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Th Octagon (1980)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE OCTAGON (1980)

Starring: Chuck Norris, Lee Van Cleef, Karen Carlson, Tadashi Yamashita, Carol Bagdasarian, Art Hindle

Written By: Lee Chapman (also story), Paul Aaron (story) Directed By: Eric Karson

The Short Version

Behold an early signature hit for the world’s most famous exercise equipment pitch man.

What passes for a story nearly gets lost in a sea of loops and horrendous pacing.

There’s some fighting talent here; if only it were filmed well.

What’s with the echo?

For genre fans, The Octagon is canon material.  For the casual viewer, not so much.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

FAT FREE SWISS.

The flavor seems to have disappeared.


Pairs Well With...

A CHEAP MARGARITA.

“I can’t figure out whether Tequila’s the only thing I can drink or if it’s the salt that keeps me from throwing up.  Just as long as it keeps me out of the bathroom with porcelain worship.”

Maybe, but you might start hearing echoes in your head after a while.

“That’s an insult to both of us.  It makes me stupid, and you a whore.”


For fans of the martial arts branch of the action genre, The Octagon is a required stop on the canon tour.  To more casual moviegoers, that particular “Chuck Norris Fact” is unlikely to make much sense.

Kind of like The Octagon itself, really.  Don’t bother trying to follow the story in a linear fashion; it’s so badly presented that it practically dares the audience to give up in frustration.  Here’s a cheat sheet instead. 

Scott James (Chuck Norris, The Expendables 2) and Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita, American Ninja) are half brothers who were raised by one of the world’s last surviving ninja (Gerald Okamura, Showdown in Little Tokyo).  Their paths split when Seikura acted dishonorably during a competition between the two, setting the stage for the two to become “lifelong enemies.”

Flash forward an unspecified number of years.  Scott is now a retired fighter who prefers to spend his time scoring with every rich woman who happens to look his way.  Seikura, meanwhile, has opened up a secret training camp – The Octagon – where he teaches ninja skills to aspiring terrorists.  Scott gets to experience the results of this training firsthand when a one-night-stand-to-be is killed by a band of terror ninja right in front of him.  That’s not enough to inspire him to action, though, and even the entreaties of two other women can’t convince him to do much more than sniff for clues.  Only when his best friend, A.J. (Art Hindle, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), decides to take on Seikura himself does Scott finally bow to the inevitable fact that he must face his evil half-brother and finish the feud that began oh-so-long ago, in a duel that will take place in the general vicinity of The Octagon…

Trust me; I just made that a lot less convoluted than the movie itself does.  The action genre may not be known for its wonderful screenplays, but even on a field where the bar is set ridiculously low, the script for The Octagon stands out as atrocious.  The dialogue is wooden, the characters are awful, and the story meanders like a wide-eyed child with inattentive parents in a toy store.  The sins of the script are magnified by glacially slow pacing that makes it very easy to get fed up with everything and just say “to hell with it.”  Neither the director nor the editor seem to have any clue how to make either drama or action move forward, and the only sure bet with The Octagon is that if something interesting is happening in front of the camera, the shot will cut to something else. 

The saddest consequence of that is the fact that the most perfectly filmed martial arts moment of the entire film involves Chuck Norris beating the crap out of a hanging heavy bag.  This is really too bad, because there’s some decent fighting talent to be found here.  Whatever one might have to say about the acting skills of Chuck Norris (I’ll get back to those in a moment), one can’t deny his fighting skills, and he’s in the best shape of his career during the era of The Octagon.  He’s even got a few decent opponents, most notably, Richard Norton (China O’Brien), who makes his feature debut here playing two different roles, allowing him to face off against Norris for two different fights.  The first is the opening duel in what’s essentially a no-contest brawl, with Norton going down quickly to a nad shot while uttering dialogue that was reportedly suggested to him by none other than John Belushi.  The second should be a thing of beauty – and in the eyes of many martial arts movie fans, it is, to the tune of appearing on more than one Top 20 All Time Fights list – with Norton this time covered up in ninja black and setting off against our hero in The Octagon’s main arena.  With better camera work that didn’t cut away from the action so much, I’d readily agree with the heady praise; the fight and the fighters are that good, and the fact that this is still apparent even with the suboptimal filming is a testament to the skill of those fighters and the strength of the choreography.  But there are just too many cuts to hold a steady rhythm, and The Octagon adds insult to injury by following up this epic duel with a “climactic” battle that’s more of a “running away from the chaos” affair and which ends in what is perhaps the most unsatisfying way possible.  Such potential there, but…

But, there went the last chance for The Octagon to be the great movie it could have been, because with the already too-scarce fights so heavily reduced in impact, that leaves only the acting to pick up the slack of a bad script, dull direction, and escargot pacing, and there’s a reason that are no “Chuck Norris Facts” proclaiming his prowess as a grand thespian.  Norris has two exactly speeds in this move: “fighting machine” and “talking cigar store Indian.”  His emotional range as an actor here is “zero,” and he somehow manages to take already wooden dialogue and put a few extra rings in the tree, sounding as though he’s being prompted by cue cards in every scene.  (And that “echoplex” effect whenever he does his ‘thought bubble’ voiceovers… ouch…)  But at least he can punch and kick; unfortunately, few others in the cast have that to fall back on, though I’m certainly not going to blame Karen Carlson (Fleshburn) for playing a lousy part exactly as written, any more than I’m willing to blame the venerable Lee Van Cleef (Escape From New York) for ‘just showing up’ for a part that really could have been written out of the movie with no negative effects whatsoever.

Come to think of it, The Octagon is a pretty raw deal for everyone involved, really.  For my money, only Richard Norton and Carol Bagdasarian (The Aurora Encounter) come out of this one clean, and I include the audience in that assessment.  Unless…

Unless one chooses to approach The Octagon as part of that wonderful ritual known as Bad Movie Night.  At that point, there is some form of redemption to be found, because even though the script is terrible, it’s terrible in a way that’s really easy to make fun of.  The direction may be subpar, but there’s enough ridiculousness going on in front of the camera in the form of bad shots, subpar acting, and so on that there’s party potential to be enjoyed for audiences coming in with a certain mindset.  The Octagon may not be “so bad it’s good,” but it is bad in such a way that in manages to come out the other side none the less.

Let’s be honest; if you can’t laugh at notorious goody-two-shoes Chuck Norris looking stunned and awkwardly stoic when Carol Bagdasarian bares her breasts for him in anticipation of a sex scene… well…  I’ll just say that I feel sorry for you if that’s the case.

Bottom line, The Octagon may enjoy a place in the martial arts action canon, but it does so only under the graces of a few “special circumstance” clauses.  It is, in fact, a pretty lousy movie, so if you’re not a hardcore genre fan, you really won’t be missing anything if you skip it.  For those who do count themselves as serious fans of the genre, I strongly recommend having strong drinks and like-minded friends on hand before pressing “play,” because both elements are essential to making The Octagon at least passably entertaining.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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