The 1980s was a time of huge social and political change in America. It was a era during which peak optimism collided with peak disillusionment; even as the gleeful antiauthoritarianism of punk went mainstream, a kind of 1950s nostalgia blanketed the country with a rosy glow and manufactured memories of a simpler time. Ronald Reagan’s conservative vision painted America as the undisputed superpower before which its enemies, foreign and domestic, bowed before its awesome global might. Although Reagan was (in half of the nation) a popular president, trust in government was at an all-time low; the fiasco of Watergate, a shaky 1970s economy, and echoes of the failed Vietnam War still haunted the country like a bad case of PTSD.
Into this cultural confusion appeared the ‘80s action hero, a mythical figure who slaughtered his way out of every situation with oiled muscles and chugging guns, a cigar-chomping hybrid of super soldier and NRA poster-boy. ‘80s Action Man offered simple solutions for a difficult world: Kick asses first, torch the bodies later (with a nonchalant toss of an ignited Zippo into a fresh pool of hastily-splattered gasoline). Actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme took career-defining roles in films like First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Bloodsport (1988), in which they played characters haloed by gore-spatter and the heat-blossom of explosions as they scattered corpses around them like piles of cordwood.
Into the very center of this maelstrom strode Chuck Norris. He was an idealized fusion of kung-fu master, special ops ninja, and hard-bitten cowboy. His rectangular head was topped with a mullet that crowned his granite brow like the frosting on a terrifying birthday cake made of rusty nails, spin-kicks, and purest bad-assery. His squint-eyed scowl could freeze lava, and his legendary mustache generated a field of raw testosterone that left spontaneous pregnancies in its wake.
Norris wasn’t an actor; he was a former soldier, and like Van Damme was also an expert martial artist. Emboldened by a string of title victories in karate and taekwondo, he segued into action films. Early in his Hollywood career he notably appeared as Bruce Lee’s nemesis in Return of the Dragon (1972).
Norris played characters that perfectly encapsulated the American Libertarian spirit, hybrids that were equal parts self-determined pioneer and lone wolf vigilante. His stone-cold characters promised appealing foreign-policy solutions that favored bullets over talking, and his enemies were often foreign caricatures capable of extreme cruelty, and who brandished sinister accents like pointy weapons. His personal Christian beliefs enhanced his American-ness in the eyes of fans, and even gave his brand a religious sheen.
The most fruitful and iconic period of his career was the 1980s, in which he appeared in thirteen films. Of these titles, seven were produced by legendary low-budget film producers The Cannon Group, Inc., which was taken over in 1979 by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Norris was the perfect star to drive the standard Golan-Globus exploitation vehicle. These films overflowed with action, explosions, guns, and guts. Cannon surfed the wave of American triumphalism as far as they could take it, and in the process created a cartoonish and distinctly American subgenre of action
movies that defined the decade and made Norris into a pop culture icon. His wooden acting was often mocked, but Norris laughed all the way to the bank as his legend and reputation grew. Cannon was the perfect environment for Norris to grow his career, as their films emphasized action over realism, and the films’ low cost actually enhanced their grittiness.
The Golan-Globus years ended in the late ‘80s, and Cannon itself shut down in 1994 after a series of financial shenanigans under new ownership. But in 2014 a new production company, Cannon Films Ltd., resurrected the brand with the stated mission of producing new original content in the Golan-Globus vein.
I hear Chuck Norris is available.