When I was around thirteen years old, I was obsessed with two things; Chuck Norris and Ninjas. I liked girls, too, but they still confused me. Norris and Ninjas? I understood them perfectly. It’s no wonder, then, that my favorite Chuck Norris movie at the time was 1980’s “The Octagon” – a film I must have watched at least a dozen times on VHS before Ninja-mania gave way to a preoccupation for all things T&A related (something of which I’m still very much invested in). I’d not seen The Octagon since those halcyon days of homemade throwing stars and backyard ambushes, so, when I happened upon a copy of The Octagon on cheapo DVD at a local Wal-Mart, I was more than happy to part with the $8 bucks to relive a chunk of my childhood. Now that I’ve watched it again, and have seen The Octagon for what it truly is, I once again must say “damn you nostalgia….damn you to hell!”
Chuck Norris stars as Scott James, a…well…you know what? I’m not sure what in the hell he is in this movie. He just sort of walks around in flannel shirts and sport jackets and gets an inordinate amount of tail despite looking like a simian-featured lumberjack in funeral duds. I do know he has a partner named A.J. (Art Hindle), who doesn’t seem to do much, either, save score with Scott’s sloppy seconds. Scott and A.J. attend some sort of musical performance and Scott takes a shine to the leading lady. Being Chuck Norris, he need only walk up to her and overpower her with his manly scent before she invites him back to her place, where they’re attacked by ninjas. While Scott calls the cops, he has one of many internal monologue bits where he tells himself “it can’t be ninjas because they no longer exist”. Then again, seeing as how his inner voice is saturated with echo and some sort of whoosh-whoosh sound effect, he could have very well said “I can’t visit your sister because I’m afraid of her cysts”. Either way, it’s bad news. We also learn, through the miracle of red-hued flashbacks, that Scott was adopted by a Japanese martial arts master and that his “brother”, Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita), is the man responsible for training all of these ninjas. It seems that there’s big business in ninja training, and Seikura’s been providing said training to terrorist groups around the world. We know this because the all of the terrorist stereotyes are represented, including an I.R.A. guy in a funny wool hat, a bunch of Arabs in head wraps, South Americans in ponchos…the only things missing are spear-toting bushmen and an Eskimo roasting blubber on a spit.
Scott meets up with another woman a short while later who is also having ninja trouble. She wants Scott’s help, but rubs him the wrong way, so, after another whispery internal monologue, he passes her off on his pal, A.J.. Meanwhile, Scott’s pal, McCarn (Lee Van Clief) points Scott in the direction of the recruiter responsible for gathering trainees for Seikura’s camp. Problem is, A.J. is one step ahead of Scott, and, desperate to step out from his friend’s roundhouse kicking shadow, decides to go off and bust up the ninja camp all by his lonesome. Scott, of course, follows after him, whereupon he finds himself face to face with his estranged brother, and forced to do battle in the octagon against some of the most laughably inept ninjas this side of an episode of The Tick.
The Octagon is one of Norris’ earlier films, following his breakout roles in such classics as “Good Guys Wear Black” and “A Force of One”. If you thought Norris was a wooden actor in his Walker heyday, think again; early 80’s Norris makes a cigar store Indian look like Sir Laurence Olivier. Norris does all of his acting with his feet and fists, however, and those are in top form, here, with some of the finest fight choreography in his oeuvre, the best of which is saved for the film’s penultimate showdown between Scott and Seikura’s right hand man, Kyo the Enforcer (Richard Norton). Sadly, all of the cool fight scenes are strung together by a really boring and convoluted story, three clumsily implemented love interests, and half-baked macho dialogue that would make Lorenzo Lamas blush, making The Octagon a chore to sit through for all but the most ardent of Norris fans (which I am, but even I have my limits). Not even the “Ninja Factor” can save this one seeing as how these ninjas are about as stealthy as Wilford Brimley at a buffet, and don’t seem to have any combat training whatsoever. Heck, even A.J., an unarmed man who doesn’t possess any martial arts skills whatsoever, has no trouble taking out two of them at the same time. I guess Seikura’s camp is the Ninjutsu equivalent of the DeVry University.
The DVD from Trinity Home Entertainment is surprisingly well-stocked and features a lengthy documentary about the making of the film, a featurette celebrating American action cinema, cast bios, trailers, and more. The 1.33:1 transfer is a bit dodgy, however, and looks as though it were ported over from the same beat up VHS tape I used to rent back in the 80’s. Then again, you can’t polish a turd.
Like Chuck Norris, himself, time has not been kind to The Octagon. It’s a terribly dated, acted, and written film that, while an admitted hoot at times, isn’t nearly as good as memory served, and only worth owning if you’re a Norris apologist, completist, or a sadist. It’s also worth noting that The Octagon is “pre-beard” Norris, and everyone knows that at least 80% of the man’s mojo emanates from that impressive chin pelt of his.