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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Over the Top

December 7, 2010

Winner takes it all, loser takes the fall: this is Over the Top

Over the Top is distinctive in that it gives Sylvester Stallone more dialogue to wresle with than his previous three films combined. But, it stands to figure that with something in the neighborhood of $13 million in his paycheck, Stallone could bloody well be induced to contribute something more than just his physique.

The people behind the $13 million are Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the owners of Cannon Films (the former also directed this outing). Cannon, which has produced a torrent of movies in the last couple of years (mostly of the exploitation kind) has lately found itself in financial trouble, and it desperately needs a hit. So the money is a tribute to Stallone’s track record.

I’ll be surprised if Over the Top is a monster hit, however. It’s just enough of a departure from Stallone’s formula to displease his fans, but it’s not interesting enough to find a different audience.

He plays a footloose trucker who left his family some time before. Now his wife (Susan Blakely) is dying of an unnamed disease. We can tell she’s dying because she wears no makeup.

Which means that the couple’s 12-year-old son (David Mendenhall) needs care. But he hasn’t seen his father in years, and is used to being pampered by his rich grandfather (Robert Loggia, a fine actor trying his best not to look embarrassed about collecting a good fee for a nothing part).

Stallone picks the kid up at an exclusive Colorado military academy, in order to get to know the boy as they truck to the mother’s hospital in Los Angeles. This sets the scene for plenty of cute exchanges. The kid pointedly tells his father that, “There’s a lot more to life than muscles, y’know.” Sly responds by teaching the lad how to find self-worth by challenging loiterers at a truck stop to an arm-wrestling match.

See, the movie is mostly about the relationship between father and son—a Kramer vs. Kramer on 18 wheels—but there’s this arm-wrestling thing mixed in. This insures that the ending, on which Stallone gambles everything, will involve a sporting competition a la Rocky. In this case, it’s a glitzy Las Vegas arm-wrestling championship.

Now, the art of arm-wrestling may have its attributes. Its proponents may be fine people, although the participants in the film are bellowing walruses, one of whom drinks motor oil to rev up for a match.

But there’s something about arm-wrestling as the big event that seems fundamentally giggle-worthy. I mean, arm-wrestling?!? Say what you will about the boxing in the Rocky movies, as least it’s cinematic. The sport here is heavy and static.

The mishmash script is credited to four writers, including Stallone (as usual) and veteran Stirling Silliphant. The most dishonest thing they have done is to have Stallone repeatedly tell his boy that winning isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, etc. Of course, son, that applies everywhere except Sylvester Stallone’s movies, which make victory the only option.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Having consumed my own fair share of motor oil before matches, the sanctimonious tone I took in my review here seems hardly sporting. Anyway. Just typing the words “Cannon Films” brings back the cheesy aroma of about half the movies of the 1980s, that bizarre Golan-Globus mix of grindhouse fodder and arthouse experiments. I spent so much attention on Stallone’s price tag because it was much-remarked on at the time, and because well before the movie opened it was clear that this was one of those stupid ideas that wouldn’t have happened if an actor hadn’t decided to cash in and take a giant, absurdly-inflated payday.

For Sammy Hagar’s theme from Over the Top, which reminds us that “Winner takes it all/loser takes the fall,” click here. But hey, possible spoilers.