Unlike his friend Bruce Lee, American martial artist-turned-movie star Chuck Norris rarely used his films to explore the spiritual aspects of Asian fighting techniques. Quite to the contrary, Norris made meat-and-potatoes action pictures during his heyday, eventually complementing his signature roundhouse kicks with giant pistols and massive machine guns. Examining Norris’ most ambitious martial-arts flick, The Octagon, reveals why the strategies that worked for Lee didn’t work for Norris. Among other reasons, Norris is, was, and always will be a genuinely terrible actor, though he was able to slide through on charm and stoicism in a few projects.
Throughout The Octagon, director Eric Karson features scenes of Norris’ character deep in thought while echo-laden recordings of Norris’ voice reverberate on the soundtrack, conveying the character’s thoughts. Thanks to the actor’s blank facial expressions and lame surfer-dude line readings, the effect is alternately dull and laughable. At his best, Lee was able to convey depth, intensity, and soulfulness. All three qualities are required to put across the concept of a philosophical warrior, and all three qualities are beyond Norris’ dramatic reach. In the star’s defense, the script for The Octagon is so episodic and turgid that even the best actor would have encountered difficulty creating a dynamic through line. So while the film is redeemed somewhat by a few cool action scenes, including the moderately stylish climax, The Octagon is a slog of a movie that only devoted fans of martial-arts cinema are likely to enjoy.
The mechanics of the story are silly and twisty, but the main thrust is that modern-day ninja assassins have begun operating in the U.S. Professional martial artist Scott James (Norris) suspects the ninja were trained by his estranged half-brother, Sekura (Tadashi Yamashita). Convoluted intrigue ensues. Scott becomes involved with a beautiful woman, Justine (Karen Carlson), who has connections to the assassinations. Also pulled into the situation are Scott’s best friend (Art Hindle) and a mercenary (Lee Van Cleef) with whom Scott shares history. Eventually, Scott learns that Sekura has built a training camp for international killers, so he and his allies mount an assault, leading to a showdown between the half-brothers. Although the dialogue and the storytelling are as poor as Norris’ acting, cinematographer Michel Hugo gives The Octagon a polished look, and every so often, something onscreen has an adrenalized kick—the shots of the ninja scaling a hotel wall at night are creepy, and the staging of the final showdown is suitably grandiose.
The Octagon: FUNKY