Or: Chuck Norris versus the Ninjas.
The Octagon spearheaded the wave of ninja films that took hold during the eighties. Previously the idea of the ninja had rarely been touched in western cinema - James Bond’s 1967 adventure You Only Live Twice being perhaps the only major example - yet before the decade was out they would be dominating sections of the video shop and subsequent car boot sales. The Cannon Group’s efforts were the highest profile thanks to Enter the Ninja and its two sequels and the Michael Dudikoff-starring American Ninja franchise. Meanwhile, Richard Harrison was doing his best to corner the market and seemingly agreed to any film with ninja in the title: Ninja Terminator, Ninja Dragon, Ninja the Protector, The Ninja Squad, Ninja - Silent Assassin, Ninja Avengers, The Ninja Showdown, Ninja Powerforce, Ninja Strike Force, Diamond Ninja Force, and so on - all within the space of a few years. During the eighties the BBFC classified almost a hundred ninja-related movies and, funnily enough, applied cuts to the vast majority too.
Back in 1980, however, nobody knew about ninjas. Or at least not that many. As Chuck Norris’ echo-ey, whispered voice-over in The Octagon states: “Nobody knows except me. And Seikura.” Seikura, it transpires, is an old pal of Norris’ and the pair were both trained in the martial arts during their youth. But whereas the man with moustache has translated his skills into becoming a world champion, Seikura opted for more nefarious means of making a living. Nowadays he trains international terrorists in the ways of the ninja at a secret base, unwittingly setting up a showdown with his former buddy in the final act. In the meantime there are car chases and roundhouses for Norris to attend to.
The Octagon was the third of Norris’ films to be connected with the independent producer and distributor American Cinema. He’d made an impact in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon but failed to immediately capitalise on it. Another Hong Kong production followed soon after (though it wasn’t released in the west until 1981, under the title of Slaughter in San Francisco) and there was also a lead role in Breaker! Breaker!, a trucker-out-for-revenge pic from the AIP stable. It was only when American Cinema picked up Good Guys Wear Black in 1978 that Norris’ newfound career did likewise. Their pioneering brand of saturation marketing - incessant TV spots and radio spots, having their lead actor tour from state to state as the movie did the rounds - proved successful, leading to a move into production for A Force of One (also released onto Blu-ray by Anchor Bay this month) the next year and The Octagon the year after that.
By the time of the 1980 feature it’s safe to say that American Cinema were effectively giving the audience what they wanted. Thus Norris kicks, Norris punches, buildings blow up and plenty of evil terrorists are dispatched. There’s also a bit of eye candy in the form of disposable female leads (the ladies don’t have much luck with Norris, it would appear; one is even brutally murdered mere hours after they meet), Art Hindle in the sidekick role and the occasional sports car. From a 21st century perspective it’s also possible that viewers might be quite taken with the fashions of the time: big hair, big collars, plenty of beige and brown, plus Norris in a choice of corduroy or ironed jeans.
In this respect The Octagon does exactly what it set outs to do and as such is beyond criticism: those who want Chuck Norris versus the Ninjas will get exactly that. (Plus Lee Van Cleef in an extended cameo to up the badass quota.) However, with the exception of Dick Halligan’s suitably hectic score, it is all rather perfunctory. Norris sure can kick, but his succession of romantic scenes with Kim Lankford, Karen Carlson and Carol Bagadasarian all fall incredibly flat. Indeed, all of those moments in-between the action lack any kind of spark; the emphasis, as you would quite reasonably expect, is entirely on the violence. Needless to say, anyone expected any nuance take on the state of international terrorism in the late seventies/early eighties is going to come away sorely disappointed. The nearest we get is a throwaway nod to Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games.
As for the ridiculousness levels, these are generally quite stable and never plunge the depths of Norris’ worse Cannon Group movies. There is the odd chuckle to be had: flashbacks to various stages of his past reveal that he’s maintained the same hairstyle since youth; the ninja training camp sequences are full of philosophical nonsense along the lines of “your body may sleep, your mind never sleeps”; and that whispered voice-over allowing us an insight into Norris’ mind (plus the odd bit of exposition) really doesn’t work. But these things are more silly than genuinely absurd and all of them are played entirely straight-faced. As such, I suppose we should do the same and, taken with a straight face, The Octagon proves itself to be a competent, unexceptional little thriller/action movie. Nothing more, nothing less.
After a fairly grotty title sequence The Octagon gives way to a generally quite pleasing presentation. There are signs of age in the form of minor scratching at various points, particularly around the reel changes, but never to any distracting effect. Elsewhere the clarity of the image is generally very good (some shots fare a little worse than others) to the point where it becomes abundantly clear that, yes, Norris definitely irons his jeans. Contrast levels are okay, with perhaps a little boosting in place at times and also some moderate edge enhancement. The colour palette, however, appears to accurately beige and browns of the era. The image is framed at 1.78:1 and the film is presented uncut, unlike previous home video editions (presumably the use of nunchuks was to blame). As for the soundtrack here we find a fairly weedy LPCM stereo offering and a far richer DTS-HD option. There are, as with the picture, occasional signs of age, but on the whole a fine offering. Do be aware, however, that the disc defaults to the LPCM stereo. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
The extras are a surprisingly full affair consisting of two meaty featurettes plus an original trailer and TV spot. The first of the former is entitled ‘How American Cinema Changed Hollywood Forever’ and takes a look at the independent company behind The Octagon. This is a fairly straightforward talking heads affair with many of the key players during its existence reminiscing about its time in the sun. The hyperbolic title is justified by American Cinema’s approach to marketing - a state-by-state affair in which they would hire out a cinema for a period of time and then pummel prospective audience with incessant TV spots and radio coverage (Norris, for example, was more than happy to go ‘on tour’ with a movie and promote the hell out of it) - which was soon aped by the majors. Indeed, it was the majors who proved essential to the company’s fall by buying into their productions - such as the underrated Mickey Spillane adaptation I, the Jury - but then failing to replicate their heavy-handed approach to promotion. The other featurette is a 40-minute ‘making of’ in which many of the talking heads from the first return to talk more directly about The Octagon. All the key cast and crew members are given their due is every stage from pre- to post-production. Incidentally, The Octagon’s director, Eric Karson, also put together both of these featurettes.
Note that all special features are in standard definition and in the PAL format.