'70s action films, Aaron Norris, action films, action star, Andy Sidaris, Anne Archer, Anthony Mannino, auteur theory, bad films, bad movies, Black Tigers, Bruce Cohn, C.I.A., Chuck Norris, cinema, commandos, covert military action, Dana Andrews, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Good Guys Wear Black, hand-to-hand combat, James Franciscus, Jim Backus, John T. Booker, Lawrence P. Casey, Lloyd Haynes, Mark Medoff, martial arts, Movies, P.O.W.s, prisoners of war, Soon-Tek Oh, Ted Post, Texas Ranger, The Black Tigers, The Delta Force, Viet Cong, Vietnam vet, Vietnam War, Walker
At what point, exactly, did Chuck Norris go from just another ’80s tough guy to an honest-to-god cultural phenomenon? Was it around the time of Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) or did it happen closer to The Delta Force (1986)? Was Chuck just another karate-kickin’ action star when Missing in Action (1984) was released or had we already decided he was a force of nature by that time? Maybe Chuck’s ascension to the pantheon of cinematic tough guys didn’t come until he’d infiltrated the small screen as the goody-two-shoes/ass-kicking Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001). Whenever the time and for whatever reason, however, Chuck Norris seems to exist more as an Internet meme these days than an actual person. After all, before he made his big “return” to the silver screen with The Expendables 2 (2012), it had been seven years since Norris appeared in anything: that’s virtually an eternity in the life-span of an action star.
For whatever reason, we need Chuck Norris…or, at least, we need someone like him: an incorruptible force for good that protects the innocents, whups righteously on the wicked and maintains a stoic sense of zen through it all. Norris has always come across as the most laid back ’80s action star: Willis was more sarcastic, Ahnald was thuggier, Sly was harder to understand, Gibson was nuttier, Seagal was greasier but Chuck? He was kinda the Big Lebowski of karate: he just was, man…he just was. As my personal movie marathon continues, I chose to focus on a couple of Norris’ lesser known films (at least as far as I’m concerned): Good Guys Wear Black (1978) and The Octagon (1980). While I recall seeing the poster/video-box art for Good Guys Wear Black, I couldn’t remember anything about The Octagon at all. Would the roots of Chuck Norris’ invincibility lie here? Journey with me back through the layers of time and let’s find out.
After an incredibly odd opening credits sequence that features awful, glitchy computer graphics (possibly from a cutting-edge Atari) and one of the worst slow-jazz tunes in recent memory, we get tossed head-first into the Vietnam peace talks in Paris, circa 1973. Sleazy Undersecretary of State Conrad Morgan (James Franciscus) is negotiating a cease-fire with Major Minh Van Thieu (Soon-Tek Oh) and hanging in the balance are the lives of several American P.O.W.s, including several CIA operatives. Morgan has arranged it so that the U.S. can send in a special ops unit, called the Black Tigers, in order to rescue the CIA operatives. Coordinating with head CIA-man Murray Saunders (Lloyd Haynes), the Black Tigers hit the jungle for a nice, quiet rescue mission. Led by John T. Booker (Chuck Norris), the Black Tigers encounter no resistance until everything goes ass over tea-kettle: in short order, Booker and his men are surrounded by Viet Cong and engage in the kind of dubious fire-fight that Andy Sidaris made famous in Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), minus the gratuitous T & A, of course. Despite the terrible odds, Booker and a small handful of his men are able to make it out alive. As Booker notes: “It takes careful planning for things to be this screwed up…we’ve been set-up!” Indeed!
Flash-forward five years and Booker is now a race car driver who also happens to be a grad student pursuing his PhD in Political Science: in other words, he’s your basic, well-rounded type of guy. When a comely reporter named Margaret (Anne Archer) approaches him about doing a story on the Black Tigers’ failed mission from five years earlier, Booker gives her the brush-off: he’s already gotten over the “betrayal” and moved on. Way to be the bigger man, John! The situation changes, however, when Booker’s old friend Murray Saunders gives him a call and let’s him know that someone has put a hit out on Booker “in the system.” As the surviving Black Tigers get picked off one-by-one, Booker must figure out who would want them all dead and why. The answers, of course, go all the way back to that failed mission and involve a government cover-up, a vengeful Viet Cong officer and lots of feet to the face. The odds may be stacked against him but no one puts Booker into a corner…after all, this is Chuck Norris we’re talking about here.
Good Guys Wear Black is many, many things but a quality film is not, unfortunately, one of those things. While the film’s rampant stupidity can be forgiven (the world is full of vapid, action-packed films that are tons of fun despite being virtually brain-dead), it’s exceptionally shoddy action sequences can not. The opening gunfight between the Black Tigers and the Viet Cong has no sense of drama whatsoever, resembling nothing so much as a backyard war epic helmed by pre-teens: it couldn’t have been less realistic if the actors had run around pointing their fingers at each other and yelling “Bang!” Truth be told, none of the action sequences and fights are really worth a hill of beans, more often than not amounting to Chuck Norris kicking someone repeatedly until they fall down: it’s kind of like that old button-masher Karateka in that regard.
So…the film is completely inane and features lame action sequences: what else is there? Unfortunately, not a whole lot: as expected in films like this, the acting is pretty over-the-top and silly, although Norris nicely underplays his role (does he have any other acting style?). The problem with Norris is that his only reaction to things, whether it be his girlfriend getting blown up in an airplane or his best friends getting shot, is to kind of shrug his shoulders and go about his business. At no point in time does Booker ever seem overly worried about anything, which meant I spent a good portion of the film likewise disengaged. Look, it’s as simple as this: if the main characters can’t be bothered to care about this mess, why should I?
And what a mess it is, too. The screenplay, by Mark Medoff and Bruce Cohn, is both stupid and overly complex, which is a most lethal combination. Medoff would actually go on to write the screenplay for Children of a Lesser God (1986), so perhaps we can chalk this up to growing pains. Cohn, on the other hand, would go on to write one other screenplay, for a ’90s-era TV movie: this pretty much speaks for itself. There are so many double-crosses and switch-arounds that I completely lost track of who was doing what by the midpoint: good thing, then, that I was already pretty checked out, by that point. Director Ted Post is actually responsible for some of my favorite films of all time, including Hang ‘Em High (1968), The Baby (1973) and Magnum Force (1973): I’m not sure what happened here but I’m willing to cut Ted a little slack, based on his impressive resume. The screenwriters, on the other, definitely don’t have those laurels to rest on.
In the end, Good Guys Wear Black ends up being a thoroughly average (although tilting towards the terrible), if completely non-nonsensical film. Chuck Norris is consistently amiable but the film, itself, is alternately goofy, corny, stupid and boring. While Chuck Norris’ might reign as some sort of action demi-god nowadays, the proof definitely wasn’t in the pudding back in ’78. As far as our current experiment goes, the search for the genesis of Chuck Norris’ badassitude continues. Next stop: The Octagon.