The Delta Force

October 11, 2012

The Delta Force is two films laid end to end. For its first 45 minutes or so, it depicts a plane being hijacked in Athens and flown to Beirut and then Algiers. The emphasis is on the terror of the passengers and the brutality of the hijackers.

For the remaining hour and 15 minutes, the adventures of the Delta Force, a crack American military rescue unit (if you couldn’t guess) take center stage, so that the hostages are pretty much forgotten about until they’re rescued.

This second half is normal, perfunctory blood and guts stuff, with Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin leading the exploits and dodging the bullets. It’s about what you’d expect, especially from a Norris picture.

It’s the first section that’s unusual. The hijacking is obviously based on last year’s Beirut hijacking, including the hostages being sequestered in Beirut, the pilot giving an interview at gunpoint, and the gutsy blond stewardess.

What the film makes explicit is the idea that the hijacking in The Delta Force represents a return to concentration-camp mentality, because the Jewish passengers are singled out for brutality. One of the passengers (Martin Balsam) is, in fact, a camp survivor, and his wife (unfortunately played by Shelley Winters) screams that the passengers must resist, not go along with the terrorist demands. And there’s the German stewardess (Hanna Schygulla) who is haunted by the horrible irony of her having to select Jewish-sounding names among the passengers.

These sequences make for unexpected tension, somewhat undercut by the overly emphatic direction and the built-in campiness of the casting, which has Winters, Joey Bishop (who intones sadly, “Beirut was once the Las Vegas of the Middle East”) and George Kennedy among the passengers. Still, it’s effectively creepy.

Then Norris and Marvin kick in, and the ammo starts flying. If anybody knows how to mix it up, it’s these guys, and the film delivers jolt after jolt of cathartic boom-boom as the rescue mission continues. It’s got a zillion lapses in credibility, and the mission as we see it is nothing but incredible. But that certainly didn’t bother the foot-stamping crowd at a weekend matinee.

The Delta Force is the most recent product of the prolific Cannon Films, which specializes in Norris movies, Ninja films, and the occasional bid for respectability (Runaway Train and the upcoming Fool for Love). It’s run by two Israeli moguls, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, who set up shop in Hollywood a few years ago and have been churning out successful movies since.

They also take occasional screenwriting and directing credits. Golan co-wrote and directed The Delta Force, and the victimization of the Jewish passengers and this hostility of the Arab terrorists obviously makes the film more important to him than the usual shoot-’em-up. This angle makes The Delta Force the year’s most unlikely message movie.

First published in the Herald, February 19, 1986

A strange concoction. You might actually miss the fact that Lee freaking Marvin starred in this movie (his last, alas), but when it registers that he’s taken second billing to Chuck Norris, you have to weep a little. The cast included Lainie Kazan and Susan Strasberg, with Robert Forster as Abdul. (And, according to IMDb, Liam Neeson as a Delta Force member.) And yes, there was Fassbinder icon Hanna Schygulla, occupying the most interesting section of the film.

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Gorky Park

January 17, 2012

During Gorky Park, you should be thinking about the murder mystery: Did the KBG kill those three people in Moscow’s Gorky Park? Or was it that rich American furrier (Lee Marvin)? Will the Russian detective (William Hurt) fall in love with the mystery woman (Joanna Pacula) who may have known the dead people, or will he betray her? And what about the American (Brian Dennehy) who keeps sticking his nose into everybody’s business?

These are things you should be thinking about during Gorky Park. Maybe you’ll be able to, but I wasn’t. Nope, I was thinking about William Hurt’s accent.

For some reason, Hurt has adopted a British accent for this movie. Maybe it’s because most of the other actors are British—even though they’re all supposed to be Russians, anyway—and Hurt isn’t supposed to stand out by comparison.

Hurt is the kind of exciting actor who is always taking chances; he’ll read a line as though nobody had ever said anything like it before—even if it’s a dumb line. When he’s cooking—as in Altered States, Body Heat, or The Big Chill—there’s no one more interesting to watch.

But speaking in this absurd accent seems to have taken up the better part of his artistic concentration for Gorky Park. Now he’s not just trying to give a line a fresh reading, he’s struggling to get the pronunciation right, too. I tell you, it’s distracting.

And the mystery is so convoluted that, if you get distracted, you’ve lost it. That may be part of the point of the film—that the various plots and reasons for the murder are so tied up in knots that they become meaningless.

That’s fine, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Dennis Potter are not quite up to the challenge of spinning this yarn with the clarity it needs (it’s based on a best-seller by Martin Cruz Smith). Gorky Park lacks focus; it’s missing the thread that would pull together its shadowy elements.

The locations are nice, thought—most of it was shot in Helsinki, Finland—and some of the supporting players seem to be enjoying themselves, especially Ian Bannen as a Soviet prosecutor and Rikki Fulton as the head of the local KGB. Like almost everyone in the film, they’re both completely untrustworthy.

And Lee Marvin is good to have around. He plays the rich fur trader who wants to get some live sables out of Russia so that he can break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on that expensive fur. Somehow this leads him to an involvement with four young people, three of whom wind up in shallow graves, buried by the falling snow at Gorky Park.

The surviving member of the group, played by Pacula, has her hands full—not only is she connected to the ghastly murders, she’s also caught in a sexual tug-of-war between Hurt and Marvin.

Hurt, despite the distractions, has his moments. But I hear his next movie is Kiss of the Spider Woman, now shooting in Brazil. Uh-oh. Let’s hope he plays an American tourist, not a Brazilian generalissimo.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1983

I can remember watching this again on a drowsy winter afternoon on TV, when it seemed endless and wintry and dull. The cast alone suggests giving it another try, but I think I’ll tackle The Russia House again before that happens.