The early cinema of Chuck Norris

Feature Matt Edwards 16 Aug 2012 - 06:59

With Chuck Norris now a member of The Expendables 2 cast, Matt takes a look at the action legend’s early movies..

The average film fan seems happy to take Chuck Norris as a joke, and most highbrow cinema analysts are content to ignore his work all together. We here at Den Of Geek feel his cinematic leavings deserve consideration. As such, this article will evaluate the early leading roles of Chuck Norris. Someone had to do it, and as in the case of the early cinema of Hulk Hogan, it’s fallen on us to get the job done. And by us, I mean me. The rest of the site’s writers didn’t help at all.

Please do note that this article will cover Chuck Norris’ first four leading roles. That’s why you’re not seeing Way Of The Dragon (a film I really like, but a film which doesn’t feature much Norris) here. 

A quick mention, too, to Slaughter In San Francisco, a film that my research suggested might be relevant, and one that proved troublesome to track down. I resorted to a VHS tape of it (which felt particularly awful after seeing the lovely new Blu-rays of A Force Of One and The Octagon), only to find Norris, whose voice had been dubbed, in a small supporting role as a villain.

The film itself isn’t up to much, either, so I’ll not be mentioning it again, ever. 

Breaker! Breaker! (1977)
(aka Action Forever)

Number of Roundhouse Kicks: Wasn’t paying attention
Fighting Style: Jammy Wagon Wheel Style
Amount of Denim Worn: All of the denim
First Audible Flute: Immediate 

In the 1970s, during their working day, someone decided that Chuck Norris’ first leading role should see him play a trucker who happens to be a gifted arm-wrestler and karate fighter. Here at Den Of Geek, we call people like that ‘hero’.

Truck driver JD Dawes (Norris) warns his younger brother Billy to stick to his route and be careful on his first lone ride, but when the cops tell him that the road ahead is closed and send him on a detour, what’s he supposed to do? Billy finds himself in Texas City, a dusty little town run by a corrupt Judge, with traps laid out for unsuspecting passers-by to bring money in. Billy is soon disappeared and, well, Chuck Norris doesn’t take too kindly to the disappearance of his brother. 

Teaming up with a concerned waitress, he takes on Texas City’s corrupt police force, heads after the power-hungry Judge and engages in an elaborate fist fight in front of a horse.

A film starring Chuck Norris must first be assessed for its acts of violence. Breaker! Breaker! has all sorts of punching and kicking in it, although it’s not of the highest quality. Norris employs a fighting style that consists almost entirely of slow spin kicks. He’s a legitimate karate champion, so his being bad at fighting doesn’t make much sense. 

Still, where the combat doesn’t convince, it at least entertains. A fine example of Breaker! Breaker! getting it right is the scene where Norris swaggers into a Texas City town meeting and launches a spin kick protest against several faces. He’s outnumbered and they’re armed, so Chuck is forced to flee the building and invent parkour to escape. That’s not even the most impressive part - he does this while decked out entirely in denim.

Seeing a man wearing all denim can inspire you to do crazy things. It surely affected the guy who approaches Norris in a bar and goads him into an arm wrestling match at the beginning of the film. Just as crazy is that the bar patrons gamble on the match and bet against Chuck Norris. I’d sooner trust my money with my bank than bet it against Chuck Norris, and my bank is run by irresponsible assholes.

Within one minute, Chuck Norris is walking out on a bar fight and rolling his eyes at the mob of truckers causing a destructive ruckus, presumably because they’re rioting like pussies. He may have a point; no one throws a spin kick, and the building appears to be in no danger of exploding.

The film also features what I would come to know as the patented Chuck Norris dick punch, a move that never fails to cause a stirring of the loins. Speaking of which, a rather pretty waitress finds herself staring forlornly (and likely experiencing a condition referred to as ‘the electric gusset’) at Norris when he enters the Texas City café. She brings Chuck Norris home, much to the confusion of her young son.

“You slept in his van last night.” he asserts to his distracted mother, which she half-heartedly refutes. Look, kid, it’s Chuck Norris’ van. It has a goddamned eagle painted on it. Yes, your mother slept in the van last night.

The film concludes as you might hope. Chuck becomes imprisoned, the waitress summons an army of truckers and much smashing ensues. Norris finds himself in a dramatic punch up with a corrupt cop who attempts to stab his beautiful blond hair. Moments later, with the cop kicked to death, the film stops on a freeze frame of a jumping, traumatised horse who has witnessed the entire thing. 

So, everyone lives happily ever after then, right? Well, no. A storyline featuring a mentally handicapped young lad, who works with his brother in Texas City, sits awkwardly with the rest of the film. It’s not poorly written or badly realised, but tonally it’s massively at odds with everything else that’s going on. He ends up getting shot by his own brother, then dying in Norris’ arms. 

Breaker! Breaker! is not a particularly good film, then, but it is a fun and surprisingly watchable one, with a perfectly passable first turn from its leading man. Special mention should go to George Murdock for his turn as the town’s sleazy mayor, too.

Good Guys Wear Black (1978)
(aka Black Tigers)

Number of Roundhouse Kicks: Errr, none?
Fighting Style: Push kick fever
Best Line of Dialogue: “That’s why ostriches die young”

In his second leading role, Chuck Norris plays John T Booker, a trained government killer  who, having retired, is now a beloved professor who tests race cars in his free time. Presumably this is toned down from the first draft of the script, where his job was to lustily engage busty vixens while being draped in the American flag. Former members of his squadron are being killed as a botched mission, where they were sent in under false pretenses and betrayed, is seemingly returning to haunt them.

Teaming up with a feisty reporter, Booker attempts to save his war buddies, take down a killer, expose/unleash death upon a corrupt senator and save the day in general by fighting people.

The first death rampage in Good Guys Wear Black comes early, in a scene that plays out like micro-budget version of the fourth Rambo film, minus the gooey realism and technical competency. 

It’s apparent after this slaughterfest that Norris and his band of merry men have been set up. Even though he knew this was going to happen, because it’s in the script, Chuck still looks surprised that anyone would actually have the balls to betray him. Some of you might try to explain this away as ‘good acting’, but I would counter your point by showing you the rest of the film. He wears the look I imagine Den Of Geek’s editors had when receiving this piece.

This initial flurry of war raised my hopes for a real punchapalooza. I found myself disappointed, though, as violence is only an occasional visitor to Good Guys Wear Black, and one who tends to fart noisily and drop biscuit crumbs everywhere. 

When Norris does engage in fisticuffs, he does so with more of his trademark bullet-time spin kicks and the occasional push-kick. If you’re unfamiliar with push-kicks, they’re your legs’ way of communicating to an opponent that they should take a run up before punching you in the face. Against incredible odds, Norris finds a way to weaponise his push-kicks, combining one with jumping into the windscreen of a moving car. The resultant coroner’s report is a more accurate depiction of S&M than 50 Shades Of Grey.

Norris fails to convince at anything in this film, except being condescending to women. In his defense, you’d be surprised at how few of the women in Good Guys Wear Black are bringing him scotch. That doesn’t stop him from romancing the pants off of a foxy young reporter. It’s a love that’s not destined to last, as an assassin blows up the plane she’s on, presumably killing hundreds and, most heinously, breaking Chuck Norris’ heart. 

The film climaxes with Norris taking the main villain by surprise in his limo. Is there a word for combining luxury vehicles with spin kicks? Unsurprisingly, the limo ends up in a large body of water, and only one man emerges. The villain is never seen again, although I think we can assume that he’s probably dead from multiple underwater kick related injuries.

For all its problems, Good Guys Wear Black is actually quite a pleasant little thriller. It moves at a good pace and some of the supporting performances are all right. Most importantly, though, it features Chuck Norris in a selection of wonderful outfits. Every picture in this article is from this film. They’re magnificent. 

A Force Of One (1979)

Number of Roundhouse Kicks:  I greatly regret including this category
Fighting Style: The Karate of Justice
Best Line of Dialogue: “Maybe it’s one of those karate weirdoes, like in the movies”

When a couple of cops turn up dead, the police look to karate fighter Matt Logan (Norris) for assistance in finding the killer and protecting themselves against future attacks. He’s reluctant at first as, with a gym to run, an adopted son to take care of and a big match scheduled, he doesn’t know where he’ll find the time. Unable to resist helping, he soon finds himself investigating the deaths and demonstrating his spin kicks.

Teaming up with a determined female officer and with a little help from the competitive karate community, Norris must hunt down a killer, keep his son safe, expose a million dollar drug syndicate and win the big match.

A Force Of One is a film with a message: police incompetence is everywhere, so thank God for karate.

With no signs of his fight scenes improving, Norris is indebted to the cinematographer and director in A Force Of One, who make watching the karate match scenes a pleasure in spite of him. Bizarrely, though, in the more dramatic scenes, which are marred by melodramatic piano music, Chuck’s acting performances are enough to keep you watching. He shows real improvement as an actor, and I was genuinely impressed. 

Chuck teaches the cops how to battle crime with a smile on their face and a heart full of karate vengeance. It’s only natural that at least one of them would fall in love with him. The most likely candidate was the pretty young officer who recruited him. I have no idea what motivated her to seek him out. It’s explained in the film, but as soon as I found out she was visiting him at his karate school I began writing a sympathy card to her uterus and missed it. 

Initially, he’s reluctant to accept her offer, prompting her to say to a colleague “Let me drive him back to his school, then he can think about it. He might have a change of heart.” Where I’m from, that’s called bribing someone with sex, lady. 

Chuck Norris has an adopted son in this film, and against all odds he actually survives the first hour, if not much more. His doesn’t die for nothing, though, as his murder prompts the film’s finale, where it finally picks up some much needed pace. 

In the final scuffle, Norris wants to punch-trauma his brother’s killer to death, but is prevented from doing so by love. I was in the process of slow-motion spin-kicking my TV when I realised that the killer wasn’t willing to accept this, and was lunging at Chuck after throwing a large box of cocaine at his head. This leaves Norris with no option but to break the guy’s neck.

Chuck then hugs the female cop, with no erection implied, while awful piano music returns and the credits roll. This whole 90 minutes we’ve spent together has been a lie, Chuck!

So, A Force Of One is poorly paced and uneven in tone (the child prostitution scene feels massively out of place). Again, though, I found myself enjoying this film, thanks to its silly action, a strong performance from Norris and some good cinematography. 

The Octagon (1980)
(aka The Man Without Mercy)

Roundhouse kicks:  I spotted one, and it was blocked. Story of my life
What’s that lurking above us: Tree ninjas
Best Line of Dialogue: “People tell me I’m psychic. I sure am looking forward to Mexican food”

Chuck Norris stars as Scott James, a karate guy of some form or another, who finds himself entangled in a plot involving ninja assassins, foxy assassins, assassins in training and even a couple of people who haven’t been hired to kill anyone. He’s being pulled in all different directions by a variety of twisted characters, each with their own evil intentions.

Teaming up with a beautiful assassin with a guilty conscience, Norris must avoid being killed, track down the villainous clan’s training headquarters and single-handedly take out a ninja army. 

Early hyper-violence only increased my expectations of The Octagon. Right away, someone pulls a machine gun from a pram and carries out a bloody assassination, with her victim’s chauffeur returning fire with a pistol. Between that and knowing that this film would pit Chuck Norris against an army of ninjas, I don’t think I was being unreasonable in expecting the greatest movie ever made. The Octagon falls short of that.

It’s the largest scale film I’m covering, testament to the growth of Norris’ career, but it’s arguably the worst. The plot is all over the place, and it plays out so slowly you’d think Chuck Norris was spin-kicking it directly into your mouth. 

We’re granted access to Chuck Norris’ mind in The Octagon, and it’s a less interesting/murderous/sexually confused place than you might hope. His inner monologue echoes over certain scenes, and is unbearably annoying, if not occasionally hilarious. Please see this excerpt for details.

“Oh my God. Ninja. It has to be. But they don’t exist anymore.”

It’s hard to imagine the creative process that produced a film with boring ninja training scenes didn’t involve regular glue huffing sessions. It was during these scenes I started to hear my own echoey internal monologue, which offered helpful remarks like, “You've spent 10 hours researching Chuck Norris films for this article. Proud?”

The female characters in The Octagon want to romance Chuck Norris and, for a variety of reasons, they all want him dead. You bloody women, with your sexy vulnerability and deadly hidden agendas. 

Their attempts at seducing Chuck are, for the most part, ill-advised. One attempts to woo him over dinner, seductively licking salt from her finger and making small talk about vomiting. Another, after confessing to him that she’s fallen afoul of some murderous bastards, becomes upset that he’s only interested in her out of pity. No, clever lass. He just found out that you’re being actively hunted by terrorists. He’s aroused!

In spite of this, The Octagon does feature the first on-screen Chuck Norris sexing. Naturally, the scene cuts between Chuck Norris saucing up a sexy topless woman and footage of a shirtless Japanese man practising a complicated martial arts weapon routine. Separately, these are the two most erotic sequences I've ever seen. Mashed together, though, they invert and produce a potent anti-lust.  

More failure follows. There’s a scene in this film where an assassin pulls a machine gun on Chuck Norris, and then puts it down. Chuck reasons that he could disarm her if he wanted, thus misunderstanding the entire concept of machine guns. This scene nicely illustrates the rotten core of The Octagon; it sets itself up for violent carnage, then puts down the machine gun to chat. 

The final fight is a joyless affair, perhaps because there are only so many times you can watch Chuck Norris throw another goddamned spin kick. If you can’t think of interesting ways to have him fight an entire ninja army, maybe just have him fight half a ninja army.  

He engages in a sword fight with a super ninja that is as perfectly realised as the sword fights me and my brothers used to have on Christmas Eve with the cardboard tubes from wrapping paper rolls. 

Eventually, Norris smashes him into a building. The super ninja emerges looking 80 pounds heavier and on fire, suggesting that he landed in a Nando’s.  

As with A Force Of One, as soon as the final fight is complete, the remorse, sad music and end credits kick in. Here, it’s an attempt to distract us from the imminent gymnastic celebratory romping the female assassin is about to experience. I can't even get aroused by the mental image of that unless I insert mental cutaways of weapons training. This film has damaged me.  

If The Octagon has one saving grace, it’s that Lee Van Cleef is in it, being menacing and creepy, and looking a bit like Larry David’s evil twin. He’s got a particularly disheartening hoop earring, but considering the rest of the film, that’s quite forgivable.

The Octagon is a disappointing end to the Chuckathon. It does not come highly recommended. 

The Expedables 2 is in cinemas from today. The Octagon has just been released on Blu-ray.

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