While the films of the 1970s were often characterized by the term “gritty realism,” the 80s seemed to want to venture far away from that standard. In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was the year’s big hit. While the stereotypical 80s-action flick, packed with explosions and comedic one-liners, hadn’t been solidified yet, (Still five years away from Rambo: First Blood Part II) the urge for escapist entertainment seemed to be palpable among filmgoers. Now, with a series of martial arts-action films under his black belt, Chuck Norris entered the 80s.
Ninjas were seemingly running amok during the decade with American Ninja (1985), Enter the Ninja (1981), and Revenge of the Ninja (1983), to name just a few of the movies of the genre. Despite its enigmatic title, The Octagon would provide plenty of black-clad assassins to add mystery and intrigue to the first martial arts-action film of the 1980s of screen star Chuck Norris.
The Octagon (1980)
In The Octagon, Norris stars as Scott James, a former martial arts competitor and soon-to-be exterminator of dark-hooded killers. An assassination abroad sets off a chain of events having implications closer to home. On a night out, James walks into an ambush and is fighting for his life in the darkness against the highly skilled shadow warriors. Although James manages to beat the foes handily, it is not before it ends in tragic circumstances. Knowing the extreme rarity of ninjas, James discovers that the school training them is run by his estranged brother, Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita), and sets out on a mission to settle an old score and rescue his friend held captive.
The Octagon cast includes Karen Carlson and Western movie legend, Lee Van Cleef as McCarn. Seikura’s masked and ominously costumed enforcer, Kyo is played by Richard Norton, the legendary stunt performer and martial artist. The mysterious Kyo is a standout both in dishing out harsh discipline to the recruits and for providing a worthy foil for Norris in the last act. Chuck Norris’ brother Aaron Norris and son Michael Norris both appear in the movie. Aaron Norris returns as the stunt coordinator as well. Michael Norris plays a younger version of his father.
The pace of The Octagon doesn’t drag, Norris’ Scott James is battling a group of ninjas within the first ten minutes. The film also provides some interesting insight into the ninja mythos. By showing their secretive training methods, The Octagon delves a little deeper into ninja philosophy. “For the ninja, trickery is his weapon. Illusion, a way of life,” states Seikura’s aide, played by Yuki Shimoda. The presentation of the ninja martial art is much more thorough than just some karate enthusiasts who happen to wear black. Their serious and intense attitude toward training is differentiated and illustrated best by Kyo’s use of a throwing star when one of the recruits attempts to walk out on the program. There are no quitters in ninja school.
Scott James decides to try and infiltrate the ninja training camp to get close to his brother and sworn enemy, Seikura, which leads to some great action. A quick and impressive use of kicks is demonstrated when James is challenged at the recruitment meeting. Excellent use of a heel spike to the groin to the out-of-costumed Richard Norton starts things off and is followed by some great applications of the reverse crescent kick to highlight James’ ability to take out multiple attackers with ease. That ability would become more important as things progress.
Wall-scaling ninjas try to assassinate James in his hotel room, which gives Norris, as James, the opportunity to show off some horizontal karate while a gunfight rages outside. The fight isn’t long, but it is well done. After the capture of James’ friend A.J., a showdown with Seikura is guaranteed.
As Norris goes off into the sunset to confront his long-lost brother, it is the beginning of the epic battle that contains some of the best martial arts in movies. Ninjas drop from trees, roll out of shadows and materialize from the darkness, but all meet the same fate as Norris demonstrates that he has a wide range of material at his disposal to dispense with the hooded threat. As with all of Norris’ films, the techniques are crisp and defined, and he illustrates why an actor that trains in martial arts for a specific role is just not the same as someone that has been doing it for decades.
There are a wide variety of techniques incorporated into the fights, and Norris uses sweeps, swords, and staff, as he seamlessly moves on to the next phase. Once in the octagon, Norris exhibits some memorable techniques, including a rolling sweep, knocking the opponent into the water, and then drowning the unfortunate ninja, never using his hands. In the battle with the entire ninja clan against Chuck Norris, we pity the ninjas.
The octagon fight culminates in the climactic match between James and Kyo. They start with katanas before Kyo switches to sais. (Some viewers may have flashbacks to the Cobra Kai duel between Silver and Chozen in season five.) Eventually, the pair fight empty-hand and some great throws, counter throws, and kicking and punching are demonstrated by Norris and Norton. One of the benefits of films of the era is that the action is not shot so close and edited so choppy that you can barely see what is happening. Norton and Norris’s fight has a beginning, middle, and end, which is nothing short of poetic fight choreography. The final fight between the brothers, James and Seikura, has them clashing with katana vs kamas as the camp descends into chaos with plenty of explosions which would become a hallmark of 80s action films.
What can you expect from The Octagon? The bottom line is: excellent martial arts, interesting insight into the ninja fighting style, and it still holds up after over forty years. I am probably biased since it is my favorite martial arts film, but I think if you give it a chance, you’ll enjoy this vintage Chuck Norris classic.