Mediocre, overlong, it’s got Chuck Norris in it… fun theme tune though, but even that gets old fast.
Bart Simpson: “Want results? You have to go to the Schwarzeneggers, the Stallones, and to a lesser extent, the Van Dammes.”
….and to an even lesser extent, the Norrises. Now I haven’t seen all of this guy’s films, but I’ve never gone out of my way to do so. Mainly because I just don’t think he’s an interesting action hero. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Delta Force, where his flat, taciturn, one-dimensional presence barely registers, but luckily he’s surrounded by lots of other actors and a tremendous first-act. This is probably the most famous of Norris’ films – at least it seems that way in the UK, where ITV would show it on a Saturday night every couple of years or so back in the nineties. Made during Norris’ tenure at Cannon Films, this is one of the few movies made by that studio that was also directed by one of its two founders, Menahem Golan. Norris had had a relatively decent 1985 – he’d made Code of Silence (still his best film and a lean, fine thriller) and Invasion USA (still his most gloriously excessive and OTT outing) but the high-profile The Delta Force proved to be a most frustrating experience – whereas many of Norris’ previous films had been all-out, explosive patriotic escapism, this one was loosely based on the real-life hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. Of course, the likes of Invasion USA and other films like Red Dawn and Rambo were rooted in a contemporary attitude/anxiety about the United States’ role in the world regarding defence, foreign policy and whatnot, but actually basing a film on a real-life event could potentially result in an awkward tension between the complications of reality and the rather simplistic gung-ho escapism.
For a while though, the film turns out to be very effective – the film’s first fifty or so minutes, as a AWT flight (subtle, guys) is taken over by two Palestinian terrorists (Robert Forster and David Menahem), is nail-bitingly tense in a way no other Norris film had been or would be since. Oh wait, did I say Norris? Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered, because all the best stuff takes place on the hijacked plane, and Norris isn’t on board. The plane’s passengers includes the kind of big names that make this loose reworking of a real-life event feel a little like one of the Airport sequels (George Kennedy plays a priest! Hey, it’s Joey Bishop!), but the tension is palpable, and a lot of it is to do with Forster and Menahem’s performances, which are a far cry from the outrageously EVIL likes of Richard Lynch in Invasion USA – they exude a desperate, ruthless, brutal yet surprisingly non-cartoonish threat, even Forster, an American actor who doesn’t play up to stereotypes and plays it chillingly cool. A particularly effective stretch of this sequence involves a German flight attendant (Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla) being forced to single out the Jewish passengers.
The entirety of the plane sequence can be uncomfortable viewing, especially in this post 9/11 world, but it’s very well done. However, once we’re off the plane and Chuck’s Delta Force are on their mission to retrieve the Jewish hostages and US Navy divers who remain in the captivity of the terrorists, the film changes tack entirely and becomes a big fat orgy of explosions, chases and rescues. And the overall effect is ‘meh’. The Delta Force themselves are a mass of anonymous characters – only Norris and grizzled commander Lee Marvin stand out, the former by default and the latter simply by how old he seems to be for this sort of game. The action is big but curiously unexciting – an example of the low-stakes tension is a bit where Marvin tells the pilot to take off. However, the pilot says there may not be enough runway. Marvin insists. The plane takes off. There’s no close calls, no suspense, nothing. Elsewhere, bullets fly, cars crash and motorcycles shoot out missiles but the spectacle remains uninvolving. A lot of this is to do with Norris – the man has virtually no range. True, his cold efficiency means that his McCoy makes for an excellent soldier, but it also results in him being an extraordinarily dull character. And that pretty much kills the film dead, though the pedestrian direction and workmanlike script (‘choice’ one-liner after Chuck kills a bad guy hiding underneath a bed – ‘sleep tight, sucker’) during this part of the film doesn’t help. One thing the film notable for is the memorable theme music by Alan Silvestri, who’d already composed the terrific score for Back to the Future and the same year’s Flight of the Navigator. Here though, whatever novelty the Delta Force theme music has (and it is a cheesily fun track) is completely negated by the fact that it’s used in virtually every action scene. I swear, it’s used between five and ten times, which doesn’t sound a lot, but think about it – it bloody well is. By the end I wanted to buy a copy of the soundtrack just so I could take it to the back garden and smash it to pieces.
So what starts off as a mightily effective, if exploitative, action thriller ends up being another big bang empty vessel (or cannon, ha-ha) that is far too long at over two hours and despite its legacy as one of Cannon’s (and Chuck’s) more famous films, is doomed by not maintaining the credibility of its first act and not being trashy enough to be an all-out B-movie classic like Invasion USA. Stick with it for the first fifty minutes, then leave.