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The Cannon Canon: ‘Invasion U.S.A.’ (1985)

Reuniting the central creative team behind one of The Cannon Group’s best and most successful films, 1984’s Missing in Action, Invasion U.S.A., released the following year, is one of the more brazenly sensational and thoroughly entertaining features to emerge from the company’s action-packed summit. Directed by Joseph Zito, who had also in 1984 helmed Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, it includes cinematography by the prolific João Fernandes and a screenplay by James Bruner, written with star Chuck Norris and based on a story by Bruner and Norris younger brother, Aaron. For all its behind-the-scenes firepower, though, certainly a dream team as far as Cannon was concerned, the fundamental focal point of Invasion U.S.A. pivots on the conspicuous on-screen presence of Norris, who was then hitting his stride for what would be his most fruitful period of theatrical prominence.

As Invasion U.S.A. begins, Norris’ ex-CIA operative Matt Hunter is living a contentedly isolated life, down and dirty in the Florida swamplands. When a former agency associate pays him a visit and seeks his assistance, Hunter’s resistance follows along standard 1980s action platitudes. His taciturn response of “I’m not interested,” stated before he even hears the request, is followed by the ambiguous, yet sufficiently pragmatic rebuttal, “The company really needs you.” That, in turn, leads to an eventual agreement amended by the customary caveat, from the man who had in 1983’s Lone Wolf McQuade embodied the very sentiment: “I work alone.” As if there were ever any doubt to begin with, Hunter’s experience and proficiency is established early and without question, based, if nothing else, on the very nature of Invasion U.S.A.’s genre comportment. The picture positions Norris’ denim-clad protagonist as an assured, resilient, and unstoppable force, Uzis holstered over each shoulder, one-liners at the ready, and hell-bent on a form of prodigious justice fortified by personal animosity and thematic patriotism. Toward the end of the film, when terrorists drop a suitcase bomb outside a church full of praying parishioners, it isn’t a benevolent God who miraculously steps in to save the innocent. It’s two-gun-toting Chuck Norris, and that inflated evocation conveys the essence of Invasion U.S.A.’s delightfully implausible bravado.

What gets Hunter to extricate himself from his Everglades hideaway, in a decidedly roundabout manner, is the reemergence of archenemy Mikhail Rostov (Richard Lynch), a sneering radical first seen leading a boatload slaughter of Florida-bound Cuban refugees, subsequently stealing a cocaine cache hidden below deck (something the hapless immigrants may or may not have been aware of). Rostov’s goal is to guide a multinational conglomeration of extremists as they invade America by way of the southern coast, storming the beaches like Normandy, a convoy of trucks and vans lying in wait, and moving steadily inland to strike at the heart of the nation’s cultural constitution. First, however, after catching wind of Hunter’s conveniently nearby habitation, Rostov and company coordinate an airboat assault on Hunter’s ramshackle abode. An explosive bombardment ensues, after which a satisfied Rostov curiously passes on the chance to confirm Hunter’s demise; it’s a lackadaisical decision proven fatal, as Hunter’s reticence is now thoroughly abandoned.

As its title suggests, the terrorist infiltration is the primary subject of Invasion U.S.A., the narrative catalyst and the source for much of the film’s outlandish combat, but this bad blood between Hunter and Rostov is the underlying motivation for the more personal repercussions of the plot. Although there may be vagaries concerning the ultimate aim of Rostov’s cadre, as well as their nationalistic impetus, little exposition is needed to cement this rivalrous rancor, save for a nightmare-flashback and some acrimonious discourse. The past enmity effectively works to provide instant dual incentive and to delineate the oppositional ideologies into representative characterizations: simply put, one is American, one isn’t. That said, these characterizations are predictably conventional. From start to finish, Rostov’s capacity for malicious villainy is obvious and routinely ratified, whereas Hunter’s aptitude is initially implied: by Rostov’s fevered dreams, by such ominous statements as, “He’s one man alone. What can he do?” and by the reaction on Rostov’s face when Hunter’s potential is insipidly questioned, exposing a fear that only serves to amplify and solidify the believability of Hunter’s potency once it is finally enacted.

Other characters hover around these two adversaries, extraneous, painfully paint-by-number police officers, for example, and the angular Billy Drago, who briefly, if memorably, appears as a sleazy drug kingpin. But most notably there is Melissa Prophet’s intrepid reporter, McGuire, notable because she exists, not because her character has any value other than showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time and occasionally giving Hunter some gruff; “Thanks a lot, cowboy” becomes a recurring refrain when he dismisses her well-being (“I better leave before you get mad,” he sarcastically retorts in one of the film’s more comical exchanges). On the action front, though, Norris and Invasion U.S.A. deliver all that is expected, and then some, with voluble explosions, a cascade of breakaway glass, and a heavy artillery production design that looks to be lifted from an Army surplus store. Capitalizing on coincidental nearby construction, Zito and Cannon honchos Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan were able to wreck a shopping mall (scheduled for renovation anyway) and obliterate an entire neighborhood (set to be demolished for an airport runway extension), and these two sequences are absolutely extraordinary for their chaotic choreography of violent ingenuity and for the wild authenticity of their annihilation.

Filmed around Atlanta and in several Florida-based locales, the setting of Invasion U.S.A., whether it was intentional or not, is more than just a mere backdrop for destruction. Aside from having the logistical applicability of easily accessible beaches, unsecured and painlessly breached, the milieu is one of combined decadence—sex on the beach, drug havens, prostitution—and Rockwellesque portraits of American innocence—kids tossing footballs on small town streets, bustling stores at Christmastime, school busses packed with singing children. Part of the Invasion U.S.A. thesis, and to its credit it actually has one (however much it unabashedly deploys remnants of Cold War paranoia and Regan-era aggression), is that these targets are “soft,” just as Rostov declares, and that the complacent population doesn’t “understand the nature of their own freedom.” Alongside the casual damage, Rostov’s anarchist goal is to sow discord amongst the people, manipulating and exploiting ethnic, economic, and authoritarian divides, a practical ambition that still seems frightfully possible. The film likewise depicts immigrant abuse and discarded, displaced minorities—even indigenous ones—and it exposes the conflicting underbelly of American society, with dodgy dens of inequity, gangsters, and drug dealers. Recalling in many ways John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), or any number of space-invading thrillers from the 1950s (like the one Hunter actually watches in the film), Invasion U.S.A. is something of a cautionary tale, warning a vulnerable nation to embrace its liberties and preserve its hallowed institutions. Yet, and this is in quintessential American fashion, this traditional, nostalgic tone strikes a peculiar balance with the severity of someone like Hunter, who embodies a nation defined by rampant mano-a-mano machismo and excessive military might.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Invasion U.S.A.—and assuming one can excuse its problematic political undertones—the lapses in plausibility, the cardboard characters, and the cliched dialogue do little to hinder the enjoyment of what is basically a well-executed film. Zito and Fernandes generate a technically nimble series of events, moving along at an expedient pace thanks to editors Daniel Loewenthal and Scott Vickrey. But in the end, Invasion U.S.A. rides on the impeccably bearded coattails of Chuck Norris. Less muscle-bound titan than prominent ‘80s counterparts Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Norris’ enduring popularity is his unpretentious appearance and stoic demeanor. Even when playing a cynical hard-ass, as he often did, or a mischievous scoundrel, as in Firewalker (1986), impulsive emotions are usually held in check; he boasts inspiring confidence and unwavering decency. Though he rarely speaks more than necessary in Invasion U.S.A., he finds ample time to utter a menacing catchphrase, aimed to taunt Rostov—“Time to die”—and like the Schwarzenegger-Stallone variety, he lends his characters, especially at this point in his career, a degree of physical credibility, seen in his martial arts aptitude, his stunt work, his handling of weaponry, and his vehicular maneuvering.

Invasion U.S.A. is effortlessly amusing, diverting and with a surprisingly relevant, albeit simplistic, commentary, and it did fairly well for the Golan-Globus empire during the time of their greatest accomplishments. Still, Norris passed on a proposed sequel, and while that subsequent follow-up instead became a passable standalone feature, 1986’s Avenging Force, starring Cannon regular Michael Dudikoff (who kept the character name Matt Hunter), it lacked the same ambitious action and the same topical conviction. But most of all, let’s face it, it lacked Chuck Norris.

About Jeremy Carr

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, and Fandor.

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