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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Octagon (1980) review


Chuck Norris (Scott James), Karen Carlson (Justine), Lee Van Cleef (McCarn), Art Hindle (A.J.), Tadashi Yamashita (Seikura), John Fujioka (Isawa), Kurt Grayson (Doggo), Richard Norton (Kyo/Longlegs), Yuki Shimoda (Katsumoto), Gerald Okamura (Instructor), Aaron Norris (Hatband)

Directed by Eric Karson

The Short Version: Chuck's fifth major role is his most ambitious up to that time about ninjas training recruits for an international terrorist ring. Fight scenes are generally impressive even if the storyline is just too damn big to be pulled off as successfully. Karson's film is enjoyable enough, but often feels like a more violent than usual television miniseries edited down to 100 confusing minutes. Some viewers might be irritated by the onslaught of half-rendered characters and ideas in what could have been Chuck and Van Cleef kicking ninja ass, but instead prefers being Bond on a budget.

Former martial arts competitor Scott James discovers that ninjas are alive and well in the 20th century after he is attacked by several of them upon accompanying a dancer home from a show. Having been trained in the art since childhood by an adoptive Japanese father, James believes his step-brother, Seikura, must be responsible for training the black-clad killers. Meanwhile, mercenary McCarn attempts to recruit Scott to take down a terrorist organization located in South America where applicants are trained to be assassins. 

Chuck Norris differed from many of his colleagues and contemporaries in that he fought a variety of villainous types, and not just your standard America-hating terrorists and drug kingpins. Perusing his resume, one can point out, "Oh, that's where Norris was turned into Indiana Jones"; to "this is where Norris went up against an indestructible slasher"; or "isn't that the one where Chuck plays a shape-shifting mountain man?"; and "yeah, that's that time Chuck battled it out with demons from Hell". For THE OCTAGON, this is the one where Chuck rumbles with ninjas. Chuck's varied oeuvre would seemingly rub off on some of his Tough Guy colleagues over the years -- Schwarzenegger ended up battling the Devil and Rambo was once plotted to do battle with a genetically engineered monstrosity in a fifth entry that never came to fruition.

With each succeeding film Chuck Norris's status as an action hero icon grew; and as each film got bigger, Norris's stone-faced acting style garnered an equal amount of negative critical attention. It didn't really matter, though, as Norris became larger than life in the eyes of the audience. His lack of thespian skills was frequently trumped by his fighting skills; which is what you go to see a Chuck Norris film for in the first place. Largely responsible for cementing the American style of martial arts picture, Norris was the first such 80s action hero when the terminology became a marketing juggernaut.

In THE OCTAGON, Chuck plays Scott James, The Man With Two First Names. It's unclear what his profession is, we only know he was raised in Japan, is proficient in the ninja arts, a war vet, a martial arts champ, and isn't much on conversation. He does talk to his subconscious a lot, though, via this process called 'Echoplex'--a technique that seems to annoy virtually everybody who has seen the movie. It's not that intrusive, only it's occasionally difficult to ascertain what's being said with the echo effect. Hearing his thoughts is actually a pretty neat idea since most of the Tough Guys in all your finer beat'em ups have little to say. It's most successful at humanizing his character, and counteracts nicely with Norris's invincible persona that was in its infancy at this time.

The first theatrical feature of Eric Karson, the script by Leigh Chapman (from a story by Paul Aaron) has far too much scope than can be handled within an already overlong hour and forty-four minutes. It's like watching a HK movie based on one of the voluminous novels of Gu Lung or Jin Yong; it's an overwhelming amount of exposition to cram into a motion picture narrative. The difference with THE OCTAGON is that it's not based on a novel. By the time you're becoming somewhat comfortable with a character, another is introduced, or killed off. The editing is choppy at times, incidents are referred to that we never see, and with so many characters being juggled at once, it's difficult to keep up with who's who and what's what. With fifteen minutes shaved off, a few less characters, and more emphasis on the main villains, and THE OCTAGON might be more than a minor recommendation in martial arts cinema.

The ninja is a big part of Chapman's script, yet these silent assassins--outside of Kyo--aren't given much back story, or given enough to do to be a truly threatening force. There's more correlation with the ninja to terrorist groups than some ancient Japanese society of assassins. When Chuck Norris discovers the cloaked killers are afoot, there's no attempt at an explanation as to what a ninja is. Outside of a few brief mentions (Lee Van Cleef's "if you saw ninja, you saw a ghost" is the extent of the mystery factor), Ninjitsu feels like a secondary scripting addition with no historical significance written for them sensational or otherwise. It would take a few years before the black clad Shinobi would be better served in an American production, and THE OCTAGON is taking baby steps.

In later westernized ninja movies, there was always that plot device that ninja are extinct, or that there's no such thing as an American ninja (like in REVENGE OF THE NINJA and AMERICAN NINJA). There had been two movies prior that had ninja in them with the James Bond favorite, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's THE KILLER ELITE (1975). Before that, Japan had already featured them with such film series' as SHINOBI NO MONO (1962-1966) and LONE WOLF & CUB (1972-1974). It might of snowballed with Cannon's mediocre ENTER THE NINJA (1981), but THE OCTAGON laid the American blueprint.

You could also say THE OCTAGON is a precursor to the far superior AMERICAN NINJA from Cannon. The later film with Michael Dudikoff shares some similarities to the Norris picture. Norris never wears the identifying clothing, but his character was raised by a Japanese martial artist played by John Fujioka who played essentially the same role in AMERICAN NINJA. Norris's Japanese step-brother played by Tadashi Yamashita also played the main villain in AMERICAN NINJA (1985). 

Only Norris knows who the ninja are, and only he can defeat them. All the chatter and flood of exposition that goes nowhere is forgiven by the finale when Norris enters The Octagon, squaring off with an assortment of shadow warriors before facing Kyo, the silent ninja killer played by Richard Norton (who did double duty as the character Long Legs) in his big screen debut. This then sets up a final confrontation between the two brothers.

Chuck and his brother Aaron choreographed the action in THE OCTAGON. It's well done, especially the climactic set piece in the title training camp. All the patience lost during the previous 80 minutes is restored in the last 20. Thankfully the camera stays back with very few close ups and edits that would hinder the choreo in most American martial arts pictures that came after it. 

Interestingly, and in major contradiction with Hong Kong made martial action pictures, American Karate and Kung Fu films went in a different direction by the dawn of the 80s; feeling that dance-like choreography didn't look impressive enough, the thought process was to focus on a limited set of maneuvers to heighten realism. The action in THE OCTAGON stands out in that there's some of that HK style in there, most noticeably in the fight between Norris and Kyo. Norris doesn't just go in and wipe the floor with Kyo, who, incidentally, is the only villain in the picture who is built up with any lasting menace.

The other ninjas seen in the film were all students of Norris; this made things easier since you couldn't see their faces and they could be used over and over again.

Living, eating and breathing martial arts for some 60 years, Tadashi Yamashita holds 10th Degree Black Belts in Karatedo and Kobudo. First bursting on the movie scene with 1974s THE KARATE (best known here as BRONSON LEE, CHAMPION), Yamashita displayed a unique look that rivaled Japan's then reigning martial arts star, Sonny Chiba. He never achieved the same level of big screen fame of Chiba, but did headline two sequels to his initial KARATE flick. He did co-star with Chiba in WAY OF THE EVIL FIST in 1977 (SOUL OF CHIBA). Yamashita is best known here for playing the Black Star Ninja in the box office hit AMERICAN NINJA (1985). Some of his other films include SEVEN (1979), THE SHINOBI (1980), SWORD OF HEAVEN (1985) and GYMKATA (1985). He contributed to the action in THE OCTAGON, helping future action star Richard Norton (in his debut) look good as Kyo.

Unfortunately, Yamashita is wasted in his role of Seikura. He does so little in the film aside from walking around looking like he's got a small rock in his shoe. He does get to briefly show off one of his classic katas with the Kama, a sickle weapon. After a significant amount of buildup, the final confrontation between him and Norris, his onscreen Anglo brother, is also a letdown. All the energy was seemingly used up for Kyo-Norris duel; so Yamashita gets shortchanged in his fight. A shame. Yamashita is still in great shape, and very active in martial arts today.

Lee Van Cleef is something of a mercenary guardian angel, dropping in and out of the narrative with regularity. He's conspicuous in his absence during the big finale. Previously a huge star in Europe, Van Cleef came back to America to supporting roles like this one, and in films like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1980). In another AMERICAN NINJA similarity, Van Cleef played one as THE MASTER, the short-lived series from 1984. Heavily doubled, Van Cleef wasn't believable at all in the role, but it was great to see him in a lead role at that point in his career.

THE OCTAGON was another hit for both Norris and American Cinema Productions, although his next picture would be for another company. While his star was rising, his sole excursion into the land of the ninja would become a minor footnote in action cinema. A missed opportunity on a variety of levels, Karson went to war with OPPOSING FORCE in 1986, and worked with ninja Sho Kosugi in his last 80s hurrah, BLACK EAGLE (1988). With more fumbles than touchdowns, Karson and crew still play a good game. For the most part, only Chuck and ninja fans will get the most out of THE OCTAGON (1980).

This review is representative of the Scorpion Releasing Bluray. Extras and Specs: 1080p, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; introduction by Eric Karson; Making of The Octagon; interview with Tadashi Yamashita; commentary with director Eric Karson; original theatrical trailer.


Dr. Theda said...

Not Our type of film ... but , did enjoy this one on HBO back around the early 80's....
... cool post... informative as well.....

venoms5 said...

Hi, Dr. Theda. I normally mix it up here, but I'm doing a second Macho Month so it's a theme for May. Thanks for the compliment.

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