The Octagon (1980)

the octagon

1.5mls

Chuck Norris’ inner monologue vibrates through the 1980 actioner The Octagon and turns this Eric Karson picture into a piece of bizarre art. The screenplay by Paul Aaron and Leigh Chapman is a dog’s breakfast and little about the plot is coherent, with far too many characters wandering in and out of the proceedings.

At least The Octagon bristles with camp value, which accounts for just about the only reason a sensible person could have for enduring this thing. By most polite standards, it’s terrible. While it assembles a range of supporting actors like Lee Van Cleef and Tadashi Yamashita, it also features some of the most preposterous dialogue ever put to film.

Norris stars as Scott James. There are vague rumblings of his being some sort of martial arts champion, only he doesn’t fight anymore because of a disaster in competition. He pals around with A.J. (Art Hindle), a womanizing 80s dude who is also a martial artist. One day, Scott takes a dancer (Kim Lankford) out on a date and she winds up killed by ninjas.

Scott gets on with his life, but his inner monologue reminds him that ninjas don’t really exist anymore. Or do they? When he meets the well-heeled Justine (Karen Carlson), he’s thrust into action after some mischief. She wants him to kill a guy named Seikura (Yamashita), but Seikura just happens to be Scott’s half-brother. Also, Seikura runs a ninja training camp.

It’s hard to tell how things connect in The Octagon, but everything is primed for the big showdown at Seikura’s ninja HQ. The audience is never fully sure of Scott’s location, but he shuttles around with A.J. and always seems to be in the middle of the action. Sometimes, characters say they’re just visiting. It’s never clear where they’re visiting.

There are terrorists and they attack for reasons unknown to anyone. Sometimes, the terrorists conduct their business as ninjas. And sometimes, they wander around dressed as people taking the baby out for a stroll. They’re always inside Scott’s head, causing him to have several reverberating misgivings.

Norris’ character is a tortured soul and there are hints of a shadowy past. He is estranged from Seikura, with his father (John Fujioka) telling him that his brother is now an enemy for life. Scott also struggles with A.J. and they trade Justine back and forth like she’s a piece of posh candy. When tragedy strikes, Chuck barely bats an eyelash.

There are other fish in the sea. Aura (Carol Bagdasarian) winds up the eventual object of his groggy affection, but that’s only after he’s moped his way through a dancer and a rich girl. The audience is even treated to a terse love scene, which the director juxtaposes against Seikura’s training because The Octagon isn’t about making sense.

While everyone and his dog has a favourite Chuck Norris proclamation, it’s hard to see the muscle behind those legendary one-liners here. He has the personality of a stick of butter and the cinematography by Michel Hugo does little for his martial arts prowess.

The only time Norris really comes to play is during the final 20 minutes, as the assault on the ninja camp is the stuff of 1980s action goodness. There’s a good blend of camp and fury on display, especially as Scott kicks a burning dude through a wall and the burning dude comes roaring back for more. It’s a true spectacle and Norris earns every penny, even if Hugo’s lensing is dreary.

It’s hard to recommend The Octagon with a straight face, but there is some value to the confusion if one’s in the market for a voiceover-led fever dream. The final scenes do deliver and it’s somewhat cool to see Lee Van Cleef farting around as a gun-loving mercenary. For the most part, though, this is a jumbled and ludicrous mess.

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