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Invasion U.S.A.

Invasion U.S.A.



1986, Dir. Joseph Zito

Starring:
Chuck Norris, Richard Lynch, Melissa Prophet

Originally written by Billydakingfor the Bad Movie Message Board roundtable, "The Reagan Years." Holla at him at the BMMB.

Chuck Norris. If there’s anybody who symbolized Reagan’s America during the 1980s, it was the soft-spoken martial artist-turned-actor. While Sly Stallone made his mark with Rambo and Rocky, those ideographic characters were muscle-bound superhumans void of any real human qualities to which viewers could relate. Instead, we were attracted to their nationalistic heroism, whether it be Rambo’s darkness and redemption or Rocky’s simplicity and bullheadedness. Chuck, on the other hand, approached the same material with an inherent affability that compensated for his sheer lack of acting skills. The result was that no matter how humanly despicable his actions were as the “hero”, the audience still liked him.

It also helped that whenever Chuck actually cracked a smile, it didn’t make you want to scream in terror.

Of course, it took Norris a while before he found his niche in American movies. Early in his celluloid career, Chuck toiled in quickie American martial arts flicks like A Force of One and Good Guys Wear Black. By his own admission, his acting was almost unbearably horrible, so he concentrated on the talent he did have--karate. Movie after movie went by: The Octagon, Silent Rage, Forced Vengeance -- with little change in plot or production values. Then a strange thing happened: Code of Silence.

Directed by The Fugitive’s Andrew Davis, Chuck Norris suddenly had what he always lacked--critical success as a mainstream action star. Up until the goofy ending, Code of Silence was a straight-forward police/Mafia drama, boosting solid performances from every cast member. But it was Norris who surprised everyone. The only “name actor” of the cast, Chuck proved he could carry an action movie based on his acting rather than his feet. Heck, even Janet Maltin of the New York Times called Norris the next Clint Eastwood--an action actor who carries a believable persona from role to role.

Unfortunately, the critics had not reckoned with Cannon Films. With his newfound reputation, Chuck inked a seven-picture deal with the low-budget studio, a deal that granted Norris a fair amount of control over his movies.

It’s too bad he didn’t bring along Andrew Davis.

Instead, Norris’ follow-up to Code of Silence was directed by Joseph Zito, who seemed to specialize in Rambo knockoffs such as Dolph Lundgren’s Red Scorpion and Norris’ other big success of the early 1980s, Missing in Action. Like those pictures, 1986’s Invasion USA would tout the merits and strength of the American ideal of freedom through the eyes of a one-man army. Only, Invasion USA’s message was somewhat mixed.

The carnage begins at sea, with that Republican staple of helpless innocents, the Cuban boat refugees. This particular boat is dead in the water, and as a father and a son discuss their predicament, a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat appears on the horizon. But as the familiar Cannon ominous music kicks in, the refugees are treated to the sight of Richard Lynch in Coast Guard officer whites. Apparently suffering from heat stroke, the refugees don’t immediately scream and jump overboard. Lynch actually welcomes them to America, giving the poor souls false elation before he and his men open fire, completely massacring the lot. You see, the boat didn’t just contain old men, women, and children -- Lynch and his cohorts were after the boat’s shipment of cocaine.

Then, for no apparent reason, we are treated to the sight of Chuck Norris zippin’ across the Florida Everglades in his skimmer. Shirt open, of course.

Having its fill of non-beefcake Chuck, the scene switches back to the story, where the government has discovered what happened to the crew of Lynch's Coast Guard boat. Apparently, Lynch and his cohorts ambushed the boat while it was on a “routine anti-smuggling operation off the Keys near Cuba,” and killed its entire crew. Now, put aside the question of how a group of terrorists could seize a steel U.S. military boat from a fishing trawler -- I want to know how the U.S. government doesn’t panic when the aforementioned military vessel disappears near the vicinity of a country it’s not on good terms with. Also on the scene is McGuire, a reporter who works freelance probably because no self-respecting news organization would hire her. McGuire manages to become exceedingly irritating as soon as she opens her mouth. Way to represent the Fourth Estate.

We are then treated to the site of Chuck and his buddy John Eagle wrestling an alligator into a cage. Shirt open, again.

Meanwhile, Lynch arrives in a skid row Miami hotel to barter the stolen cocaine for guns. Said gun smuggler is played by Billy Drago, who apparently gets enough money from his acting gigs that he doesn’t need to sell the guns himself. The deal is done, and Lynch again takes the opportunity to show what a despicable villain he is by smashing Drago’s henchwoman’s head down as she is snorting some of the cocaine, shooting Drago in the groin, and then tossing the screaming henchwoman out the window. After Lynch leaves, the hotel proprietor displays more brains by swiping the stash of cocaine our villain left behind.

We then turn back to the Everglades, where John Eagle is selling the alligator. Chuck eventually appears to help, and yes, his shirt is open. He buttons it up, though.

We finally learn his character’s name (Matt Hunter) as an agent from “The Company” rows his boat to Hunter’s shack to ask for his assistance in tracking down a terrorist named Rostov (three guesses on who he is, and the first two don’t count). Let me digress here for a minute: Why is it that government agents are always using rowboats in places like swamps and such? Can’t the “company” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) afford at least a outboard motorboat to get him there faster? Wouldn’t that be more expedient and efficient? I’m sure John Eagle could have rented him one of his skimmer boats. Oh well, must be budgetary cutbacks. And yes, the agent did get his dress shoes stuck in the mud.

Hunter refuses, saying they should have let him kill Rostov when he had the chance. This leads us into an awkward flashback in which we see Rostov attempt to assassinate some unidentified dignitary with a bazooka. (!) Hunter interrupts him, tells him “it’s time to die,” but then thinks twice and kicks him in the face. I’m assuming the “shoulda let me kill him” part was in Hunter’s orders. Anyway, Rostov awakens violently, causing some of his men to rush to his hotel room. His second-in-command, Nikko, asks him if it was the dream again. “The nightmare,” Rostov replies. Whatever. Rostov then demands that they kill off Hunter before they start the operation. Nikko speaks for the audience by explaining that Hunter is “just one man. What can he do?” Rostov won’t listen to reason, however, and the merry terrorists are off on their skimmer boats (see, THEY can afford them) to blow Hunter apart.

And here is where Invasion USA shows that America will survive Rostov despite the damage he plans on causing. John Eagle shows up at the wrong time, sees the terrorists, and becomes gator meat while yelling out a warning to Matt (and also taking out one of the terrorist with his shotgun...at long range!). The terrorists quickly irradiate Hunter’s shack, machine-gunning and rocketing it to oblivion. They then go away. That’s right, they leave....WITHOUT CHECKING TO SEE IF THEY ACTUALLY GOT HIM. Okay, okay, so that’s Bad Movie Law, but you’d think that since Rostov (1) is a professional terrorist; (2) is good enough to be in charge of the biggest organized terrorist attack in history; and (3) is obsessed with killing Hunter, that he would have his men actually check for a body.

Well, Hunter does survive. But before he actually does anything, the terrorists land. Using old World War II/Korean War-era transports. Maybe they blew the budget on the skimmer boats. Two unfortunate teenagers making out on the beach are the first victims of the actual invasion, as Nikko kills them before they could be witnesses. Or he was upset that they weren’t getting naked. It's hard to tell. The terrorists rush over the bodies and through the treeline to dozens of awaiting trucks and vans parked side-by-side along the road. The terrorists pile into their respective vehicles as Rostov triumphantly tells Nikko, “Eighteen hours from now, America will be a different place.”

Now hold on a minute. Two things here: One, how come the teenagers didn’t notice the trucks and vans when they came to the beach, especially with Miami’s notorious drug trade (remember, Invasion USA was filmed in the mid-1980s, when Miami Vice was the “in” show). And if the teenagers were there beforehand, how come they never heard the vehicles arrive? Also, why land in Miami (where the entire story takes place), and send your men clear across the country in metal vans and trucks when you could land them on the West Coast? One of the destinations called out by the drivers is distinctly Las Vegas. Can you drive from Miami to Las Vegas in eighteen hours?

Hunter, upset over John Eagle’s death, meets our put upon government agent and takes the assignment, but makes the agent pay for his dinner (seems fair). And thus the carnage ensues....

Invasion USA holds many of the hallmarks of the American one-man army films: bullet-proof hero, automatic rifles that are extremely inaccurate, bad guys that do fatally stupid things, white-bread helpless victims, worthless reporter characters, mistakes in weaponry usage. In a particularly memorable scene, Rostov blows a suburban neighborhood apart with a bazooka...without reloading. He just turns and fires, turns and fires again. The bazooka is actually smoking before he pulls the trigger again. You don’t need to be a U.S. Marine to know something’s amiss.

Yet, for all of its nonsensical action, the movie contains several surprising ideas. One is simply the one-man army isn’t enough. In one of Invasion USA’s few effective scenes, Hunter visits an abandoned carnival where a bomb had destroyed a children’s carousel. As the camera pans over the wreckage, Hunter tells his government contact, “For every act I stop, a hundred succeed.” The fact that Hunter just saved a busload of children in the scene before only drives the point home. Hunter then allows himself to be arrested as a vigilante to draw Rostov out into the open. As Hunter is taken into custody, a news reporter is heard to say that Hunter is responsible for the “deaths of 10 terrorists.” Compare that total to the number of innocent people killed during the course of the story. In a way, Nikko was proven right. Hunter could not stop the operation. It was only Rostov’s obsession with Hunter that doomed his operation, leading his entire “army” into a direct confrontation it could not win.

Rostov’s operation was also a nice departure from the normal cliche. Instead of going after governmental and military installations, the terrorists target random civilians. Two terrorists get their hands on a police car and some uniforms, and then drive around minority neighborhoods shooting innocent bystanders. Given the already uneasy relationship between the neighborhoods and police, this action not only undermines any trust of authority, but sends the populace into violent retaliation. America is a democracy whose government is dependent on domestic stability rather than military enforcement; by seeding distrust in the authority and fear for safety, the terrorists cause American society to veer toward the kind of unstability that topples governments. Rostov time and again says that Americans are their own worst enemies--“They make it so easy.” The point is that America has had relative domestic peace for so long, it does not know how to react when the peace is ripped away.

Unfortunately, Invasion USA undermines this theory by its own hapless direction. While we hear of civil unrest and chaos, we never really see any of it, reducing these important story points to hearsay. Another is the ambiguity of our terrorists. Rostov and Nikko make reference to “they,” but we never learn who “they” are. The operation contains Russians, Chinese, Cubans, Libyans--pretty much every antagonist the United States had in the mid-1980s. Whoever “they” are, “they” apparently didn’t have enough funds to provide the terrorists with weaponry, as the terrorists had to get the arms themselves with the cocaine barter. Giving the largest invasion of the United States in more than 100 years the appearance of a shoestring operation only serves to reduce its overall threat to the audience.

Yet, in the face of this bargain basement invasion, Americans seem completely and utterly helpless. While the National Guard comes out to enforce curfews, Nikko and Hunter can drive around unhindered (in Hunter’s case, driving a bullet-ridden truck that he stole back from a police compound), and the terrorists set up a bomb at a church on a well-lit and empty street a block away from a military checkpoint crawling with troops. These careless storytelling mistakes make the authorities appear wretchedly inept. Maybe that was the point, but it's a weird one for a supposed nationalistic movie to take on its own nation.

Authorities aren’t the only group to be portrayed in a strange light. Invasion USA even goes so far to question if America is worth saving. In his search for information about Rostov’s whereabouts, Hunter drives through a bad neighborhood, where every pimp, hooker, and Hell’s Angel makes threatening glares and even comes out to try to hit his truck. It’s pretty bad when a hooker tells you to “fuck off!” with no prompting. The boat people are killed because of the cocaine stored below -- the corruption within. Rostov gets the arms for the invasion from an American dealer -- the audience is even encouraged to cheer when Rostov kills him. In the aforementioned “repeating bazooka” scene, Rostov and Nikko drive off slowly after destroying several houses. No one even tries to come out and shoot back, implying American civilians, when faced with life-threatening violence, don’t know how to pick up their own guns (right to bear arms, anyone?) to defend themselves.

The mid-1980s were about blind trust in government and authority while ignoring any problems existing below the surface. WASPs distanced themselves from inner cities, their problems, and their minority groups, causing the rift between the poor and rest of society to grow even wider. Which makes Invasion USA all the more an anomaly. Time and time again, Chuck and company point out that American society has believed its own complacency too long, making it easy pickings for a low-budget terrorist attack. WASPs don’t know how to deal with the attacks when authorities prove helpless to stop it, and the poor rebel against the authority it already distrusts. And while movies like Rambo and Red Dawn show Americans defeating the enemy at its own game, the good guys in Invasion USA only win when the terrorists come and fight on our terms. For a brainless action movie filled with goofy one-liners and brutal beatings, it is a surprising subversive one.

This is a Chuck Norris movie we're talking about, right?

Addendum:

Norris’ career wasn’t helped by Invasion USA. Although he would go on to become Cannon’s biggest action star, this movie would mark the beginning of rapidly diminishing returns. With the exception of Delta Force, which boasted Lee Marvin’s presence and a virtual reenactment of the TWA hijacking, each Norris picture grossed less and less money, until the poor man was reduced to doing sequels like Braddock: Missing in Action III and Delta Force II. At least he left Delta Force III to his son Mike.