(On Cable TV, August 2019) Let’s not mince words: Missing in Action is not a good movie. It’s not subtle. It’s created to cash in on a very specific sub-strain of American pathology, which is the desire to win all the wars they’ve ever been involved in, even if they have to rewrite history to do it. And yet, despite the low-budget and even lower imagination, Missing in Action may very well be a movie of historical importance. As the story goes, James Cameron’s treatment for what would later become Rambo: First Blood Part II was floating around Hollywood, and one of the production companies interested, the low-rent Cannon group, decided to create a new script out of the idea. But The Cannon Group was not interested in what can be laughingly called the sophistication of the second Rambo film: Here, there are no double-crosses from Americans: Everything is a straightforward jingoistic power fantasy in which American firepower defeat the Vietnamese at last and erase the national embarrassment. It’s straightforward to the point where it becomes iconic, and the film is worth seeing for no other reason than the classic unironic shot in which Chuck Norris inexplicably emerges from a river, big gun blazing. Understandably, Missing in Action became a rich source of inspiration for the second Hot Shots! parody. Amazingly enough, it just may be Norris’s best film—certainly the one where the budget is high enough, the distance between persona and character is slimmest, and the one where self-awareness is kept to a minimum. It was an integral part of the Reaganesque might-make-right action/war movies of the decade, and seemingly runs on pure distilled American pride. Again: I’m not saying that Missing in Action is a good movie … but anyone interested in 1980s Hollywood has to see this.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2019) I’ve come to be grateful for the “time-travel effect” of watching older movies that take us to a past time and place, but that appreciation has its limits, especially when it takes us to a time and place that should remain distant. Part of The Delta Force’s anti-charm is that it takes us to a radicalized version of the mid-1980s where terrorists were everywhere and the only possible solution was violent action taken against them. To be fair, I can imagine a number of good scripts in which this idea is discussed. But none of them happen to feature Chuck Norris as a former Delta Force operative taking on the terrorist almost single-handedly. And few of them go for the cheap theatrics and hyper-manipulative tactics used here. On the other hand, if you really want a taste of how American foreign policy was perceived in America circa 1986ish, then this is the film to watch: it’s not good and it’s not refined and it tells you everything you need to know in as blatant a way as possible. The stereotypes are as blunt as they can be, with Palestinian hijackers, Jewish hostages, American muscle and ineffective Middle Eastern help—is it even useful to note that The Delta Force was produced, written and directed by the very Israeli Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus? Calling it a piece of propaganda doesn’t quite capture it—considering that the villain’s plot was based on two early-eighties real-life events, it’s perhaps fairer to call it a fantasy of excessive retribution. It’s not fair to say that the film rests on a lot of unexamined assumptions about terrorism and violent response—it’s more accurate to say that the film stakes itself on not revisiting those assumptions. There are a few interesting things about The Delta Force. Chuck Norris may or may not be to anyone’s liking, but he is surrounded by an astonishing number of grade-A actors in big-to-minor roles, from Lee Marvin to George Kennedy to Shelley Winters to Robert Vaughn, to Robert Foster. For all of its emotional manipulation, the film does stumble into a few effective scenes (usually sandwiched between far less effective material). Finally, there’s a violent wish fulfillment of seeing terrorists getting their comeuppance, which works even when you’re not a far-right-winger. Any history of 1980s Hollywood movies and their relationship with American foreign policy can talk about Top Gun and Rambo, but it has to include a chapter on The Delta Force: It’s so blunt, with all subtext being presented as text, that it pretty much spells out what other films hesitantly allude to.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2019) There’s a fair point to be made that nearly all Chuck Norris movies feel the same, but Silent Rage is a bit of a departure in that it features Norris in what I think remains his only science-fiction film. Oh, it’s not much of a science fiction film: It simply uses the hoary concept of a super-serum to make a serial killer even more formidable a foe, just to keep things interesting for Norris and his unstoppable, unflappable screen persona. Of course, with a setup like that, it plays almost exactly like a horror slasher movie, with Norris hitting him a few more times until he’s dead. Considering Norris’s usual lack of charisma (or, if you want to be generous, Norris’s usual very specific charisma), it’s the science fictional elements of the film that stick in mind well after the formula karate sequences have faded away. I suppose that Silent Rage does distinguish itself as the only Chuck Norris horror/SF movie, but that’s really not much of a distinction. Even in the underwhelming Norris oeuvre, this is nothing remarkable.
(In French, On TV, June 2019) There is something true in the assertion that once you’ve seen a Chuck Norris film you’ve seen them all, and it’s certainly not going to be disproven by the generic Lone Wolf McQuade, where a rather great title can’t hide that this is Norris playing the same Norris. This time, he’s a rebellious Texas Ranger who (what else) is on the trail of an evil drug lord. He carries a .44 Magnum. He has a pet wolf. The drug lord is played by David Carradine. The love interest is played by the very cute Barbara Carrera. I’m not sure that there’s anything of substance to add to those facts. As directed by Steve Carver, the film is slightly more cinematographically ambitious than many of Norris’s other movies, clearly going for a Leone-type modern western in the American southwest. Still, Lone Wolf McQuade doesn’t have a whole lot to care about: There are few surprises here, although the sometimes-blunt execution does have a rough-hewn charm. Norris fans already know if they’re going to like it.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) It’s not really fair to say that every Chuck Norris movie is terrible —there are a few mild exceptions. But Invasion U.S.A. is not a likely candidate for the honour: Made to lowest-common-denominator purposes by B-movie factory Cannon Films, it takes anti-Soviet paranoia to new depths by supposing an invasion of the United States by Soviet and Cuban guerillas intent on causing as much damage as possible. I’m told that the novelization actually transforms the film’s ludicrous premise into a workable terror plan, but none of this is apparent in the movie. Instead, we have unseen attackers acting like mischievous gremlins, doing not-so-lethal things at random while being constantly thwarted by that rascally Chuck Norris. It even takes places at Christmas for those heartwarming seasonal moments where communists blow up family Christmas trees. No, but really: Invasion U.S.A. was badly conceived from the start, and executed even more badly. Norris is a wooden block of anti-Soviet action, stuck in incompetent filmmaking—it’s so incredibly stupid from beginning to end (wait until you see the school bus sequence) to the point of not being all that much fun. While it gave the world the iconic image of Chuck Norris brandishing Uzis submachine guns, Invasion U.S.A. doesn’t even qualify for so-bad-it’s-good status.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.