09 November 2010

DEATH ONCE HAD A NEAR-CHUCK NORRIS EXPERIENCE

Troy Olson gave me a bit of a free hand with his donation to the Carry On Campaign, providing a list of possible review subjects. Upon looking over this list, I quickly settled upon one obvious choice, recognising that there were not nearly enough Cannon Films productions reviewed on this site. I am a broken man.

Though the sensible and refined among us might like to pretend otherwise, the 1980s were defined at the movie theaters by two Israeli cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus. The Go-Go Boys, as they were (mostly) affectionately nicknamed, through their company Cannon Films, became the most effective and prolific rip-off machine in the history of American cinema. No fad, however fleeting, failed to attract the producers' attention; no blockbuster could escape without a hastily-assembled copy under the Cannon banner released within a year. Though their films ranged from hypnotically awful disco musicals to mercenary slasher sequels to dreadful slapstick comedies to Jean-Luc Godard pictures (yes, that Jean-Luc Godard), their stock in trade was ever and always the action film. An art form that their company did much to perfect in the '80s, a decade when the genre arguably reached the peak of both its stupidity and it's rousing explosiveness.

No man was more emblematic of this exhilarating dumbness than Chuck Norris, and it comes as no surprise that his most iconic work from that decade was produced by The Cannon Group. That includes our present subject, Invasion U.S.A., perhaps Norris's most exhilarating picture and very probably his dumbest. Which takes some doing, but the film comes by it fairly: it bears the holy distinction of being the very first motion picture for which Norris himself co-wrote the screenplay, with James Bruner (Bruner, meanwhile, also co-wrote the story... with Norris's brother Aaron).

Accusing Invasion U.S.A. of having either a screenplay or a story is of course highly disingenuous. It really only has a hook - terrorists on American soil (this was in 1985, a time when that seemed like such an absurd fantasy as to be only suited for gleefully trashy action films), and its structure does not follow the rules of character or plot, but the far greater rules of crudely commercial genre fare: every ten minutes, there had better be a gunfight. It has a purity about it that even its most ardent hater must admit and respect, for even in the career of Chuck Norris, and even in the Cannon catalogue, rare indeed is the movie that is so single-minded in its intentions and execution. It is a movie made for the watching of Norris in his natural state, a place of roundhouse kicks and bland facial expressions meant to suggest laid-back badassery, and the sight of a grim man with huge hair effortlessly shooting two semiautomatics at once without so much as flinching. It provides nothing beyond this.

The film opens on a boat, traveling from Cuba to Miami, laden with refugees. This is not the invasion, there not being a Tea Party yet in 1985; these poor souls are just looking to find freedom and prosperity, and for a few seconds it seems like they might, when a Coast Guard ship encounters them. Unfortunately, the first man to greet the Cubans is none other than quintessential '80s snakelike bad guy Richard Lynch, and after briefly pretending to welcome the refugees, he guns them all down and shoves the corpses aside to get at the cargo hold full of cocaine underneath. In a particularly classy grace note, one of the dead refugees' arm flops over the cocaine and just sits there for all of an unusually long insert shot.

So here we are, not even to the title yet, and I'm already wondering what the hell is happening. Why on earth would Richard Lynch (who is, we'll find out in about 15 minutes or so, Soviet spy Mikhail Rostov, who has A History with Norris) bother with the charade of welcoming the refugees before he shoots them? The only reason I can possibly come up with is that he's just that damn evil. And to be fair, it is well of Bruner and the Norrises to make sure we get as soon as possible that our villain is motivated for no other reason than being damn evil, because otherwise the plot makes absolutely no sense. In a nutshell, here is what the Soviet Union has concocted as its plan to destroy the United States:

1. Use the cocaine to by a metric fuckton of guns from Billy Drago.
2. Blow up suburban houses and malls in Florida.
3. Watch in delight as the country is torn apart by race riots.

Red Dawn it's not; the point isn't really to make anything remotely resembling a coherent propaganda piece, but to combine some things that everybody hated in 1985 (terrorists, Communists) and put them opposite some things that everybody loved (Norris, guns), and be delighted thereby.

Norris, for his part, plays Matt Hunter (whose immaculately masculine name is in the finest tradition of the '80s action hero), an ex-CIA agent now living a life of quiet retirement in the Everglades, where he does very little besides hang out with his good friend John Eagle (Dehl Berti), an airboat operator, and watching his pet armadillo waddle about. But not for long: the CIA comes to Hunter and begs him to join in the fight against Rostov, which the retiree refuses instantly (he ominously recalls that once, he had a chance to kill the Russian, but was forbidden to do so; this isn't really expanded upon). Poor Hunter doesn't realise that he's in a movie, though, and shall be impelled to fight for revenge and for his country after Rostov, fearing that his old foe is the only man who can stop him, stages an assassination attempt. It's a proper attempt, too - John Eagle dies - and the Russians destroy Hunter's little shack with a couple of bazookas and several machine guns and it explodes in a giant fireball suggesting that every piece of wood had been totally saturated in gasoline. Things what oughtn't be able to explode doing so in ginormous fireballs is a particular specialty of Invasion U.S.A.; it is theoretically what we're here for. Which is why, less than ten minutes after blowing up Hunter's shack - though unbeknownst to the Commies, Hunter escaped and is now planning his attack! - and five minutes after shooting a half-naked couple on the beach where a few hundred soldiers disembark to begin staging their invasion in earnest, Rostov's men just up and destroy a bland little home where a bland little family is blandly celebrating Christmas. This explosion is even bigger than Hunter's little shack, so maybe the bland family members were all giving each other industrial-sized crates of gunpowder for the holidays.

Because it requires mentioning, even though she fits not at all into the main line of the plot (Russians shoot Americans, Norris shoots Russians), the film sees fit to grace us with a female reporter character named McGuire (Melissa Prophet), who is shrill and horrible and hateful. I think we're supposed to like her. Or maybe not, it's hard to say. In a modern Hollywood picture, her railing about First Amendment rights would instantly mark her as an audience surrogate, but then, Cannon always rather preferred the Second Amendment, and there's a solid possibility that McGuire's vicious attitude and sarcastic liberalness are being played for mockery: "Oh, you professional women! Get back in the kitchen! Amiright, boys?" At any rate, you can't watch the film without wanting her to get run over by a truck. A big truck, with spikes.

So here's what we've got: Rostov blowing things apart and shooting people, and Hunter shooting back, and a mall gets all destroyed, and then other places, and there is a generally merry orgasm of R-rated violence, back when they weren't afraid to show it. And all along, nothing makes any goddamn sense. This is a trashy, crappy movie, and that's the end of it. Norris can't act, Lynch can't act, director Joseph Zito can't really stage anything but a gunfight with any sort of skill, and all in all it's 107 minutes of noise and lights that add up to nothing at all. But it is zesty for all of that, ineluctably shaped by Cannon's 8-year-old boy mentality. What could be tremendously boring is instead big and bouncy and so fucking stupid that it's hard not to get carried away a little bit. Enthusiasm counts for a lot, even when the result is as ludicrous and gaudy and impossible as this; frankly, I think that without its wanton, unending excess, Invasion U.S.A. would be more typical and thus more disposable. Its gleeful badness is its saving grace.

3 comments:

Jonathan said...

While you might not have had any Cannon pictures on your website until now; you now also have two films directed by Joseph Zito. Give us "The Prowler" and you'll have the Zito Trifecta.

Great Review. Dumbest Norris Picture? I think "Firewalker" and "Hellbound" would like to argue that claim.

Troy Olson said...

Great review, Tim. You do the movie proud. The fact that the film is "so fucking stupid" is what makes it so endearing and good for a laugh (whereas other Norris films like the DELTA FORCE films don't hold up due to their arch seriousness).

Rostov's plan does seem a little slapped together, doesn't it -- apparently the whole country will start into civil war when 2 or 3 isolated incidents of terror occur in Miami.

My favorite part still has to be the scene where Rostov bazookas all the houses. The unnecessarily long setup mixed with the silliness of such a scenario and capped by Rostov's glee as each house blows up is bad movie perfection.

Brigdh said...

I've never seen this movie (I don't think I've ever even heard of it), but this review is so hilarious I'm tempted to seek it out immediately. Good job!