As mentioned in my Pentathlon review, Anchor Bay are capitalising on the forthcoming release of The Expendables 2 by re-mastering and re-releasing a handful of choice titles by some of its stars. Two of these releases are the High Definition debuts of a couple of early Chuck Norris films, A Force of One and The Octagon. Although they are being released separately, I thought I'd treat you all to a double bill of Chuck. After all this is the man who counted to infinity – twice (sorry, couldn't resist).
A Force of One
Director: Paul Aaron
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Jennifer O'Neill, Chuck Norris, Clu Gulager, Ron O'Neal, Eric Laneuville
Producer: Alan Belkin
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
One of Chuck Norris' early starring roles and a relatively big success at the time, helping forge his star status, A Force of One is more notable for the talent behind the scenes. Bizarrely, for such a standard action movie, the film is written by Ernest Tidyman, the man responsible for the scripts of some cast iron classics like The French Connection, Shaft and High Plains Drifter.
Not that you'd notice though (by the look of his filmography, his quality quickly waned). A Force of One plays it safe in terms of Norris' character by casting him as Matt Logan, a karate champion (which he in reality he was of course). He is integrated into a detective story about several cop murders in a rather ridiculous fashion though. Somehow the murdered officers' colleagues come to the conclusion that they were killed by karate experts, so they go to Logan to help train them in the martial art as well as fill them in on anything that might lead to the capture of the villains. Logan is busy training for a title fight, but several personal links to the crimes draw him ever closer and he eventually vows to bring the killers to justice himself. That 'justice' being kicking their asses of course.
I kind of enjoyed this, but I'm not sure why. The performances are uniformly bland and lifeless, as is much of the film. Other than the strange integration of karate into the storyline, the plot is generic and uninteresting. The dialogue makes a few attempts at wisecracks, but none are particularly witty and the actors ruin any chance of them getting even close. Yet despite all of this I quite happily sat through the whole thing without any clock watching or longing for the fast forward button.
I guess I'm a sucker for the 70's style of filmmaking. Coming at the tail end of the decade, the film doesn't succumb to the excesses of the 80's and still has a naturalism to the presentation which I love to see. The cinematography isn't bad and looks to be shot on film whereas a lot of the cheapies that would follow were shot on TV or video equipment. As wooden as he is, I also enjoyed watching a young Chuck do his thing. Of course it's in the ring where he shines. Most of his full length action scenes do actually involve Norris taking part in an 'official' bout, so these scenes feel fairly natural if a little slow and staged compared to how they would be in real life. He throws in plenty of his trademark roundhouse kicks which are impressively quick, but I'm not sure he'd get away with so many in an actual tournament.
It's not just the nostalgia factor that kept me watching though, I also liked the general flow of the film. The individual scenes are slowly paced compared to today's action films and don't have a lot of spark, but narratively speaking the script doesn't mess about and gets on with its storytelling quite efficiently. The action, although quite subdued, is spread around fairly evenly too which helps.
But as much as I praise the film, I am clutching at straws. On a whole it is pretty poor and isn't anywhere near as fun or exciting as I wanted it to be. As cheesily enjoyable as I found much of it, the film is rather underwhelming and hard-core action fans will probably hate it. Lovers of cheap and cheerful retro action movies will find enough to keep them satisfied though.
Director: Eric Karson
Screenplay: Leigh Chapman
Starring: Chuck Norris, Karen Carlson, Lee Van Cleef, Art Hindle, Tadashi Yamashita, Richard Norton
Producer: Joel Freeman
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Octagon was Norris' next film straight after A Force of One and again for American Cinema Productions. Even with only a one year gap in between the films this already felt more like the trashy 80's action I'm used to as opposed to the more relaxed and simple 1979 film.
The plot... OK, well, I'll try my best. Norris plays Scott James, a former martial arts champion (surprise surprise) who has left the ring after a tragedy that I never quite figured out. He meets up with a girl one night who is murdered by ninjas which sparks memories of his training as a boy alongside his brother (in friendship I imagine, not blood) Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). He is later approached by a mysterious woman who pulls various tricks to try and get Scott to help her escape her equally as mysterious pursuers. In the meantime some terrorists are going around killing people and we cut back and forth to a group of mercenaries being trained in the art of the ninja so as to assist these terrorists in their evil deeds. After his protégée A.J. (Art Hindle) becomes interested in getting to the bottom of these terrorist acts (for no apparent reason), Scott eventually makes the link between their training and his long lost brother Seikura and heads off to find and stop him. Along the way he meets Justine (Karen Carlson), one of the mercenaries who defects after coming to her senses during the intensive and cruel training regime.
A bit confusing? Tell me about it. This film is a mess. When thinking back over it, there really aren't too many branches to the plot, but the way they are presented is so fractured and characters rarely have a clear motivation to their actions so the whole thing is bewildering at times, particularly in the first half of the film. Where A Force of One just about succeeded by keeping things simple and getting on with it, The Octagon tries to do too much and fails. The bloated and confusing plot slows things down greatly in the mid-section in particular.
“But what's with the higher star rating?” I hear you ask. Well, for one, all of the craziness that is thrown up on screen makes for plenty of unintentionally funny moments. Funniest of all has to be Scott's inner monologue. All of his thoughts are expressed through bizarre echoey whispered voiceovers. These are occasionally totally unnecessary, but often used as exposition to make sense of the barmy plot and are so stupidly presented they made me laugh out loud on several occasions. Some of the standard lines and delivery add to this too, such as the brilliantly deadpan “I ran into some ninja last night”. The performances are more enjoyable than before too, with Chuck mildly improving on his work in A Force of One and some nicely hammy supporting actors filling in the gaps. Added to this is Lee Van Cleef, who is always worth watching, in a fairly chunky role as some sort of organised vigilante (or maybe he was just a police officer, I never quite figured it out).
All of the silliness isn't what knocked my rating up a notch though. What The Octagon delivers more successfully than A Force of One is action. We're talking about very early 80's Hollywood, so it's not quite up to par with the best the genre has to offer, but The Octagon has a nice mix of bloody killings (complete with fake looking but brilliantly over the top squibs), daft ninja training sequences and an extended finale where Norris finally gets a chance to flex his muscles. It's these last 20 minutes that added an extra star and a half to a film I was all set to rip apart. Exploding shacks, wild machine gun spraying and hordes of ninjas were exactly what the doctor ordered and, for me, made up for the rather dull hour and twenty-five minutes that preceded it.
So it's a film that requires patience and a willingness to laugh at how ridiculous it all is, but if you can hold out until the last 20 minutes, you're in for a cheesy treat.
A Force of One & The Octagon are released individually on Blu-Ray & DVD by Anchor Bay on 6th August. I got sent the Blu-Ray to review and the transfers are great. Picture quality is strong on both titles, a big improvement over Pentathlon and you get 5.1 and stereo options on the soundtrack which come through nice and clear.
You get a surprising amount of extra content too. Included with both titles is the half-hour documentary How American Cinema Changed Hollywood Forever. This is a basically produced, but extremely interesting feature which shows how the distribution/production company American Cinema was started by a group of young upstarts who decided to do things their own way and ended up making a fortune by financing and distributing films in a fairly arcane but successful fashion, which caught the eye of the bigger names in Hollywood who ended up (supposedly) adopting these tactics.
Each film comes with a 15 minute or so 'making of' documentary too which are both quite detailed for their length and worth a watch. There are the usual trailers and TV spots which are always fun for retro genre titles like these but more importantly, to really make these must buys for fans of the films, you get a director's commentary for each title. I must admit I didn't have time to listen to these, but if the other features are anything to go by, they should be a fascinating and fun listen. I've always enjoyed commentaries on lower budget productions like these, there's always more passion for the project as well as more anecdotes as to how things were done 'on the cheap'.
Chuck Norris fans would be crazy not to get their hands on these Blu-Rays. Even if they're not the best films in the world, they're good fun and the packages are exemplary.