Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Good Guys Wear Black/A Force Of One

I celebrated Chuck Norris' 70th birthday by watching two of his films from--when else?--the '70s. In his second starring vehicle, 1978's GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, Chuck is right on the edge of drive-in stardom as John T. Booker (as the opening titles make clear), a retired Special Forces vet living a relaxed lifestyle as a graduate student/test driver (!) near San Francisco.

In Vietnam, his unit, the “Black Tigers,” is ambushed and left to die by the U.S. government on a mission to rescue American POWs from a prison camp. Five years later, a beautiful young woman named Margaret (Anne Archer), who claims to be a reporter, approaches him at work and starts asking questions about that classified mission. When his former squad members start getting bumped off one by one, Booker takes his revenge all the way to the source, corrupt new Secretary of State Conrad Morgan (James Franciscus).

Norris’ most overtly political vehicle to date deserves props for its complex and even slightly thought-provoking storyline, but suffers from Chuck’s presence. At this point in his career, Norris is not solid enough as an actor to carry a film with as little action as this one, a point plainly clear during a dialogue-heavy climax at Morgan’s home. The stunts, when they occur, are pretty good and cleanly directed by Post (MAGNUM FORCE), especially the famous one used in the trailer where Norris’ stunt double jumps through the windshield of a car, but the movie as a whole is flat and way too gabby, though not entirely unentertaining.

The supporting cast helps a lot. Franciscus makes for a silky antagonist, Archer is natural and lovely, Lloyd Haynes (ROOM 222) lends solid relief as Chuck’s old boss, and Dana Andrews (LAURA) provides a few poignant moments as Morgan’s assistant. Andrews, who looks unwell, is dubbed in one scene by Jonathan Harris (LOST IN SPACE), who receives special on-screen thanks. Jim Backus (GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) pops up in a very strange and out-of-place cameo as a doorman.

Mark Medoff, who co-wrote the screenplay, won a Tony two years later and an Oscar nomination eight years later for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. Max Franklin wrote the novelization. Here's the trailer:

Chuck's second of three films for American Cinema, 1979's A FORCE OF ONE, goes out on a limb by casting him as Matt Logan, a karate champion and owner of a Southern California karate school.

Narcotics detective Sam Dunne (Clu Gulager) consults Logan for assistance after his men are systematically murdered by a ninja who crushes their windpipes with his bare hands. Dunne’s surviving squad members, including the attractive Mandy Rust (Jennifer O’Neill, who gets top billing), begin training with Logan, so they can defend themselves against their mysterious foe. Logan joins the investigation when it appears that the killer may be a member of his close-knit martial-artist community.

Plotting and characterizations by screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) are strictly TV-level, as is the action, which consists of a few training sessions, a couple of bouts in the ring, a tame car chase, and some alleyway exchanging of kicks. The fine supporting cast helps pick up the slack in Paul Aaron’s direction and Norris’ quiet performance, though Chuck looks comfortable only in scenes where he’s teaching karate. Aaron seems to have favored a realistic approach in his directing, shooting with long lenses and letting his actors play loose with dialogue.

Also with Ron O’Neal (SUPERFLY), Eric Laneuville, James Whitmore Jr., Aaron Norris, Clint Ritchie, Pepe Serna, Taylor Lacher, Charles Cyphers, and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, who appeared on Norris’ WALKER, TEXAS RANGER TV series many years later. Chuck and his brother Aaron served as fight choreographers. A FORCE OF ONE made pretty good dough at the box office for American Cinema, which financed the more successful Chuck vehicle THE OCTAGON in 1980. Like he did for GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, the great announcer Ernie Anderson voiced the theatrical trailer for A FORCE OF ONE:


Christopher Mills said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Mills said...

I believe I read somewhere that it was brother Aaron who actually performed the windshield stunt....

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