Film: The Octagon (1980)
The Principals: Chuck Norris, Karen Carlson, Lee Van Cleef, Art Hindle, Karen Carlson, Carol Bagdasarian, Tadashi Yamashida, Richard Norton, John Fujioka.
The Premise: Chuck Norris is Scott James, a former martial arts champion with a mysterious upbringing in the ways of the Ninja. He finds himself getting caught up in the doings of his brother, Seikura (Yamashita), who is is training ninjas for terrorist and mercenary work. At first not wanting to get involved, James eventually has to seek out Seikura in one final confrontation, to take place in…The Octagon.
Is It Good: The Octagon is just awful; apparently made by that room full of monkeys on typewriters (and apparently editing machines) that I’ve heard so much about. It’s filled with characters of no significance and a
narrative that looks like the script was shredded and then glued back
together – badly. The Octagon ushered in the ’80s trend of ninja
movies, some far more enjoyable than others, but it’s not even bad in a
“it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way. It may have nostalgia working for
it (I wouldn’t know, I never caught it as a kid), but sometimes even
nostalgia can’t save a movie. It’s simply one of the worst action
films I’ve ever seen.
One of the film’s more distinctive aspects is James’ inner monologue
whisper. There’s probably a reason that I’ve never seen this tactic
used in another film before: it’s almost as annoying as the choppy editing
of the film. It’s more annoying than this:
And at least that has a beat and a rather interesting video going for it.
As for the characters, I’ll be damned if I could tell you who half of
them were. Some just appear for scenes and then return to the ether.
The rest are so poorly defined or realized, that I’d be amazed if some
of the actors got SAG cards for playing them. This is never more
apparent than with James himself. All we know of him is that he was
raised by John Fujioka’s Isawa with Seikura, his Japanese brother. No
or little effort is given as to how this came to be, nor what James did in
between that part of James life and where he finds himself now.
Fujioka had the same role in American Ninja (a much more enjoyable film that also features Tadashi Yamashita, FYI), and that movie took the
time to delineate Michael Dudikoff’s origins and incorporate it
meaningfully into the present storyline.
James also goes through love interests in this film like a Daniel Craig
Bond. The first girl he hooks up with is offed by the ninjas. She barely has enough time to make an impression. The second is also taken out by one of Seikura’s men. For the
first girl’s death, James can’t muster more than a disconcerted look
and a couple of whisper thoughts as to her passing. Compared to
Norris’ Josh Randall from Forced Vengeance (another much better film), Scott James is an
automaton, with zero chemistry with any of his other characters. Hate
to say it here, but aside from the martial arts, Norris is fairly bad here.
Touching on the martial arts, at least they’re laid out well with
master shots that allow us to see Norris in action without the bullshit
hyper-cutting so prevalent today. But they’re few and far between in
the first two acts. And of course, in the climax with Seikura, the
fight pales in comparison with one that James had just had with
Seikura’s chief ninja, Kyo (Norton). Seikura is a worthless villain who never
displays any presence and little skill. Why they didn’t just combine
the characters of Seikura and Kyo, who does get to show us a
thing or two, is beyond me. One of the many missteps of this whole
The biggest travesty in The Octagon though is the editing
(the second biggest is the utter wasting of Lee Van Cleef). It’s
stupefying, having James and other characters jumping from one scene to
the next with zero narrative flow. There’s a certain school of
thought in screenwriting that one wants to get into a scene as late as
possible and also get out just as quickly. Director Eric Karson and
editor Dann Cahn take this to extreme by getting into scenes way late
and way early, usually at the expense of character definition. In certain cases, it’s amazing dialogue was able to be
voiced before the movie jumps to the next hackneyed scene. The first
two acts of the film are just a chore to get through.
Is It Worth A Look: Not even if you just jump to the third act. Norris does lay it all out
in his fights with the ninjas in the climax, and the Kyo fight with Norton is good, but by the time you get to
it, you’re virtually brain dead from the experience of the rest of the film. And if the main
villain gets trumped by one of his own henchmen, what’s the point?
The Octagon degrees of separation: Richard Norton faced Sammo Hung in Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars; Sammo Hung faced Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon; Bruce Lee faced Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon.