The Bad Movie Report

Invasion USA

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Once there was a thing called the 80s. I hated the 80s. Not for the usual reasons that seem to accompany statements like that – you know, critiquing the clothes, the music, things like that. Things that inevitably lead to discussions like, "Oh yeah? Oh, YEAH? Well, I hate the 70s!" "You don't get to hate the 70s. You weren't even alive during the 70s." "Oh, yeah??!! Well, you suck!" And so on. God, I love the Internet. My reasons for hating the 80s are intensely personal, and mostly have to do with long periods of struggle and setbacks. People who say things like "We were poor, but happy" need to be put in a time machine and given a refresher course in the grind of day-to-day existence.

My opening bitterness aside, I find people tend to recall decades of their lives in terms of two major shaping influences, politics and pop culture, rather than personal experience. When we bombed the hell out of Syria, say, instead of "that semester I lived on Ramen noodles and love". Remembering when you were especially poor is a drag. Remembering how much you hated Michael Jackson's appropriation of Sgt. Pepper's fashion sense is much more satisfying.

As we move forward through this modern age, politics and pop culture have become inextricably intermingled, one affecting the other, as competing entertainment outlets vie to give us stories "torn out of today's headlines!" (although the current trend seems to be towards fearful jerking of possibly "traumatizing" images out of entertainment - witness the exclusion of Twin Towers or space shuttle imagery in recent months) The intersection of politics and entertainment is particularly germane to today's subject. And realize, it's dang near impossible to talk about what made up the 80s without at least mentioning Cannon Films, and its guiding lights during that period: two successful Israeli producers named Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.

America Wasn't Ready - He Was!
America Wasn't Ready - He Was!
America Wasn't Ready - He Was!

Moving to America in 1979, these two cousins bought controlling interest in then less-than-successful Cannon Films and proceeded to pull the studio out of the red by producing well-marketed populist movies that latched onto the zeitgeist of the times. In a very real way, Cannon was the American International of the 80s, and Golan-Globus were the James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff of their time.

The most pertinent intersection of politics and entertainment here appears in the person of the 1985 action flick, Rambo: First Blood, Part II. A sequel to the 1982 First Blood (which is itself a pretty good little movie). Rambo put aside the suspense aspect of its predecessor to provide an adrenaline-drenched tale of a one-man army returning to Vietnam to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and he somehow forgot to pack the bubble gum. Actually pretty much a re-hashing of World War II movie tropes - the North Vietnamese behave like brutish propaganda Japs and the Soviets are undeniably Nazis - Rambo hit a resonant national chord. America had never really gotten over the fact that we wound up running away from that conflict. A certain president avowed that this was a favorite movie, and new numbers had to be invented to total up the box office take. Not being fools (at least at this point in their career), Golan and Globus took note of this.

Vietnam movies had been something of a going concern for years – The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans – but they were largely, shall we say, darker movies, indicative of America's smarting recollection of that war. Cannon had it's own, more action-oriented version, the Braddock Missing In Action series. Deciding it was time for their own one-man army to take on the Forces of Communist Evil, they called upon resident action hero Chuck Norris and out came Invasion USA.

The movie opens with a boatload of Cuban refugees stuck in a craft with a broken motor. Everyone is jubilant as a Coast Guard cruiser pulls alongside and the captain says in Spanish, "Welcome to the United States!" Alas, if only these people had better access to American movies! They would have realized the captain is Richard Lynch, and that's never a good sign. Sure enough, everybody on board is soon dancing the machine gun ballet, as Lynch (playing a terrorist mastermind named Rostov) and his crew kill everyone for the other thing the boat is smuggling into America: a hold full of cocaine.

Next up, Rostov trades the cocaine to a sleazoid (Billy Drago!) for a buttload of weapons. Lynch then seals the deal by shooting everyone in the office and tossing Drago's knife-weilding ho out a window. (As anyone who has played the game Hitman can tell you, shooting people in a building is no problem, but toss one ho out a window, and sirens start blaring).

"Time to die.  You like that?  Or do you prefer 'Yipee-ti-yay motherf-"Uh, wait a minute… didn't I say this was a Chuck Norris movie? Sure enough, it is, but he barely registers in this first part of the flick. He's too busy driving an airboat all over the swamp, wrestling alligators with his Injun pal and turning down offers to come back to work for "The Agency" (probably because he refuses to work with Steven Seagal). Norris, you see, plays a character named Hunter (Movie Law #6: All action heroes must have verb-oriented last names). Hunter and Rostov have some history: thanks to some poor security at a foreign embassy, Rostov almost killed the President (I think), but was stopped by Hunter, who uttered what the filmmakers hoped would become a catchphrase – "Time to die." - before kicking the terrorist in the face *. Hunter still blames "The Agency" for not letting him kill Rostov, and rather petulantly sends the weaselly field agent packing.

Rostov, meanwhile, has used Army surplus amphibian landers to bring in a small army of terrorist thugs. Things would indeed look bleak very quickly if not for the fact that Rostov is obsessed with Hunter, and puts his plans on hold so a bunch of his guys can go into the swamp and kill his old nemesis. Being bad guys, of course, they only succeed in killing the Injun pal and blowing up Hunter's cabin (thankfully, they spare Hunter's pet armadillo). Guess who comes out of retirement? Way to go, Rostov. Good plan!

Rostov's strategy, now that Hunter is out of the way... pause for irony ... is generally pretty simple – he starts out by whittling away at American feelings of security. Step One involves blowing up a suburban cul-de-sac in a sequence that is appropriately pyrotechnic and harrowing, except that I keep thinking how Billy Drago gave Rostov excellent value for his coke, since his rocket launcher does not require reloading once. Other terrorists disguised as policemen (and, later, National Guardsmen) randomly shoot down citizens to further foment distrust.

Ka-Boom.By this time it's forty minutes into the movie and most action movie fans are thinking, "Isn't it about time for some Norris-Roughing-Up-Terrorists shenanigans? Wouldn't Schwarzenegger have killed 75 economy-pack bad guys by now?" And Mssrs. Golan and Globus couldn't agree more. The next hour will largely concern Hunter playing Batman-Interrogates-The-Terrified-Stoolie with various terrorists – at least, if Batman did things like nail stoolie's hands to tables with commando knives, or blew out the brains of uncooperative stoolies to give the surviving tattletale a little nudge in the properly loquacious direction. Then Hunter will crop up in the Nick Of Time™ and whittle down the terrorist army a little, we will cheer, and the movie will move on to the next setpiece, until we run out of setpieces and, therefore, movie.

That first setpiece is a real honey, taking place in a shopping mall during the Christmas season. It involves a bomb left in a shopping bag in a busy store. This leads to the terrorist being chased through the mall by a Good Samaritan with the bag he thinks the terrorist dropped, and I would be lying if I said that idea didn't do my heart some good. This possible come-uppance, though, is short-circuited by some of the terrorist's pals cutting down the bomb-carrying Samaritan with machine gun fire. And they're not using easily-concealed automatic weapons, either – they're using assault rifles and something that looks like a Schmeisser submachine gun. How did anybody miss these guys carrying those?

Well, Hunter, of course, puts an end to these hi-jinx by driving through the mall's plate-glass doors and using his own lead-sprayers: a brace of Uzi machine pistols in a strange harness that lets the guns hang by his side, And in this photo, we see a stuntwoman REALLY earning her money.allowing a sort of cowboy quick draw. The two surviving terrorists steal a truck from a display and take a hostage by grabbing a woman through the driver's side window in the parking lot, and here is one of the best stunts of the pre-CGI 80s: Hunter pursues the truck through the streets of the city, a stunt woman hanging onto the side of the truck for dear life.

The setpieces continue in a fairly efficient comic book manner, with Hunter arriving in the Nick Of Time™ and distributing terrorist just-desserts with the mandatory one-liner (Movie Law #12). The most head-scratching of these involves a bunch of gun-toting parents loading their children onto a school bus, so that they may be taken "to the country, where it's safer." The tearful parting would tug at the heartstrings if the viewer wasn't dumbfounded by the concept of placing such a juicy target in harm's way without any sort of armed guard or escort for the bus!!! So naturally, car full of terrorists (you'd think a bunch of guys in a car, all wearing berets, would be a tip-off) draws alongside the bus (after running over a roadcrew signal man, just in case we forgot they were bad guys) and attach a magnetic time bomb to the side of the bus. This is unnoticed by the bus driver or anyone else on the road. Well, there is the one little girl whose window the bomb is below, but she just stares at it while everybody else sings Row Row Row Your Boat.

EXCEPT FOR HUNTER (fanfare!), who drives on the shoulder of the road, plucks the bomb off the bus, and deposits it on the hood of the terrorist's car. I'm reasonably certain that my readership, given a few seconds, would come up with a better one-liner than "You lose this?", but the writers couldn't.

We have to give the film some credit, though – after this, Hunter goes to a scene where he didn't arrive in the Nick Of Time™, a carnival where obviously a lot of people died. It is here that Hunter reveals his Master Plan to the Agency Weasel, and if you predict that this will end with Hunter pointing a rocket launcher at Rostov and saying, "It's Time", well…. You've seen just as many action movies as me. Or the filmmakers.

I knew I would have a particularly hard time reviewing a movie like Invasion USA, given the events of the past couple of years. In 1985, when Invasion was made, America's experience with terrorism on its shores was limited to abortion clinic bombings and Klan cross burnings; the Murrah Federal Building and the World Trade Center still stood, and the country could still cozily "You lose this?"pretend that stuff like this happened in other places, not here. Invasion tells its tale from a position of naivete, and I feared that position would undo it as I watched it from a 21st Century perspective, undo it even more than its status as a Big Dumb Action Movie.

To a degree it did. Rostov's strategy takes the central tenet of terrorism quite seriously, as a political tool intended to turn a populace against its government (never mind the fact that historically, it has never worked). However, what Rostov intends to do with the chaos he has engineered is never made clear – apparently, screwing with Americans simply because they are Americans seems to be justification enough for screen terrorists. (And seemingly, for a lot of real-life terrorists, as well. Maybe this movie isn't as naive as I first thought) Also, in a political landscape currently rife with media-savvy terrorists, Rostov's depredations seem small, inefficient and above all, rather budget-conscious.

I've referred to Invasion USA as the most chemically pure of the Chuck Norris movies; Norris does very little in the picture but be Chuck Norris – stoic, handsome, cool. Surprisingly, there's little hand-to-hand combat in this, although its star's major fame was gained through the martial arts. One-Man Army pictures are very much gun movies, and though Hunter doesn't have the impressive arsenal of a John Matrix or a Rambo, that odd Uzi rig does permit him to become a modern gunslinger, fast on the draw and deadly. Hell, even though he's unarmed the first time the female lead sees him, she immediately dubs him "Cowboy".

Ah, yes, the female lead. Melissa Prophet as McGuire, news photographer, whom we first see after contaminating a crime scene (the discovery of the murdered crew of that Coast Guard cruiser at the beginning of the movie), and of course sneering about her First Amendment rights. Fortunately the movie never tries to force a romance between McGuire and Hunter (in violation of Movie Law #3) – it realizes that it's sole reason for existing is to show Norris doling out buckets of hurt to the bad guys. It's also a good thing because McGuire is, sadly, a textbook case of how professional women were portrayed in the movies: abrasive, foul-mouthed, shrill. Oh, yeah, that's the way to write a strong female role, guys – simply take all the bad traits of a male character and put it in a skirt.

McGuire does get to prove herself worthy of the sidekick role when she helps Hunter rescue the aforementioned woman clinging to the side of the stolen truck – though admittedly as unwillingly as anyone else would be in such a situation. She's mainly along because Hunter has appropriated her car to chase the terrorists – but really, what do you expect when you park your Mustang convertible in the fire lane of a mall?

What do I have to do to get some SERVICE around here??!!The script squanders that goodwill, though, in a later segment when Hunter busts up yet another terrorist enterprise in the Nick Of Time™ – McGuire is taking photos of a near-riot at a beleaguered grocery store (the terrorist attacks have disrupted the lines of supply), when a bunch of bad guys disguised as National Guardsmen drive up (and McGuire is showing a near-Hunteresque ability to show up at these things). The nasties are about to re-enact Kent State when Hunter arrives to provide them with extra ventilation in the vital parts. McGuire is taken hostage by Rostov's second-in-command Nikko, and the photographer's major contribution is to scream, "Hunter! Do something, you sh*t!" And, when he does do something (namely using ninja-like stealth to get Nikko to shoot himself), she calls him a "stupid son-of-a-bitch" and throws a trash can lid at him. Admittedly, Hunters extreme coolness under this abuse is amusing ("I better leave before you get mad," he deadpans), but it doesn't serve the character of McGuire very well. It's actually a relief when the character all but vanishes from the rest of the movie.

But to complain that this movie isn't terribly realistic would be the critical version of squashing a bug with a two-ton block of granite. This is not a political thriller, character study, or even a cautionary tale... It is a Big Dumb Action Movie, made during the Golden Age of the Big Dumb Action Movie by Big Dumb Action Movie Masters. It is the sort of movie where rocket launchers are considered ideal close-quarters weapons in an enclosed space. We are here to see Chuck Norris give faceless bad guys complimentary tickets to Hellapalooza, then maybe slap Richard Lynch around a little, and if a lot of things go boom in the process, so much the better. In that the movie certainly succeeds in a workmanlike, entertaining fashion.

Invasion USA was released at the height of Golan-Globus' power. Cannon had become a financial power to be reckoned with, and though it was largely known for this kind of fare – loud, empty-headed action or trendy fare like Breakin'! – the two Israeli producers also backed smaller, more thoughtful fare like Shy People, Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear and Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance. The Go-Go Boys' nickel eventually tarnished, however, and their money-making magic withered under the onslaught of such expensive flops as Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, the Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over The Top and the still-reeking insult to many childhood memories which is Masters of the Universe.

The Go-Go Boys split soon after, and separately produced such oddities as the two conflicting Lambada movies… but that is something for another B-Master to dwell upon. Golan and Globus have since patched up their differences and are again making movies under the aegis of New Cannon Incorporated – but a look at their Look out Sheriff Lucky!  It's HIGH PRICES!!!!current slate of movies – and let's face it, when Billy Drago and Olivier Gruner are your Big Stars, you are in trouble – sadly shows that the Go-Go Boys' luster has largely faded.

But even if they never produce another empty things-go-boom epic, another sequel in a franchise that nobody wanted, or another dance-based storyline, Golan and Globus did dominate popular entertainment for a decade, providing a hell of a lot of people with escapist entertainment during a troubled time, and exhibits in the personal cinematic museum we all carry within us from our youth. If you lived in the 80s, you saw at least one Cannon movie in the theaters. And if you say you didn't, you're a big fat liar.

That, my friends, is a legacy some people would kill to possess.



Terrorist butt-kicking. Need I say more?

- March 7, 2003