? That’s right – Chuck had eaten the bloody thing. So a bit of rough-housing is just like using his head on the punch-bag instead of his fists.
We also get to see Eddie indulge in a terrific car chase that thunders through the underpass and at a speed that would make Satan soil his shorts.
But one alarming set-piece that would probably be the high-point in a dozen other urban thrillers is a hot-pursuit that moves from the busy streets (check out Silva’s bemused smirk when he spies Cusack hot-footing it after his top hit-man who, in turn, is chasing after somebody else) to the roof of a speeding train. Eddie goes after the deranged Angel (Alex Stevens, who looks just like the nasty chef from Pixar’s Ratatouille) who now has an important hostage in his feverish, knife-wielding grasp and the chase hurtles along through the carriages and then ultimately winds-up on the precarious, wind-lashed outside. I won’t say how this particular confrontation eventually pans-out, but it does tend to elicit a giggle or two. What I like about it, however, is that Davis plays the whole thing really low-key despite the obvious tendency that some directors would have had to go over-the-top and all Indiana Jones with it. He knows he is pandering to the same crowd that flocked to see Rambo and Commando, but he steadfastly refuses to hit that button so explicitly marked Overkill, which really does help maintain the film’s sure-handed semblance of reality. Obviously, when it came to Under Siege, he would relax this ethic a bit more and allow Steven Seagal’s antics to go overboard when it really counted, but he would try to rein things back in again for Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.
When General Schwarzkopf declared that Iraq would suffer the Shock and Awe of American might, he was referring to Chuck Norris’ right and left fists. FACT.
In a great little aside, it transpires that Cusack can even suss out the Rubik’s Cube (interestingly, Dolph Lundgren’s psychotic Expendable, Gunner, is seen trying to crack one’s secret in Stallone’s thunderous sequel – clearly tying-in to that retro-vibe of the 80’s). Again, this is not made a huge point of, unlike Sly’s Armani detective Ray Tango playing the stocks and shares market in uber-80’s guilty pleasure Tango & Cash, say, when the trait was loud and brazen, but merely seen as a visual detail in the scene. It is easy to knock action-cop-thrillers that aren’t The French Connection, Serpico, Heat or Dirty Harry but when low-budget yarns like Code of Silence get little things like this into the grubby veneer of the story, as well as employing hosts of real passersby to decorate the backgrounds, as in the crowd who gather on the bridge to watch Cusack get fished out of the river, it makes them stand out that crucial bit more than the average superstar vehicle.
Exemplifying this even further, is the attention paid to the attitude, mindset and minutia of the Chicago Police Department. Being a native of the city, Andrew Davis has tended to feature his hometown in a fair few of his movies and to make extensive use of all the real locations he can get access to, both ornate and humdrum. He shoots his film in bonafide precinct houses, and takes the time to show us the hectic, non-stop duties of the cops who take the calls and organise the responses, and provides a sense of the sweaty and patently unglamorous world of modern policing, with all of its stresses and hang-ups. Plus, in a tremendous move, he even recruits lots of genuine CPD police officers into the cast, both currently serving (then) and retired, as in the case of the copper-turned-actor Dennis Farina who plays Cusack’s injured partner Det. Dorato, to fill the frame with genuine faces, voices and attitudes that all possess that crucial ring of authenticity and carry that essential and patently un-faked on-screen chemistry. Thus, Code of Silence boasts a surprisingly real ambience of the tired, the cynical and the egotistical in its depiction of a beleaguered, crime-surrounded thin blue line trying, in earnest, to protect and serve a teeming metropolis. And this homage is further cemented when he stages a wonderful sequence in which two idiotic robbers attempt to hold up an entire bar, only to discover that their planning has neglected to identify that the hostelry in question is actually the favourite haunt of the Chicago police force. Although it is tempting to view this hilarious aside (the white perp looks just like a younger version of the actor Ed Lauter from Magic and Mean Machine) as being a metaphor for America’s vast and overwhelming ability to outgun anybody, anywhere, it is actually based upon a genuine event that resulted in around fifty policemen wiping tears of laughter from their eyes as they collectively arrested a couple of imbecilic would-be thieves who picked the wrong pub at the wrong time. Although it is hard to imagine that they could ever have picked a “right” time for their crime at that particular venue.
Note to all – don’t ever think about stepping out of line if there’s even the merest hint that Chuck Norris might be around.
So, back to our boy.
I think that one of the reasons why Chuckles is so popular with some action fans, but not so much with others, is that he seems too damn nice to be rearranging peoples’ physiognomy. As hard as diamond-coated nails as he is, he is the epitome of the gentle hero. An Eye for an Eye and this are about the only films in which he actually bad-mouths anyone and … wait for it … swears. Both Sly and Arnie would happily drop the F-Bomb, but apart from the scene in which he righteously snaps and pounds Victor Comacho’s (Ron Henriquez) nose into a line of coke (several times, of course), Chuck found that he didn’t really need to be uncouth to his enemies. He could even smile at them … and then vaporise them with his fists and feet. Look at the scene in the morgue when Silva’s leering latino loon enthusiastically offers to bestow him that grisly Columbian necktie and, instead of coming right back at him with a crowd-pleasing and cathartically witty retort as Sly or Arnie would have done, he merely mumbles a vaguely pleasant-sounding “Why don’t you give it me now?” In other hands and mouths, this comeback would have been gold-dust, but Chucky doesn’t go for the obvious. He wants to wrongfoot both Comacho and his goon-squad, and us, with an impetus-robbing absence of blood-boiling insult. You imagine coming back with something as simple as that to a gang of Blighty’s street-scummage and it could, in fact, befuddle their miniscule Neanderthal brains to the point where you remember that you aren’t, in fact, Chuck Norris, but you have still managed to buy yourself a couple of precious getaway seconds as they attempt to unravel the meaning of your less-than-red-ragging reply. Chuck does not descend into the hellish-hued haze of combat. Everything is internalised and somehow so much more combustible. A slight grimace here, a flicker of the eye there. That’s all you’re going to get. But before you’ve realised that this is the extent of his emotional exterior, he’s snapped both your arms off and shoved them where the sun don’t shine, and made your head spin round faster than the demon Pazuzu ever revolved Linda Blair’s possessed noggin.
This offbeat delivery also works when he first meets Diana. She immediately sizes him up and susses him out, and gives him the brush-off. Chuck watches her go and, only after a moment has gone by, playfully mutters, “Well, it was nice meeting you.” A bunch of coke-snorting yuppies backstage at an arty-farty soiree have to suddenly clean up their act when Cusack allows them to overhear his phone-call to the station. Gently pushing down the newspaper that one of them is hiding behind, that quiet voice that still makes grown men whimper simply says, “Catch you later.” Norris is perfectly suited to such insinuating taunts. He doesn’t need the inspired and memorable putdown to make an impact.
Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird. FACT.
In keeping with tradition, the final showdown is just awesome. Set in one of those ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all dockside warehouses, Cusack takes on Luis and his gang and fills the place with their corpses. The standout moment is when he walks through the wreckage of the doors he has just blown out with a bazooka, David Frank’s jazzy score suddenly adding a sinister rippling beat as Chuck’s silhouette looms large and hairy, and he casually wastes a charging attacker with a pump-action shotgun that he fires single-handedly and without even looking! Now that’s class. Lots of bodies are hurled backwards through doors, walls, partitions and wooden pallets with Cusack’s wrathful blasts. It’s not accurate, of course. We now know that people just simply drop in a very un-cinematic fashion when bullets or shells tear through them. But seeing perps and henchmen getting lifted off their feet and rocketed ten feet back into oblivion looks so damn cool, doesn’t it? Watch for the bad guy who slips on the greasy floor when he makes his mad dash to converge on Cusack. I love the way that Luis has the totally inane gall to call Cusack a “Chickensh*t!” after the guy has come to their hideout, on his own, and wasted about ninety-five percent of them. Hardly the act of a coward, is it?
It is also great the way that Cusack gives the captive Diana, whom he has come to rescue, a look that is actually full of deep dark concern and grave trepidation. It’s an edgy expression that doesn’t immediately inspire confidence, and one that she responds to by closing her eyes and praying. This provides the set-piece with an air of deadly seriousness that is almost up there with the spellbinding look that William Holden and Ernest Borgnine give one another as they reload their guns and prepare to greet their own extinction in the bloodbath finale of The Wild Bunch. It is just a little touch in what is predominantly a formulaic genre movie, but one that manages to lend it another layer of adrenalized pathos.
The film doesn’t even feel all that dated. Well, all right, the fashions give the game away and, at this point, we should pause to pay our respects to the maddest, baddest, most brain-bamboozling mullet that I think there has ever been. Forget that melted peroxide ski-slope atop Mike Score’s head as he fronted 80’s band A Flock of Seagulls because the guy doing the drug deal with the Comacho brigade at the start of Code takes the gold medal for the most ridiculous hairdo ever created. Although he is horribly thinning, this bozo has back-combed the sides and the top of his barnet into a fluffy bouffant, but allowed the back to grow way down past his shoulders in unbelievably, illogically straight tendrils. Honestly, this is shape of something that James Cameron would have filmed down in the Marianna Trench – like some kind of absurd jellyfish. And what makes its appearance here all the more hysterical is the fact that the guy it is sitting on top of is just too old and too straight to have his hair like this. Really – seeing is believing. And it is here in hi-def!
At the moment, I can’t get enough of Chuck Norris … and my bias is just something that you will have to put up with. I think he very nearly stole the show with his two-sequence cameo in Expendables 2 which I saw just before writing this review. But Code of Silence is a fine cop-thriller that impresses by not going too far into the type of excess that typifies many of the actioners from the period. Somehow, Chuck makes this sort of thing feasible. But then you can do anything if you’ve got a big red beard! FACT.
Highly recommended to those bitten by the Chuck-bug. And you know there’s no cure for that.
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