Monday, April 23, 2012

Heavy Action: Invasion U.S.A. / Code of Silence

by Patrick Bromley
I don't get it with Chuck Norris. I know he's a legend and became one of the very first action stars ever, so this column might not even exist without him. Maybe my disinterest in him is because I didn't come up with him in the '70s, and by the time I started watching action movies in the '80s he was already being overshadowed by the guys who followed in his footsteps -- your Arnolds, your Slys, your 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.
Yes. That one.

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.
At least Invasion U.S.A. delivers on the promise of its poster: he does carry two guns, and he does walk around in those clothes. I have to call bullshit, though, because in the movie Norris has sleeves. I like that someone in the marketing department thought more people might see the movie if his arms were showing.

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.
This time around, Norris is Chicago cop Eddie Cusack, described on the poster as "a good cop having a very bad day," which totally misrepresents the movie. Anyway, he's a good cop having a very bad day, mostly because a drug bust he worked on for months went south and everyone wound up being murdered by some outside hitmen. Then one of his co-workers accidentally shot an innocent kid, but planted a gun and made it look like self-defense. Eddie's supposed to go along with it, because apparently among the Chicago P.D. there is a CODE OF SILENCE. On top of honoring the code, Eddie's got to deal with the fallout of the drug hit, which has basically started a war throughout the city between a Colombian drug cartel (led by Henry "Bullshit...or Not?" Silva) and the Italian mafia.

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.
That's the only scene in the movie where Norris really shines, because otherwise it's pretty much business as usual -- he's stone faced and boring. Maybe it's some kind of genius, like he's an ink blot test of an action star. Is he stoic? Determined? Hurt by the betrayal of his department? We can read any of those things on his expression, mostly because none of it is really there. It's less bothersome in Code of Silence, though, because Andrew Davis covers it up with good atmosphere, a reasonably involving story and a strong cast of character actors. Even the cop that kills the kid is that "Keep that change, ya filthy animal" guy from Home Alone. He never says that to the kid he kills in Code of Silence, though. It would probably make him seem guiltier if he delivered a one liner before shooting an unarmed teen.

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:
 U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

* 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.


  1. Great job as always, Patrick! Please do "Streets of Fire" and "Cobra" soon!

    1. I LOVE Streets of Fire, but I'm not sure it qualifies for Heavy Action. It will be written about in some way on the site, though, I promise.

      Cobra, on the other hand, WILL HAPPEN. Thanks, Joey!

  2. Well, just found out the company I've worked for since 1996 (first job out of college) is closing down at the end of the month. That, plus THREE attempts at writing a reply here that got stuck/frozen (Palm's WebOS = crap!), means this week has started about as well as "Cabin in the Wood's" box office prospects. Oh well, at least READING Patrick's column about Chuck Norris was a pleasant delight and momentary relief from the fact that, a week from Tuesday, I'll be a hobo without a shotgun. :'(

  3. Finally, 'unfroze' my original posting:

    Now that the Chuck Norris vein has been tapped in the 'Heavy Action' column (hooray!), there's one obvious recommendation I can give you for a future column: 1982's SILENT RAGE... OK I give up, 1982 was a great year for movies indeed! :-P Co-starring William Finley (R.I.P.) in a small supporting role, this is an insane little sci-fi action movie (more of the latter than the former) that pits Chuck Norris' ass-kicking small town Texas sheriff against a formidable foe (and I ain't talking about Ron Silver). I'd rather not spoil "Silent Rage'; it's the type of demented little flick that you marvel at how director Michael Miller pulled together the material and actors given with the little resources he obviously had to create something akin to an entertaining movie. While it's on you're getting your money's worth; afterwards it falls apart. Ask for it by name: "Silent Rage."

    To me the non-ironic appeal of Chuck Norris (i.e. anything post-'Walker, Texas Ranger' lever on 'Conan O'Brien) is that his athletic background as Karate/martial arts champion proves that at one point he was the real deal physically. He's no actor pretending to kick-ass (or 'actor' period) but a well-built dude that at one point in his life could have hurt people bad if he had wanted to. Add his military background and physical presence (whether he can emote or not, when the camera is trained on Norris you don't doubt he's the bad-ass of the bunch) makes him an idealized figure of American masculinity that most 'average' (i.e. non-cinephiles) men can relate to. If Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the idealized 80's fantasy action heroes of the masses (the men guys wish they could have been: super-buff, guns/cars, women, one-liners at the ready, etc.) Chuck is the more accessible and 'normal' hero that wasn't perfect but guys could relate to (drives a pick-up, great-but-not-cartoony physique, quiet because he has nothing to say, women are secondary to the mission, etc.).

    The problem is Norris, like most athletes and showbiz greats, didn't know when to call it quits after he was past his prime and kept on grinding (1992's "Sidekicks" should have been the cut-off point). To certain portion of the population though (not me or you), Chuck Norris' quiet non-expressive ass-kicking, shoot-first American warrior roles is an idealized cinematic bad-ass worth wasting brain cells watching. And, for the one's that share his political affiliation, Chuck is a symbol of making it in an industry in which conservatives aren't welcomed (which is bullshit but that's perception).

    I'd never noticed any fascism or right-wing propaganda when watching "Invasion USA" before (and I'm an immigrant!) but now that you mention it you're right. Kind-of like the homosexual undertones of "Sleepaway Camp" that I didn't notice until after I heard your group commentary. When your movie features a high-speed car/pick-up chase across an indoor mall that shatters every other glass display in the place the subtlety of any political message gets kind-of lost.

    You mention often the current quirkiness of French movies that try to emulate American one's ("Taken," "From Paris With Love," etc.) but, for my money, the Cannon Studio pictures from Golan-Globus are in a league of their own for tone-deafness that makes them fun 80's relics. These movies had one-sentence premises ('foreigners invade America') and a star (Norris), with the producing/writing/directing getting that 'ohh so loving' Golan-Globus touch of foreigner weirdness. Would you expect less from the people that screwed-up royal "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace" and "Lifeforce"?

    Terrific column as always Patrick. Next on the dock, "The Perfect Weapon"? ;-P

    1. Your explanation of the non-ironic appeal of Chuck Norris actually makes a lot of sense to me. I mean, I never felt that personally, but I was too young, I suppose. Plus, I grew up on comics and larger than life superheroes, so I naturally gravitated to the bigger guys. but I can totally see the dude in the 80s who drove the trans-am and listened to Dokken as being a big Chuck Norris enthusiast.

    2. Agreed. That was as good an argument in favor of Chuck Norris as I've heard. And while I know that, once upon a time, CN could kick all kinds of karate ass (he had his very own team of karate commandos, after all), I never really considered him in the context of the "everyman" hero. Good call, J.M. And I will definitely seek out Silent Rage.

      Still waiting for The Perfect Weapon to go down in price. As soon as it does (and if anyone notices that it has, let me know!), it will get the HA treatment.

      Also, no badmouthing Lifeforce.

    3. There's only three things I like about "Lifeforce," and Mathilda May is upfront about them through the entire movie... BAM!, there's your juvenile joke of the day, DOUGie style! ;-)

      Enjoy "Silent Rage" Patrick, you won't regret it if you can find it cheap. It'll also beef-up your William Finley catalogue of watched movies.

      If you really think about it it's the over-muscled Schwarzenegger/Lundgren/ Stallone-type hulking supermen killing hundreds of people and saying something clever/cool at just the right moment that are the abherration to the action template. Chuck Norris comes from the old school of action movie heroes with quiet, deadly men of action (many of them in the western/war genre: Vic Morrow, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, etc.) that are good at their job but are otherwise unexceptional. A lot of people can relate to this type of 'normal' masculine movie hero better/more easily than super-pumped Arnold yielding proto-gun futuristic laser blasters to demolish warehouses on "Eraser."

      Many of us grew up with the muscled-man-says-cool-shit-as-he-slays-hundreds 80's action template as the norm, when in fact its a relatively recent phenomenon/addition to the old action movie template. I grew up watching both schools, the old one on TV and the new 80's one at the movies. He's no actor/star I can relate to but, like the better Bronson movies (i.e. not "Deathwish 3"), there's something enjoyable to me about seeing Chuck Norris lay waste to an army of bad guys and seeing his character just be satisfied he did it without the need to prove he's funny (because he's not) or charismatic (he's the Mitt Romney of action stars). He's just an expresionless ass-kicker, and, when the right movie/director showcases his skills best, Chuck can hang with the best of them. IMHO of course.

  4. Wait, JM types all of his posts on a phone/tablet?

    1. It explains so much, doesn't it?! Those posts that appear like 12 minutes after the episodes post? How he's almost alwasy first? the mysteries of life have been revealed.

  5. 32GB HP Touchpad ($99 during last year's firesale) when I'm at work, a Toshiba laptop for home. Got a bluetooth keyboard w/the tablet so no big deal. :-)

  6. I really enjoyed this one. I mean, I always do, but this one was particularly easy to relate to. I, too, have never been big on Chuck, and I think you really hit on some good reasoning in this column. I came of age when Arnold and Sly were the kings, and then Bruce Willis came along and made it even more fun. Chuck Norris always seemed wooden to me, and his movies didn't have the sense of fun that the other ones did. I think I just missed to boat. I was too young. Anyway, I really enjoyed this, Patrick.

    By the way, does it say anything that in a summer of comic book movies based on characters I've been reading for 20 years, the movie I'm most excited for this summer is The Expendables 2? Thank goodness it's back to being rated R.

  7. Thanks, Heath! I meant to mention in the column that one of my problems with Chuck Norris movies is that they have no sense of humor. Either does he. Anyone who disagrees with me obviously has never seen Firewalker.

    I want to be more excited about Expendables 2 than I am. I feel burned by the first movie, but I'm hoping that the fact that Stallone isn't directing this time will fix some of the problems. I also kind of wish they didn't wear uniforms and berets, but whatever.

  8. We need an explanation of that John McNaughton comment, I think.