The Delta Force (1986) and the 1980s Reaganian action film
[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Thomas Ricard. Enjoy!]
The French bad movie website Nanarland coined the term “Reaganian action film” to describe a specific subgenre that permeated much of 1980s action films and whose influence was still distinctly present in the ‘90s. The Reaganian action film arose, much like Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as a reaction to the mistrust of American institutions caused by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, as well as the general feeling of disenchantment that defined 1970s pop culture.
Gritty realism, social justice crusades, and conflicted anti-heroes were out; black-and-white morality, uncritical flag-waving patriotism, and hyper-macho tough guys were in. Many of these films were produced by Cannon Films, which was at the time owned by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Under their leadership, Cannon went from a failing company to a B-movie giant that would eventually crank out dozens of films a year. While their projects encompassed everything from softcore pornos to acclaimed drama films, it’s testosterone-pumped actioners that the name “Cannon Films” is still associated with to this day.
And no actor symbolizes the Cannon Group or the Reaganian action subgenre more than Chuck Norris. Whether he was retroactively winning the Vietnam War in the Missing in Action series, or singlehandedly thwarting hordes of communist terrorists in Invasion U.S.A., Chuck Norris has spent his entire career as a conservative wish-fulfillment fantasy: A clean-mouthed, God-fearing, patriotic badass kicking commie butt with awesome martial arts moves. That’s the only possible explanation for his popularity, really, because even by action star standards, Norris is a pretty lousy actor. He barely emotes, he doesn’t move or carry himself with any particular grace, and he’s completely devoid of any kind of charisma or screen presence that could compensate for his lack of range.
The Delta Force occupies a somewhat unique position in the Reaganian action movie canon. On the one hand, its premise—a terrorist crisis inspired by the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, only this time resolved by kicking the terrorists’ asses rather than negotiating with them like we did in real life—is every bit the mindless wish fulfillment you’d expect from a Chuck Norris film.
From its very opening, in which we see Chuck take part in the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw that failed to rescue American hostages in Tehran, Delta Force perfectly illustrates the Reaganian action flick mindset: Past humiliations and failures must be avenged/corrected by getting even with the enemies responsible and showing them who’s boss. On the other hand, it also wants to be a serious thriller about what it’s like to be held hostage by Jew-hating fanatics. Imagine if a 14-year-old had written and directed Argo, lost half of it in a fire, and replaced the missing footage with a Call of Duty Let’s Play, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how alternately silly, self-serious, and hopelessly clueless Delta Force is.
The film was co-written and directed by Menahem Golan, and it shows in the way he proudly wears his patriotic Zionist sensibilities on his sleeve. Problem is, the hand coming out of that sleeve is wielding a baseball bat in lieu of a paintbrush. Every scene involving the hostages and their interactions with the terrorists (which take up almost the entirety of the film’s first half) is suffocated by disaster movie clichés and one-note ethno-religious stereotypes. Before the hijacking even takes place, the conflict is framed as a contrast between sweaty dark-skinned Muslims…
…and mostly white salt-of-the-earth types primarily defined by their non-Muslim religions (a Greek Orthodox priest accompanied by nuns, Jews loudly proclaiming their Jewishness to each other) and/or lazy storytelling shorthand to incite sympathy (a couple celebrating their silver anniversary, a patriotic Russian immigrant).
Yet, paradoxically, it’s this same childish understanding of international politics that prevents Golan from taking his narrative to its logical conclusion: Although explicitly coded as Muslims by their repeated utterances of “Allah Akbar” (which the film’s subtitles incorrectly translate as “God be praised” rather than “God is the greatest”), the terrorists work for a fictional group called New World Revolution, and identify their enemies as “imperialists and anti-socialists”, making them sound more like far-leftists than the Shiite Islamists of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad they were based on. Because screw centuries of religious conflict, oppression, and ideological differences between Muslims and Jews, let’s just slap the commie label on them so the audience knows for sure they’re the bad guys!
Also, their leader is played by Robert Forster.
This film was made in 1985.
To Forster’s credit, his performance in the plane scenes does suggest he’s at least as scared as his hostages. Too bad any other feeble stabs at humanizing the terrorists—mainly by having a henchman mention a dead child and help a pregnant hostage get comfortable—are undermined by the film’s constant telegraphing of their villainy. None of the nuance, skill, or thoughtfulness put into smart right-wing action films like Dirty Harry or American Sniper can be found here; good guys and bad guys are so unequivocally distinguished from each other that no amount of texture is judged necessary for any of them.
If that sounds like the kind of cartoonish characterization you’d expect from a Reaganian action film, keep in mind that Golan wants us to take this as seriously as Oscar voters took his similarly ripped-from-the-headlines drama Operation Thunderbolt when they nominated it for Best Foreign Language Film. Delta Force boasts no fewer than five Oscar winners and nominees*: Shelley Winters, Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn, Lee Marvin (in what was sadly his last film role), and George Kennedy, as well as German art-house veteran Hanna Schygulla, and most of them get shamelessly exploited for cheap emotion. Whether it’s Schygulla explicitly citing Nazis as her reason for refusing to read out the names of Jewish passengers instead of letting her German accent and refusal speak for themselves, or Balsam’s Holocaust survivor dramatically pausing for a close shot of his solemn face before walking towards his certain doom as sad music plays, Golan emotionally blackmails his audience to a point where you don’t know whether to laugh or cringe.
[*Seven if you count Robert Forster, who would be nominated for Jackie Brown almost a decade later, and future Schindler Liam Neeson, who shows up as one of the Delta Force extras, meaning this movie has more Oscar nominees than your average Best Picture winner.]
Treating a serious and complex subject with childishly overwrought glurge is bad enough on its own, but by no means exceptional. It’s the added sight of Chuck Norris riding a motorcycle equipped with rocket launchers that turns The Delta Force into a downright surreal experience.
You see, it’s in its second half where the film’s fundamentally juvenile nature bursts out like a tricolored jack-in-the-box. After pulling every trick in the book to make sure the audience wants to see the hostages rescued and the bad guys killed, it’s time to let Chuck do what he does best. Like a one-man catalog of 1980s American power fantasies, Norris shoots, kicks, and blows up terrorist after terrorist without getting so much as a scratch, culminating in a predictable mano a mano fight with their leader after his recently-engaged buddy gets mortally wounded. It’s not as wildly over-the-top (nor half as fun) as the climax of Commando, but the use of the film’s repetitively upbeat main theme (composed by Alan Silvestri, presumably on a napkin during a lunch break) over supposedly “tense” car chases and gunfights provides plenty of unintentional comedy gold due to how hilariously mismatched the soundtrack and picture content are.
The Delta Force is so brazen in its jingoism, so earnest in its desire to entertain, and so unencumbered by aesthetic taste or good judgment that you can’t help but admire it. It’s unique in that its two halves couldn’t be more tonally incompatible if they tried, and yet they complement each other perfectly, because they each synthesize the Reaganian action film’s stylistic and ideological excesses to the point of self-parody. Each side provides a perfect illustration of a major pitfall that comes with making popcorn entertainment out of politics: One takes its viewers for morons incapable of picking up on the slightest nuance of human behavior; the other assumes total complacency on their part.
And regardless of personal beliefs, such lack of consideration for your countrymen’s intelligence strikes me as singularly unpatriotic.