The Delta Force is everything that was great and maddening about Golan-Globus Productions and because of that it’s perhaps The Cannon Group’s defining feature. This 1986 Chuck Norris-led property takes a ripped-from-the-headlines impetus and engorges the facts with a vigorous battery of violent embellishment. It’s big, bold, and brash. The action is phenomenally well-executed, at times, but within a matter of minutes the film can also go from laughably hackneyed to plainly offensive. Essentially, for better or worse, this is the epitome of what writer-director-producer Menahem Golan and producing partner Yoram Globus could do so well.
A botched mission starts The Delta Force off with a bang, as the aborted Operation Eagle Claw leaves members of the United States Delta Force scrambling in the fiery aftermath of a helicopter crash. Here, Maj. Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris) and Col. Nick Alexander (Lee Marvin) enter the picture. The latter is doing just enough to look sufficiently frazzled and durable without actually moving around too much. The former puts his stoic, heroic machismo into more patent action, in this case rescuing a wounded comrade against the better judgement of all involved. The contentious, ultimately disastrous undertaking is enough to send McCoy packing, retiring to his horse ranch until – five years later -Delta Force destiny comes calling and the reluctant protagonist is again involved in a perilous assignment with his former team.
This is where The Delta Force gets dicey. To begin with, the opening sequence was (very) loosely modeled on a failed American military operation to end the Iranian hostage crisis. What happens next similarly derives from a true incident when in the summer of 1985 armed men took over TWA Flight 847 from Athens. The hijacked flight was diverted to Beirut and then went on to Algiers. A series of tense and rather improbable events transpired until an 18-day standoff ended with negotiations, the release of passengers, and the escape of the terrorists. Suffice it to say and much to the chagrin of victims, government officials, and accuracy-minded sticklers, the Golan-Globus team took their fair share of liberties with the story. And they put the film into production less than a year after the actual incident, doing so in typically bombastic fashion. The Delta Force was never intended to be a history lesson though. Was it manipulative? Sure. And by today’s standards is it decidedly un-PC? Absolutely. But in its defense, neither characteristic has ever been sacred territory for filmmakers the world over. And it’s hard to imagine any ill-will or harm was sincerely intended. It was simply a timely topic that lent itself well to the Cannon brand of hyper-active, occasionally gratuitous and begrudgingly satisfying cinema. So, getting past historical precision and contemporary principles the film itself is quite something.
Taking a cargo of passengers and crew hostage, the disciples of the New World Revolutionary Organization are unambiguously “foreign” without being ethnically or regionally detailed. They are stereotyped baddies who were in 1986 par for the course fitting such a narrative like a xenophobic glove. In 2018, they are indelicately representative models of post-Sept. 11 Islamic caricature (lingering shades of that tragedy likewise make the skyjacking all the more alarming). But when it comes to clichéd character types, The Delta Force doesn’t stop there. The passengers check any number of formulaic boxes: Jewish couples who are as quarrelsome as they are jovial, until they in particular are singled out by the terrorists; a German flight attendant who expresses national guilt when she has to corral the Israelis, some of whom are holocaust survivors; gung-ho Navy men, a distraught pregnant woman, and a sweet little girl; a priest, who eventually joins the Jews in solidarity, and even a few nuns. Equally catalogued in rudimentary form are the good guys. While the subordinate squad consists of functional and basically trivial bodies in motion, McCoy is no-nonsense, courageous, and strong. Alexander is war-weary, grizzled, and impatient; both are serious and determined. When the call comes, they are quick to engage with something akin to pitiless glee.
Golan wrote The Delta Force with James Bruner, and he is the writer behind two other essential Cannon features: 1984’s Missing in Action and 1985’s Invasion U.S.A. Bruner had been down a similar thematic path before. His 1977 Israeli thriller Mivtsa Yonatan (Operation Thunderbolt) was about a 1976 Air France flight from Tel-Aviv to Paris that was hijacked and forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda (it was also a film that landed Golan an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film). While the political allegiances and motivations of The Delta Force’s extremist cadre are unclear and generally inconsequential, there is no doubting where Golan settles. Shot entirely in Israel, The Delta Force is emphatically attuned to an operative U.S.-Israel alliance, one that affords far more consideration than what is given the film’s simplistic Arab villainy (at least one adversary, with a soft spot for the doll-toting child, does seem to have mild fluctuation in decorum). Still, while Golan may have steeped The Delta Force in his Tiberias-born roots, the end of the picture feels more like an emphatic ode to American platitudes, what with the jubilant passing around of Budweiser, a group rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and spirited lines like “They’re our guys! They’re Americans! They’re Delta Force!”
Originally set to star alongside Charles Bronson (an enticing what-could-have-been in the Cannon chronicle), Norris was on a roll in 1986 with such quintessential films as Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, Code of Silence, and Invasion U.S.A. All were released within three years. Sadly, however, this was the end of the road for Marvin, for whom The Delta Force would be his final film; the distinguished star passed away the following year, at age 63. As its credits roll out, the cast of The Delta Force is one of the movie’s more surprising features. One can hardly believe a film like this includes the names it does: Robert Vaughn, Hanna Schygulla, Martin Balsam, Shelley Winters, Joey Bishop, George Kennedy, Susan Strasberg, and even an uncredited Liam Neeson. It can’t be said that each of these actors turn in award-winning performances, but they are animated and charming in a way that can’t be equated to Norris or Marvin.
Notwithstanding that uncharacteristic company, The Delta Force is otherwise a catch-all of familiar Cannon personnel. Joseph Zito, director of Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A., was initially considered before Golan stepped in (and he would eventually direct the abysmal 2000 spin-off Delta Force One: The Lost Patrol … starring Chuck’s son, Mike Norris). The cinematographer was David Gurfinkel (Enter the Ninja, 1981; Over the Top, 1987). It’s the dynamic work of editing mainstay Alain Jakubowicz that appears most vital though. During nearly a full hour dedicated to the terrorists and their scheme, the goings-on of McCoy and his crew are kept on the periphery with surprisingly few exceptions. But when the drama shifts to a Beirut outpost where the radicals have hidden away with several hostages, the glory of Golan and Globus is on full display as is the editorial dexterity of Jakubowicz. Jakubowicz served the same role on quirky Cannon classics like The Apple (1980) and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986)
Released Feb. 14, 1986, and grossing more than $17 million on a budget of less than $10 million, The Delta Force yielded two immediate – far inferior – sequels: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990), still starring Norris and directed by brother Aaron Norris and the direct-to-video Delta Force 3: The Killing Game (1991). Those lackluster successors are hardly the most controversial aspect of the film. Writing for the website War is Boring, Matthew Gault puts the customary objection thusly: “Shame on anyone who actually likes this exploitative piece of escapist crap,” adding it is “pornographic, exploitative revenge fantasy.” To this I would say I feel no shame, but I also can’t argue that the film is escapist, pornographic, exploitative, and is, among other things, a revenge fantasy. And yet none of that takes away from its visceral if unsophisticated enjoyment.
The Delta Force shows Menahem Golan at his very best. With an instinctive knack for action cinema, he expertly stages an airport runway confrontation and revels in such gaudy single images as an armed landing on the beach by dawn’s early light and a shot of Norris on his bike, in silhouette against the rising sun. It’s silly, of course, but it’s fun and effective. Golan is as successful at generating the intense, compact possibility of combustible violence on the pressure cooker aircraft as he is at deploying an army of amped-up extras scattered about the fruitful location shoot with an assortment of artillery. The film’s full-throttle final 45 minutes includes a fantastic chase sequence accentuating heedless speed and ample destruction. Norris is a one-man militia who wisecracks, “Sleep tight, sucker,” as he shoots a man hiding under a bed. Golan cues the music—a rousing score by Alan Silvestri—and all hell breaks loose.
Golan and Globus were born to make a movie like The Delta Force. There is a clear understanding and appreciation of the genre. It is evinced in a multilayered set piece in and around the terrorist hideaway, an explosive nighttime raid, a veneration of black-clad men gesturing and progressing in unison like a well-oiled machine (“Just like the old days” cheers one soldier), and in the most hilarious rocket-launching motorcycle in film history (if there is such a ranking). The Delta Force is undeniably inappropriate in many ways, and its devotion to crass militarism is at times overwhelming. However, it’s difficult to deny its stirring, triumphant tone and the hokey effectiveness of its final scene, as a somber chord is struck and survivors reunite with friends and family while the Delta Force squad modestly steps away. It’s all in a day’s work for this unheralded unit. But for Golan and Globus, The Delta Force is of a quality rarely surpassed in the annals of their collaborative Cannon enterprise.