Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Delta Force (1986)

Directed by: Menahem Golan
Screenplay by: Menahem Golan and James Bruner
Starring: Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin, Robert Forster, Shelly Winters, George Kennedy, Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn.
Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Tagline: "The Siege...The Ordeal...The Rescue..."

EDIT: Unfortunately, no matter how muuch messing around with the settings I do, seems that half the text in this is locked in at "eyestrain," so you might want to adjust your browsers zoom settings accordingly. Thanks a lot, Blogger.

Well, if things had gone according to plan, the next thing you'd have read on this blog would have been the first of my requested reviews; DEATH WISH 3, one of the most ludicrous sequels ever filmed and standee alongside COBRA and INVASION U.S.A. in Cannon Film's Glorious Trinity of garbage action movies. But ya'll know that line from DEADWOOD I'm always quoting. The passing of George Kennedy, co-star of COOL HAND LUKE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, and numerous other films and television series and a welcome sight whenever he appeared, couldn't go un-remarked upon. So me and the other knuckleheads in the CELLULOID ZEROES blogger cabal decided it would only be right to pay tribute to the memory of Captain Ed Hocken by doing a round table about some of the loopier movies he's put an appearance in. For my contribution, I give you THE DELTA FORCE, yet another in a long line of movies that illustrate why getting on a plane with George Kennedy is a bad idea.

THE DELTA FORCE kicks off, like all good military themed exploitation movies, with a big explosion, as in the very first thing we see is a helicopter go up in flames. It's 1980 and we're dropped into the tail end of Operation Eagle Claw, a real-life attempt to put a kibosh on the Iranian hostage crisis that went south due to mechanical failure and bad intel, resulting in the death of eight American serviceman and at least one Iranian civilian. As the troops are getting the hell out of Dodge, Captain Scott McCoy, since he's being played by Chuck Norris, establishes himself as our movie's Gung Ho Man of Action type by ignoring his commanding officer Colonel Alexander’s (Lee Marvin, in his final film role) orders and charging recklessly into the burning wreckage of that helicopter we saw get blown up really good to rescue one of his comrades, who is actually in fairly good condition considering he was just in the center of a huge fireball. Once he's back on the plane, McCoy, obviously not happy with how the powers that be caved to public pressure and ordered a hastily thrown together op that was botched from the get go, announces that he's resigning from the military when he gets back to the States. Obviously, since that's Norris's name and granite mug right up there front-and-slightly-off center on the poster, we can safely bet that his retirement isn't going to last for very long.

Anyhow, with our heroes properly established, the film now needs to set up the stakes and introduce those enemies of freedom, mom and apple pie that are going to be in dire need of a good old fashioned all-American boot to the face. Fast forward about five years and things pick up again at the Athens International Airport, where an American airliner is hijacked by a pair of Lebonese terrorists and forced to fly to Beirut. Proclaiming themselves as members of the New World Revolution, the terrorists (Robert Forster and David Menaham) announce that they are declaring war against “American imperialists, Zionist and all other anti-socialist atrocities” and will kill the hostages if their demands are not met. Which, y’know, I’ve seen this movie about three or four times, twice just for this write-up, and I don’t think they ever actually specify what those demands are. Regardless, news of the hijacking makes its way to the proper authorities and the Delta Force is called in to deal with the situation. And yes, it should come as no surprise that that they’ll be joined by Captain McCoy, who was given a presidential decree by Ronnie Reags himself to come out of retirement (and a promotion to Major) for this mission because Chuck Norris is just that dad-blasted important to the American military.

Of course, the hijackers aren’t just sitting on their hands while all of this is going on. For starters, they separate the Jewish passengers and a trio of Navy divers from the other hostages to have them smuggled off the plane while bringing in at least a dozen more terrorists on board. With a clutch of hostages stashed away in a militant controlled section of Beirut, the terrorists now have a bargaining chip in place should the authorities try anything. That done, they order the plane to take off and fly to Algiers, where after landing they agree to let the women and children go. Delta Force is on stand by to raid the plane once the freed hostages are clear. Unfortunately, the order to go ahead is given moments before Colonel Alexander learns about what transpired on the plane from a stewardess and his attempt to warn the McCoy and the others that they’re about to go charging into a death trap tips the hijackers off. There’s a brief gun battle and one of the hostages ends up getting executed before the plane takes off again, returning to Beirut.

If you were alive and aware of things in any capacity at any point during the mid-eighties than it’s pretty clear to you that what we’ve just seen is Menaham Golan and company doing a serial-numbers-filed-off version of the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by members of Hezbollah. Quite a few of plot points in THE DELTA FORCE’s first half were pulled from the hijacking itself, such as a German stewardess being forced to help the hijackers determine which passengers were Jewish and the murder of a Navy diver whose body was then dumped on the tarmac. There is a key difference between the film and actual events, though. In real-life the situation was resolved when Reagan negotiated the release of over seven hundred Shi’ite Muslim prisoners in exchange for the hostages, something that’s conveniently forgotten when Reagan-worshippers blow a gasket over two or three prisoners being let out from Gitmo. In the alternate universe that THE DELTA FORCE takes place in, however, the president has no patience for resolving things peacefully and informs Delta Force that it’s clobbering time. Sure, the hostages are scattered throughout Beirut but Beirut just happens to be within spitting distance of Israel and by total coincidence, the American heroes of this Hollywood film produced, co-written and directed by an Israeli guy (the film was shot in Israel, too!) will have the full cooperation of the Israeli government in launching a small-scale invasion on the terrorist’s base of operation.

Yes, what started as a fairly straightforward “ripped from the headlines” scenario transforms at the film’s midpoint into a whole lotta exploding, bullet riddled jingoistic wish fulfillment. THE DELTA FORCE is what I like to call a “We Get To Win This Time” movie, where thanks to Hollywood, the United States can take a mulligan and get to do over situations that didn't go so hot for them in real life but with the messy and complicated situations of actual reality now simplified into something that can be solved with a lot of crowd pleasing brute force. It probably won't come as a surprise that this type of movie really found its home in the Ronald Reagan-era, where the country was still smarting from that whole Vietnam thing. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART 2 would be the iconic example of this sort of film, which ditched the original FIRST BLOOD'S somberness for a lot of triumphant chest thumping and presented a new version of the Vietnam War where all we needed to win it was a muscled up, stony-faced super-soldier with a machine gun. Funny thing is that FIRST BLOOD, PART 2 wasn't the first movie to tackle this subject: Golan and Globus beat Stallone to the punch by about a year with their own Vietnam Revenge flick, MISSING IN ACTION (another Chuck Norris vehicle) and the original FIRST BLOOD'S director Ted Kotcheff and writer John Milius gave us UNCOMMON VALOR the year before that. UNCOMMAN VALOR, which featured Gene Hackman leading a Dirty Dozen-esque team in a raid on the prison camp holding his son, is actually my favorite of the bunch, as rather than going for the obvious gung-ho route, becomes a story about coming to terms with loss and in many ways, feels like more of an actual successor to FIRST BLOOD than anything with RAMBO in the title. Stallone’s movie was the one that made all the money, though, so it was the one that set the template for the imitators that followed, which included the other Rambo sequels, which saw our All-American hero winning other countries’ “Vietnams.”

- I’d actually love to see a better writer than me take a stab at examining the different kinds of action films that were born from the post-Vietnam mentality. If movies like RAMBO and MISSING IN ACTION presented a fiction where real life events weren’t losses just delayed victories, on the opposite end you’ve got movies like ALIENS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, and PREDATOR which present fictionalized faux-Vietnam operations that are doomed from the word go. Plus, I’d like to see someone go further into how the DNA of these sorts of movies live on in the modern action / superhero blockbusters of today, where we’ve got Iron Man fighting the War on Terror and The Avengers and Superman stopping airborne attacks on major American cities. -

Which brings us back to THE DELTA FORCE. We’ve got the same idea as RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART 2, it’s just applied to a different conflict. In fact, THE DELTA FORCE gets two for the price of one, because this faux-TWA hijacking also gets to be framed as payback for the Iranian hostage crisis. Hell, Ruhalloh Khomeini gets name checked at one point, with our Delta Force heroes laughing at how their monkey wrenching of the terrorists’ attempted escape into Syria is really going to give the Supreme Leader the ole stink-eye. You will note that our hero is still a Vietnam vet, though, which begs the question of how we managed to lose Vietnam in the first place if we had a bunch of invincible super-soldiers like Rambo, Braddock, and McCoy on our side. Willing to bet INVASION U.S.A.’s Matt Hunter was running around there somewhere, too. Weirdly enough, THE DELTA FORCE also seems to be a bigger-explodier quasi-remake of another film Menaham Golan made back in Israel, OPERATION: THUNDERBOLT, which itself was based on a real-life hijacking that took place in Uganda.

Throw all that together and you’ve got one very odd movie. Like I said, THE DELTA FORCE has that whole FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN thing going for it where it starts out as one movie and shifts into a completely different one halfway through only this time it’s a bug, not a feature. For the first hour or so, it’s this claustrophobic suspense film which, turns out, actually succeeds at generating some drama and even genuine tension, such as a stewardess having to stick the pin back in a grenade or Colonel Alexander’s rush to warn the assault team about the trap they’re about to go charging into. Even the terrorists get have some sympathetic moments, like one telling a young girl that he’s only fighting because his family was killed or helping out a pregnant hostage. Of course, it also has a scene where the same guy says “six million Jews wasn’t nearly enough” when the German stewardess refuses to help them single out the Jewish passengers on the grounds of that whole Nazi thing. Something of a mixed message there, movie. Regardless, you get the sense that for the first half of this film, Cannon is attempting to make something that resembles, y’know, an actual movie, rather than the assembly line schlock they were known for. People coming here to see Chuck Norris kicking ass from minute one will probably get rather frustrated waiting on that to happen, as it’s a good hour before a single shot is fired or karate kick is thrown. Once the action does ratchet up, though, the film goes into total la la land and becomes exactly the kind of movie that one would expect from Golan-Globus. What started as a fairly grounded movie ends with Chuck Norris sliding down zip lines while firing a machine gun and nailing faceless terrorists a hundred yards away with pinpoint accuracy while everything explodes around him. The last half hour to forty minutes of this flick is almost one extended action scene as the raid on the terrorist compound leads into a chase through the desert which gives way to the Delta Force finally retaking the plane, with Norris taking a detour to hand out an incredibly one sided beat down to the terrorist leader before blowing him up with a rocket launcher. Hey, come to think of it, that’s how INVASION U.S.A. ended, wasn’t it? Well, wouldn’t you know it; both movies have the same screenwriter. (“INVASION U.S.A. had a script?” we ask, horrified.) Heck, with its crack commando unit running around the desert driving dune buggies and motorcycles with rocket launchers mounted on them, the second half of THE DELTA FORCE feels like Menaham Golan decided what the world really needed in 1986 was a gritty reboot of Hal Needham’s MEGAFORCE. Can’t help but wonder how this movie would have played if somebody stuck Norris in the gold spandex / blue headband combo that Barry Bostwick was rocking in that flick. 
Better, probably.

I don't know how much THE DELTA FORCE made at the box office but the film was successful enough to get two sequels greenlit and even inspired a Pre-Asylum made-for-video cash-in called OPERATION DELTA FORCE which managed to get more sequels than the movie that inspired it. I also remember this movie playing all the time on TBS's MOVIES FOR GUYS WHO LIKE MOVIES back in high school, so I'm willing to bet that video and cable played a part in that. As for the critical reception it received upon release, well you can imagine that it was quite a bit chillier. (Though the film did get a good review from Roger Ebert, oddly enough.) Naturally, people weren't too happy to see an actual tragedy that occurred a year before being used as an excuse for Chuck Norris to blow up foreigners. (I especially don't think the family of Navy diver Robert Stethem appreciated seeing their loved one's murder recreated for that purpose.) One wonders how RAMBO would have gone over in 1976. Now, if you've seen ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Mark Hartley's amazing documentary about the rise and fall of Cannon Films, you'll know that Menaham Golan actually had people at the site of the hijacking, reporting back to him to what happened. He was developing this movie while the actual event was going down. Damn, even by the standards of Cannon Films, that is pretty shameless.

But, jingoistic political leanings and tasteless origins aside, I do think that THE DELTA FORCE is a fairly decent b-level action movie. I will admit that a good chunk of this is due to the fondness I have for Cannon Films in their hey-day. The Go-Go boys were this weird, one-of-a-kind mix of opportunists looking for the latest trend to cash in on and filmmakers who sincerely loved making movies. They were the kind of studio that could be producing some chintzy ninja movie one minute and then give someone like John Cassavetes carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted to make the next. Sure, a lot of their output was schlock but there was something genuine behind it, something that gave it more character than you’ll find in a dozen “you’re supposed to like it ironically” movies today. Lord knows that something as completely insane as THE APPLE couldn’t have been made by someone who wasn’t being one hundred percent sincere. (And, yeah, high on cocaine. So much cocaine.) The other thing about being a schlock assembly line is that Golan and company had been doing for this for so long they had managed to get making this kind of movie down to something of a science. THE DELTA FORCE clocks in just a hair over two hours but the film keeps things moving quickly enough that it never feels like you’re watching a two hour movie. Considering the bloated, two and a half hour plus action blockbusters were getting inundated with today, I’ve come to appreciate Cannon’s no-frills approach more and more. Hey, anybody ready for that three hour long cut of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN?

Another thing in its favor is that THE DELTA FORCE was made in that weird little space where Cannon wasn't quite overreaching themselves like they would when they made SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE or MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE but could still throw some actual money at some of the movies they were making. It's a favorite joke among my friends and I that THE DELTA FORCE is the flick where Cannon could afford to wreck two fruit carts during the big car chase. This was the period where Cannon could afford Sylvester Stallone's paycheck, remember. Not only does this mean that the movie could get away with having some pretty elaborate stunt work and a lot of it, but could also have a cast of recognizable faces in front of it. Now, Marvin, Forster, Kennedy, and Vaughn weren't of Stallone's pay grade but these are people that starred in actual movies that folks have seen. Furthermore, they’re a group of actors that know how to not overplay things and prevent things from getting too histrionic. (Norris is still Norris, though, his face stuck in that perpetual grimace that’s either communicating steely-eyed determination or profound confusion depending on the camera angle.) Which brings us back around to talking about George Kennedy, finally. It had been a while since I had seen this movie, so I was a surprised to discover that his role wasn’t nearly as big as I remembered from my last viewing of the film. His Irish priest is a major supporting character for the first part of the movie but once the hostages are removed from the plane, he’s regulated to the background, only coming forward to say a prayer over a dying soldier in the film’s closing moments. He does get one of the better moments of the film, where he throws in his lot with the Jewish hostages, informing the terrorists, “I’m Jewish, just like Jesus Christ.” Yeah, you could argue that’s a pretty corny line, but I’ll be damned if Kennedy doesn’t sell it like a pro. So, I’m putting my memories of Kennedy having a more substantial role down to his skills as a seasoned character actor who knows how to make the most of his limited screen time.

I am disappointed that Lee Marvin gets little to do beyond barking orders at people. I had almost hoped that during the film’s closing moments, where scenes of the hostages being joyfully reunited with friend and family are being contrasted against the Delta Force members solemnly carrying away the body of their slain teammate, for him to turn to Norris and declare, “No, it was the hostages who won. We of Delta Force always lose.”

This review is part of PETRONI FIDE! a round table review session dedicated to the memory of George Kennedy, presented by the Celluloid Zeroes blogger cabal. Want some more? Pop over to Micro-Brewed Reviews for their look at NIGHTMARE AT NOON, then onto Cinemasochist Apocalypse for THE UNINVITED, and settle into the Web of the Damn Spider for STRAIT-JACKET. And if that's still not enough for ya, Checkpoint Telstar has a look at THE HUMAN FACTOR and The Terrible Claw finishes things off with DEMONWARP.

A Little Something Extra:
"The Delta Force" by Alan Silvestri of PREDATOR and BACK TO THE FUTURE fame, from that weird period where every composer seemed to be slathering everything in synthesizers: