Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Octagon (1980)

Like my blog colleague, Doug, I don't particularly consider myself to be a huge fan of Chuck Norris as a public persona, but I love his movies. I also think that people really do underestimate the impact of his movies.

Missing In Action nearly single handedly launched the "get 'em back" era of American action films during the Cold War, where the US always managed to top our traditional Communist enemies. Mission In Action was particularly significant as it helped to numb the eternal sting to US pride over embarrassments of the Vietnam War.

Chuck went back to 'Nam, Chuck won, and before you knew it so did Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo as the anticipated sequel First Blood diverged dramatically from the premise of the first film and seemingly tried to replicate what Mission In Action had already accomplished, albeit on a much larger budget.

The rest was history and the message was clear: "If you want your action movie to turn a profit, have the hero kill as many Communists as possible."

Like Missing In Action, The Octagon also tried to set the trend as it attempted to be one of the first films to introduce the ninja to a modern Hollywood.

Unfortunately for Chuck, the Cannon Group would fare much better in bringing shuriken-throwing assassins to mainstream audiences in the states than American Cinema Productions.

It's not surprising that after bouncing around film compainies for a couple of years, Norris eventually ended up as one of Cannon Group's biggest draws in the aforementioned, Missing In Action.

1981's Enter The Ninja is arguably the wellspring for the Ninja boom in 1980's action cinema. A year prior, American Cinema Productions delved into ninja lore and tried to introduce their mystique and menace to action movie aficionados the world over.

The result was The Octagon; a movie that tried to be equal parts spaghetti western and ninja movie.

The story itself is both cluttered and implausible. Chuck Norris stars as Scott James, a retired martial artist with a checkered past. As a boy, James was raised by a master of ninjutsu named Isawa (played by John Fujioka who played just about everyone's shidoshi in ninja movies including American Ninja) and is raised alongside a resentful foster brother named Seikura (played as a youth by Brian Tochi and as an adult by Tadashi Yamashita).

Predictably, both James and Seikura grow apart and Seikura (in the most hilarious plot development ever) sets up a ninja training camp for would-be mercenaries somewhere in the jungles of Central America.

I'm not lying. I couldn't possibly make up something like that.

Eventually, James is approached by Justine (Karen Carlson), a vindictive and spoiled witch that tries to use any means necessary to seduce our hero and send him off to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of Seikura's minions.

The tale then takes the traditional twists in plot one would expect from a Western, as James becomes the ninja version of the retired gunslinger slowly being drawn back in for one last showdown.

Supporting characters include Lee Van Cleef as McCairn, a rival mercenary band leader looking to help James deal with Seikura (and rid himself of a business competitor in the process), Art Hindle plays A.J, James's martial arts protege, and exotic 80's siren, Carol Bagdasarian, plays Aura, a no-nonsense female merc turned unlikely ally in James's crusade.

And to answer what you are thinking, yes. Carol is the daughter of Ross Bagdasarian, the man who once assumed the name David Seville and introduced Alvin and the Chipmunks to the world at large.

You'd have to think that the aspirations for The Octagon were pretty high since the story is pretty complex and the dialogue is rich when compared to the action movies of the time.

Sadly the film falters due to a laundry list of complications. The script plods along painfully at times and The Octagon does not follow some of the most important rules of ninja movies.

First of all, the ninjas don't really provide a tangible sense of threat. To paraphrase the immortal line from Sho Kusugi's classic, Revenge of the Ninja, the only people that are supposed to be able to kill ninja are other ninja.

Unlike the badass minions of Shiranui Shogen in Shogun's Ninja or even the Makato from The Hunted, the ninja in The Octagon are routinely outclassed and butchered by mere mortals that they should be fighting circles around. Granted that this adds some element of realism (ie. bullets > swords) but it also makes light of one of the most important parts of the plot.

If Seikura's elite shinobi are dealt with so easily, then why are mercs from around the globe flocking to his training camp in droves to learn what he has to teach?

To paraphrase Pops Racer (John Goodman) from the Warshowski's Speed Racer movie, it is a shame what passes for ninja in this production.

Secondly, The Octagon saps all of the fun out of ninja movies with an overly complicated plotline and rather silly dramatic effects. The parts of the movie that don't have to deal with Norris beating the snot out of ninja or Carol Bagdasarian walking around in really tight jeans are nigh unbearable.

Even more unbearable is the plot device where James's innermost thoughts are broadcast to the audience as audble narration....

.... but are narrated as whispers.....

We're talking "chu, chu, chu, ha, ha, ha" sounding, "Friday the 13th slasher movie"-style whispers that are almost indecipherable and are completely hilarious.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the climactic fight scene you'd expect to happen doesn't happen as James squares off against Seikura's number one ninja, Kyo (played by John Belushi's former bodyguard, Richard Norton. Norton also appears in The Octagon as Long Legs, the merc recruiter), while Seikura's fate is a disappointing dénouement that will leave you dumbfounded rather than awestruck.

The Octagon stumbles because it tries to be smarter than it should be. The 80's ninja epics of Golan-Globus and The Cannon Group worked because they took the traditional folklore and fed it steroids.

The Octagon fails because it doesn't place its tongue as firmly in its cheek as it should. While I admire The Octagon for attempting to be a different movie, I think it would have been a better film if it had stuck to the 80's ninja movie formula.

Namely: More ninja, less plot.


Matt-suzaka said...

It's silly, but that Ninja training camp is so awesome! I actually just watched The Octogon a few months back, and you hit the nail on the head with pretty much everything.

I do like that it tries to be a smarter movie but that is almost completely undone by the *NiNiNinja...* *There aren't any Ninjajajaja any more-more-more-more* voice-overs. I do enjoy the voice overs for how cheesy they are, but they really hurt the film quite a bit. If it's cheese, I want, I'll go with some Godfrey Ho.

Emily said...

Two things I love about this movie:

1. THe immediate disowning of the bad son for cheating in one contest.

2. The 'ch ch ch ha ha ha ha' narration sound overlays that render anything Norris says completely inaudible when not sounding like it's being whispered in a lonely sewer.

J.T. said...

I have noticed that THE OCTAGON is on heavy rotation on The Movie Channel this month, so it is bound to show up at some point on one of the SHOWTIME network channels.

Most likely on SHOWTIME Extreme.

Check out the profile page at IMDB for schedule notes.

J.T. said...

@ Emily:

I think my favorite part of the movie is the "training montage."

Seikura prepares for the impending confrontation by getting his weapons and practicing his form.

What does Scott James do? He hops in bed with Aura and gets laid.

So much for the myth that sex before the big game kills your performance..

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