Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Octagon (1980)

Directed by Eric Karson.

Ninjas, terrorists, assassins, and mercenaries. Where do I start? How about with Scott James (Chuck Norris) - a retired World Karate Champion who's approached by an heiress (Karen Carlson) regarding a potential job as her bodyguard, but is subsequently lured into a dangerous situation involving terrorists who are being trained at a Ninja training camp called The Octagon by his estranged Japanese half-brother, Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). Iconic tough-guy actor Lee Van Cleef plays McCarn - a militant rightist who leads a group of American mercenaries in a battle against terrorism, so you can bet he comes into play somehow when the shit goes down.

Once Scott realizes that there are Ninjas running around (the Ninja were thought to have been a long-forgotten thing of the past, mind you), he spends a good chunk of the movie trying to find them with hopes that he can infiltrate their training camp, but seeing as they're Ninjas after all (ie. stealth and hard to find), his search becomes complicated. That is, until he meets and teams up with a woman named Aura (Carol Bagdasarian), who actually trained at The Octagon and later deflected from the group of terrorists. Aura's an interesting character in that there weren't a lot of women being portrayed as tough, female-Rambo type characters in mainstream American cinema at the time. Considering THE OCTAGON was written by a woman, it's safe to assume that this strong female character was no accident.

Not to jump the gun or anything, but I did like THE OCTAGON a lot. However, it's not to say that the film is without flaws and mind-boggling WTF moments. First of all, one thing I never understood about the heiress character, who attempted to hire Chuck Norris as her bodyguard, is why she was a big deal in the first place. She was obviously so important that people apparently wanted her dead, or were at least willing to go out of their way to threaten her, but it turns out that she only inherited a publishing company. According to this woman, she started receiving threats because people wanted her to change certain editorial policies. Huh? I'm sure I must have missed something, but I went back a couple of times to learn more about her and still couldn't find anything. Also, actress Karen Carlson has a few scenery-chewing moments in the film which are quite amusing.

Another strange element to the film, or rather an odd trait of its lead protagonist, is that Chuck Norris's character hears voices. Well, just his own voice, but it almost comes across as this hidden psychic ability that he's tapped into. Throughout the film we hear Scott's thoughts out loud, but we hear them as these really slow whispers with some sort of creepy vocal effect added on, and sometimes his thoughts even warn him of impending danger, which we see during the film's initial Ninja attack (a WTF sequence in and of itself). But perhaps the most unusual thing about film is its structure. The plot tends to jump around on numerous occasions, which is fine and somewhat interesting in terms of how non-linear it is for a presumably accessible Action movie, but what's frustrating is how the characters are established. More often than not, someone will be introduced and you're not quite sure what it is exactly that this person does in the big scheme of things, but then it ultimately (and gradually) makes sense as the story unfolds. Don't get me wrong, I love movies that don't insult their audience's intelligence and feel the need to explain everything, but in this movie's case, it was kinda confusing at times.

As far as the eponymous Octagon, there are certain things about it that are a bit silly, but for the most part it's also quite fascinating in terms of how it looks and how it ultimately comes into play during the film's third act. And what I mean by "silly" is that the terrorists who show up there to train are the most un-Ninja group of people I've ever seen, for lack of a better term. Most of Seikura's trainees look like a bunch of hicks and ex-cons, and it becomes quite obvious not long after they're introduced that most of them don't know how to fight. Overseeing the training with Seikura and is this film's Boba Fett: a crimson-hooded Ninja named Kyo (shown on the film's poster). Played by Aussie actor/stuntman Richard Norton, Kyo is a silent character who occasionally steps out of the shadows to discipline some of the more lackluster trainees at The Octagon. In one scene, he disarms a froggy student and turns his own weapon against him in the blink of an eye. According to director Eric Karson, he slowed the footage of this scene down during production, watched it frame by frame, and was still unable to figure out how Norton did this maneuver so quickly.

Make or Break Scene: Easily the fight scene involving Richard Norton (as Kyo) and Chuck Norris towards the end of the film. Honestly, it looks a bit too choreographed at times, but nonetheless it still looks really good. One of the reasons I love this fight scene as much as I do is how long it's drawn out. Kyo is basically a "mini-boss" of sorts and another obstacle that Chuck Norris has to get through before he faces Seikura, but the scene is treated as if Norton's character were the main villain in the film. What sealed the deal was the impressive fire stunt at the end of the scene.

MVT: Chuck Norris. It's gotta be Chuck. He roundhouse-kicks Ninjas into oblivion in the film, and he also played an important role behind the scenes with the fight choreography and stunts along with his brother Aaron (who also stars a small part in the film).

Score: 6.5/10

THE OCTAGON leaves much to be desired when it comes to pacing, and, as I said earlier, it can be confusing at times and a little hard to follow, but the Ninja aspect of the film makes it unique in terms of Chuck Norris's filmography at the time, and it also provides for a great aesthetic (seriously, how could you not love Ninjas?). Ominous hooded figures running around at night and leaping out of the shadows is much more interesting than seeing a bunch of plain-clothed henchmen hopping out of pick-up trucks. If you happen to check out the Trinity Home Entertainment DVD, there's a surprisingly in-depth talking-head featurette on the making of the film, which I highly recommend checking out (after you've seen the film).


  1. Soooo... Chuck Norris plays himself? Wasn't he a world Karate champion for reals before Bruce Lee brought him to cinema? Honestly though, this sounds like it's next on my list of movies to watch for "cheesy movies night." Thanks.

  2. Yeah, not much of a stretch for ol' Chuck. Hope you enjoy it!

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  4. Great review, Aaron.

    Admittedly, I've never seen THE OCTAGON uncensored. My exposure was strictly via TV syndication in my youth.

    The thing that remains foremost in my mind is Norris' "thought balloons," (as I always thought of them) but as time went by, I started to think of this movie on the whole as a forerunner to his MISSING IN ACTION flicks, but with ninja. Now there's a comparative essay waiting to happen.

  5. Ha! I think that's a project you should tackle one day. Thanks for the comment, Todd. OCTAGON is totally worth checking out.

  6. Lee Van Cleef, Chuck Norris, Ninjas...say no more. Though it sounds needlessly convoluted, I will definitely check this out.

  7. I'm surprised you haven't seen this one, Becky. I hope you do check it out and enjoy it!