Tom Jolliffe pays tribute to movie legend turned internet meme God Chuck Norris, who recently turned 80…
Earlier this month, a cinematic icon turned 80. Likewise, after something of a lull in recent years with Chuck Norris themed ‘facts’ and memes, his internet meme-worthiness has gone through the roof once more in the face of Coronavirus. You’ve probably seen it at least once on your news-feed over the last month, but many a meme with differing Chuck screenshots have essentially the same gag…’Chuck Norris came into contact with Covid-19, and the virus had to go into quarantine for 2 weeks.’ With this sudden and welcome reappearance across meme-dom, aptly timed for an 80th birthday, it’s time to pay tribute to an action icon.
An Airforce veteran and then National and International Karate champ over the course of a 10 year fighting career, Norris was, as many of the old school action guys were, a legitimate badass. The shift into films was first prominent when he fought Bruce Lee on screen in Way Of The Dragon. It’s an iconic fight scene with two reputable titans. Even back then the buzz of the face off was pretty big among martial arts aficionados. The rest of the 70’s saw Norris slowly work his way up as an action star. Post Lee, there was a move to find a new headliner for films like this and Norris was beginning to emerge as the front runner. His early steps as a headliner were a mixed bag but with some enjoyable old school films like Breaker Breaker, Good Guys Wear Black, A Force of One and The Octagon. Chuck wasn’t the best actor (and in truth didn’t particularly improve a great deal) but he did the stoic thing effectively with his patented roundhouse kicks.
Some films have since garnered more cult appeal, such as Silent Rage and his underrated action western, Lone Wolf McQuade which pitted him against David Carradine. In truth many of those earlier works are some of his better films, but it would be the next phase of his career that brought his most iconic films… the Cannon phase. His Delta Force films (which would later kind of spawn off into indirect sequels, spinoffs and riffs without Chuck) and Missing in Action series remain his most widely known films. Cannon as a movie enterprise in the mid-section of the 80’s were always looking to push star power. Chuck along with Charles (Bronson) would become the poster boys for Cannon action films. Chuck had a good run with Cannon, and Delta Force and the first two M.I.A films hold up pretty well (even if you have to watch through a filter of irony to an extent). That being said, I think two of his best works overall were Orion films with the aforementioned Lone Wolf McQuade and Code of Silence. Still, that almost ironic, slightly comical version of Chuck, coming off like a Simpsons riff on action cinema, tended to come from Cannon collabs (indeed, you’d say the same of Bronson/Cannon).
There’s perhaps no greater example of ludicrous 80’s machismo than Invasion USA. A film that has a decidedly mean streak and viciousness of its commie bad guy (brilliantly, and hammily played by the late Richard Lynch), with a heady 80’s mix of jingoism, xenophobia and homo-eroticism. The artwork imagery that is most used for the film became perhaps the most utilised image for Chuck memes, that of Norris in double denim (the top sleeveless) holding dual Uzis. Chuck lives in the bayou, rides an airboat and has a pet armadillo. By the end of the film he’s (spoiler alert) blowing Richard Lynch out of an upper floor office window into a oblivion with a bazooka. It’s bordering on Naked Gun levels of ridiculousness, yet somehow with a bearded face unfazed by seemingly anything and not easily giving in to emotion, it works.
As Cannon folded, so to did Norris as a cinematic entity. The 90’s slowly saw him fire out a couple of his atypically violent films, with The Hitman, and a misjudged if enjoyable step into melding fantasy and horror with action in Hellbound. Whilst establishing himself as a solid TV mainstay in the popular Walker Texas Ranger, Chuck’s film career was becoming muted a little by both age, and a more conservative need to do family friendly films like Top Dog, Sidekicks (always an old favourite and a kind of pre-Last Action Hero with Norris as opposed Ahnuld) and Forest Warrior (if you’ve ever wanted to see Chuck morph into a bear this is your film…). By the end of Walker, Norris appeared to be winding down with an irregular TV movie here and there, and then for good measure a final straight to video action film for Millennium (the company that most resembles Cannon these days), The Cutter. That aside he was a cameo man, appearing in Dodgeball and then more prominently in The Expendables 2 (a film that with very little irony actually references internet jokes).
Whether we’ll see a triumphant comeback from Norris, even as a one off cameo (there is another Expendables perennially around the corner) remains to be seen. At 80 though, he’s done his cinematic licks and left a lasting legacy in the action genre. Perhaps one thing that people who find Norris humour amusing may not realise though, some of his work can be watched as originally intended, without your irony specs on. Likewise, in an age where actors have the benefit of CGI, wires etc and crash course fight training, CGI face doubling for stunt men, sometimes we should remember a time when action stars were the real deal, and doing most of this themselves. So here’s to all the bruises Chuck! (raises a glass which Norris duly roundhouse kicks).
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/