Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Movie Review(s): The Octagon (1980) & Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

I’ve never done a double-review here on the blog, but I happened to watch these two gems within a week of each other and it struck me as appropriate (and I just can’t bring myself to do a whole column on The Octagon). You see The Octagon and Ninja III: The Domination sort of represent the beginning and end of the greatest era of the ninja film. To be sure there have been many films after Ninja III: The Domination (including the entire American Ninja series) that highlighted these shadowy figures, but the window between 1980-1984 was where all things ninja captured the public imagination. Prior to this moment in time martial arts stardom was the domain of Bruce Lee and kung fu style pictures, and afterward came heroes such as Van Damme and Seagal. Those eras were marked by personalities and marquee names, but the cycle of the ninja was more about the mystique of this particular brand of “kung-fu treachery” (my new favorite term courtesy of Black Dynamite). Ninjas employed stealth and a deadly arsenal of wild looking weaponry to practice the art of assassination, and for some reason a generation of 13-year-old boys thought that was pretty cool. Actually I guess a lot of boys aged 17+ did as well, but my local mall cinema didn’t get too stingy on the whole ratings system guidelines. As the films that kicked this trend off and brought it to an end, The Octagon and Ninja III: The Domination are interesting to view in the context of the phenomenon's alpha and omega.

In The Octagon Chuck Norris plays a karate champion named Scott James. He was raised by a foster father/martial arts master, who trained him in the deadly arts alongside his own son (played by Space Academy’s Brian Tochi in a rare evil role). This relationship plays out in flashback (in which young James is portrayed by Norris's real son Mike), and ends when the master’s son Seikura cheats in a race to retrieve a ninja sword. James would have reached it first, but due to “kung fu treachery” Seikura claims the prize. Not blind in the least the master recognizes the foul play and awards James the sword. He also wastes no time in utterly disowning Tochi, thusly establishing a rivalry that will play out in thrilling fashion throughout the film.

When we catch up with the adult Scott James he is enjoying a night out at the theater with his best friend A. J. (Art Hindle), and hooks up shortly thereafter with a woman who starred in the performance they’ve just seen. The two head back to her place where she is promptly killed by ninjas. James is so upset with this development that he begins to think in whispered tones to himself about what he has just witnessed. We are treated to this internal monologue throughout the rest of the film, as he basically provides exposition for the convoluted plot. Just to get it out of the way right here and now, it is this internal thought device that begins the lumbering process by which The Octagon travels off the rails. You see Chuck Norris, who at his height was never much of an actor, is even less of a thespian at this early stage of his career. Nowhere is this more evident than in this constant stream of consciousness he spouts. People often complain of Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner being subpar (personally I like it). To those folks I say sample a taste of The Octagon and prepare to heap praise on Harrison Ford's delivery.

To be fair the plot is an absolute mess once you get beyond the basic rivalry between James and Seikura, so the monologue is a kind of gift. The story involves something about Seikura training terrorists in the ninja arts and a rich lady who hires James to be her bodyguard. She’s also mixed up with the terrorists somehow. Oh and Lee Van Cleef shows up as a crusty old partner of James. Normally the presence of Van Cleef is enough to help matters in worst of films, but he seems sort of on autopilot here. Even so he outdistances Norris by a mile on the performance meter. There’s also a raven-haired beauty who is fighting to bring down Siekura’s training camp and hooks up with James also. While the details are a little fuzzy, the whole movie boils down to these various parties trying to get James to take on Seikura. Apparently his reluctance is due to the fact that Seikura is his brother, and this allows him to ignore the body count that racks up over the course of the film. It all adds up to a snoozefest however, as the bulk of the running time is spent following James around as he meets these various people and has conversations with himself about stuff that isn’t very interesting.

Actually what the movie sort of reminded me of was an episode of an 80’s TV melodrama like Falcon Crest or Dallas, with ninja action sprinkled sparsely throughout. The entire cast, save for Van Cleef and Brian Tochi, would have fit right into that mold. Norris’s name Scott James sounds like a character off of one of those shows, and his wardrobe matches the part. It also struck me as particularly hilarious when he chose an equally cheesy alias later in the film, calling himself Scott Colby. I mean come on that's not much of a departure! If they wanted to mimic 80’s TV for crossover appeal they should have included Patrick Duffy, Linda Evans, Morgan Fairchild, and other familiar faces. It would probably be more interesting than the lineup we’re provided with, and would be more upfront. The good news is that in the final 20 minutes or so James is willing to battle Seikura when A. J. makes the foolish mistake of (inexplicably) taking it upon himself to raid Seikura’s heavily fortified compound solo. Here the movie shines as James enters the deadly octagon maze of challenges and squares off in a final duel with Seikura. Better late than never!

Watching The Octagon now is somewhat of a chore, although the last 20 minutes is decent enough to merit attention. It’s easy to see how this played well in the early 80’s when it was enough to sprinkle action here and there and get by. In the era of non-stop Transporter style mayhem there’s no way audiences would sit still for Norris’s whispered monologues and endless deliberation on whether he should or shouldn’t take on the bad guys. What makes The Octagon an “important” film is that it introduced the ninja concept to American audiences. We do get to see ninjas using throwing stars, scaling walls, and employing some rather unusual tactics. I can tell you as a kid this movie was the subject of many a lunchtable discussion. Our cinematic palates were not yet fully developed, and we were able to look past all the boring parts. All we cared about was the fact that there were these amazing guys called ninjas, and Chuck Norris took everybody out at the end of the film.

On a side note this movie is a classic illustration as to why Chuck Norris isn’t quite on the same level as Seagal, Willis, Stallone, and his other 80’s comrades. Norris is clearly a capable martial artist, but he just lacks charisma and presence. He has been in some great B-action films such as Silent Rage, Lone Wolf McQuade, and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, but those were largely great due to the quality surrounding Norris. He’s a serviceable action hero, but there’s a difference between Seagal walking into a room and Norris. Don’t believe me? Compare the bar fights in Above the Law and Silent Rage. You’ll notice the difference. Personally I think Chuck’s finest hour was in his showdown with Bruce Lee in Return of the Dragon. He spoke not a word, but he had a significant presence in that film. When things get talky the house of cards starts to topple. Nowhere has that been more clear than The Octagon which features so much chatter. My two cents.

So The Octagon kicked things off and a flood of ninja films followed. In my mind it is without question that among all those competing in that ninja sweepstakes, the heart of the 80’s ninja experience was contained within the loosely connected “ninja trilogy” from Cannon films. It started with Enter the Ninja which featured Franco Nero as the heroic ninja, who was ridiculously dressed in white to make the point he was a good ninja. Honestly if the whole purpose of being a ninja is employing stealth this made absolutely no sense. Thankfully the show was stolen by the evil ninja played by Sho Kosugi, who would be the link between the films. Kosugi was a quiet, intimidating presence who relied more on actions than words. While die hards certainly were aware of him during this period, he never became a true marquee name. Rather than promoting his own persona, Kosugi succeeded in making the ninja idea popular. This allowed for numerous ninja films to be unleashed without consideration of star power. Not that this stopped Cannon from trying to make Kosugi a household name. Revenge of the Ninja came along in 1983 and featured Kosugi in the leading man role. It’s a much better film, arguably the best ninja movie of the decade, and we showed it at an anniversary Fantasmo a few years back to much acclaim.

Despite their wild popularity the good times couldn’t last forever for the ninja films. The enthusiasm started to wane by the time Ninja III: The Domination hit theaters in fall of 1984. It’s not so much that studios would quit trying to squeeze money out of the concept, as that audiences started to not care. It’s sort of like the precipitous decline Seagal experienced after Under Siege. Up until that point he had been ascending to the throne of superstardom, but then the outrageous On Deadly Ground saw audiences begin to tune out until he ultimately ended up in DTV. Not so different with the ninjas. Box office receipts kept going up to the mid-80’s until the waters started getting muddied with stuff like American Ninja starring Michael Dudikoff. For the record, and to throw a little good will Chuck Norris’s way, he’s much better than Dudikoff. Take that for what it’s worth. Post-Dudikoff audiences started to trickle off until ninjas also found their way into DTV. Not until recently with the big screen release of Ninja Assassin have we seen an attempt to return to those glory days.

Ninja III: The Domination represented a final kitchen sink approach on the part of Cannon to use what life was left in the ninja cycle for one last hurrah. Until this past week, the last time I saw Ninja III: The Domination was at a neighborhood friend’s house during a sleepover circa 1985. Somehow I managed to miss it in the theater, which was a rarity for me in those days. All I remembered was that we were all blown away by a siege on a golf course by a lone ninja. It featured the ninja in a golf cart chase that rivals the truck chase from Raiders, an attack on a police helicopter, and a final duel with a S.W.A.T. team that recalls key action sequences in Robocop. All in the first 15 minutes of the film! Watching it again now I couldn’t believe how well it held up, and found myself marveling that Cannon could have made a film that paid off to such a degree.

Sadly things fall apart pretty quickly after that, but thankfully in a most entertaining fashion. You see the evil golf course ninja survives long enough to impart his spirit to a telephone repairwoman played by Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo star Lucinda Dickey. She may seem like an odd choice for the role, and I can only guess that Cannon was trying to make her into a star by stretching her beyond her Breakin’ persona. Unfortunately, like Cannon was so apt to do, they simultaneously tried to capitalize on her familiar trademarks. So Dickey spends most of the film in leotards and legwarmers, and they even throw in a jazzercise sequence for good measure. It’s pure madness. Dickey’s running around to cheesy 80’s synth music possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja. Don’t get me wrong this is one of those developments that turns out to be incredibly entertaining – but for all the wrong reasons. Yes it’s a textbook case of a movie that’s so bad it’s good. What’s frustrating though is that it short circuits what started out as a completely awesome action film, which is why to me this represents the beginning of the end for the golden age of the ninja film. Once the top dog of the cinematic ninja world can’t take itself seriously, it goes without saying that trouble would follow.

As I said though this is a great movie in terms of entertainment value, if you can get past how it derails after that first 15 minutes. The 80’s cheese is a blast, and most importantly Sho Kosugi shows up to take care of business about midway through the film. Incredibly they also do a great job of making the possession stuff fly, including a showstopping sequence where James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China) tries to exorcise the evil spirit. Perhaps the only true disappointment is that the final battle between Kosugi and the reconstituted evil ninja doesn’t quite measure up to that first 15 minutes. I know I keep going on about how cool it is, but trust me it is that cool. Just to illustrate this point I mentioned to a co-worker I had watched the film recently, and almost the first words out of his mouth were “golf course.” It is a sight to behold and if you’re a fan of this type of film you owe it to yourself to at least watch that opening!

I should mention that what got me on this kick in the first place was discovering that Ninja III: The Domination was available on Itunes. Yes this is another one of those films that is not available on video or DVD, but that you can download off the Itunes site. You may recall past discoveries I’ve reviewed here such as the Dark Shadows theatrical films and The Island. More keep cropping up all the time, and I’ll do my best to keep highlighting them. It’s a great way to see films that haven’t been available otherwise in quite some time. On a scary note I noticed they’ve put up the Vanilla Ice film Cool As Ice (in widescreen no less)! I may have to gather my courage for that one, but revisiting Ninja III: The Domination was a pleasure. Thankfully (or not, your mileage may vary) The Octagon is readily available on DVD. So if you want to see the films that started and ended the glory days of the ninja era, now you can thanks to the digital revolution!


Kim said...

I don't think enough time has passed to view the Ice film yet...I'm afraid for you!

Jim Blanton said...

There may never be enough time : ) You know what's really funny is how big they were promoting it when it came out. I remember the local theater had a huge banner. The tagline was: "When a girl has a heart of stone, there's only one way to melt it. Just add Ice." The horror, the horror.