Chuck Norris enters the arena to kick ass in his early cinematic vehicle THE OCTAGON, on DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.
Scott James (Chuck Norris, A FORCE OF ONE) stopped competing in martial arts tournaments after seriously hurting an opponent in the ring. When he and charming dancer Nancy (Kim Lankford, MALIBU BEACH) are ambushed in her home after a date and Nancy is killed (along with the rest of her family), Scott knows that the assailants were ninjas. Since only Scott and his brother Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita, AMERICAN NINJA) - by way of a Japanese fighter (John Fujioka, MORTAL KOMBAT) who adopted Scott and disowned Seikura - are trained in that particular lost art of fighting, he suspects but does not want to believe that Seikura is somehow involved. His mercenary friend AJ (Art Hindle, BLACK CHRISTMAS) informs him that Nancy and her brother were part of a terrorist group, and that her brother was recently arrested in connection with an assassination in France. AJ suspects that Nancy's attempts to distance herself from the terrorist group lead to the deaths of her and her family; however, he and Scott are unaware that Nancy's brother was one of a group of international terrorists with diverse causes who trained in ninja combat under Seikura and Katsumoto (Yuki Shimoda, SEVEN WOMEN FROM HELL) at the secluded Octagon. One of the main tenets of their training is death before capture, and the penalty is the deaths of all of their loved ones. Both AJ and anti-terrorist mercenary McCarn (Lee Van Cleef, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) try to recruit Scott into taking action beyond the law against various international terrorist groups but he does not want to fight. Wealthy magazine heiress Justine (Former Miss Arkansas Karen Carlson, FLESHBURN) also tries to hire Scott to track down and kill Seikura, Scott refuses but he decides to become a mercenary (by answering a magazine ad) on his own terms. When he learns that AJ has taken Karen up on her assignment, Scott knows that both AJ and McCarn are up against a formidably trained enemy; but he has his own trouble to deal with when the terrorist behind the mercenary job he applied for - Doggo (Kurt Grayson, MIDWAY) - discovers his real identity.
As American Cinema's follow-up Norris vehicle to A FORCE OF ONE, THE OCTAGON seems to have a slightly higher budget and a more ambitious scope; but it's actually the less entertaining of the two pics (although better than other major ventures CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN, the costly flop I, THE JURY, and arguably THE ENTITY). The Octagon training scenes are really short snippets in between long stretches of drawn-out exposition that even a couple mini action setpieces (including an unexciting car chase) cannot liven up. Only in the last quarter of the film do things pick up as Norris goes up against Richard Norton (who has gone onto his own B-movie action career as an actor, stuntman, and stunt coordinator) twice - once as Doggo's henchman and then later as Seikura's masked enforcer - and gets in the middle of a firefight between McCarn's men and Doggo's terrorists before infiltrating The Octagon. Although Norris had shown himself at ease in front of the camera - if a little inexperienced - in his previous lead role, here he is thoroughly wooden (doubly so thanks to the inclusion of echoey processed stream of consciousness voiceovers - using the echoplex delay effect used more commonly in music - which are sometimes hard to decipher) and especially when acting against Van Cleef and Hindle. Carlson is even more distractingly bad because most of what she is required to do here is utter a series of faux-intellectual witticisms that fall flat with her line readings (Carol Bagdasarian's female mercenary Aura is the more interesting female character). Kevin Brando (later the voice of Schroeder on the 1980s THE CHARLIE BROWN AND SNOOPY SHOW and a couple of the later Peanuts TV movies) plays Norris' character as a boy, and the Norris' own son Mike plays his character as a teenager. Norris' brother Aaron plays one of Doggo's henchmen and Ernie Hudson also has a supporting role as a fellow martial arts competitor (although we don't see him compete, or Hindle's AJ for that matter).
THE OCTAGON has been available on DVD legitimately from Trinity Entertainment since 2006 in a dual-layer DVD utilizing an open-matte slightly zoomed-in transfer as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and 5.1 tracks (along with a Spanish mono dub track). The disc also featured a comprehensive forty-minute retrospective featurette on the film as well as a twenty-eight minute documentary on the production/distribution company American Cinema (also featured on Trinity's disc of A FORCE OF ONE), the film's theatrical trailer, and a TV spot. A brand new HD master of THE OCTAGON made the rounds on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, Germany, Australia, and Scandinavian countries; and that is presumably what we get on Scorpion's new dual-layer DVD (a Blu-ray edition is also available). In terms of framing, the widescreen transfer loses expected top and bottom information but different shots reveal slightly more picture alternately on the left or the right. Colors are subdued as appropriate to the era and the budget, but are better defined than on the previous version. The Scorpion disc features the original mono mix in Dolby Digital 2.0 as well as a front-oriented 5.1 mix that keeps the dialogue constrained to center channel (although not isolated from the essentially monophonic music and effects) with the left, right, and surround channels give the music and effects some spaciousness and depth. It's nothing like a full remix or a modern surround track but it's better than the usual upmixes one gets when some companies revisit films of this era. The feature starts with a short on-camera introduction by director Eric Karson (0:30).
Supplementary-wise, Scorpion's release retains the behind the scenes featurette (39:24) – featuring input from American Cinema president Alan Belkin, executive in charge of production Jean Higgins, director Eric Karson, editor Dann Cahn, producer Joel Freeman, composer Richard Halligan, production designer James Schoppe, actor/stuntman Richard Norton, and publicity head Sandra Shaw – but drops the "American Cinema" featurette; however, it does carry over an audio commentary with director Eric Karson that appeared on the UK release. He describes the film's structure as more of a five-act play rather than the typical three-act film structure with a not entirely linear structure. He mentions that THE OCTAGON was the first film outside of Japan that used ninjas in a prominent manner and voices several questions that the film asks about the theme of terrorism. He speaks highly of Norris and the other cast members, as well as cinematographer Michel Hugo (THE MANITOU) and composer Dick Halligan (FEAR CITY). He is most impressed by Norris and the stunt performers (and admits to even being worried about some of the hits they took). There's a lot of play-by-play, but Karson also explains the motivations of the characters, the shots, and the editing rather than merely describing the onscreen action.
Exclusive to Scorpion's disc is an interview with actor Tadashi Yamashita (23:11) who cheerfully recollects working on a film that he did not initially want to do. One of the reasons he chose to do the film was because the shooting location was close to his home, but he also saw the opportunity to inform American audiences about ninjas as well as the film's creators (recalling with amusement the stunt performers’ ideas of how ninjas move and strike). He also discusses his other films like BRONSON LEE: CHAMPION, GYMKATA in Yugoslavia, AMERICAN NINJA in the Philippines, and CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, as well as coordinating the martial arts on AMERICAN NINJA V. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer (2:28) for the feature but no trailers for other Scorpion product. (Eric Cotenas)
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