It’s a Chuck Norris movie with ninjas, his classic 80s moustache and body hair. You don’t need more than that to introduce one of Chuck’s movies but check out the trailer before you read into the review.
The film opens to a group of people being led into a terrorist camp in an unknown location, managed by camp leader Katsumoto (Yuki Shimoda) along with his sidekick Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). The camp is designed to train anyone who wishes to lead a mercenary lifestyle and cause terror to people without being seen or identified. It’s trainees come from all over the world however the world doesn’t even know they exist.
In America, Scott James (Chuck Norris), a retired martial arts expert, is enjoying a dance performance with his friend A.J. (Art Hindle). At the after party, James gathers the courage to ask out the lead dancer to dinner however when he drops her off home at the end of the evening, he senses not all right behind her front door. True to his psychic abilities the house is full of ninjas, one of whom kills the dancer due to her brother being an American diplomat, based in Paris, who was also killed that day for sinister reasons.
James visits his old friend McCarn (Lee Van Cleef) and asks if there’s any strange activities in the crime world he should be aware of – specifically ninjas. McCarn quiffs and tells James if he’s seeing ninjas, then he’s seeing ghosts. Thinking it was a one off incident, James goes about his way and encounters a woman name Justine (Karen Carlson) on the road and assists getting her car off the edge of the cliff. It later transpires that Justine is in fact a wealthy heiress and wants to hire James for his martial art skills to kill Katsumoto who sent assassins to kill her father and possibly the diplomat who died in Paris. James, already retired from a life of violence, kindly declines her offer.
A lone female mercenary graduate named Aura (Carol Nagdasarian) returns to her mercenary leader Doggo (Kurt Grayson) only to find she can’t carry out his next assignment – to cause mayhem in Egypt – due to finally realising the aftermath of the collateral damage it might cause. Elsewhere Katsumoto hears of Doggo’s corrupt usage of his ninja trained mercenaries and refuses to train any more of his men. As a result, a battle ensues between both sides. Aura manages to track down James in a hotel, after he was rejected to be enrolled as one of Doggo’s mercenaries, where she finds him refusing Justine’s advances again to help. But upon discovering his friend A.J. has been captured by the Ninjas, James has no choice but unleash his fury on the idiots who thought they could get away with it. Aura takes James to the training camp where he realises he will need to fight against some of his old enemies, and new ones like the deadly Kyo (Richard Norton) in the battle ground they call – the Octagon.
The plot to this movie, in all honesty, is a tad weak. And while you wait less than ten minutes before you see Chuck kick a ninja out of a doorway, the action and set pieces take a dive until the last half an hour. What is interesting is that the screenplay for this 80s action flick was written by a woman which was rare even back then. The characters certainly do flesh out and there are some strong female roles which was rarely seen in these movies. What was also a revelation was the actual storyline. We’re all very familiar with militant training camps post 9/11 however this movie was written back in 1979, during the Cold War, and you’ll see the training camp attracting people from all nations such as France, Arabian Peninsula and also the USA. Was it foreshadowing things to come?
The studio that produced the movie, American Cinema, was originally an entity that financed films but later expanded its domain into a production company with The Octagon being its first feature release, elevating Chuck from an caucasian Bruce Lee to a fully fledge American action star to compete with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. For a first feature in the 80s, it has to be applauded for its editing, cinematography, casting and indeed the set pieces – especially the Octagon itself, which became a labyrinth for Chuck to filter his way through an assault course while being attacked by ninjas. Due to the budget, there weren’t any CGI effects so all the stunts you see are the real thing. The end ‘explosion’ sequence is also real and very impressively done (apparently it was less expensive to blow it all up then to dissemble the entire set). The other star of this show is Richard Norton who plays a duel role in this movie and his stunts were amazing though not as amazing as his later movies while working with Hong Kong legends like Jackie Chan.
But as with all Chuck’s movies, the action takes precedent over the plot and its here many of his films suffer thus this never really achieving the heights of his other two contemporaries except for having a cult status. There are some other features which haven’t aged well such as the dialogue – which is fine for a movie that isn’t taking itself seriously, but this one is and often it will surprise you how it even stayed in the final shot. Also the voice over segments are digitalised or ‘echo plexed’ and is both frustrating and difficult to hear. The fashion back sequences are bizarrely seen in red; for whatever artistic purpose it served, it ultimately became both annoying and distracting instead.
This is really an attempt to rekindle the Norris magic due to his appearance in the forth coming testosterone fueled movie – Expendables 2. That being said, the movie has to be appreciated in context and how it came about. Some of the featurettes in this movie provide great highlights as to how and why it was made. While not a solid classic, The Octagon is still an enjoyable action movie – though there’s greater emphasise on the movie than the action. And if Chuck had anything to do with it, he would reverse kick that the other way round.
Making of featurette
“How America Changed Hollywood Forever” featurette
The Octagon will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 6th August
Written by Vaskar S. Kayastha