Release Date: September 27th
Box Office: $17,536,256
We would visit my Nan’s house a fair bit when I was growing up. My Dad’s parents lived near Manchester whilst we were down south, my mum’s parents within easy driving distance. So I’d stay there at weekends with my cousins and have all those hazy summer days you have when you’re a kid and there were twenty four hours in a day.
One of my uncles was still living at home and his room was kinda sorta off limits, but we’d sneak in there anyway. And he had a poster in his room, and what a poster it was.
Resplendent in double denim, his shirt open to his navel and tucked into his sung jeans, Chuck Norris stands there firing twin Uzis that are seemingly mounted in his armpits. To one side is the White House, the other side the skyline of New York including the Twin Towers. Helicopters fly behind him above soldiers and tanks with a fireball behind them. The text reads “No one thought it could happen here…America wasn’t ready…but he was”. Chuck Norris’ name is almost as big as the film’s title, Invasion USA.
Cannon Films has started in the mid-sixties producing English language versions of Swedish porn films. The original owners ran into financial difficulties until the studio was sold in 1979 to two Israeli cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who promptly set to work; bottom of the barrel scripts with a B-movie edge made quickly and cheaply just right for the exploding VHS rental market. They made horrors and thrillers and martial art films, each with titles like New Year’s Evil, Hospital Massacre and Enter The Ninja. They pre-sold films at Cannes for the international market and were able to increase their production each year; three films in 1981, five in ’82, ten in ’83, thirteen in ’84.
It was that year that saw the release of Missing In Action, a film that had some issues (it was said to be ‘inspired’ by the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II which had been floating around Hollywood) but it was a huge success for Cannon: it earned over $10m and made Cannon a profit of over $6.5m based on the US release alone. The film was a cheap action romp that did indeed rip off Rambo as it follows Colonel Braddock, a Vietnam veteran returning to the POW camps he escaped from to rescue American soldiers listed as Missing in Action. The only thing really in it’s favour was Chuck Norris.
Back in the late fifties Carlos Ray Norris was in the Air Force as an Air Policeman, when he was stationed in South Korea he took up a martial art, Tang Soo Do. It was a great fit and black belts followed as well as the nickname Chuck.
He returned to America and then was discharged a few years later. He set up his own martial art schools around California and ended up with a celebrity clientele which included Steve McQueen. He began competing and in the late sixties won Karate’s triple crown for most victories in a year and Black Belt magazine named him fighter of the year.
Having met Bruce Lee at a martial arts exhibition he was cast in Way of The Dragon, as Lee’s nemesis Colt. Their fight amongst the ruins of the Colosseum would become iconic and the film ended up being Hong Kong’s biggest hit of 1972. It was also around this time that McQueen encouraged Norris to start thinking about acting classes.
Not that he really needed them; not because he was an acting genius but mainly because he didn’t need to. Chuck could beat people up which he did in Good Guys Wear Black, Octogon and Lone Wolf McQuade. The formula was generally very simple: Norris, preferring to work alone, using his martial art skills to enact some form of revenge or retribution for crimes. This One Man Army style of action film was mana from heaven for the growing VHS rental libraries and made him a cult hero.
Invasion USA ticks most of the same boxes: Norris is a retired CIA operative Matt Hunter who unwillingly is sucked into a Communist invasion plot. A group of Cubans sneak into Florida, wiping out a boat full of refugees and drug smugglers along the way. They swap the drugs for weapons and begin a campaign of destabilisation. They destroy homes, disguise themselves as cops and attack immigrants so when the really cops show up racial tensions begin to rise. All of this is led by a Russian agent, Rostov. He has some history with Hunter, who is asked to come out of his retirement in the Florida Everglades where he walks around with his shirt undone and helps wrangle alligators. He refuses, however an assassination attempt by Rostov causes his to change his mind and he begins a one man campaign against the communist invasion.
This film is as daft as that sounds. The invasion attempt seems sound, if a little far fetched even for the mid eights. It doesn’t help that the poster is a complete lie; the Communist forces barely make it out of the state let alone reach the White House or New York. Rostov makes for a good villain of the piece; he is played by Richard Lynch, a man who made a career out of playing villains in movies and TV. Back in the 60s he had been in Central Park and, under the influence of drugs, had set fire to himself. He had burned 70% of his body but the scars left behind, alone with this piercing stare, gave him an edge when playing the bad guy.
The main problem with the film is Chuck Norris himself. He’s a stoic as they come, a pure slab of Republican vengeance striking down the Red Menace with his twin uzis. But thats about as far as he goes, his quest for vengeance coming across as a bit dull. Not that the film doesn’t falter in making him as touch as possible; at one point Rostov literally has a nightmare about being killed by Chuck. This seemingly invents the Chuck Norris Fact meme a good thirty years before the internet would: when bad guys have bad dreams, clearly they dream about Chuck Norris.
The other problem is this film came out the same year as Rambo First Blood Part II and Commando. The action genre was starting it’s rise from the B-movie to blockbuster and Cannon simply couldn’t give the film the scale it needed to fully impress. They has also made Chuck the hero in a series of films which were successful but paled in comparison to the work of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Chuck may be walking round with his shirt off but even he couldn’t compete with the hard body styling of the Italian Stallion and the Austrian Oak.
Cannon would soon collapse under it’s own hubris (and the failure of Superman IV) and Chuck would never be quite as big as he was in the mid eighties. His TV show, Walker Texas Ranger, would last for several years before that too faded away. It would all pale in comparison though to his run of films at Cannon, and it would be this work that would enshrine his place as a cult action hero.