The Delta Force

(1986)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

The Delta Force opens with a poorly staged, poorly edited sequence inspired by the real Delta Force’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. I figured I’d be in for a silly, entertaining ride on par with Death Wish 3. A funny thing happened, though: The movie started to get good. Like, legitimately good, not just fun or mindlessly entertaining. In fact, if not for all that distracting crap with Chuck Norris, this could have been a very suspenseful successor to the Airport franchise.

Loosely based on the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the film feels very much like an Airport film. It introduces a wide range of characters (featuring, in typical Airport fashion, a who’s-who of washed-up actors including Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, and perennial favorite George Kennedy), relationships, and foibles, before thrusting them all on a New York-bound commercial airliner hijacked by two Lebanese terrorists (Robert Forster, David Menachem) protesting the existence of Israel. The strangest and most impressive thing about the film is the relative balance between heroes and villains. Instead of the rah-rah jingoism I expected, director/producer/co-writer Menahem Golan (himself an Israeli) allows the Delta Force to do some bad things and allows the terrorists to do some good things. It’s not quite as black-and-white as typical Cannon fare.

Norris stars as Major Scott McCoy, who retired in disgust after the botched 1980 mission. When he hears about the hijacking, he brings himself out of retirement and spends much of the movie shooting Arabs and blowing up buildings. Ostensibly, The Delta Force is an action movie, but it excels in the scenes between the terrorists and hostages. Instead of those scenes feeling like a relief from nonstop action, the action feels more like a needless distraction designed to put asses in seats to watch the film Golan really wanted to make — an atypically nuanced portrait of U.S. foreign policy, using the planeload of hostages as a microcosm for western society.

However, it’s the rare film that can have its cake and eat it, too. As the first half (which focuses primarily on the hostages) gives way to the second (which focuses on the rescue), the film has successfully made its hostages into resonant characters we actually want to see rescued. It’s my own opinion that Norris has always been a lesser action star — a blank slate who lacks the built-in persona of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or even Van Damme — which may explain why I didn’t care so much about his one-man-army antics and only really enjoyed him when his superior officer (Lee Marvin, in his final film role) verbally abused him for ignoring his team. However, The Delta Force gives Norris a few moments to shed his stoic, expressionless persona and actually act, however briefly. He pulls it off, which makes me hope the other Norris films I’ll cover this month will ultimately lead to me changing my mind about him. If he ever fights a bear, I know I’ll change my mind.

Overall, The Delta Force is a solid thriller only marred, ironically, by its emphasis on big explosions and gunfights. Less of that, and maybe this would have been a great film instead of merely a good one. Then again, more of it, and it may have ended up as a gloriously absurd, comically misguided action film on par with most of Cannon’s releases. Either way, it could have been better than what it is, but it’s still pretty good.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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