by Patrick Bromley
Anthony Michael Halls. Maybe it's because he's completely wooden in every movie I've ever seen him. It's probably that one. It's for sure that one.
I mean, no one is going to accuse Stallone or Schwarzenegger or Seagal or Van Damme of being talented actors, but each of them bring something to the table beyond their physical abilities. It's charisma. It's what the French call "what zee fuck?" It's why they're movie stars and not just stuntmen. I just don't think Chuck Norris has it (I also don't think Charles Bronson has it, with the possible exceptions of Once Upon a Time in the West and House of Wax, but we'll get to him another time because HOLY SHIT HAVE YOU GUYS SEEN Death Wish 3??). He literally has one expression that he wears in every single minute of every single one of his movies.
Doesn't matter if he's fighting or talking, being threatened or being threatening. That's the face. Some would call it "intensity." I call it "his range."
It's the face he wears all the way through two of his best movies, Invasion U.S.A. and Code of Silence. The latter works because it's legitimately pretty good -- easily the best thing Chuck Norris has ever done. The former works because it's complete trash. Silly, offensive, violent trash.
In Invasion U.S.A., Norris is former CIA agent Matt Hunter, who has retired to a peaceful life in the Everglades but is called back into action when a group of terrorists, led by the always creepy Richard Lynch (the bastard hybrid of Rutger Hauer and Klaus Kinski), attack Florida and begin murdering what seems like 50% of the state. Seriously, pretty much the first half of the movie consists of Lynch and his terrorist henchman killing people in horrible, mean-spirited ways. You know how there are some action movies that start with bad guys killing civilians to establish them as being bad? Think of the opening of Commando, where the two guys pose as garbage men and shoot that guy in the street. The first 45 minutes of Invasion U.S.A. are basically that scene over and over again. At one point, a bad guy walks up to a couple making out on the beach and shoots them both. Thankfully, they went to the trouble of having a little TV out on the beach with them. Maybe Leslie Nielsen was going to drown them. The real reason I think it's there is so that when he's done killing the couple, we get a beat where the bad guy looks down at the TV and laughs at a clip of Phyllis Diller on a talk show. I guess we're supposed to be chilled by the thought that he could be laughing just seconds after murdering two people. I like to think that Phyllis Diller is just that fucking funny.
For crying out loud, the movie opens with the bad guys posing as the coast guard and straight up executing a boat full of Cuban refugees, children and all. There's a thick streak of anti-immigrant sentiment that runs through the movie, actually; I know it's the terrorists being referred to in the movie's title, but it's hard to watch a movie that opens with some would-be illegals making their way into the States and not read more into Invasion U.S.A. The fact that they're all gunned down should give you some indication of the movie's politics on this issue.
It's fitting that Chuck Norris also had a hand in writing Invasion U.S.A. (he's credited with co-writing the screenplay, while his brother Aaron gets "story by" credit), since he's a staunch right-winger and, like a number of '80s actioners, the movie is basically fascist.
The second half of the movie is dominated by Norris exactly as he appears on the poster: clad fully in denim, two-fisting a pair of Uzis and gunning down terrorists all over Florida.
There is a single-mindedness to Invasion U.S.A. that makes it effective -- it might as well be called Killing Spree: The Movie. There's no attempt at a plot. Zero characterization. There isn't even an attempt at staging action set pieces; aside from some of the more bizarre kills (like the aforementioned murder of the couple on the beach, or when Richard Lynch randomly throws a lady out a window, or when Chuck Norris begins shooting guys who are already down on the ground at close range with a machine gun) there is nothing to remember about the movie. It's fitting that it's produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus through their Cannon Films (I believe the first for Heavy Action; it will NOT BE THE LAST), as so many of their movies demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of genre. It's a stupid, jingoistic '80s action movie boiled down to its most base elements: stupidity, jingoism and kill scenes.
The movie is directed by Joseph Zito, who directed one of the best Friday the 13th movies (The Final Chapter, which I place right behind Friday the 13th Part 3 in terms of quality), as well as Missing in Action and Red Scorpion with Dolph Lundgren. He's another one of these action directors who is written off because the genre in which he primarily works a) isn't respected and b) doesn't have the fan base of horror to give the filmmakers authorship. Horror films are always discussed in terms of who directed them. Action movies not so much. I'm not sure if he's a good director or just a good director for this kind of material, but he understands pacing and commits to a certain level of shlock by showing a willingness to go further than an action movie really needs to. Plus, I've met Joseph Zito and he is an incredibly nice, soft-spoken, humble guy. There's something to the fact that so many of the filmmakers who established themselves by directing really nasty, violent movies are all sweet and kind of gentle. Except John McNaughton. That guy's a prick.
Code of Silence (1985)
The same year that Invasion U.S.A. was released, Norris also made what I've always considered to be his best movie: Code of Silence, a movie that works not necessarily because of but in spite of its star.
Credit for making Code of Silence work -- and it mostly does -- has to go to director Andrew Davis, who has been talked about several times in Heavy Actions past, primarily as the director of Steven Seagal's most legitimate movie Under Siege. Perhaps sensing the limitations of his star, Davis fills in the edges of the movie with much more interesting stuff, whether it's the funny and authentic performance of Dennis Farina (a real former Chicago cop) as Norris's partner or the excellent use of Chicago locations. Davis, a Chicago native himself, is always great at shooting the city and making it part of the action. Most action movies that take place in Chicago make use of the L train, because that's how you know it's Chicago (the alternative is to have the cops throw deep dish pizzas at the bad guys). Code of Silence has one of the very best train-based sequences in any action movie, in which Chuck Norris and a bad guy fight on top of a moving train. What makes it work -- and I have to give Chuck Norris credit here -- is that it's really him doing the stunt. There's nothing in Invasion U.S.A. that justifies Norris's reputation as an action star; anyone could be stone-faced and run around shooting guns. But in Code of Silence, he earns his paycheck -- he deserves to be an action star because he's both willing and able to pull of the train sequence.
Code of Silence is also smart enough to know that it's not Serpico, so while a decent amount of time is spent on the whole "one good cop standing strong against corruption" element, that's only about half the movie. The other half is Chuck Norris fighting drug dealers and mob guys and trying to rescue a young girl played by Molly Hagan, who was Matthew Broderick's wife in Election but who will always be one of the voices inside Herman's Head to me. The two story lines don't ultimately come together, though. When Norris is forced to take on an entire warehouse of bad guys (always with their own warehouses, bad guys), you get the feeling he was going to do that anyway. It's not because his entire department has turned their backs on him. It's because he's Chuck Norris, star of the movie.
At the end of the movie, all the cops accept him with meaningful head nods because he takes down the bad guy (Henry Silva should be a better villain than he is; at least Invasion U.S.A. has Richard Lynch going for it) and rescues the girl. I guess we're supposed to view this as a happy ending, because Eddie will no longer be an outcast in his department. But I was reminded of John Wayne's complaints about High Noon, because I wasn't happy that Eddie's fellow officers were essentially taking him back. He was right in the first place. He shouldn't be nodding back to them and letting his captain open the squad car door for him. He should be telling them to go fuck themselves.
But what really screws up the climax is that Norris actually ISN'T working alone, even though the whole point is that his actions and moral code (which is different than a silence code, I guess) mean he's all alone. No, instead he's got help in the form of PROWLER, a crime-fighting robot (basically a small automated tank with machine guns on it) that works like a rudimentary ED-209. It's a terrible touch, and plants what would otherwise be a pretty timeless cop movie squarely in 1985, when all the cops were being backed up by crime fighting robots. I'm sure that director Davis probably liked the idea as a way of justifying how Cusack could wipe out dozens of criminals, but that adherence to logic and "realism" shoots the movie in the foot, because the sequence is anything but realistic. It's silly and, worse, it's stupid in a movie that otherwise isn't.
Code of Silence represents one of those movies that could have changed the course of Norris' career, had he continued to work with good directors in movies that helped mask his shortcomings as a leading man. That didn't happen, of course, because he was too content to make stuff like Invasion U.S.A. instead, as well as Braddock: Missing in Action III and Hero and the Terror and, eventually, Top Dog -- the '80s equivalent of DTV action movies. The fact that he has huge cult status now because of this whole ironic Chuck Norris thing (I could write a whole column on how much I dislike the ironic Chuck Norris fandom) bugs me, even if it is responsible for some good jokes. It gave him the clout to insist that Expendables 2 be PG-13*, which is bullshit coming from the guy who made his career doing stuff like this:
* I believe this decision has since been overturned, making Expendables 2 one less thing that Chuck Norris will ruin.
Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.