There’s a scene in The Killer Elite, a not-great Sam Peckinpah movie from 1975, where Burt Young, the man who would go on to play Paulie in Rocky a year later, fights a ninja on the deck of a battleship. The ninja does not prove to be much of a problem for him. Young casually picks up the ninja and dumps him overboard. If the ninja even resists, we don’t see it. Instead, we see him go screaming into the water. And we see Young—squat, balding, portly, not exactly a physical wonder—leaning on the guardrail and watching him plunge. Then he makes this noise: “Hmp.” Like, “That was interesting.”
Ninjas have been a part of Japanese cinema since the silent era, and in a classic movie like Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance, they’re presented as a formidable force of evil. In Western movies, though, they barely existed before the ’80s. In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, for instance, a team of ninjas helps James Bond invade Blofeld’s volcano fortress, but they’re barely anything more than stock soldiers. The ninja truly became a subject of fascination for American kids during the Reagan years, and low-budget exploitation movies like The Octagon were the beginning of all that.
Now, The Octagon is not a good movie. In structure and tone, it’s a flailing, awkward mess. During the moments when Chuck Norris is not punching or kicking anyone, it can be gallingly boring. Director Eric Karson, perhaps not trusting Norris to wordlessly convey anything, tried out a trick: He let us hear Norris’ thoughts. But Norris doesn’t narrate the movie like a hard-boiled hero. Instead, we hear the thought bubbles coming to life over his head. Those thoughts are whispered, with so much echo on them that they are sometimes impossible to make out. Norris will walk into a room and flip on a light switch, startled to find out that it’s full of dead bodies, and here’s what we’ll hear, whispered and heavily echoed: “Oh my God. Ninja. It has to be. But they don’t exist anymore. They can’t exist.”
The voice-over is an easy target, but it’s only one of the things wrong with the movie, which kind of stumbles along to the conclusion, where Norris singlehandedly invades a Central American ninja training compound and fights off a horde of them. Norris is supposed to be an urbane, sophisticated former karate champ, and the movie does him no favors when it asks him to be anything other than tough. We spend so many scenes with his feathered-haired simp of a best friend that it comes as blessed relief when said friend finally gets his throat slit. Leathery old spaghetti Western legend Lee Van Cleef, wearing a gigantic earring for some reason, shows up a few times in an ill-defined mercenary role and then announces that he’s going on vacation immediately before the climax. We don’t see him again. Even for those of us who take this kind of movie seriously, it was impossible to get bent out of shape when Conan O’Brien turned it into a bit.
But even if it’s not a good movie, it’s an important one, culturally and within the history of action movies. Along with Eric Van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja and the miniseries Shogun, both of which also came out in 1980, this was the first time the idea of the ninja, the shadowy mystical assassin figure, really permeated Western pop-culture consciousness. And the movie really does make them cool and forbidding enemies, at least up until Norris rips through the best of them. We see the black clothes and masks, and we see the various weapons in action: the katana, the sai, the shuriken, the blowgun. Ninjas drop out of trees or suddenly emerge from shadows, and the movie’s coolest character, the silent ninja-compound enforcer, stands as a great existential threat up until he and Norris have the movie’s best fight scene.
The ninjas fit in nicely with the movie’s idea of lawlessness. Karson has said that he was interested in making a movie about terrorism, and Seikura, the movie’s villain, is there to offer his specialized ninja training to anyone who comes looking. In the ninja-compound scenes, we see terrorists and mercenaries learning the dark arts, and in one scene, Norris poses as a merc, explaining that he thinks ninja training will up his asking price. But when the terrorists and mercenaries learn the ninja skills, they become a part of the tradition as well. A trainer explains: “You are now bound by certain codes. You prefer death to capture, and nothing can persuade you to reveal the techniques of your training or the location of this place.” Whenever anyone is caught, the other ninjas will kill that person’s entire family, which is a pretty great way to build up a group of B-movie villains.
The other thing the movie has going for it is Norris, only a few years into his leading-man career. The Octagon won’t be remembered as one of Norris’ best, but by the time he did make his relatively iconic movies, things like The Delta Force and Missing In Action, he was completely overshadowed by the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the world. Norris had a few years on all those guys. He’d been around the block. As a martial artist, he’d started winning karate championships in the late ’60s. In his first real movie role, in 1972’s The Way Of The Dragon, he’d been half of one of the greatest, most iconic one-on-one fight scenes in movie history, taking on Bruce Lee in the Roman Colosseum. In The Octagon, we see him on the way up, still figuring out his cinematic persona.
Before Norris, there had been American movie stars who’d gotten famous for offscreen feats of physical prowess; former football stars like Jim Brown and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson had gone on to blaxploitation-flick legend. But Norris is still an early American example of the idea that you can teach a fighter to act just as well as you can teach an actor to throw a punch. As an actor, Norris was (and is) a slab of wood, though his calm, soothing voice makes a nice contrast to his tough-guy demeanor. As a screen fighter, though, he’s good. By the mid-’80s, he’d mostly stopped doing the karate that made him a viable screen prospect in the first place. But in The Octagon, we really get to see him work. He’s crisp and efficient and confident, and he really looks like he’s exerting himself and maybe fucking up a few stuntmen.
A year later, Cannon Films, which would go on to become maybe the greatest B-movie studio of the ’80s, made Enter The Ninja, the first in a series of ninja thrillers that would star the Japanese martial arts actor Shô Kosugi. (Kosugi wasn’t the main star of that first movie. Cannon offered the role to Norris, but he didn’t want to wear a mask. Instead, they gave it to Lee Van Cleef’s fellow spaghetti Western veteran Franco Nero, then dubbed over his lines with an American accent.) And a few years after that, Cannon would become our greatest source of both American ninja movies (with its American Ninja series) and of Chuck Norris movies, when Norris signed on to become the studio’s main star. The Octagon wasn’t a Cannon movie, but it essentially birthed Cannon’s whole style.
In the years after The Octagon, we’d get more and more ninjas in the world. We’d get Frank Miller stories about Daredevil or Wolverine fighting the Hand. We’d get Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. We’d get Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden. We’d get Scorpion and Sub-Zero. We’d get American Ninja Warrior. We’d get the Nutri Ninja Pro Blender. We’d get at least two of my childhood Halloween costumes. The Octagon didn’t start all that, but it was there at the beginning.
Other noteworthy 1980 action movies: Jackie Chan made one of his great early movies in 1980, developing his fusion of ridiculously elaborate kung-fu stunt work and goofball slapstick comedy with The Young Master. But The Young Master doesn’t get runner-up status for 1980. Instead, that goes to another Chan movie: Battle Creek Brawl, Chan’s first attempt to break into Hollywood movie stardom. Brawl has a few great moments, like when Chan comically beats up a mobster played by Lenny Montana, the ex-pro wrestler who’d played Luca Brasi in The Godfather. But it didn’t work, largely because Enter The Dragon director Robert Clouse couldn’t figure out how to make Chan work in an American-movie context. And Chan wouldn’t find that elusive American stardom until Rumble In The Bronx, 15 years later. So Battle Creek Brawl remains a fascinating what-if, an early sign at the crossover appeal that Chan would really show in the ’90s.
As is probably evident by now, 1980 wasn’t a great year for action movies. Instead, it was a big year for sci-fi special-effects extravaganzas—The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Superman 2—that were worlds removed from the sort of grimy, impactful movies that I prefer to write about in this column. (Honestly, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, with its bugged-out car chases, is closer to what I’m talking about here than Empire was.) For action movies, we’re stuck talking about things like the deeply strange Death Wish rip-off The Exterminator, or Any Which Way You Can, the second movie in which Clint Eastwood plays an underground fighter who’s best friends with an orangutang. The year’s best action movie might’ve honestly been Shogun Assassin, for which an unscrupulous American distributor stitched together dubbed versions of two of the great, early-’70s Japanese Lone Wolf And Cub movies. (It’s honestly way better than it should be.)
But rather than dwell on what was mostly a mess of a year for action cinema, let’s take a moment for Steve McQueen, the man who did more than anyone else to popularize the genre. In 1980, McQueen released his last movie. The Hunter is an amiable workplace comedy about a bounty hunter, and it really only turns into an action movie at the end. There’s a running gag about McQueen’s character being a terrible driver, which is pretty funny. McQueen actually filmed the movie in 1979, and in its tone and pacing, it’s a ’70s movie through and through. But I like the idea that McQueen got to make one ’80s action movie, that he got to see action movies through to the very beginning of their ’80s golden era. Three months after the movie opened, McQueen died of cancer. He was 50.
Next time: The ’80s golden era truly begins, with a three-way dance between three deeply influential, near-perfect masterpieces: Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, and Escape From New York. Check this space in two weeks to see which one wins.