Carol Bagdasarian comes fairly far down in the credits for "The Octagon," but in a sense she provides the key to understanding and evaluating the whole super-macho film, which is now playing at several local theaters. After Chuck Norris, Lee Van Cleef, Tadashi Yamashita and a variety of other killing machines have strutted around the wide screen for a couple of hours, waving Samurai swords, uttering Samurai grunts, breathing heavily, twirling a variety of exotic hand weapons and extracting blood from one another, Bagdasarian (or, rather, Aura, the character she plays) takes care of the whole charade by simply blowing it up.
For those who care about plot or character, her destruction of the film's basic premise is the film's most enjoyable moment. Those who are interested in the martial arts or who enjoy vivid and exotic fight scenes (presumably a large majority in this picture's audiences) may be sorry to see it end, but by that time they will have seen almost every mode of killing that can be imagined, and that may be enough.
Aura is a reformed terrorist, a middle-class American who has drifted into politically oriented violence as a protest against the smugness of her affluent family and friends. At the beginning of "The Octagon," she is a trainee at a secret camp somewhere in Central America that is run by a Japanese bad guy named Selkura. (That's how it's printed in the credits. In the dialogue, it sounds like "Sakura," but perhaps someone connected with the film discovered that that means "cherry" -- hardly the right name for a macho villain). Selkura trains a variety of terrorists and mercenaries, for a price, in the techniques of the Ninja, a secret organization of "world-class killers" who were outlawed in Japan about three centuries ago.
Ninja training was so rigorous, apparently, that recruits had to practice pulling a bowstring for three years before being entrusted with an arrow. Their discipline was so tough that if a member broke the rules, not only the member but his whole family would be wiped out. Modern Ninja may not have the time to teach the full art of the bowstring to most trainees, but they are still death on families (one gets killed in "The Octagon"), and they look like very tough guys. They go around, when circumstances permit, dressed entirely in black, wearing hoods with no opening but two holes for the eyes, and they are creative artists when it comes to murder. Aura soon decides that this is a bit too much for her, steals a truck and beats it to Los Angeles. She's a nice kid, but not really macho, as becomes clear in one scene when she takes off her sweater.
Aura tracks down Scott James (Chuck Norris), who is a super-whiz at martial arts but has retired because he injured a buddy during an exhibition. She warns him that the Ninja have been revived. He knows it: He ran into them during one of their dirty deeds in L.A., he read about one of their assassinations in Paris and he has already been approached by a beautiful, endangered heiress who tried to hire him to wipe out Selkura. But he is not interested. For one thing, Selkura is his "brother"; they studied martial arts together in Japan a while ago, and Scott probably feels a bit guilty -- after all, Selkura went bad mainly because he came in second-best to Scott. He comes in second-best again, when Aura manages to rig a climactic confrontation -- but by then, the whole macho mystique has also come in second-best. While Scott and Selkura are posturing at one another, brandishing their weapons and straining muscle against muscle, Aura comes on the scene with a machine gun and a truckload of explosives, blows up the whole compound. All of a sudden, it is the 20th century again, and hand-to-hand combat looks quaintly ridiculous. In the hands of a basically sensible middle-class woman, technology reminds us that martial arts are obsolete in a world of guns and hand grenades.
Clearly, "The Octagon" is no real threat to "War and Peace" or even "Beau Geste," but it will appeal to those who are still in mourning for Bruce Lee, who like carefully choreographed fight scenes and who enjoy standing in front of a mirror looking at their muscles.