The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Invasion U.S.A. was for the “Cannon Corner” column of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.
Despite their long association with Charles Bronson and their brief run with Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Chuck Norris was the undisputed crown jewel of Cannon. He was a bona fide international star who kicked ass, took names, and showed not the slightest bit of embarrassment at the schlocky scripts and cheap production values that came with working for the team of Golan-Globus. In fact, with Invasion U.S.A., he co-wrote the script, working from a story co-authored by his stuntman brother, Aaron Norris. How much their input skews the results is questionable, but the story does have at least one unexpected twist on the usual action movie clichés.
Directed by Joseph Zito, who also helmed Norris’s Missing in Action, the film opens with an overloaded boat packed with Cuban refugees trying to make it to the United States. Stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat’s engine fails, they resign themselves to the fact that they will either die on the ocean or be forced to return to Cuba, which they all find to be an even more ominous option. When a U.S. Coast Guard boat finds them, Rostov (Richard Lynch), a terrorist disguised as the captain of the boat welcomes them to the United States. It is during the celebration of the refugees at this apparent good news that the men on the Coast Guard boat open fire on the Cubans, massacring every one on board.
Enter Matt Hunter (Norris), a former CIA operative who has retired to a quiet life of manly relaxation like riding airboats through the Everglades, wrestling alligators, and taking care of his pet armadillo. When he’s visited by a CIA representative and told that Rostov, Hunter’s old nemesis, is believed to be in the country, Hunter tells him that Rostov is their problem and symbolically turns his back on the representative. Of course, Rostov has no intention of forgetting Hunter. In the film’s lone interesting twist, it’s Rostov, the villain, who has nightmares about his previous encounter with the hero. Rostov has built up Hunter in his mind as the boogeyman and sees him as the only person who could possibly stop his wave of terror. With that singularly obsessive thought in mind, he attempts to kill Hunter, but is, of course, unsuccessful. Sufficiently pissed off to join in the action, Hunter devotes himself to tracking down and killing Rostov.
So far, so good. We have the set up for a decent revenge film where Chuck Norris gets to high-kick his way through a throng of minions before killing the bad guy with a perfectly cheesy one-liner. Unfortunately, it’s Rostov’s plan that sends the plot of the film off the rails, and away from this promise of much ass-kicking by the bearded one.
Somehow slipping hundreds of mercenaries past the coast guard and on to a public Florida beach in World War II-era troop carriers, Rostov sends his ragtag army to major American cities. Their mission? Unleash random acts of ultra-violence on innocent civilians with the expected results being fear, riots, martial law, and eventually, all out revolt against the government. If you just rolled your eyes while reading that description, imagine how ludicrous it is when committed to film by the cheapest director, crew, and screenwriters available.
Not surprisingly, the film breaks down with every disjointed scene that tries to lurch the plot forward. Not only are these expository breaks poorly written, they lack the internal logic that a ridiculous action movie needs to keep the viewer invested. Character motivations change from scene to scene, Rostov’s goals become muddier as events lumber forward to the inevitable third act showdown, and there are just not enough scenes of Hunter breaking out jaw-shattering roundhouse kicks. Sure, he shoots, blows up, and knifes a large number of bad guys. But I ask you, if you cast Chuck Norris in a film, what do you want out of him? You want him to bust out some crazy kung fu and make the bad guy look like a huge wimp for using a weapon.
Not only is it a huge letdown to see Norris reduced to lazily wielding twin uzis, it highlights his severe lack of acting ability and charisma. With a minimum of dialogue and facial expressions, all he has to differentiate himself from Stallone and Schwarzenegger — besides the lack of an accent — are his martial arts skills. It’s never a good sign when the leading man becomes a drain on a film’s energy, but that’s exactly what happens whenever Norris appears on screen.
Fortunately, the supporting cast is more than happy to take up Norris’ slack and chew the scenery. A veteran villain, Lynch tears into his role with gusto, bulging his eyes, snarling, and sweating like Klaus Kinski’s little brother trying to get attention at the dinner table. Alexander Zale, as Rostov’s right-hand man, Nikko, manages to bring a sad-eyed sympathy to his role, suggesting a man who does not completely believe in the damage he is inflicting. Sneering character actor Billy Drago steals a scene from Lynch as a creepy drug and gun dealer. Even the deadpan Eddie Jones delivers a livelier than usual performance as an FBI agent who is always two steps behind the action.
I’m not insane — I realize that if you are watching a Chuck Norris flick, you shouldn’t expect a grand masterpiece. But even though the ridiculous premise and mindless action would seem to suggest a cheesy amount of fun, the film even fails in that regard. This is because of two main problems. The first is the fact that the violence, while over-the-top, is incredibly mean-spirited: Rostov dispatches of not one, but two people by sticking a gun down the front of their pants and firing repeatedly into their groins; a woman snorting a line of coke gets her head slammed into the mirror, driving the straw up her nose in graphic, bloody detail; numerous innocent bystanders are executed in scenes that look more at place in a war drama than a mindless action flick. The second problem is the character of Matt Hunter. Trying to get across a man who is tired of the politics and violence that comes with working for the CIA, the film succeeds. But given the stakes the film sets up, it’s hard to retain sympathy for a hero who only gets involved for selfish reasons. He’s only out for revenge, while the destruction and deaths of innocent people seem to have no effect on what he does. Simply put, if you can’t root for the hero played by Chuck Norris, who can you root for?
This one is strictly for hardcore Norris fans. Anyone looking for a cheesy good time will be disappointed by the dour tone and lack of creative mayhem on display.
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