The Delta Force

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In real life, the Delta Force is an elite squad of Army personnel who handle terrorist threats and other complex matters of national security. In the movie “The Delta Force,” it’s where Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin shoot a lot of people in order to save Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, and George Kennedy. It might seem excessive to kill literally dozens of bad and semi-bad guys just to save those three, but think how awful it would have been if Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, and George Kennedy had died. Your grandparents would have been devastated!

“The Delta Force” is a cavalcade of old, craggy-faced, vaguely recognizable actors, all of them eager to take whatever roles they could get now that it was the ’80s (and, in some cases, their 80s). Why, look! It’s Robert Vaughn! And is that Shelley Winters? And Lainie Kazan? I think I know who that Arab terrorist is, too — it’s white American Robert Forster! That’s the best bit of casting since Charlton Heston played a Mexican in “Touch of Evil.”

This film, which helped cement Chuck Norris’ fame as a personality-free action hero (those were big in the ’80s), was based on an actual event. In June 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked en route to Rome from Athens by Lebanese terrorists. One passenger was killed, and dozens of others were held captive for several days. “The Delta Force” uses this as fodder for crass, poorly made entertainment in its first hour before going wildly off the tracks in its second, when it brings in Norris and Marvin to save the day. Imagine a movie about September 11 where in the second half Al-Qaeda is hunted down by Spider-Man. That’s more or less what we’re talking about here.

We begin, for no reason, in 1980, with a helicopter exploding and Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris) rushing into the wreckage to save his buddy. The rest of Delta Force has given the guy up for dead, but not McCoy! His fellow soldier’s leg is stuck under something very heavy that McCoy cannot lift no matter how hard he tries. So he stops trying to lift it and instead just, um, drags the guy out. No explanation is given for how he is able to do this. I expected the man’s severed leg to be left behind, but no, it was intact.

Quickly I ascertained that fans of gravity, physics, and the other laws of nature should lay aside their beliefs before watching “The Delta Force.” Later in the film, McCoy rides around on a motorcycle that can shoot rockets out of its back end, and it doesn’t even really matter if they’re pointed in the right direction. Apparently all McCoy has to do is think about what he wants blown up and the rockets do the rest. The rockets reload themselves, too, perhaps through the controversial principle of spontaneous generation, which many modern scientists scoff at but which must have some truth to it, otherwise how would the rockets reload themselves? Huh? HUH??

Anyway, after it’s 1980 for a couple minutes, it’s 1985. The only reason it was ever 1980 at all was to assure us that this was a Chuck Norris film, since otherwise he doesn’t appear for quite a while. In 1985, we are introduced to two middle-aged Jewish couples at the airport in Athens, waiting to fly home to New York. Joey Bishop and Lainie Kazan are one couple; Martin Balsam and Shelley Winters are the other. They talk excitedly about the fact that they’re all Jewish, and they say things like “Mazel tov!” to remind us that they’re Jewish. It’s VERY IMPORTANT that you know they’re Jews. Why? Because once they’re on the plane, it’s going to be hijacked by two Muslim terrorists who HATE JEWS!!!!!!!!!

Ah, the 1980s. Remember when it was fun to make movies about hijacked planes and Muslim terrorists? It all seemed so innocent back then. It’s amusing to see how easily the bad guys get their weapons onboard, and how easy the whole hijacking process is. It makes you think: If airport security was really this lax in the ’80s, why weren’t more planes hijacked? These guys make it look like you could do it just for fun, on a lark, like toilet-papering someone’s house. Today you’d have to put a lot more effort into it, maybe sneak a gun past security by distracting them with something dangerous like a bottle of water — but then your hostages on the plane would probably beat you to death anyway. Airline customers have developed a very low tolerance for in-flight shenanigans in recent years.

In the movie, the terrorists take over the plane and announce who their enemies are: “American imperialists, Zionists, terrorists, and all other anti-socialist atrocities.” (Whoops! Did you slip up and name yourself in that list? How embarrassing!) What they don’t announce, however, are their demands. We know they want to fly to Beirut, where the Lebanese Minister of Defense first insists he won’t let them land and then immediately changes his mind (because apparently the Lebanese Minister of Defense is kind of a wimp). Why they want to go to Beirut, and what they want in exchange for releasing the hostages, they never say. I don’t know a lot about terrorism procedures, but I do think it’s unwise to take a plane full of hostages if your only intention is to hang out with them for a while. There are much easier ways of staving off loneliness than that.

But back to the Jews. It occurs to the terrorists that there might be some Jews on the plane, so they confiscate everyone’s passports and force a stewardess named Ingrid to peruse them for Jewish-sounding names. The stewardess, hilariously, is German. She asserts her nationality as grounds for being excused from the task, since surely the Muslim terrorists do not want to be associated with Nazism. The terrorists are unmoved. Ingrid’s List is formed. Jews with names like Kaplan and Rabinowitz and Steinenstein are herded together, while the Jews with names like Smith and Jones breathe a sigh of relief.

Anti-Semitism played a part in the real-life hijacking that “Delta Force” is making a mockery of, but probably not as great a part as the filmmakers would have us believe. The director and co-writer is Menahem Golan, an Israeli Jew who, with his cousin Yoram Globus, produced an impressive number of bad movies throughout the 1980s. The Golan-Globus team was responsible for previous “Eric’s Bad Movies” entries “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” as well as “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” “Cobra,” and “Masters of the Universe,” to name only a few. Like Roger Corman before them and Uwe Boll after them, they made movies fast and cheap, apparently not caring whether they were any good or not. “Delta Force” is typically shoddy, but it represents something of a passion project for them. They shot the whole thing in Israel and used mostly local crew members. They also infused the film with awkward, self-important condemnations of anti-Semitism, eager to portray the strength of their people the only way they knew how: badly.

Oh yeah! And then finally Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin show up and chase the terrorists and their buddies all over Beirut. I live in a modern era, a time when the government only needs to send one man — namely, Jack Bauer — to fight terrorist cells, so it’s rather quaint to see the entire Delta Force involved. But as it turns out, Lee Marvin mostly just stands around, occupying his time by being very old and having vast, unkempt eyebrows, and the other Delta Force operatives don’t even have names. They just help Chuck Norris as he drives around vaguely aiming rockets in the general vicinity of his targets. When Norris finds a terrorist hiding under a bed, pulls off the mattress, shoots him multiple times, then says, “Sleep tight, sucker” — well, there’s no one else there to hear his bon mot. Being on the Delta Force can be very lonely.

— Film.com