Cannonvember #5 Delta Force
Many phrases have been thrown around cavalierly in connection with writer, producer, studio head and all-around character Menahem Golan, the charismatic lunatic behind Cannon films. I’m talking phrases like “Showman”, “Charlatan”, “Schlock-Meister”, “Con Artist”, “Huckster” and, perhaps most devastatingly, “Late for supper.”
One phrase that is seldom associated with Menahem Golan is “Oscar-nominated” but in 1977, long before Golan was synonymous with machine guns, rocket launchers and the blood-splattered oeuvres of its “two Chucks” (Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris) Operation Thunderbolt, a docudrama based on the real-life Raid on Entebbe which Golan directed and co-wrote, was nominated for Best Foreign Language film.
So while Golan is known and celebrated as a prolific creator of enjoyable garbage, he’s not entirely without legitimate accolades. One of the themes of Mark Hartley’s wonderful Cannon documentary, Electric Boogaloo, is that Golan and his cousin and business partner Yoram Globus loved movies deeply, but not to the extent that it drove them to make good ones. Golan and Globus loved movies but they also loved cutting corners and oftentimes that love of cutting corners usurped their genuine passion for cinema.
Every once in a while, however, Golan took the time to get it right. That seems to have been the case with Operation Thunderbolt, which obviously hit the proud Israeli close to home. That also seems to be the case with easily the best and most entertaining Cannon movie I’ve written about for this column, 1986’s Delta Force.
The manly hit finds Golan returning to the fertile ground of fact-based explorations of international terrorism. This time around Golan and his collaborators were inspired by the real-life hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847. Golan’s leading man, not surprising, was the lesser of the two Chucks, Chuck Norris, but Delta Force plays to the hirsute denim enthusiast and longtime Mike Huckabee super-fan’s strengths by giving him nothing to do but blow motherfuckers up with his super-motorcycle with front and rear rocket launchers when not kicking baddies or shooting them with machine guns.
Holy shit was Cannon in love with rocket launchers. It says much about the schlock factory’s love of macho excess that for them, machine guns were entirely too milquetoast. That’s why they needed goddamn rocket launchers and bazookas and anti-tank weaponry and other gargantuan killing machines favored by men with micro-penises.
The other key to Delta Force being easily the best Chuck Norris movie I’ve seen for this project? Chuck Norris really isn’t in it that much. He's part of an ensemble, and while he eventually becomes the most important part in the film's explosion-laden final act, Delta Force is about as dependent upon Norris' acting chops, or lack thereof as The Towering Inferno was on the basis of supporting player O.J Simpson's gifts as a thespian.
In Delta Force's first hour, Norris is barely in it at all, and while in its third act Delta Force becomes an unusually satisfying Chuck Norris bloodbath/celebration of explosions, for its first two acts Delta Force feels more like a late-to-the-game entry in the 1970s disaster boom.
Delta Force has a cast it would be easy to imagine sharing screen time in a 1970s Irwin Allen disaster extravaganza, goofing around with Glen Campbell or John Davidson on a glitzy variety show or on a 1978 episode of Hollywood Squares.
Oh, but Delta Force has so, so many stars, each more random and unexpected than the last! Joey Bishop, the least loved member of the Rat Pack! The fabulous Shelley Winters! Lainie Kazan, the endlessly employed character actress who can play any screamingly loud ethnicity! George Kennedy in a priest get-up! Screen legend and Academy Award winner Lee Marvin! B-list action hero Bo Svenson! Rainer Werner Fassbinder staple Hanna Schygulla as a conscience-stricken German stewardess! Screen legend Martin Balsam! The Man from U.N.C.L.E himself, Robert Vaughn! Even a young Liam Neeson as an unbilled extra!
Yet the person who ends up playing the biggest, most important role I didn’t even recognize until he’d been onscreen a good twenty-five minutes. Delta Force is unabashed pro-Zionist, pro-USA, anti-Arab propaganda. Accordingly, the villains are generally depicted as wild-eyed maniacs devoid of humanity and obsessed with killing in the name of Allah.
The exception is the terrorist’s leader, Abdul, who is an extremist and a zealot but also someone with an unmistakable sense of right and wrong and a moral code, albeit one that allows him to do things like take women and children hostage at gunpoint. He’s a strong, compelling villain but there are isolated moments throughout the film, like when he licks his ring finger so that he can give one of the terrified hostages back her ring (a ring with Hebrew lettering on it), or when he compliments a stewardess for her bravery, when the humanity of the character seeps out unexpectedly and a movie more or less devoid of moral ambiguity becomes unexpectedly complicated.
Then I realized why this mustachioed, intense man playing the ultimate Lebanese sky-jacker looks so familiar: he’s played by Robert Forster. I fucking love that guy! And while in hindsight it’s a little weird and a little racist and a little wrong to cast a very white American from New York as an Arab terrorist, Forster is so good and so committed that I didn’t even recognize him, and he’s one of my all-time favorite actors.
The awesomeness of Forster’s against-type turn as Abdul, the evil terrorist, extends to his death. In keeping with the Chuck-fucking-shit-up emphasis of the film’s third act, our tight-lipped hero tracks down Abdul and then spends a good three minutes beating the ever loving shit out of him until he's nearly dead.
Yet Abdul, fueled by radical Islamic evil, nevertheless not only survives this vicious beating, but somehow manages to find a second wind and scurry into a car where he picks up a machine gun. Before he can use it to kill his furry foe, however, our hero uses one of the rocket launchers attached to his super-motorcycle to blow Abdul the fuck up.
That, friends, is how you exit a Cannon movie.
Ah, but there’s more to Delta Force than Forster. The movie begins with a gander at pre-9/11 airports, before the concept of “security” was invented and it was perfectly kosher for passengers to sneak onboard early so they can drop off the various weapons they’ll need to hijack a flight once it's taken off.
We’re introduced to a very loud old Jewish couple played by Martin Balsam and Shelly Winters and an even louder couple played by Joey Bishop and Lainie Kazan. Fairly early in the film, the terrorists let the children and women off the plane. The idea is to look good in the eyes of the press but I would not begrudge any terrorist organization with simply not wanting to have to deal with the kinds of characters either of these women play in all of their films.
Religion is at the core of Delta Force. Early in the film, the anti-Semitic, Israel-despising Arab terrorists separate the Jews from the rest of the passengers on the basis of their names. It’s a scene of over-the-top, unabashed, almost silent screen-level melodrama even before a Priest played by George Kennedy insists that, despite his clerical color, he is just as much a Jew as Jesus himself was.
Delta Force is accordingly a tribute to cross-cultural and cross-religious cooperation. That would be lovely if the purpose of all this cross-cultural collaboration wasn’t to defeat the evil Arab monsters in their midst. In a particularly over-heated, didactic moment in a movie full of them, German stewardess Air Hostess Ingrid Harding (Hanna Schygulla) tasked with helping round up Jewish passengers cites her German heritage and the never-ending, perpetually creeping shadow of the Holocaust as the reason she can’t follow Abdul’s orders.
There’s nothing subtle about the direct line the movie draws between Arab terrorist’s desire to end the state of Israel and Nazis’ attempt to destroy the Jewish people. This is a cartoonish fantasy of Israeli-American, Christian-Jewish cooperation that is surprisingly light on action and violence and long on dialogue and plotting before a third act where the titular squad of super-soldiers is finally given the blessed, blessed green light and begin a distinctly Cannon orgy of destruction.
In its third act, Delta Force stops being a surprisingly engaging latter-day disaster movie/hostage drama and becomes a Chuck Norris vehicle. The ridiculousness begins with Chuck riding around in the most absurdly jacked motorcycle in film history. Honestly, Heat Vision, the sentient, intelligent talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson in the legendary pilot Heat Vision & Jack wasn’t half as impressive as this motorcycle, which not only has front and rear mounted rocket launcher-type thingies, but also a seemingly endless amount of ammunition Norris apparently keeps in his back pocket. I’m not exactly sure how, but judging from the movie’s action, Chuck must keep a dozen bazookas in his shirt pockets at all times and isn't at all shy about using them to blow up terrorists and everything else.
At one point a whole team of terrorists approach in cars, facing only Chuck and his super-motorcycle, and after Chuck blows some up, they all retreat, as there’s no way a dozen highly trained killers can compete with an average-sized guy and a bike that's like Pee-Wee's in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but with a larger body count.
I loved the deeply entrenched 1980sness of Delta Force, from the gaudy emphasis on explosions and rocket-launchers to Alan Silversti’s highly digitized, synthesized score, which is so rousing it made me want to sign up for the Israeli and American armies, and I am a pacifist with deeply ambivalent to negative feelings about both countries.
I suspect I liked Delta Force a lot more because it follows four lesser Chuck Norris vehicles, some of which were very dire. The brain trust over at Chuck Norris Inc. had all kinds of lazy ideas on how to trick audiences into seeing the wooden action icon’s late period films: Chuck’s got a dog for a partner this time! Hey, it’s Chuck and a kid who worships him! Chuck’s a bad guy! Chuck’s a shape-shifting magical mountain man! Well, okay, that last one, which genuinely is the premise for the direct-to-video Norris vehicle Forrest Warrior, does legitimately sound crazy enough to be interesting.
The Andrew Davis-directed 1985 Code of Silence and Delta Force had a much better gimmick than those later outliers. They did something very novel and unexpected and put Norris in actual movies with actual co-stars and plots and scripts, unlike the Aaron Norris-helmed vanity projects that would follow.
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