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Sunday, August 31, 2014
The Delta Force (1986)
Written by James Bruner & Menahem Golan
Directed by Menahem Golan
Lee Marvin: Colonel Nick Alexander
Chuck Norris: Major Scott McCoy
Martin Balsam: Ben Kaplan
George Kennedy: Father O'Malley
Robert Forster: Abdul Rafai
Also appearing (in the film and / or those tiny little actor face boxes at the bottom of the poster): Joey Bishop, Lainie Kazan, Susan Strasberg, Hannah Schygulla, Bo Svenson, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, Steve James, Kim Delany and an uncredited Kevin Dillon and Liam Neeson.
Well, here we are--watching some political science fiction for a roundtable celebrating the career of the recently departed Menahem Golan. With his cousin and corporate partner Yoram Globus, Golan carved a career out in the Roger Corman model--occasional prestige foreign imports and actors' vanity projects supported by a neverending conveyor belt of the finest American mass-produced cheese, a process accelerated and perfected when the pair bought Cannon Studios in the late 1970s. I've already cast a jaundiced eye towards two other films from this production team: One of them a deeply personal and incoherent religious disco musical in the prestige mode, and the other a bargain basement franchise sequel celebrating vigilante murder. For this roundtable, I picked a movie I'd never seen before rather than going for one of their fad-chasing breakdancing or ninja movies. I figured the nicest thing I could do in Golan's memory would be giving one of his movies a brand new viewing rather than rewatch something I already knew.
As always, watching one of these "torn from the headlines" movies teaches me how little I was paying attention to current events when I was eleven. Many specific plot points in this film are cribbed shamelessly from an actual airplane hijacking and hostage situation in 1985; in the real world, the hostages were eventually released in a swap for more than seven hundred Shia prisoners held by Israel (something I don't remember getting brought up during the media fart-in-an-elevator commentary when Bowe Bergdahl made it back from Afghanistan).
But here in the magic land of Cannon Films, America got a do-over and sent in Chuck Norris to kill the hell out of turban-wearing Arab terrorists. Which is also an example of the "just like some other movie that made a ton, but cheaper" ethic behind B movie production--the second Rambo movie delivered on the promise of a re-fought Vietnam war where America got to win thanks to a weightlifter with a machine gun. One year later, a similar plot structure is used by Golan and Globus. Hey, there's no point leaving a perfectly good idea out there unused. Clint Eastwood directed one of those "Vietnam do-over" movies in 1986 himself, and Chuck Norris and Cannon got an early jump on the genre--actually beating Rambo to the punch--with the Missing in Action films, the first of which came out the year Ronald Reagan was re-elected.
The film starts with a Cannon films re-imagining of Operation Eagle Claw (the botched attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran that was one of the milestones on the creation of the Delta Force). Viewing the movie three decades on from the incidents it shows, I have to wonder how many viewers in 2014 would know what the "Iran, Desert One, 200 Miles Southeast of Tehran" and "April 25, 1980, 4:00 AM" captions would signify. I'm sure that people who caught the movie in theaters knew exactly what was being depicted on screen but the timeliness of the material in 1986 makes it pretty opaque in 2014.
As soon as we know the exact date and time of the events, a landed helicopter explodes in a ball of fire. Several massive transport planes are waiting with their props running while dozens of American soldiers run from a working transport helicopter to the planes; granted, the mission was a failure in real life but I'm pretty sure the actual soldiers weren't wearing forest camo fatigues in the Iranian desert. Perhaps someone in Movie Army logistics should consider looking into that. Captain McCoy runs back to the burning helicopter to pull a trapped comrade out--and everyone, including the trapped soldier, warns him that the fuel tanks are going to explode in the helicopter. So what the hell blew up at exactly 4 in the morning, then? Pete the trapped soldier has his leg stuck under a jeep; McCoy lifts the vehicle up the crucial couple of inches that let his friend scoot his limb out from where it was trapped. The pair make it back to the transport plane in a landbound remake of the flying motorcycle scene from MegaForce (which makes this the first and only time anyone unironically referenced MegaForce in anything).
On the plane, the demoralized soldiers sit in silence while McCoy asks his commanding officer Colonel Alexander why the politicians and civilian leadership didn't listen to the soldiers when planning the operation. Given the success rate of civilian-planned wars of choice in the Middle East over the last decade and change, I'd say McCoy's got a really valid point here. McCoy says he plans to resign from the military when he gets back to the States and the movie then switches to Greece, five years later. Athens, July 19, 1985 at 7:45 in the morning, to be absurdly specific. And at the Athens International Airport, which makes perfect sense considering this is a based-on-true-events film.
At the airport, we get some better than competently done scenes introducing two Jewish couples vacationing in Europe and the flight attendants making their way onto the ATW 707 intercut with TOTALLY SUSPICIOUS ARAB DUDES (one of whom is Robert Forster in a white suit and tie and red shirt, looking swank as hell) making coded signals to each other in the terminal and one guy carrying a toolbox that gets a closeup although he does not. It's a pleasure to see a bunch of character actors playing off each other, including Academy Award winner Martin Balsam. I'm guessing the check for Death Wish 3 cleared because he's working for Cannon again and in a movie with a budget that's orders of magnitude higher. I've said it multiple times in the reviews on this blog but it bears repeating: filmmaking is a craft as well as an art, and I have grown to really appreciate the no-bullshit competence of solid craftsmanship in a lot of the Cannon and Corman output. They might not have had a lot of time and money to get the films made (and I remember reading that Chuck Norris had to pack his own lunch when making the Missing in Action movies because the budgets were so low) but everyone's doing the best job they can and it shows. Plus, Alan Silvestri's score is nice and creepy during the most suspenseful paper-towel-refilling scene ever filmed.
Someone who came in straight from Central Casting listed as a "sweaty, desperate, obvious terrorist" causes a ruckus at the ticket counter, which lets the two other hijackers we saw earlier get on the plane without incident. I don't know if the third man was a planned diversion or just ordered a standby ticket accidentally but either way his making a scene lets the other two conspirators get on board without arousing any suspicion. The plane takes off and there's more character actor bits as people converse (a Russian immigrant chit-chats with George Kennedy's priest; also, given his cinematic resume, if you are in a plane and George Kennedy gets on it, take a later flight).
Mere seconds after the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign is turned off Robert bin Forster's character retrieves a pair of guns and a grenade from where they were stashed in the plane's bathroom and takes control of the plane (pistol-whipping not one but two stewardesses in the process). He grabs a stewardess and tries to get the pilot to open the cockpit door--which, in a moment of pants-shitting terror, smacks him in the arm and face while he's holding a grenade, sans pin. It doesn't go off, which means the movie will be longer than fourteen minutes. The pilot and crew capitulate immediately, and the navigator helps stick the pin back in the grenade to avoid catastrophe.
Abdul dictates terms to the pilot: They're going to fly to Beirut, which will be done without contacting any air traffic controllers. The navigator says they don't have enough fuel to get to Lebanon; the chief hijacker says they'll fly towards Beirut till they run out of fuel. During all the confusion, the pilot flipped a switch that silently alerted Athens ATC that they'd been hijacked and the two controllers on the ground contact the American embassy in Greece to start spreading panic up and down the chain of command, depicted in a budget-conscious manner by voiceovers played over stock footage of an embassy building, the White House, the Pentagon, and so forth. General Woodbridge (Robert Vaughn!) gets in touch with Colonel Alexander and tells him to get his men ready and fly to Lebanon; they don't know yet if the Delta Force will actually be needed in Lebanon or not but they're going to start moving people into place as soon as possible so they don't get stuck with an eleven-hour flight to wherever they are needed eventually.
Back on the plane, the hijackers clear out first class and pack everybody into coach, with the men in window seats and women and children in the aisle seats (and aisles); there's also a moment where the hijacker that looks like a strung-out Zach Galifianakis talks to a seven-year old girl gently to show that they're not animals, just people using asymmetrical warfare to leverage political concessions out of a superpower. Through a bit of a contrivance, Sweaty Galifianakis Terrorist Guy finds a woman's wedding ring with a Hebrew inscription on it; when Abdul finds out there's an Israeli on the plane (or at least someone Jewish) he asks one of the stewardesses to identify which passengers are from Israel. She says--reasonably enough--that they don't keep those records for every single flight so Abdul gets everyone to surrender their passports. Three of the passengers are Navy divers and have a different kind of identification; Abdul hauls them into first class to keep an eye on them.
Abdul demands that one of the stewardesses pick out the Jews based on the passports that are now in a big messy pile on a first class seat; she refuses in general because she won't be a party to the murder of civilians and specifically because she's German and won't relive the psychotic break her country went through in the 1940s. This was another plot point taken from the real hostage crisis, and a cheap joke doesn't feel right in this paragraph.
Back at the Special Forces hangar, Captain McCoy shows up right before they're going to take off for Lebanon and Col. Alexander hands him a Presidential decree forcing him out of retirement and promoting him to Major, because in Cannon World only Saint Ronald Reagan had the requisite power to force Chuck Norris back into the Army, sweet mullet and all, in order to destroy the concept of terrorism. And at last there's a jingoistic loopy plot point of the type I'd been hoping for since the opening credits. Things were a little too serious and well-crafted for me to enjoy kicking the movie around.
Whoa, if I thought things were serious before they're WAY too bleak now--the hijackers summon four passengers with Jewish sounding names to the first class cabin and park them in seats there. Plenty of tearful goodbyes from all the men's wives, children, etc. keep the scene going forever while the score goes for Drama Points. And George Kennedy gets a neat moment where he--in full Roman Catholic priest's clothing--goes to talk to Abdul and says he's Jewish as well. And the sweaty bearded terrorist uses the opportunity provided by the four emptied seats in coach to make a reclining couch for a pregnant woman.
When the plane gets to Beirut, the Lebanese government forbids them to land, and even has jeeps and other vehicles park on the runways so that the 707 cannot set down without killing everyone on board (and the shot of all the cars and trucks pulling onto the runway, filmed from the air, cannot have been an easy one to get). The foreign minister from Lebanon personally denies permission for the plane to land over the air traffic control system, even when told that Abdul will blow the plane up and kill everyone on board if they aren't allowed to land. The minister relents when the second-banana hijacker starts beating one of the Navy hostages to death loudly enough to be transmitted via the cockpit mikes. And we get an even neater aerial shot of the runway as the vehicles pull away, filmed from the POV of the landing jet.
The Delta commandos are getting a mission briefing on the way to the Beirut airport; they're going to raid the plane in three squads, each with a different objective. There are only two terrorists so they should be able to overpower them easily and get control of the plane. McCoy asks how they know there's only two terrorists right before his commanding officer asks if there are any questions, which probably isn't the right order to do that in.
Abdul demands a full tank of aviation fuel so the 707's pilot can take off and go wherever the next part of the plan leads--the hijacker in chief hasn't shared that information with anyone diegetically yet. And the foreign minister, weasel that he is, decides that it's easier to spring for a tank of petrol for the jet and let them leave his country than keep them there and deal with any of the inevitable consequences. While the jet is fueling up, a dozen or more AK-47 toting members of the New World Revolution get on and the Jewish men (and Father O'Malley) and two of the three Navy divers are herded off the plane, blindfolded, and brought to a building identifies as "Terrorist Headquarters" in the film's captioning. They get stuck in a couple of jail cells at Terrorist Headquarters, apparently to be used as human shields or bargaining chips later if things go badly.
The ATW plane leaves Beirut and makes its way to Algiers; fast diplomatic work gets the Delta team permission to land in Algiers as well. But when they disembark, load their guns and do some stretching exercises before storming the plane the colonel gets a picture phone call from General Woodbridge; they're on hold until diplomatic talks break down completely. If the US government can get the hostages freed without any military action taken they're willing to do that and call it a victory. Frankly, so would I. The Delta Force soldiers get into position and go into hurry up and wait mode.
The women and children are released in Algiers, just as Abdul promised. He also frees the stewardess who had to pick the Jewish sounding passport names out. As a final insult to the hostages, the hijackers take all the money and valuables they had on them (although Abdul returns the Hebrew-lettered ring to the woman who had it). It's honestly a bit more balanced view of the hijackers than I expected--a Team America style group of lunatics jabbering "Derka derka" was what I thought I was going to get.
General Woodbridge, back in the States, gives the go-ahead signal to Alexander, who tells McCoy the mission is on (hey, the chain of command! Nice to see you! Normally you aren't anywhere near when action movies kick off their big sequences!), and unfortunately Alexander gave the green light a minute or so before he talked to the German stewardess and found out there's a dozen more armed men on the plane than he thought there were going to be. All the commandos have their radios turned off to avoid any of the terrorists eavesdropping. They refuse to return fire and bug out to safety. The big storming-the-plane sequence turns out to feature a bunch of bullet holes in Jeeps and an exploding fuel tanker.
Abdul shoots the Navy diver still on the plane and throws his body out onto the tarmac before the ATW jet takes off for Beirut again. The Delta Force plane is ordered to Israel, which is twenty minutes away from Beirut by the air and now, about halfway through the movie, we get to the military fantasy sequence--the President wants those hostages returned safely to America, and the soldiers are gonna go do that REAL GOOD!
As opposed to the actual Reagan administration, which sold weapons to one group of terrorists to give money to another group of terrorists, and which went along with the release of Shia prisoners in order to get the abducted TWA passengers in the real world back (I'm not actually criticizing the real-world handling of the hostage situation here, incidentally; it's good to get your people back alive and using that metric, negotiating with terrorists and conceding to their demands was definitely the right course of action).
Back on Planet Cannon Pictures, the Delta Force group trains in a decommissioned passenger jet in order to learn how to quickly breach the doors, gain entry, shoot the right people and take control of the cabin. In Beirut, the American hostages are herded into cells, lightly beaten and given newspapers that show the death of the Navy diver executed in Algiers. The plane captain gives an interview to the world media by sticking his head out the cockpit window and answering questions while one of the secondary hijackers holds a gun to his head (another thing replicated by the movie that happened in the real hostage situation).
McCoy makes his way through the Beirut airport posing as a Canadian TV cameraman (ever wanted to see Chuck Norris speak French? Here's your chance!); one assumes the other Delta Force members are being snuck in under similar and equally false pretenses. They do some recon with their contact, a bearded priest that's shown up in a couple of scenes here and there, and who knows where the American hostages are being held at Terrorist Headquarters. Also, it makes a lot of sense that an Orthodox priest wouldn't be suspected of being an Israeli secret agent. Abdul figures out something's up with the priest and captures him in mid-radio-report. The priest warns McCoy and his driver away, and during the ensuing interminably long car chase / gunfight, you will be overjoyed to learn that two cars run into fruit carts.
The priest's van wrecked in the gunfight / chase / escape sequence, McCoy and his backup are stranded but signal the Delta Force transport boat with their flashlight once it gets dark; the commandos disembark from the boat, McCoy provides intel on the three locations the hostages are being held (the plane and two spots in Beirut) and everyone sticks American flag patches on their right shoulders as the final preparatory step for the mission.
The final half hour of the movie is the Delta Force raid, in which the valiant discliplined Americans kill the sloppy, complacent, distracted terrorists to death. As a length mid-80s action sequence, it's pretty good but if you've seen one of them you're pretty well set for all of 'em. It's the busiest section of the film but the least interesting. Although as a minor point of interest for cinema historians, the POV shot representing the view through night vision goggles is not done in the "shiny green light" style popularized by The Silence of the Lambs; it's just sorta washed-out color footage with a gobo stuck on it in the shape of the goggles lenses to let the audience know what the shot is supposed to be representing.
And the production values for the final-reel assault are huge, especially for a second-tier studio like Cannon. Dozens of stuntmen and extras if not actually hundreds, thousands of blank rounds fired and squibs set off against buildings or in the dirt, explosions, a full body burn gag, exploding Jeeps and cars, and a motorcycle that fires rockets from the front windscreen (which means this movie also has the second thing anyone ever ripped off from MegaForce in it as well).
During the assault, the hostages from the second site are bundled out of the Terrorist Headquarters by their abductors and are on the road from Lebanon to Iran; the Ayatollah has offered the New World Revolution sanctuary in Tehran so they're beating feet for another country before the Delta Force kills them all. And now we get to the point I was anticipating, where all the Arabic character run around yelling "Derka derka falabala!" and run away from an exploding building or get shot. Of course McCoy's friend and subordinate is the only Delta Force member to get shot, and of course Norris gets a hand-to-hand fight scene with one of the terrorists during this sequence. All the secondary hostages are recovered at this point.
And because Abdul is the head bastard in charge of all the terrorists, he winds up getting run over with a motorcycle (indoors!), being on the receiving end of a full-service beatdown at the hands of Chuck Norris and blown up with a motorcycle-fired mortar shell. The rest of the commandos kill the perimeter guards at the airport and steal the plane back. Everyone's ready to leave and just like at the beginning of the film, McCoy is late to the extraction and winds up making use of the fifty feet of rope every good adventurer has with him to get on the plane and out of Lebanon along with all of the rescued hostages.
One last "I totally went to film school" ironic counterpoint in the film; Pete the sidekick dies while the hostages are drinking warm domestic beer and singing "America the Beautiful" while the plane leaves Lebanese airspace. It's hokey as hell but sincere as the day is long. And then it's time for the hostages to be reunited with their families when the plane lands in Israel while the soldiers bear the body of their comrade off to a transport plane. At least they're all already wearing black, so that saves a little time. Music soars, roll credits.
I'm disappointed. This movie wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Everything I've seen from Cannon is from their cheaper and more embarrassing years, but this was a real movie with well-compensated movie stars in it and everything. I'm not sure at all how it played in 1985 (it's got a 20% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which leads me to suspect that critics at the time were not kindly disposed to its similarities to a real-life hijacking and murder) but if it got two sequels, it had to have made enough money for the bean-counters at Cannon to justify giving the "go" signal two more times.
All of the actors keep from getting too cartoonish; the hostages, terrorists and commandos all could be catchphrase-vomiting screaming overplayers but that doesn't happen at all. There's multiple attempts to ground the characters in emotional reality and that is what I expected least of all from this movie. It's more than two hours long and it's much more like a disaster movie or a variation on Stagecoach with all the character stuck together surrounded by peril for the first 70 percent of the film. I absolutely did not expect the "this time we win" Beirut hostage movie to be more subtle and considered than The Apple but it genuinely was.
This review is part of the Celluloid Zeroes' "Cannon Fodder" roundtable in memoriam of Menahem Golan, who departed this world on August 8, 2014. He leaves behind a body of work that ranks among the best B movies ever made, and perhaps some of the worst as well. The other reviews in this roundtable:
Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Exterminator 2
Micro-Brewed Reviews: 10 Minutes to Midnight
The Terrible Claw Reviews: LifeForce