The Octagon (1980) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and some language
Running time: 103 min.
Cast: Chuck Norris, Karen Carlson, Lee Van Cleef, Art Hindle, Carol Bagdasarian, Tadashi Yamashita, Richard Norton, Ernie Hudson, Brian Tochi
Director: Eric Karson
Screenplay: Leigh Chapman
Perhaps the most well known octagon is a big red one you see every day. You know, the one with the word, "STOP" written boldly on it. Keep that word in mind should you contemplate giving this terrible actioner a "GO".
The Octagon is a well-known Chuck Norris (Breaker Breaker, Return of the Dragon) film that plays a cable channel near you about every other day. The flick did once have its day, only to be regarded as laughably bad by today's standards, particularly by those who've grown up watching newer, better martial arts cinema. The Octagon pits Norris against a secret training camp of mercenaries who are coerced into becoming ninja terrorists. Yes, ninjas, in one of the first films of the 1980s to tap into what would go on to be an action movie craze for the next several years.
Norris plays Scott James, a former martial arts champ who becomes embroiled in busting the ninja ring when a wealthy and mysterious woman named Justine (Carlson, The Candidate) lures him under false pretenses in for her own personal vendetta. In his youth, James studied the arts with his corruptable stepbrother Seikura (Yamashita, American Ninja) in Japan, the latter of whom would end up banished from his father's house for breaking some sort of fighter's code. Years later, the two rival brothers, one the head of the ninja clan and the other out to bust them, meet up again as mortal enemies. How does Scott find them? Why through the want ads of his local paper of course -- where else would one expect to find mercenary training postings?
As a ninja film, The Octagon is a disappointment, never properly capitalizing on their allure and their propensity for immensely stealthy and supreme fighting skills. The Octagon's screenwriter, Leigh Chapman (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Truck Turner), posits that nearly anyone with a little bit of fighting skills can become one, and yet they are handily bested by a retired sports fighting champion. You know the acting is wooden when Chuck Norris arguably gives the film's best thespian performance.
While it may sound exciting to hear about a film in which Chuck Norris takes on a horde of ninjas, The Octagon is a dull, needlessly talky, overly plotted, and poorly directed bore. Eric Karson (Black Eagle, Opposing Force) hasn't a clue what to do with the subject matter, and the direction is static and barely worthy of TV fare. The gimmick of us hearing the Scott James's thoughts is laughable, as he not only thinks in whispers (would his thoughts be heard by others if they were in a normal tone of voice?), but also his own voice echoes to nearly unintelligible effect. But we don't always hear his thoughts -- they only occur when he's deducing something, akin to Spider-Man's "Spider-Sense".
The fighting by Chuck Norris is as dynamic as you'd expect, though, but there isn't much in terms of complex choreography to most of the fight scenes. Chuck mostly sticks to moves that have been his bread and butter over the years, so unless you've never seen Chuck in any of his early action, even that is tepid. That is until the end, when James enters the titular Octagon, a sort of battle royale obstacle course where he must fight his way up through boss battles you've predicted since the first inkling of the bad guys' hierarchy. For some, these final scenes where Chuck kicks butt might be enough to justify the previous hour and a half of monotony, but I suspect that most who venture to start the film will never quite make it there, at least not without hitting that fast forward button a few times.
©2011 Vince Leo