The Octagon

Director: Eric Karson
Screenplay: Leigh Chapman (story by Paul Aaron and Leigh Chapman)
Stars: Chuck Norris (Scott James), Karen Carlson (Justine), Lee Van Cleef (McCarn), Art Hindle (A. J.), Carol Bagdasarian(Aura), Tadashi Yamashita (Seikura), Kim Lankford (Nancy), Larry D. Mann (Tibor), Kurt Grayson (Doggo)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980
Country: U.S.
The Octagon Blu-ray
The Octagon

The Octagon was the third starring vehicle for karate champion-turned-actor Chuck Norris in as many years, and like its immediate predecessor, A Force of One (1979), it takes full advantage of its star’s martial arts prowess. However, unlike the earlier film, The Octagon is a built around an inordinately complicated plot involving mercenaries, terrorists, secret training camps, and ninjas—secret stealth assassins who were relatively unknown in the West at the time, but would soon become a cornerstone of martial arts movies throughout the 1980s. It is also notably more violent and cynical than Norris’s previous films, even though he plays the same type of taciturn, reluctant hero whose integrity is never—ever—in question.

As he did in A Force of One, Norris plays a karate champion and Vietnam veteran who becomes involved in an international plot, this one involving a secret ninja training camp for terrorists and political assassins. Norris, whose character is named Scott James, is involved with not one, not two, but three different women throughout the film: first, Nancy (Kim Lankford), a flighty dancer; then Justine (Karen Carlon), a wealthy heiress; and finally Aura (Carol Bagdasarian), a graduate of the secret training camp. All of them need Scott’s help in various ways, and he remains reluctant right until the very end, when he is finally forced to confront Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita), the head of the training camp who also happens to be his brother (Scott was adopted by Seikura’s martial artist father in Japan, who trained them both). Scott also has a good friend named A.J. (Art Hindle) who is more cavalier than he is and gets involved in the plot’s various machinations, which also include an anti-terrorist mercenary named McCarn (Lee Van Cleef).

Director Eric Karson, whose only other feature film at that point was an obscure documentary about off-road racing, clearly took notes from the work of his predecessors, Paul Aaron (A Force of One) and Ted Post (Good Guys Wear Black), in not being too showy and letting Norris’s steely gaze, impressive facial hair, and speedy roundhouses do most of the heavy lifting. It is clear that Norris’s star persona was still somewhat in flux at this point, as he is clearly meant to be understood as a kind of James Bond figure here, emphasized early on by his black-tie tuxedo and his multiple romantic and would-be romantic partners (Norris is never so stiff as when he is attempting to be romantic). However, he is clearly in his element when the action kicks in. Because The Octagon involves ninjas, the martial arts sequences make use of weaponry like samurai swords, nunchaku, and throwing stars, unlike Norris’s previous films where everything was hand-to-hand combat. This gives the film an additional level of visceral action and was, at the time, genuinely novel (the Golan-Globus-produced ninja films would kick off a year later with 1981’s Enter the Ninja starring Franco Nero and Sho Kosugi).

Unfortunately, The Octagon is hampered by what has to be one of the absolutely strangest narrative choices in any Chuck Norris vehicle, which is the use of echoy voice-over narration to convey Scott’s inner stream of consciousness. When I first heard this voice-over, I thought something must be wrong with the sound mix because Norris’s disembodied, whispery inner voice sounds like it has gone through half a dozen echo chambers before reaching the speakers, which is not only unnecessary and distracting, but really quite silly in its attempted seriousness (the device used to create the sound effect is called an echoplex, and it is typically used in musical recording). Even worse, virtually everything in Scott’s inner monologue is redundant with what we see on screen or unnecessary to articulate, which makes it all the more head-scratching that anyone thought it would be a good idea.

The Octagon Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by critics Brandon Bentley and Mike Leeder.
  • Audio commentary by director Eric Karson
  • “The Making of The Octagon” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spots
  • Radio spots
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateAugust 2, 2022

    COMMENTS
    Kino’s new Blu-rays of Good Guys Wear Black, A Force of One, and The Octagon each sports a brand new 2K transfer that looks very good. I don’t have any details about the sources for the transfers or what kind of restoration work was done, but the results are generally impressive scans with good detail, color, and a bare minimum of age or wear. Being mid-tier films shot in the late 1970s, they all have that slightly soft celluloid look, which is absolutely appropriate for their era and an excellent representation of the films’ largely consistent style and texture. The same goes for the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on each of the films, which faithfully reproduce the original two-channel mix with clarity and some decent depth.

    As far as supplements go, the only new one on the The Octagon disc is an informative, enthusiastic audio commentary by Hong Kong action film expert Mike Leeder and journalist and action film historian Brandon Bentley. Together they provide an impressive wealth of information about both the film and the action genre and all the principals involved in its production. They clearly enjoy the film, but that doesn’t mean they are shy about pointing out its (numerous) shortcomings and making cracks about Art Hindle’s voluminous hair. From the archives we get an audio commentary by director Eric Karson, who probably takes the film more seriously than it deserves, and a thorough 40-minute making-of documentary that looks at the film’s production and release through interviews with American Cinema president Alan Belkin, director Eric Karson, head of production Jean Higgins, , composer Dick Halligan, editor Dann Cahn, production designer James Schoppe, head of distribution David Miller, and head of advertising and publicity Sandra Shaw. There is also an original theatrical trailer, several TV spots, several radio spots, and a TV spot for The Octagon / A Force of One double bill.

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (2)




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