Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hero and the Terror (1988)

Three years ago, cop Danny O’Brien (Chuck Norris) got his ass kicked by frightening – and decidedly uncultured, you Hannibal fans will be disappointed to hear – serial killer Simon Moon (Jack O’Halloran). Moon more or less knocked himself out while pursuing the fleeing Danny. Danny, despite being honest about what happened, earned himself the un-ironic – and hated by him – nickname of “Hero” for it nonetheless, as well as a nice case of PTSD.

Danny certainly managed to live up to the hero moniker afterwards, though. Now, his pregnant girlfriend, his former therapist Kay (Brynn Thayer), is moving in with him, so things are definitely looking up for him. Curiously, though, his nightmares about Moon are returning. This will turn out to be prophetic when the killer manages to break out of psychiatric care and continues right where he began.

This, one among a handful of films in the Cannon canon that tries to have one of the studio’s action heroes work through a horror film plot, is certainly one of the more interesting outings of Chuck Norris. One of the film’s more remarkable aspects is that it is about what its title promises metaphorically as well as literally; it is a film about a Chuck Norris style male macho hero fighting his fears, in a genre where most protagonists aren’t even allowed to admit they have such a thing as emotions. And it doesn’t seem only to be the fear of getting one’s ass kicked by the mute animalistic serial killer Norris is fighting here – having Norris playing a character suffering under a form of post-traumatic stress after his first encounter with the big bad, is certainly a thing to behold  – but also a doubt of being a good enough person to be allowed to have the peaceful, traditional family life he clearly craves.

In a curious twist, it’s not Norris’s Danny O’Brien who is suffering from an actual fear of commitment here but rather his pregnant girlfriend Kay. Danny’s doubts are not about not wanting to commit, but rather about perhaps not deserving to commit. Now, there seems to be a simple macho logic at work here where Danny once lost his fight against his greatest enemy and is therefor not deserving of claiming his female prize until after reclaiming his manly accolades in a rematch, but this reading is complicated by several facts. Firstly, there’s the simple fact that Kay’s never played by the film as an object, and it is indeed one of its surprising pleasures that the many scenes between her and Danny are played for warmth and hint at the complicated feelings between two people who know and love one another well, suggesting the film knows that kicking serial killer ass or not does not a man make. The film, in another choice that pleasantly surprised me, also never uses the old cliché of Moon threatening Kay as part of the plot; there’s Danny fearing this, but it’s not actually happening, suggesting that this one enemy and event that defines Danny in his own eyes might not be quite as objectively central to his life as he assumes. Nor he to the life of his arch enemy, for that matter.

It is, however, certainly central to his self definition. It seems to have been Danny actually losing against and fleeing Moon, and getting dubbed “hero” nonetheless when his enemy simply goes down in an accident that’s pushed O’Brien to become an actual hero, the fear he now fights what pushed him into becoming a better person. One also shouldn’t forget that Kay was his therapist when his PTSD was at its worst (obviously one of somewhat dubious ethics), so meeting the woman he wants to marry is also a product of his losing this fight. I really can’t help looking at all of this and thinking that Hero and the Terror doesn’t buy into a part of the (often intensely entertaining, don’t get me wrong) macho bullshit that is part and parcel of its genre at all, and really rather suggests that being Chuck Norris, decent human being, is a much greater achievement than being Chuck Norris, ass-kicking machine.

Speaking of Norris, as a great detractor of the man’s acting abilities and particularly his line delivery, I am rather dumbfounded by his performance here. Dialogue flows from his mouth as if he were an actual human being that talks to other human beings on a regular basis. Even better, he actually gives a good show of himself on the important job of portraying Danny’s more fragile side. Following what Norris does here, I can actually imagine a parallel world where he became a decent actor specializing in the more complicated macho characters instead of the walking, talking cartoon he actually ended up as.

As a Cannon action movie, this is a rather slow one, as befits its more thoughtful approach to the action genre, apparently finding it at least just as important to spend time on Danny’s inner life and his relationship to Kay than on the all out shooting, shouting and explosions fest you’d expect coming in. That doesn’t mean William Tannen’s film is boring, mind you – for one, the quiet scenes are actually effective and involving, and secondly, the film does generally put in a bit of action or another slasher-style murder by Moon when things threaten to slow down too much. Generally, the action and horror scenes are staged efficiently and competently, with a couple of scenes concerning Moon and his hide-out even becoming atmospheric and tight.

Plus, there is always at least a bit of Cannon insanity coming through, my particular favourite in this regard being the death of Steve James’s character. It takes place in the empty Wiltern cinema, while James, nominally on guard duty, starts off his work out routine by jogging through the empty seats of the place to the heady beats of Mozart, until he is fatefully interrupted by Moon. It’s an absolutely absurd scene, obviously, yet it’s also imaginative and really rather beautiful.

The film makes fantastic use of its Los Angeles locations in more than just this one scene. The Wiltern clearly is the star of this aspect of the film – whoever had the idea to shoot there and enable the very mild echoes of Phantom of the Opera that come with its use here deserves much praise – but there’s quite a bit of personality to many of the film’s other locations too, providing the film with a sense of place not terribly typical of Cannon’s action output.

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