Invasion U.S.A./Commando

November 4, 2021

The formula seems to be intact, at least for these two action pics: A guy who just wants to be left alone is drawn out of comfy retirement to fight one last fight. (Schwarzenegger is with his little daughter, carrying logs on his shoulders in the desert of Southern California; Norris wrassles alligators at his everglades retreat.) Both retired heroes are drawn out into battle because an old nemesis has gone power-mad and wants to rule the world (more or less). And both films share, of course, the indestructibility of their protagonists and the uncanny willingness on the part of the thousands of extras to step in front of a red-hot machine gun. Oddly enough, they also share a tendency toward flipness; both heroes like to make funny cracks about the dude they’ve just wasted, a la James Bond (some bon mots in Commando are actually stolen from early Bond films, if I’m not mistaken). But the tone, especially in Commando, is less Bond-droll than a kind of hip nihilism, very much along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s big hit from last year, The Terminator.

Similarities noted, it must be said that the two films offer differing degrees of pleasure. Invasion U.S.A., helmed by Norris vet Joseph Zito and co-written by Chuck Norris himself, is a typically tawdry-looking Chuck movie. The villains perform atrocities, Chuck gets mad, mows villains down. Nothing too interesting about it, except that the atrocities are a little more far-out than usual: a suburban neighborhood prepares for Christmas, and a little kid runs out on the lawn to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. She manages to get inside the house before the vans parked out front (bought and paid for with rubles, no doubt) deposit their payload on the front porch, torching the whole neighborhood. That’s a little kinky, but there are no scenes in which Chuck is forced to bite the head off a live rat (as in the unforgettable scene in Missing in Action 2), and Chuck’s masochism level is relatively low, although he does have to wear the same ugly blue shirt all the way through.

Commando is a lot more fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually better in his Terminator role, because there his voice could sound dead and metallic and be suited to the character. He sounds more Teutonically incongruous than ever in Commando, but that’s all right. The forward motion of the film itself is the main thing, and it trips along pretty well. Its inferiority to The Terminator stems from the lack of an identifiable directorial personality; colorless Mark L. Lester handled the reins on Commando, and the gap between the flip, funny dialogue and the ordinary visualization suggests that he might not have had that much to do with what is good about the picture. (An example of the absence of overriding directorial presence: in some early, execrable lines of dialogue, Schwarzenegger trades quips with his daughter on the subject of Boy George; this seems to establish him as something of an old fogey. But late in the film, he exhorts his main foe – played by Vernon Wells, the fearsome Wez of The Road Warrior – to join in a fight to the death, and whispers, “Let’s party.” Since the character has not changed at all in the day that has passed since the first dialogue exchange, and this last phrase is quite irreconcilable with his earlier behavior – although it sounds great in the TV commercials for the movie – you get a feeling the director did not have a terribly strong idea or notion of what the character was about).

All of which, perhaps, is taking too seriously a film whose major concern is to rub its hero’s chest with grease and have him cream the bad guys – except that James Cameron was able to take the same concern and carry it off with a lot of style in The Terminator. The attitudinal holdovers from that film that crop up in Commando might very well be attributable to Schwarzenegger himself – which conjures up big-bicepped visions of a future auteur fashioning his own odd, sardonic, and by all means muscular mise en scene.

First published in The Informer, October 1985

This was a case of double-dipping, as I’d reviewed Invasion and Commando for The Herald, but I guess I needed something for the cover of The Informer, and Arnold was it. Lester spiraled into lower-budgeted titles, but has a robust career as a producer, so good for him. I forget that Arnold’s character in Commando was called John Matrix. Man, we had some dumb fuckin’ movies back then.

Ratboy/Firewalker/Eye of the Tiger

April 3, 2020

ratboyOffbeat barely begins to describe the new film Ratboy, which is about a little boy, apparently half-rat, who is exploited and abused by the greed of others.

It’s an entirely unexpected Hollywood production – how, you  wonder, did this film get made? Well, part of the reason is surely that Sandra Locke, the star and first-time director, is the longtime co-star and consort of Clint Eastwood, whose Malpaso Productions produced the movie.

It’s still surprising that such a clearly non-blockbuster little moral fable could find the light of day. But Locke’s achievement is not merely in production. Her direction consistently brings a human touch, and often finds the humor of the often pathetic situations.

She plays a greedy loser who happens to acquire the ratboy (S. L. Baird, makeup by Rick Baker) and decides to give him a big media buildup: press conferences, Hollywood parties, a shot on the Merv Griffin show. The whole progression of the story has strong affinities to King Kong, as well as the obvious Beauty and the Beast angle.

The script by Rob Thompson (a writer originally from Seattle) is sharp and funny. The only fault with the movie is that it makes its points very early on and never deepens them; as nice and as well-produced as this story is, it exists almost wholly on a simple surface level. Locke’s story­ telling is able, but it is without real mystery that the subject matter requires.


JN2017-01986There’s certainly no mystery about the cloddish action movies that turned up over the weekend. Firewalker brings us the first outright Chuck Norris comedy, a thought that ought to fill all sensible people with trepidation. Some, of course, would argue that man of Norris’ straight-faced shoot-em-ups had a goodly portion of laughs, albeit unintentional.

Firewalker isn’t unendurable, it just isn’t very good. Norris is teamed with Lou Gossett; they’re a couple of adventurers who go treasure-hunting with a woman (Melody Anderson) who knows the location of a secret Central American cache of gold.

The usual Indiana Jones gunplay and horseplay ensues, with Norris about as leaden to the task as you’d expect. The direction of J. Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone) matches Norris’ comedic touch.


eyeoftigerEye of the Tiger, at least, plays it honest. This is a straight-ahead revenge melodrama, very much of the Walking Tall school. The star is Gary Busey, whose career has been spinning out of control since The Buddy Holly Story. Busey recently lost a lot of weight and has found his edge again; here he plays an ex-con trying to go straight in his small hometown. Problem is, a gang of bikers have taken control during his prison stay, and Busey makes the mistake of crossing them.

A bunch of plot leads to the overblown and predictable showdown between Busey and his biker nemesis (William Smith) as well as the corrupt sheriff (Seymour Cassel). Under Richard C. Sarafian’s direction, it’s all dumb and plodding. The sole redeeming factor is Busey, who contributes some urgency. It’s good to have this electric actor back.

First published in the Herald, November 26, 1986

A triple! And what a batch for the holiday season. Ratboy didn’t led to a few other directing gigs for Locke, and a few lawsuits, too. Screenwriter Rob Thompson (whose breakthrough was the script for Hearts of the West) went on to produced and direct for shows such as Northern Exposure and Monk. The star of the film was former Mouseketeer and H. R. Pufnstuf performer Sharon Baird, a curious choice. For Firewalker director J. Lee Thompson, Firewalker came in the midst of doing a bunch of Charles Bronson pictures, and came from Cannon Films. I am sure Eye of the Tiger has its fans, because, I mean, look at it. Richard C. Sarafian was Robert Altman’s brother-in-law, and did Vanishing Point and lots of 60s TV.

Hero and the Terror

October 7, 2011

In Hero and the Terror, the Hero is a Los Angeles cop played by Chuck Norris, and the Terror is a hulking killer played by Jack O’Halloran. At least, that’s what The Terror is meant to refer to. Some might guess at another possibility: The Terror is what the viewer feels at realizing Chuck Norris has it in his mind he’s gonna do some acting in this one.

What this means is that, between the episodes of gunplay and head-crunching, Norris seeks to show his sensitive, emotional side. Now, Chuck Norris the man no doubt has a sensitive, emotional side, but please—can’t he keep it off the screen? The scenes in Hero and the Terror that detail the cop’s personal life are surely the drippiest that Norris has attempted.

His cop is haunted by nightmares of a major arrest he made three year earlier, of a serial killer called the Terror. Now the lunatic has escaped, hidden in a Los Angles theater, and Norris must collar him.

All of that is standard fare. Below standard is the drama of Chuck’s girlfriend, a therapist who is imminently expecting their child. They’re not married, which is one source of drama. Also, this woman is worried about the future of her career, and about the weight she’s gained during the pregnancy. “You’re pregnant,” says the new sensitive Chuck, “you’re supposed to be fat.” Thanks for caring, big guy.

Under the random direction of William Tannen, the relationship story and the murder story have absolutely zilch to do with each other. The script is a hodgepodge of cookie-cutter elements that don’t fit together. For instance, Norris is supposed to be undergoing this intense psychological torture over the old arrest and his undeserved “hero” label, but he’s the same wisecracking cool dude he has always been when he stiff-arms a petty thief on the street.

And, of course, the movie indulges in the old saw about the tough guy who goes to pieces in the delivery room. Chuck faints dead away at the hospital entrance desk. Nope, the split personality just won’t wash. Either Chuck Norris goes back to his old ways, or he turns into the next Alan Alda and spends the rest of this career dispensing warm ‘n fuzzies. He is not an actor who can manage both.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

This one has the marks of having been intended as a somewhat more ambitious vehicle for the Invasion U.S.A. star, but it ended up as just another Norris movie. The cast included 80s movie stalwart Steve James, Billy Drago, and (according to Ron O’Neal as “The Mayor.”

Missing in Action 2 / Avenging Angel

July 5, 2011

Makers of exploitation movies can be counted on not to miss a trick. They don’t just rip off successful films from the major studios. They’re also smart enough to steal from themselves.

Here are two low-budget films, both sequels to successful 1984 originals. Missing in Action 2 is actually a prequel to Missing in Action, which cleaned up when it was released in November 1984.

November 1984! My, these people work fast. It just proves that sometimes it’s easier to get things done in the world of quickie shoestring productions than in the major studios.

Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, like its predecessor, is a vehicle for martial-arts star Chuck Norris, a stone-faced, Clint Eastwood sort of fellow who doesn’t say much. He does smolder a lot, though, and he can be counted on to blow away a few dozen people (foolish enough to have ticked him off) in the last reel of his movies.

Chuck plays the leader of a group of soldiers being held in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam at the end of the war. They’re tortured by the camp’s commandant (Soon-Teck Oh) who obsessively demands that Norris sign a war-crimes confession.

Chuck, of course, says no dice. So atrocity follows atrocity, until Chuck finally gets upset and takes his revenge.

The film is a masochist’s delight. Chuck and his men go through bloody heck before the movie’s half over—they’re blown up, burned alive, thrown down waterfalls, covered with worms. At one point Chuck is hanged upside down and a bag containing a live rat is tied around his head. Blecch.

It’s all to work the spectator into an emotional frenzy, and as such, it’s pretty well done—lots of action, fast moving, and absolutely black-and-white values. In movies such as this, there’s no doubt who the heroes and villains are.

Oh, and there’s a cameo appearance—via newsfilm—by Ronald Reagan.

Avenging Angel updates 1984’s Angel by five years. Angel, the high-school honor student/Hollywood hooker, is now a law student, her sordid past having been put behind her. But when her policeman friend (Robert F. Lyons) is killed on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s back to the streets for Angel—this time to find out whodunit.

Angel is played by Betsy Russell, who is threatening to become the new queen of exploitation, with Private School, Out of Control, and now this. She’s a different Angel from the one in the original (when she returns to Hollywood Boulevard, everyone says, “Gee, you look different”).

With the help of a senile cowboy (Rory Calhoun—these are sad days for aging B-movie veterans) and her former landlady (Susan Tyrell), Angel starts her search.

It’s pretty abysmal. The tone veers from the heroine’s occasional quivery-lipped determination to a cutesy brand of comedy. What’s missing is any kind of liveliness—even of the rock-bottom brand of Missing in Action 2. Except for the rare unintentional giggle—Angel, pursued by a killer, minces through a parking garage in miniskirt and high heels, and pauses to pull a derringer from her garter—the movie’s a snooze.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

This twofer undoubtedly represents a trip out to the Aurora Village theater, a now-vanished and unlamented multiplex ‘way up north along Highway 99. These movies would open without an advance press screening (duh) and I would drive up either after work on Friday or Saturday for a matinee (because I still worked a real job at this point). MIA 2 truly is a landmark of sadism, and another solid hit for Norris; I assume Avenging Angel did fine, as a couple of sequels followed.

Braddock: Missing in Action III

March 3, 2011

The Missing in Action films have given Chuck Norris his brawniest character (and his steadiest work): James Braddock, the ex-Vietnam vet who keeps returning to Vietnam, mowing down Communists, and bringing innocents back. Braddock: Missing in Action III adds a new element to the series.

A prologue, set in 1975, informs us that Braddock had a Vietnamese wife. (This fact, as far as I can remember, was hitherto unmentioned in the series.) At the time of the American withdrawal from Saigon, Braddock thought his wife had been killed, and he left without her.

Twelve years later, he learns that, not only is his wife alive, but she was also pregnant at the time of their parting. She has since given birth to a son.

Devotees of Norris’s cinema will have already guessed that he hops the first plane to Bangkok and finds a way to cross the border into Vietnam, but getting his wife and son out proves harder than getting in. The obstacles include an unexpected truckload of kids (they must be evacuated too), sadistic torture, and seemingly hundreds of enemy soldiers. All of the latter are blown to smithereens.

MIA III is no better or worse than the preceding films in the series. The Saigon prologue works up some convincing panic, even if most of it is stolen from The Killing Fields. On the whole Aaron Norris directs with full-bore simplicity, though the film contains no killer effects such as the burlap bag full of live rats that was tied around Chuck’s head in MIA II.

Someday some film student is going to write a dissertation about the Missing in Action films. In some unconscious ways, despite themselves, these are interesting movies—the way in which, for instance, Braddock’s existence in the United States is absolutely perfunctory, as though he were alive only to relive the war experience. If some veterans keep returning to Vietnam psychologically, Braddock actually acts out the return. And, to paraphrase Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, this time we win.

At this point Braddock’s invincibility has gone beyond ludicrousness. He’s a superhero who doesn’t even bother dodging bullets; they magically avoid him. It’s another level of wish-fulfillment at work in these films, and like most superhero stories, it’s effective.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

And so it went. Interesting to register that this was only a dozen years or so after Saigon fell, and still fresh enough to be talked about this way.

Invasion U.S.A.

November 28, 2010

Those pesky Russians are at it again—you’d think they’d learned from Red Dawn that you can’t invade these United States and expect to get away with it. But, sure enough, that’s exactly what they try in the flammably titled Invasion U.S.A.

Actually, this film is reluctant to pin the source of the invasion directly on the Soviet government. The invasion force seems to be a KGB-inspired mercenary effort, launched at Miami from Cuba—sort of a Bay of Pigs in reverse.

The big problem with these Russians, who are led by a vodka-swigging psycho named Rostov, is that they chose a city that happens to be the home of Chuck Norris, former martial-arts champion and latest two-fisted, low-budget pretender to Clint Eastwood’s throne.

Chuck is living a peaceful existence in the Everglades, hog-tying alligators and watching the sweat form on his brow, when the invaders hit. He’s particularly miffed because this fellow Rostov is an old nemesis from Chuck’s former life as a spy, or a CIA agent, or whatever he was (the movie likes mysteriousness).

When the scarlet horde moves ashore and starts attacking school buses, churches and (the unthinkable) a shopping mall, Chuck leaps into action and machine-guns ’em all away.

There should be enough carnage here to satisfy hard-core Norrisphiles, although the picture is a comedown after last spring’s Code of Silence, which was actually a pretty good action movie. It gets off to a slow start and, except for the shoot-out in the shopping mall, has some dead patches.

This is Chuck’s fourth film in the last 12 months, and he shows no signs of stopping—he even found time to co-write the screenplay to Invasion U.S.A. That his productivity is so high will either be welcome or depressing news, depending on your enthusiasm for his brand of entertainment. One thing is sure: It can’t be good news for enemies of the free world.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

Gee, I should have name-checked the actor who plays Rostov: Richard Lynch, the fearsome-looking, hard-working villain. Obviously this was a heady era for Chuck-heads, but Norris’s prolific output is one of the reasons I look back on the Eighties with such a Did-that-really-happen? feeling.