Although a handful of western films like You Only Live Twice and The Killer Elite had minor ninja characters, The Octagon is arguably the first major one whose plot revolves around them. Between this, Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja novel (1980) and Enter The Ninja (1981) pretty much every trope of the 80s ninja boom was created. What’s interesting about The Octagon though is how straight it plays things. Even as early Enter The Ninja, there was a level of absurd, OTT action and knowing comedy creeping in (that would heighten throughout the reign of Cannon Films) but The Octagon has no time for such frivolity.
It’s a Chuck Norris vehicle and, at the time, he was a bona-fide rising star. Having made such an impression in Bruce Lee’s Way Of The Dragon, studios were trying to carve a niche for him as an action star. Riding high on a couple of classics with Good Guys Wear Black and A Force Of One, The Octagon built on his reptuation as a serious martial artist. Sadly, this is an image that would soon be abandoned, replaced by the gun-toting Rambo-style mass slaughter machine that we’d see in the Missing In Action and Delta Force franchises, so I rather treasure this particular era of Norris films. Unfortunately for Chuck, and for us, he doesn’t even get to do that much actual fighting in this one. Most of the film is just… talking.
So what are they talking about? Well, Chuck plays Scott James, a Vietnam vet and martial arts champion who’s quit fighting, haunted by an injury he caused another fighter while training. We first meet him at a theatre where he heads backstage to chat up a dancer called Nancy (Kim Lankford). She falls for his bushy-faced charm and takes him home but he is thwarted by a troupe of cock-blocking ninjas who are waiting for Nancy to return, having murdered her entire family. Chuck gives good fight but it’s in vain. They kill Nancy as well, leaving him mystified and talking to himself. He knows there is only one man capable of training ninjas and it’s his estranged adoptive brother Seikura (pronounced “Sakura” like the falling cherry blossom often associated with ninjas).
Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita, whom ninjologists may recognise as the Black Star Ninja from American Ninja) is running an organisation known as The Octagon. They recruit terrorists from all over the world (or, at least, graduates from the School of Comically Bad Accents, majoring in Irish, French, Mexican and God knows what else) and, for a hefty sum, Seikura trains them in the art of Ninjutsu. As a concept, this is pretty terrifying (all the worst people in the world being trained in the deadliest art) and there are a couple of really cool training scenes that almost make you wish the whole film had just been set inside The Octagon… It probably would’ve worked better than what we ended up with.
Anyway, having uncovered this conspiracy, you’d think Scott would be hellbent on a duffing-up vengeance mission but alas, it’s not that kind of film. Instead a variety of external forces – including Lee Van Cleef as a counter-terrorist, Karen Carlson as a sexy heiress called Justine and Art Hindle as Scott’s buddy A.J. – all mastermind a series of manipulations and counter-manipulations that will ultimately lead to pacifist Scott cracking under the pressure and being forced to fight Seikura. Sometimes this is bordering on incomprehensible, as everyone’s motives blur, but other times it’s an excuse for some enjoyably melodramatic dialogue, like the classic line when Scott realises Justine is trying to make him do her bidding through seduction (“It’s an insult to both of us! It makes me stupid and you a whore!”).
The pacing, as you’d expect from the leisurely 104 minute run time, is super-slow and there’s really only so much time that can pass without a fight before most viewers will start nodding off. The plot, while it tries, just simply isn’t engaging enough (we know that eventually Scott will have to fight Seikura so why not just get there or at least duff up a few more throwaway bad guys along the way?), the acting is pretty ropey (Chuck, with his undeniable charisma, way outshines everyone) and there are a number of subplots and ideas that go nowhere, like the ghostly voices in Chuck’s head that whisper echoey observations to him (“Oh my God! Ninja-ja-ja-ja-ja…!”) but don’t have much point to them within the narrative.
Seeing a serious, straight-faced ninja film with ambition is a refreshing change and the effort should be applauded so it’s a real shame that it doesn’t quite work. The set design rules, Michel Hugo’s cinematography is quite beautiful here, capturing some lovely skylines, sunsets and all the stuff we’ve come to love seeing ninjas posing with. The movie looks good and sounds good (thanks to a lush orchestral score by Dick Halligan) and if you can get past the tedium of nearly a full length film passing with only 10 minutes of martial arts in it, you will be rewarded with a stunning final showdown. Ninjas vs Everyone Else as the Octagon burns to the ground around them. It is a truly ninjasm-inducing sight when Chuck Norris takes on a bejewelled red-hooded super-ninja (one of the coolest costumes of the 80s) who is literally on fire! A glimpse at what we could’ve had if the filmmakers had maybe realised it was this kind of mayhem we were after, not a turgid conspiracy plot.
It’s interesting to think about just what the right balance is between silly and serious when it comes to ninjing. I’m a fan of martial arts films that take themselves seriously and provide a decent plot, strong emotional beats, good characterisation (and these things are rare in the ninja subgenre) but I do also like nutzoid kung-fu and insane stunts. The problem is, if these things are taken too far, you can end up with pure silliness but, if they’re not taken far enough, a fairly boring film like The Octagon. Corey Yuen is a director who has always balanced the two sides perfectly and one can only imagine how brilliant The Octagon would’ve been had he directed it (I’m basically thinking Ninja In The Dragon’s Den, crossed with No Retreat No Surrender 2 : Raging Thunder and that’s just about the best thing I could dream of!) but, as it stands, it’s an important curio and a well-made glossy piece, but hardly essential viewing for ninjologists.
Oh. One last thing though. We do get to see what a ninja pillow fight might look like: