Judge Michael Nazarewycz wants to know why the plural of ninja isn't ninji.
"Oh my god. Ninja. It has to be. But they don't exist anymore."
Before Chuck Norris became a celebrity face for conservative politics the subject of one of the greatest Internet memes ever ("Chuck Norris counted to infinity—twice," and the like), he was a premier Hollywood action hero. In the history of the modern action film, Norris preceded '80s juggernauts Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and for a while competed directly with them at the box office. The Octagon, from 1980, is an early entry in the Norris action canon, predating Stallone's first big action hit (First Blood) by two years and Schwarzenegger's (The Terminator) by four.
Facts of the Case
Scott James (Chuck Norris, Missing In Action) is a retired competitive martial artist who finds himself embroiled in an international terrorist ninja plot. Really.
When James meets a dancer (Kim Lankford, Malibu Beach) who invites him back to her place, he is surprised to run into a group of ninja who have already killed her family and proceed to kill her, too. James thought ninja to be extinct, and he knows of only one person who can train them—his estranged half-brother, Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita, American Ninja).
With help from old colleague McCarn (Lee Van Cleef, Escape From New York), friend A.J. (Art Hindle, Black Christmas), and others, James ultimately finds the camp and finds himself in a showdown with the man he once shared a father with.
The The Octagon has a lot of problems. The direction, from first-timer Eric Karson (producer, Lionheart), has no flow at either the overall film level or even within the individual scenes. He avoids the basic two-shot at all costs, instead opting to cling to a series of cuts between two people in conversation, which makes for a clumsy viewing experience. His editor, Dann Cahn (Beyond the Vally of the Dolls), contributes to that problem with poor execution.
Another glaring issue is that basic probability is completely abandoned. I'll gladly accept ninja terrorists, but I can't accept a 6-foot-tall bad guy walking towards a partially bare tree, in which Chuck Norris has climbed 8 feet, and not see him. No one sees him. Nor does anyone see the ninja in the trees either. It's as if Karson is asking us to just kind of go with it and pretend everyone is 20 feet high.
Karson also employs a—device?—called "echoplex," or so he calls it in the Making Of featurette. It sounds fancy, but essentially whenever Norris' character thinks, you hear Norris' voice, and it echos. ("Ninja-ja-ja-ja.") That's echoplex. It's ridiculous in any use at all, but here it's used far too often, and basically as a crutch for Karson's inability to effectively tell a story. If some of that blame falls on screenwriter Leigh Chapman (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) too, then so be it. And really, when you think to yourself, does the voice in your head echo? Oh, and in the featurette, Karson has the nerve to invoke Sunset Boulevard as an example of a film that uses voiceover narration to great success. The problem is that William Holden's Joe Gillis' voice never echoed when he spoke, and Norris doesn't narrate here. He only thinks. Which he really shouldn't do.
Throw in an uncreative score by Dick Halligan (A Force of One), and you have what resembles a very long episode of a '70s cop show. Herein lies the root of this film's problem: it cannot bear the weight of time.
The martial arts film genre has come very far in the last 30 years, with The Matrix-like camerawork and long, intricate fight scenes (too many examples to list). The fight scenes here, while possibly exciting in 1980, look like they're in slow motion (and not in that cool John Woo way) as reenacted by kids in a schoolyard. The fighters' moves are more telegraphed than choreographed, and they lack any sense of true rhythm. I understand this is how martial arts was done then, but unlike other time-specific things we see in movies that we might consider enjoyable to revisit (pay phones, for a random example), and unlike other components of action films that still hold up in older films despite modern advancements (car chases), these fights are glaringly old.
To their credit, the main actors do the best they can with the material they have. There aren't any tour de force performances, but everyone certainly tries, especially Norris. Of course his hair perfect (both head and chest), as is his trademark 'stache.
The video quality of this disc is very bad—second gen VHS bad. Beginning with the American Cinema logo (!), edges are soft and images are grainy and deteriorate as scenes darken. The sound isn't bad, but it isn't anything to write home about either. Full disclosure: To review The Octagon, I was provided with a "Screener" DVD of the film, not an advance copy of what will be sold to the public.
The extras are limited. In addition to an audio commentary track with director Karson, there is a 40-minute "Making Of." This is pretty good, offering interviews with numerous filmmakers (producer, director, editor, composer, actor, etc.) presenting the history of the film chronologically, from script discovery to finished product. The insight is interesting. People also speak to the technical aspects of the film's production, from directing to editing to scoring.
There is also a 23-minute interview with star Tadashi Yamashita, but the production value is right around video dating submission. Yamashita looks like he's sitting in an empty room where someone has placed a video camera on a tripod and asked him to wax nostalgic. He sounds like he's in an empty room, too. The Original Trailer (two, actually—full length and teaser) is also on the disc. It's completely unrepaired and wonderful as such. I love original trailers; they make me nostalgic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is going to sound overly specific, but it was good to see Norris work the heavy bag in this film. Because all of the fights are choreographed, it's clear he's holding back. When he works the bag, you get a great sense for the kind of power he has in his right hook and his roundhouse kick.
Director Eric Karson introduces The Octagon wearing a "Festival de Cannes" baseball hat (suggesting?) and saying, "By the way, just a quick update. Scenes from 'The Octagon' were selected by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences as outstanding examples of martial arts scenes, martial arts fights. I'm sure you'll figure out which one it is, it's in the octagon." The introduction is about as incoherent as the film itself.
Octagon? More like Octa-guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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