I wasn’t sure I was going to be doing this. Reviewing a Chuck Norris film from 1980 involves two problems. One is that diehard fans of the martial arts genre might chalk a lot of the problems with The Octagon up to different standards of production and fight choreography from 30 years ago. The other is that saying bad things about Chuck Norris might have fans of the most memetic badass ever to be referenced on the Internet trying to sneak into my bedroom in black pajamas to practice their neck-snapping techniques on something other than the local squirrel population. However, given that the past week has been somewhat chaotic with moving and changing commutes and ensuring my cats know to attack wannabe ninjas on sight, I really have no choice but to review The Octagon.
Chuck Norris is Scott James, a martial artist and former soldier who’s hung up his nunchuks to lead a more peaceful life doing odd jobs and helping out in the community. His last mission put him in the unfortunate position of watching his best friend get murdered, so it’s no surprise that he’s been trying not to punch people in the face to earn a living. However, his past catches up with him when a wealthy & good-looking woman meets him almost by accident and recruits him to take care of some mercenaries who want her dead. It turns out that these mercs are actually part of a vicious group of terrorists who have been trained in the deadly and ancient art of the Ninja, an art Scott himself learned as a boy with his brother, or possibly just a rival, or maybe he’s an Easternized clone or something. He’s played by Tadashi Yamashita. Anyway, it turns out that this other guy from Scott’s past is behind the ninja, and only Scott can punch, kick and slice his way to the truth, or justice, or the end of the plot at the very least.
Let’s get a little praise out of the way first. Chuck Norris knows action. When the scenes that involve Chuck and a fight happen, they’re engaging. It’s nice to know that this was all practical effects and stuntwork. The lack of wire fu and CGI not only means that these guys worked their behinds off to make the scenes work, it also lends an old-fashioned charm to the action. And the action is pretty much all The Octagon has going for it. When you first see Chuck and realize he is without his beard for this film, you know you’re in trouble. He really could have used that extra fist.
Not that he couldn’t give every terrorist in the world a roundhouse kick to the face without his beard, but seriously, it’s a sure sign of trouble.
This film has a real pacing problem. A long, tedious and overly wordy scene of exposition will cut inexplicably to the training at the ninja camp, which seems like it might be building up to some real tension or at least a bit of action. Then, WHAM, right back to awkward exposition. It makes the film frustrating to watch, and this was after I’d had a few beers in me. Normally at that point I’d be willing to admit that Jumper has some interest effects or that I like Jason Statham and Ray Liotta even when they’re in something like In The Name Of the King while laughing at the badness. I wasn’t laughing at The Octagon. I was too confused to laugh.
At one point, you get to see what good actors and bad actors do in a movie like this. Lee Van Cleef, pretty much the ‘go-to guy’ for classic Western villainy, tries to breathe a little life into his role and the film in general with his smirking gun-loving militia type character. On the other end of things, you have Karen Carlson, and… wow. If you ever feel the need to suffer through a performance that makes Hayden Christensen look like Harrison Ford, look no further. Using the words ‘stiff’ and ‘wooden’ to describe this woman’s work in this film would incur the wrath of corpses and trees alike, and I’ve already got to be on the lookout for ninjas. Her character is an utter contrivance, a walking plot device of the worst kind and she just sucks what little life there is right off of the screen. Those overly long and tedious expository scenes I mentioned that make you forget this is a martial arts flick? She’s in most of those. And Chuck looks just as bored as we feel when he’s in them.
I think Lee was bored, too. I think he got his ear pierced during production just to stay awake.
Speaking of Chuck, if The Octagon is to be believed, there’s a huge echo chamber in his head. When we hear Scott’s inner monologue, it’s in a hushed tone of voice that bounces around between the speakers because apparently the makers of this film wouldn’t know good storytelling if it sat in their laps and offered a happy ending. Instead of showing us the moral conflict of the protagonist through any number of film-making tools, Chuck narrates his character’s feelings, and his tone of voice is so soft, the echo so ridiculous and the accompanying score so melodramatic that you need specialized ninja training just to understand what the fuck is going on. We are told things, over and over again, instead of being shown, and this extremely bad form of telling a story coupled with the tedious expository scenes and inexplicable jumps between locations makes the whole affair almost sickening in its badness.
After over an hour of this crap I was ready to consider the whole thing a failure on the scale of Attack Of The Clones. But at the very end, The Octagon seems to wake up from some sort of ninja-induced torpor and suddenly starts kicking ass. Well, Chuck does, at least. The last twenty minutes of this film has somewhat decent action, with Mister Norris infiltrating the ninja camp and confronting Yamashita-san. There’s a hefty dash of good atmosphere, some suspense and even a little drama. However, when the confrontation is over, so is the movie. It’s an ending so abrupt and inexplicable I can’t even put it into words. Also, when the climax occurs it’s clearly nighttime, but after the fight ends we see Chuck Norris sihouetted against what it clearly a sunset. Did the director think that a sunset and a sunrise were interchangable? Did they believe that fans of Chuck Norris would be too dazed by post-masturbation afterglow to notice the difference? Were they high?
Kyo, here, shows us that the most badass of ninjas have no subtlety whatsoever in their fashion sense.
We also get no real explanation as to how the conflict between Chuck and Tadashi began. We see what we assume is a mini-Chuck and mini-Tadashi being trained in flashbacks, with rivalry and lessons learned blah blah faux brotherhood blah blah I will never forgive you blee. I was reminded of the rivalry between Ken & Ryu in the Street Fighter series of video games, and you know what? I’ve read Street Fighter fanfiction with better characterization, pacing and action than this film, and no I’m not talking about that one where Zangief bends Blanka over a bench press. Or where Cammy is telling Chun-Li she doesn’t need a man in her life and can take care of her own needs. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right, The Octagon.
The forum in which I saw The Octagon was perfect. There were lots of friends, beer aplenty, and easy access to the bathroom should vomiting commence. Do NOT watch this film alone. Not even the mighty roundhouse-kick-to-the-face beats-the-odds-with-his-fists kidney-liquefying-glare-delivering power of Chuck Norris can save it. If you can find a way to just watch the last 20 minutes without sitting through the awful first three quarters, that’d be a fun lunch break. But you might still want someone to watch your back. You never know when your viewing of a film involving ninjas that reveals their secret, ancient and deadly training will be interrupted with a ninja sneaking into the room and breaking your neck.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.