The Octagon by Eric Karson (Review)

Because sometimes, you just need to watch Chuck Norris fight a bunch of ninjas.
The Octagon - Eric Karson

My family never had cable TV when I was growing up, which meant I was stuck with ABC, CBS, and NBC (the “Big Three”) as well as PBS. So it was a pretty major deal when KPTM arrived in Omaha in the late ’80s and became affiliated with the burgeoning Fox network. There was just one problem: Fox had very little original programming at the time. So KPTM filled its time slots with syndicated shows (e.g., M*A*S*H) and old movies. I spent many Saturdays watching KPTM’s afternoon matinees, which seemed to consist primarily of John Wayne westerns and even better, Chuck Norris movies like Lone Wolf McQuade and The Octagon.

The Octagon was especially seared into my young mind because I watched it during the height of the ninja craze that swept through America in the ’80s. From G.I. Joe’s Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow to Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, and Cannon Films’ various ninja movies (e.g., Enter the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination), it seemed like Japan’s shadowy warriors were everywhere in pop culture — which was totally awesome. As such, The Octagon is right near the top of classic ’80s ninja movies in my book.

Here’s the basic premise: Scott James (Norris) is a veteran and karate champion who walked away from competition after a fight went horribly wrong. He now trains alone, and in his free time, apparently attends dance recitals and flirts with beautiful women that he stops to help along the side of the road. But when James chances upon a murder that could only have been committed by ninjas, and discovers its link to broader terrorist activities around the globe, he must once again put his karate skills to deadly use. And in doing so, he must confront a ghost from his past.

It’s tempting to dismiss The Octagon as a dated ’80s relic, what with all the feathered hair, flared jeans, big cars, and funky music, but I was surprised during a recent viewing at how ambitious the film actually felt. From the numerous side characters — like an anti-terrorist mercenary named McCarn who’s played with scene-chewing smarm by Lee Van Cleef (who would later star in his own ninja-themed title with 1984’s The Master) — to the international terrorist plot to James’ own tragic past, The Octagon clearly set out to do a lot for a “B” movie, though it never quite delivers on that promise. (Except for the ninjas, but more on that in a moment.)

For example, James and McCarn are obviously supposed to have some sort of backstory, given their constant ribbing of each other’s ideals (or in McCarn’s case, his lack thereof). The movie does precious little with this subplot, however. Rather than make James seem more mysterious — i.e., exactly what sort of shady activities was he involved in that would lead him to befriend someone like McCarn? — his character just becomes more confusing and ambiguous.

The same holds true for James’ relationship with his best friend, A.J. (Art Hindle, whose impressively feathered do puts everyone else’s to shame, even the ladies). Though apparently old war buddies and former karate chums, their interactions never really deepen their characterization — and frustratingly so. And while it’s hinted that the mysterious Aura (Carol Bagdasarian), who eventually joins forces with James, has a shadowy past herself, she’s ultimately just another pretty lady to be hopelessly attracted to James’ cool swagger and ultra-manly mustache. (Unlike the movie’s other ladies, though, she does get to shoot an M-16 and blow stuff up.)

As for the international terrorist subplot, we hear more about it than actually see it in action. The movie makes some attempts at globe-trotting (e.g., a bloody assassination in Paris, the bad guys are apparently holed up somewhere in Central America), but it’s pretty obvious that the production hardly ever leaves Los Angeles. The disconnect between its ambitious setting and budgetary constraints makes The Octagon feel like it’s operating in its own little parallel world, albeit one where all it takes to get hooked up with some ninja mercenary training is a single phone call.

But The Octagon’s most curious aspect is how it handles James’ backstory. In the movie’s big reveal, James discovers that the ninjas he’s investigating are, in fact, lead by his half brother Seikura, who went rogue after dishonoring their father (as seen in several flashbacks). You don’t go to a Chuck Norris movie for masterclass acting, but to his credit, Norris really does work hard — The Octagon was only his fourth starring role — to sell James’ inner turmoil at having to confront his half brother’s evildoing.

But how, exactly, does The Octagon clue us into this turmoil? With inner monologues, of course, that feature cryptic-yet-anguished lines like “Does anyone know? How can they? We’re at the beginning. No, not at the beginning. There’s no perspective” and “If winning overshadows everything, why didn’t you teach one of us to lose?” I’m not sure what those lines mean, exactly, but when delivered in Norris’ echoing whisper, they give The Octagon a surreal, quasi-arthouse quality (eat your heart out, Wong Kar-wai) — and also make it surprisingly eerie, especially the first time James senses ninja shenanigans.

But enough about that boring stuff. “What about the ninjas?!” you ask. Because that’s really all that matters. The Octagon was arguably the first movie of the aforementioned ’80s ninja craze, preceding Enter the Ninja by a year. As expected, we get to see plenty of ninjas strut their stuff, from climbing up walls with clawed gloves to hiding under corpses for sneak attacks — as ninjas are wont to do.

The actual fight choreography, however, is pretty slow and stilted; it mostly consists of Norris’ opponents getting themselves into the perfect position so they can be knocked out by one of his legendary kicks. Still, there’s something iconic about the film’s climactic duel between James and Seikura’s ominous-looking masked enforcer (Richard Norton), whose sinister-sounding hisses were inspired by the breathing techniques of Gōjū-ryū karate.

More than three decades had passed since I’d last seen The Octagon in its entirety, so nostalgia certainly played a factor in my decision to watch it again recently. (You can currently watch the film for free on YouTube.) I was also prepared to watch it ironically, because this is Chuck Norris we’re talking about. But I was surprised at how much I truly enjoyed The Octagon, even with its aforementioned flaws — many of which ultimately become part of the movie’s charm. At the end of the day, The Octagon promises you nothing more than Chuck Norris kicking the crap out of a bunch of ninjas, and that’s precisely what it gives you.

And sometimes, that’s all you really need.

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