Color, 1980, 104m.
Directed by Eric Karson
Starring Chuck Norris, Karen Carlson, Lee Van Cleef, Art Hindle, Carol Bagdasarian, Tadashi Yamashita, Richard Norton
Scorpion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Trinity (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Atlantic (Sweden R2 PAL), MIB (Germany R2 PAL)
Perhaps no action film illustrates the transition from the '70s into the '80s better than The Octagon. That might seem like an odd claim on the surface, but bear in mind that this movie -- a cable TV staple for years -- managed to turn ninjas into box office gold in America (followed by a certain Cannon Films series everyone knows and loves) and cleverly combined them with international terrorism, which also became the de facto source of conflict for the vast majority of "guy movies" for the rest of the decade. On top of that it really brought Chuck Norris into his own with an iconic final half hour that set the standard for the era's American martial arts movies, and it even reintroduced audiences to the legendary Lee Van Cleef, igniting a late career resurgence he quickly followed with Escape from New York and a batch of Italian shoot 'em ups.
A so-called fanatic named Seikura (Yamashita) is recruiting radical criminals from around the globe to train and assemble a powerful terrorist group called the Octagon, and only one man could have the key to stopping him: Scott James (Norris), his brother who studied with him in the ancient arts of the ninja. Now several people want Scott to infiltrate this "incubator for killers" including a salty mercenary named McCarn (Van Cleef, sporting an earring), haughty heiress Justine (Carlson), and covert combat expert A.J. (shaggy-haired Hindle one year after The Brood). Scott is reluctant to believe his brother could be behind the escalating attacks which include the murder of his friend Nancy (Kim Lankford), but finally he must listen to the incessant voiceovers in his head and take action.
At the time of The Octagon's release, Chuck Norris was still an up and coming drive-in name with credits under his belt like Breaker! Breaker!, Good Guys Wear Black, and Slaughter in San Francisco, not to mention a memorable stand off against Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon. However, his real test as a leading man had come with A Force of One for the indie outfit American Cinema (who had picked up distribution for Good Guys Wear Black), and he'd passed with flying colors. That gave them confident enough to invest more money in this production, and the results paid off with an entertaining programmer that benefited from very heavy marketing and a savvy structure with action scenes peppered throughout the film every ten minutes or so. Granted, some of them aren't as impressive as others (including a pretty indifferent car chase), but the sense of escalating stakes results in a truly effective climax set inside the title compound at night with Chuck and his friends taking on an army of assassins.
Not surprisingly, The Octagon has enjoyed a long life on home video in keeping with its equal endurance on TV over the years, even popping up regularly on Showtime's various HD channels. The first respectable DVD came from Trinity in the U.S., looking pretty solid with an open matte 1.33:1 transfer and a batch of extras including a 28-minute documentary about American Cinema ("How American Cinema Changed Hollywood Forever"), also directed by Karson. There's also a surprisingly in-depth and impressive 39-minute minute featurette about the making of The Octagon with Karson, producer Joel Freeman, actor Richard Norton (who sort of has two roles in the film including the most famous scene), composer Richard Halligan, editor Dann Cahn, production designer James Schoppe, and American Cinema president Alan Belkin and head of production Jean Higgins breaking down the film from conception through release including its saturation marketing, the orchestration of the fight scenes, and the ideas used to bring ninjas into movie theaters for the Reagan era. A trailer, TV spot, and talent bios are also included.
The same extras were ported over in 2012 for a UK Blu-ray and DVD release from Anchor Bay, which also marked the film's first uncut appearance there on home video (restoring some problematic footage of nunchucks, which were banned in movies for many years). Also added was an audio commentary with Karson, who goes into more detail about the story structure, the political undercurrents of the film (some of which you'll have to dig pretty hard to suss out), and taking advantage of the budget to stage enough action scenes to keep the crowds happy.
One year later, The Octagon made its North American Blu-ray debut from Scorpion Releasing in a similar package containing the full making-of featurette, director's commentary, and trailer (while ditching the TV spot and American Cinema doc). The transfer appears to be identical to the UK Blu-ray, which is actually good news as it looks excellent. As usual for films at the time, you'll see some debris caused by the optical printing process used in the opening credits, but after that it's smooth sailing all the way through with even the dark scenes in the finale looking very satisfying. DTS-HD 5.1 and mono tracks are also included, and both sound good albeit significantly different from each other. The 2.0 mono track is probably how most viewers remember the film, with music mixed in a rather flat fashion with the sound effects and dialogue, while the 5.1 mix pushes it to the rears and adds some reverb for atmospheric effect. Try 'em both out. New to this release are a brief video intro by Karson (who gets a kick out of the film being singled out at an AMPAS martial arts tribute) and "Ninja Star," a 23-minute interview with a very jovial Yamashita about getting the gig on this film and some of his other projects like Andy Sidaris' Seven and cult favorites like Gymkata and American Ninja. If you love ninjas, the '80s, Chuck Norris, or just good old-fashioned action, snapping this one up should be a no brainer.
Reviewed on December 18, 2013.