For better or for worse Chuck Norris and his big bushy 1970s mustache will forever be the face of the American martial arts film. It’s not because his films were any good so much as it is the simple fact that he was there and he never went away. Guys like Jim Kelly and Don Knotts simply faded into the background, while Van Damme and Steven Seagal were relegated to the rows of direct-to-video fare when audiences finally caught on that there was no real reason to be watching On Deadly Ground when you could watch Jackie Chan instead. By all means, Norris should have joined one of these two groups by now, but like an agile cat, he manages to bend and twist and avoid the arrows, keeping himself just above the ranks of the fallen.
He got his start in movies thanks to Bruce Lee’s many contacts in Hollywood, namely Dean Martin. Martin used Norris as a stunt extra for one of the Matt Helm movies before Norris really made an impact as the boss bad guy in Bruce Lee’s classic Way of the Dragon. Their confrontation during the film’s finale in the Roman Coliseum is one of the top screen fights in kungfu film history. Bruce wanted to work with Chuck Norris because, unlike most martial arts stars, he was adamant about casting real-life martial artists to fight n his film. Most filmmakers were happy with dancers, gymnasts, or people who could just wave their arms wildly at the camera and tumble around.
When Lee got a chance to direct a film, one of the first things he did was set about hiring the best martial artists he could afford. For the film’s biggest fight, he turned to Chuck Norris. After making such an impact in that film, where audiences around the globe were wowed by his intense fighting style and abundance of body hair, it was no surprise that people started thinking about casting him in larger roles. His first was as the head heavy in Yellow Faced Tiger, released in the United States as Slaughter in San Francisco. What that role had in common with his role in Way of the Dragon was that it was a Hong Kong film that didn’t really require more from Chuck than kicking some ass. His lines can be summed up pretty much as the following: “Hmmm,” “Arrrr,” and of course, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
When Chuck finally got to start speaking his own language (or any language at all beyond primal grunts and evil laughter), people found that he wasn’t really that great an actor. What did they expect? It’s not like he was actor. How good at karate are your average actors? Luckily, scripts rarely demanded more from Chuck than his poor man’s Clint Eastwood, and when they did, he was wooden but certainly not the worst performer in the world. Not that it mattered. People weren’t lining up to see Force of One in hopes of catching some really heart-wrenching scenes of Chuck Norris emoting all over the place. They were, however, hoping for heart-wrenching scenes in the most literal sense. In that category, Norris always delivered. Throughout the 1970s, Norris’ fame and onscreen body count grew rapidly. His specialty was the “man of peace driven to extreme measures by evil people,” his days as a cackling villain long behind him. Norris’ characters were always noble, humble, and generally fond of cowboy garb.
Folks liked Chuck Norris movies because they identified with him. He was just this normal looking guy: not all that handsome, not all that muscular, but possessed of intense inner strength matched by fists that could shatter brick and bone. He was always the moralist, always the straight guy, always the hero at a time when antiheroes were all the rage. Sure, he butted heads with the higher-ups and rattled a few cages, but that’s because there was so much corruption around him. He was just as likely to put cowboy boot to ass on a corrupt politician or police chief as he was coke dealer or robber-baron. While there was no shortage of tough-as-nails heroes for the urban crowd, Norris was one of the few guys out there dealing double-fisted beat-downs in the name of all the rural, small-town guys who talked softly and wore bootcut jeans. He was Billy Jack without the endless scenes of improvisational theater and explanations of the alternative hippie school.
The one problem aside from his limited acting range was the limited writing range of whoever was dreaming up those movies. Pretty much every one of them entails Chuck beating up a bunch of small-town thugs or international drug lords employing small-town thugs. Rarely did he face off against other martial artists, which I guess is realistic (how many fights have you seen that bust out into fully choreographed kungfu fights?) but not all that interesting to watch. Uneven pacing and cliché scripts only helped to muddy the waters, keeping most of Chuck’s films in the “not good but still enjoyable” range until the 1990s, when he dropped the “but still enjoyable” aspect of his work.
In 1980, Chuck Norris made a film that used what was then a little-known but increasingly popular martial arts legend. The legend was the Ninja, and the movie was The Octagon. The ninja trend would really start rolling a year later with the release of Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja, but Norris beat everyone to the spinning punch when he incorporated the mask-wearing shadow warriors into this not altogether bad little martial arts adventure. Norris plays Scott James – an action hero who has a normal name instead of being named something like “Derek Ice” or “Maximilian Scorpio, Esquire.” Scott’s just your average Southwestern dude who happens to have a secret Ninja past and a Ninja brother who wants to kill him some day. Scott also has a tendency to allow his thoughts to be broadcast as echoing whispers throughout the entire movie, which gets pretty annoying after about, oh let’s say the first time it happens. Call it personal preference, but I really hate the whole “echoing voice-over” thought-bubble thing. It just seems goofy to me, and I can’t stand that they always have to make it a whisper. Scott never thinks in a normal voice, just like all those people in Dune thought to themselves in whispers. I tend to think to myself in Patrick Stewart’s voice, all booming and commanding.
Scott gets tangled up with a militia that trains potential terrorists using Ninja techniques. Watching these would-be thugs get their ninja training reminded me of the year Phillip Holder moved to Gainesville and amused us all with his self-aggrandizing fliers stapled up all over town. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Inside Kungfu is no doubt familiar not only with Chuck Norris brand karate jeans (with increased stretchability for when you need to kick a trucker in the head while still lookin’ good and not ripping the seat of your pants), but also with (self-proclaimed) Grand Master Phillip Holder, who peppered the magazine with ads hocking his instructional videos. When he moved his global training center to Gainesville, Florida, he put signs up everywhere looking for students who wanted to be trained by “the world’s third deadliest man.” No one ever explained that title to me. I guess there is some international governing body that hands out “deadliest man” rankings, but that still doesn’t explain the exact nature of Holder’s claim. Is he the third man to hold the title “world’s deadliest man,” or is that in the race to be the world’s deadliest man, there are two men in the world deadlier than Phillip Holder?
Anyway, he crossed over into Octagon territory when he opened a summer camp for “Bodyguard and Ninjitsu Training.” I have no doubt that Phillip Holder could hand me my ass on a silver platter, just as I have no doubt that the few beer-swilling, Joe Don Baker looking good ol’ boys who attended the Grand Master’s ninja summer camp could kick my ass in less time than it would take them to down a can of Red Dog, but let’s face it: being able to kick my ass doesn’t exactly qualify you for Grand Master status or serve as a major stepping stone on your way to becoming a ninja. I’m guessing that alumnus of the Phillip Holder Ninja Camp (or “Kamp” if you are funny) were about the same as the people graduating from this Octagon thing, meaning they’re the type of gang who would get their ass kicked by a single well-trained individual.
But Norris is a man of peace, and he doesn’t just haul off and kick someone’s ass without dragging the decision out for the first two-thirds of the film. Luckily, people keep trying to kill him for no real reason, so he does get to fight a lot in between echoing voice-over thought whispers of him going, “Sakura, could it be you?” as he contemplates the possibility that his old ninja brother is the man behind the terrorist ninja camp. Speaking of terrorist camps, here’s a question I’ve had on my mind since I first saw all that footage of Al Quaeda training facilities with the guys scrambling over ramps and stuff: why do terrorists need to know how to perform well on gymborees? Honestly, I think whenever Osama bin Laden couldn’t think of anything more destructive for his thugs to do, he’d just send them out to jump over the bars and swing on the ropes. Are they planning on taking down America by challenging us to a footrace through an obstacle course? Or are they training to win that Gymkata game?
One of the women at the terrorist training camp decides this is all a little much, and makes a hasty retreat, eventually coming into contact with Scott (Norris), who has been busy playing games with some rich chick while his best friend grumbles and Lee Van Cleef drifts in and out of the film in an attempt to spur Chuck’s character to action or possibly just collect a paycheck. You’d say that Van Cleef was slumming it in b-movie action realm if his filmography wasn’t so full of shame. Given that he would later go on to star in the abysmal Master Ninja television series, it’s safe to say that this movie is the pinnacle of all things Lee Van Cleef has done involving ninjas. Eventually, the reformed terrorist chick shows her boobs to Chuck Norris and he finally gets off his peace-lovin’ ass track down Sakura’s ninja camp. The terrorist chick shoots stuff, Lee Van Cleef gets to blow things up, and Chuck Norris has to fight his way through a maze filled with ninja henchmen before facing off against the final ninja henchman (who insists on wearing an elaborate get-up and metal mask even though the training facility is in the middle of the desert in Mexico) and, ultimately, his estranged blood brother.
The Octagon takes a lot of flack for “looking dated,” which has never hit me as an especially meaningful criticism. It’s what people say who can’t remember back more than three years. It’s not Chuck’s fault that fashion in the late 1970s was so abysmal. Luckily for him, cowboy fashion has been the same pretty much since the 1800’s, so at least he isn’t strutting around in all those plaid flares Sonny Chiba had a tendency to don. That a film looks dated really doesn’t bother me or register, most likely because I’ve been watching film so closely for so long now that I’ve simply learned to disregard certain trivial things that other people seem to get hung up on. Besides, there’s plenty of stuff to complain about in The Octagon without having to dwell on the khaki pantsuits and things like that.
First, of course, there’s that damn whispering. I go to bed at night, and I hear Chuck Norris whispering in the wind. I’m thinking of recording all his weird echoing whispers and playing them at random intervals during subway rides around town. That would at least afford me some small amount of satisfaction for having to hear ol’ Chuck’s whisper-thought so much. It seems weird to have to yell “Shut up!” at a guy who isn’t actually saying anything. Watching The Octagon is a simulation of what it must feel like to have ESP.
Coming out when it did, The Octagon is basically a 1970s action film with a 1980 release date. As such, it suffers from many of that era’s shortcomings, which are actually many of the same things that endeared the movies to me. It’s needlessly arty in some places, amateurishly crude in others. Flashbacks have a freaky tint to them, and many of the nighttime scenes are poorly lit (or at least poorly transferred from the original negatives). The pacing is also pretty uneven. When there’s action a-brewin’, it’s generally pretty good, but when it comes down to scenes of Chuck Norris engaging in witty banter with Lee Van Cleef or the rich lady, things just grind to a halt. Luckily, the final third of the film dispenses with the dialogue altogether save for the occasional shout of “Sakura!!!” and just makes with the martial arts mayhem.
I also don’t begrudge Chuck Norris the chance to have a cute girl get naked for him during the film’s one short love scene. Given the chance, I’m sure most of us would write ourselves a script that involved some attractive young gal rubbing her boobs against us, or some strapping young cabana boy giving us a cocoa butter rub-down. But understandable or not, I’m not so into seeing Chuck Norris’ carpetlike chest stroked lovingly like someone might pet a furry dog or a sasquatch. I mean, you slide your fingers into that jungle, and there’s a chance some of them won’t come back out.
Action, of course, is what we’re here for, and when the movie shuts up long enough, it delivers some solid martial arts fun. Sure, we’re not talking Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, but as far as American martial arts films go, The Octagon has better than average fight scenes. Norris is in good form and this movie has the wisdom to pit him against other martial artists rather than fist-swinging country lugs. While the choreography isn’t mind-blowing, it’s definitely solid and even believable for the most part. Sakura is played by Japanese karate movie mainstay Tadashi Yamashita, and Richard Norton shows up as a thug, so this movie isn’t devoid of martial arts talent. For the most part, fights are well done. I’m sure fans of the wild wire-fu and undercranked nonsense will find the fights sluggish, but since I enjoy the old school even if it’s slower and doesn’t fly through the treetops, I thought The Octagon’s martial arts were pretty enjoyable.
As for the ninjas, I’m not quite sure what their deal was. I know that ninja popularity was on the rise as this film was being completed, but none of the ninjas in the movie do anything particularly ninjalike. Sure, they sneak into houses and try to strangle Chuck Norris, but there’s no real reason to do masks and cloaks for that. Well, masks maybe, but you don’t exactly blend in with the surroundings running around your average Southwestern city in a ninja uniform and cloak. They don’t seem to be teaching their students very much, either. Sakura and his sai-wielding ninja right hand man kick dirt at people and do that thing where you teach them a lesson by beating them up, but none of their pupils seems especially accomplished at any point. I wonder if Sakura and his masked pal didn’t go back home after a day of watching the recruits screw up and bemoan the sorry state of ninjitsu students these days. Additionally, if the entire idea behind the art of ninjitsu is that you blend in to your surroundings, why would a bunch of Japanese ninjas build their camp in Mexico then strut around the local barrio in their ninja outfits? Mexico is a pretty laid back place, but even the most stereotypical Mexican peasant would be stirred from his siesta by a troupe of ninjas marching down the street. Maybe Sakura just passes his men off as some Cirque du Soliel type of thing.
On the acting front – well, you get what you pay for. That Chuck Norris has never been nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar is no travesty of justice, and he proves that here. He’s not bad, per se, but he is stiff. He gives it the ol’ college try, and he’s better than a lot of the other actors in the genre. Lee Van Cleef is there to pay some bills, but he turns in a decent performance, though half the time exactly what he’s even doing is a bit unclear. Yamashida is all action, few words, as is Norton. The rest of the cast – well, let’s leave it at the fact that there’s a good reason you’ve probably never heard of most of them before or after this film.
Problems aside, The Octagon really isn’t such a bad film. It was the first out of the ninja gate, even if Enter the Ninja was more popular, so it gets points for being historically important in that regard (or however historically important low-budget B-movie action films can be). It’s certainly better than vast many ninja films that would be released throughout the 1980s, sitting at the top of the heap alongside the likes of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Pray for Death. Granted, that’s not an especially tall heap, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re looking for wild ninja action and people disappearing into puffs of purple smoke, your better off with a film like Ninja Hunters. If, however, you appreciate decent low-budget 1970s action films, The Octagon has a lot of fun to offer despite the stop and go pacing and low production values. I’m much happier with a low key film like this than I am overblown, special effects laden crap like we see today. Call me a cranky old redneck with no taste, but I’d much rather see Chuck Norris beating up ninjas in some sandy courtyard than I would ever watch Jet Li do cgi-fu and “bullet time” effects.