Chuck Norris Double-Bill DVD Review: A Force of One & The Octagon
Review by Ben Bussey
We all know his name. We know that he doesn’t sleep, he waits; we know that if he goes in the water he doesn’t get wet, the water gets him; we know that if you Google him on the right day you’ll get no results because you don’t find him, he finds you. But just where did this legend begin? How did Chuck Norris come to be venerated by nerds and hipsters worldwide as a god among men (however great an anathema that notion might be to his ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christian self)? Well, if we’re being entirely objective, it’s not unreasonable to say that before Chuck Norris came along there was arguably no other American movie star quite like him. Whereas before your average Hollywood actor might have done a bit of training for a fighter role and most likely hired a double for the especially rough and tough stuff, ol’ Chuck got into the movies primarily on the basis of his martial arts prowess. Factor in his military service and there was clear potential for action movie performances of great verisimilitude, and the fact that his big break in film came doing battle with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon certainly didn’t hurt. But what of the real backbone of the Chuck Norris legend; the series of films from the late 70s to the early 90s in which he took top billing..?
Well, as much fun as it might be to do a full career assessment of His Chuckness, all the way up to his role in the upcoming Expendables sequel (which of course has played no small part in Anchor Bay choosing to release these films now), that’s not the job that befalls me today. Right now, my focal point is two of Chuck’s first leading roles for the gloriously-named American Cinema Releasing: 1979’s A Force of One and 1980’s The Octagon. And putting all hipster-nerd irony to one side, it really must be said that these are… well… fucking awful films. Really, really bad. Inept on so many levels. Ham-fisted melodramas with appalling acting, dreadful dialogue, and pathetic plots. Of course, none of that need suggest that there isn’t any fun to be had…
Of the two, I daresay A Force of One offers the most paracinematic comedy value. Chuck stars as Matt Logan, a karate champion who is asked for help by the police after a couple of undercover narcs are murdered by a martial arts master. Not that they realise this straight away, mind you. They sit in a room and talk about it first, for what seems like a lifetime. Then when they find Chuck (I suppose I should really call him Matt, but come on, he’s Chuck), they talk about it with him for what seems an even longer time, and it’s made especially interminable as – particularly this early in his career – talking with people on camera really isn’t Chuck’s strong point. Anyway, once Chuck/Matt finds out drugs are all over the streets he gets very grumpy indeed. We know this because he goes and hits a punchbag with a glum expression, whilst images of drugs flash up on screen intermittently. So he agrees to help the cops, starts training them in self-defence, and inexplicably becomes part of the investigation, whilst matters continue to move verrry slowwwly…
Yes, as you may have ascertained A Force of One is an extraordinarily dull film, feeling at least twenty minutes overlong even though it clocks in at a perfectly respectable hour and a half. As befits any good bad movie, the cast actually boasts some fairly respectable actors, including Jennifer ‘Scanners’ O’Neill, Ron ‘Superfly’ O’Neal, and Clu ‘It’s not a bad question, Burt!’ Gulager. Given the dumbness and lack of pace it’s hard to believe it was written by Ernest Tidyman, the screenwriter behind The French Connection and High Plains Drifter. Goes to show what a difference a director makes, I suppose; Aaron Paul clearly isn’t another Friedkin or Eastwood.
The Octagon makes for a more efficient effort overall, though not by an especially great margin. It’s a more interesting set-up straight away, dealing with terrorists being trained as ninjas; and naturally, only one man can stop them. This time he’s a karate champ called Scott James. Yes, another simple, manly name for basically the exact same character. Really, it’s beyond me why they didn’t just dispense with the pleasantries and refer to him by his given name, like they wound up doing with Jackie Chan. Well anyway, in case you’re wondering the octagon of the title refers neither to a mixed-martial arts ring nor Brian Fantana’s penis, but rather a mighty wooden arena in which the ninjas are trained, and where Chuck/Scott has his final showdown with the disgraced ninja he once called brother. And from that point on, it’s pretty cool. Shame it takes over an hour and a bit to get there.
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Okay, okay, I know what some of you are saying; it doesn’t matter that everything else is crap, the fight scenes are awesome, right? Well, again I suppose we have to consider the time these films were made. Nowadays we expect our movie cops to have mastered at least one martial art, so it’s weird seeing the cops in A Force of One being completely ignorant of karate, decrying it as crap or hooey or some such dismissive term. As martial arts overall were not quite so prevalent in the popular consciousness at the time, the fight scenes probably were a revelation to some early 80s audiences. However, more than three decades later – the intervening years having seen, amongst others, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, The Matrix, Bourne, and most recently The Raid – it has to be said the fisticuffs on show here just don’t impress as much as they might have before. Now I’m not questioning the Chuckster’s prowess, Heaven forbid; the real problem is that the directors he worked with just didn’t know quite how to capture the action on film. Again, A Force of One is the worst offender: watch the opening karate match and it’s glaringly obvious that not a single blow actually connects.
Those with a heightened sense of ironic detachment will no doubt revel in the inanity of these films, but I can only take so much of that “so bad it’s good” smugness and the joke wore thin pretty quick here. I will say, though, that I wouldn’t be singing so cruel a tune if DVDs of Invasion USA and/or the Missing In Action trilogy had come through my door; Chuck really had his badass routine down by the time he did those gleefully sadistic Cannon classics. I might say he’d really evolved as an actor by then, except that as we all know, there is no such thing as evolution; only a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live. Etc, etc, ad infinitum.
A Force of One and The Octagon are released to Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray on 6th August, from Anchor Bay.