Shitty Movie Sundays: The Octagon

Today we have a film from Chuck Norris’s moustache era. The man and his beard have been inseparable for over thirty years, now, but there was a time when Chuck was rocking the kind of facial hair that could compete with the era’s porn stars. It was not quite on the level of Tom Selleck’s scrub brush, but he wore it well.

Released in 1980, The Octagon was directed by Eric Karson from a screenplay by Leigh Chapman.

Chuck plays Scott James, a former professional martial arts champion. He and his best friend and former rival, A.J. (Art Hindle), are taking in a swanky dance performance. James hits it off with the lead dancer, Nancy (Kim Lankford), and later takes her back to her home. But, something is wrong. James can sense it. And so can we, as the filmmakers chose to record a very weird voiceover of James’s thoughts.

The voiceover is used at various times throughout the film (check out the trailer, above — it has snippets of the voiceover in it), and the best term I can use to describe it is ‘creepy.’ It’s a multitrack whisper with reverb layered on top and it’s far more The Octagondistracting than it is helpful. I’m not bothered by voiceovers in movies, but this film could have done without the peeks into James’s head.

James’s spidey sense was right, though. There are intruders in the house, and they are ninja! They attack James and Nancy. James fights them off, but not before they deliver a fatal blow to Nancy. Further investigation of the house reveals that the ninja massacred Nancy’s entire family beforehand. It’s a tragedy, and also a massive coincidence that James happened to be on hand. Not because he could fend off a ninja attack, but because James happens to be the only person in the world who knows the origins of these ninja.

According to this flick’s lore, there are only two true ninja left in the world. One of them is James. The other one is his adoptive brother, Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). When they were younger, Seikura was banished from ninja training because he violated some arcane rules of honor. All he did was snatch a sword out of James’s hands, and that was enough for the sensei, Isawa (John Fujioka), to exile Seikura from the ninja order for life. As origin stories go, it’s as thin as tissue paper.

These days, Seikura is running a ninja training camp somewhere in Mexico. Part of the set is shaped like an octagon, giving the film its name.

The people recruited for Seikura’s ninja school aren’t the most impressive prospects. As a group, they seem unmotivated and unskilled. About halfway through the film, one of Seikura’s trainers tells him the current crop is ready to graduate, and a viewer will be hard-pressed to see any evidence of this. Seikura may be a ninja, but he’s a shitty teacher. Most of the blame has to fall to Karson, however. It was his responsibility to make this group of cast members believable, and he failed.

Those folk couldn’t possibly play ninja, but the good news for viewers is that there are plenty of other ninja in the film for Chuck to rough up. They crop up at different times, clothed head to toe in black, even in daylight scenes. Ninja outfits are a silly trope that films of the era did to death. Since this is a shitty action flick, it adds to the charm.

The plot has some twists and turns, mostly involving a newspaper heiress, Justine (Karen Carlson), being targeted by the ninja. All of it leads to an ass-kicking finale at the ninja camp. Chuck is merciless in this finale, killing just about everyone he sees. Then, of course, comes the climactic fight with Seikura. We all know how it ends.

This film has only two main elements: Chuck Norris and ninja. Everything in the film exists to get Chuck in the same room with people whom he can fight. All other considerations are secondary. It doesn’t matter if the plot is consistent, believable, or coherent. Since the plot was treated as an afterthought, scenes where Chuck isn’t kicking ass are a bit of a slog to get through. That hurts its placement on the Watchability Index, pushing it down to #100, between The Humanity Bureau and Burial Ground.

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