Written by James Bruner and Menahem Golan
Directed by Menahem Golan
Based on the real life plane hijacking by Hezbollah terrorists in 1985, just a year before the film’s release, The Delta Force follows a curious path to complete its narrative. Beginning some miles away from the Iranian capital of Iran, the U.S. special forces platoon Delta Force sees its operation to rescue hostages thwarted by poor planning in Washington. Disgusted by the bureaucracy’s incompetent meddling in their affairs, Major Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris) resigns under Colonel Nick Alexander (Lee Marvin). He is very soon encouraged to return to action however, as Lebanese terrorists, led by Abdul Rafai (Robert Forster!) have taken over an American flight heading from Cairo to New York with a stop in Athens along the way. The Delta Force must concoct a way to neutralize the fanatical villains and save as many hostages (one of them played by the great Shelley Winters) as they can.
There are two ways by which one can watch and analyze director Menahem Golan’s The Delta Force. Both are worthy insofar as they put the film into context and help to explain what it does and how it tries to accomplish its aspirations. In neither instance however does the film get away scott free from, at times, head scratching decisions, other times ones that will easily make some viewers even feel rather dirty, and finally decisions that are just plain laughable, albeit in an enjoyable way. On the one hand, here is a Hollywood picture helmed by an Israeli director depicting the shocking, revolting events that were surely still very fresh their minds at the time of filming. No terrorist operation, regardless of who the perpetrators are, is anything anyone should forgive. Violence begets violence in unfortunately endless waves of bloodshed. The fact that some of the Jewish hostages (and therefore some of the characters in the film) were sequestered simply for their faith and no other reason makes it arguably worse. Then again, the film’s depiction of the Lebanese terrorists is, at times, downright embarrassing, embracing clichés that more astute audiences of today, a mere 30 years later, would certainly find cringe worthy.
On the other hand, The Delta Force works as an elongated procedural, telling its tale from the very moment the hijackers infiltrate the flight to the immediate aftermath once the surviving passengers are flying safely back to the United States. The two-hour run time therefore serves its purpose for the filmmakers to explore all the nooks and crannies of how an event of this magnitude occurs from the side of the antagonist, the victims and, of course, the armed force tasked with putting a swift end to the takeover. In that regard, Golan’s picture is actually rather solid, taking its time in building up the story from all possible angles. Again, the jibes taken at Washington’s desire to try negotiation tactics before employing brute force bluntly reveal where some of the film’s politics lie, but if viewers can set aside political stances (sadly, this is easier said than done for too many people), the movie does have a lot going for it.
The major caveat needed to be considered for those in search of a good actioner is that said action erupts rather late in the picture, with gunplay and explosions mostly absent for the better part of an hour. Golan uses the first half as set-up, but rather than bore audiences to death, his peppers the scenes with decent character moments, tension-filled interactions between the terrorists and the hostages and even dares, albeit briefly, to humanize one of the latter. For all intents and purpose, one can be forgiven if, half an hour into the movie, the viewer forgets they are watching a Chuck Norris vehicle.
It isn’t well into the second half however when things go completely bonkers in a series of action set pieces worthy of 1980s B-movie cheese. Some of the ways in which the Delta Force, and more importantly Norris himself, dispatches the ill-equipped Lebanese ‘freedom fighters’ are absolutely hilarious. When Chuck Norris begins firing rockets from his motorcycle, not only forwards but backwards as well (with a perfect aim every single time, naturally), the viewer quickly realizes that the film’s intentions have changed radically. It’s a descent into utter action-movie madness with no escape until the every one of the villains is killed mercilessly via explosions, lethal gun wounds or knives to the head. Only in the final moments does director Golan return to a sense of realism, as when the passengers rejoice their freedom by singing America’s praises, Major Scott McCoy laments the loss of one of his own, ending the picture on a bittersweet moment.
The Delta Force is a strange beast of a film. Part procedural, part no holds barred action flick, part example of supreme American might, part thriller that taps into the fears of internationally-scaled terrorism emerging from the Middle East, the movie never comes together as nicely as one would hope, primarily because its many ingredients are grossly incompatible. Despite its flaws, some of which are quite flagrant, its scope makes it worthy of checking out.