Updated: Nov 15
For some, it may be difficult to remember a time when Chuck Norris wasn’t an established action-movie star. Although Norris’ legendary appearance in Bruce Lee’s film, The Way of the Dragon(1972) brought him to the attention of film audiences, a trio of action-martial art movies made in the late 1970s, consolidated Chuck Norris’ reputation to deliver top-notch entertainment, making him a bonafide movie star, as well as bringing martial arts films into the mainstream.
By using successful film tropes of the era, such as the trucker movie, Breaker! Breaker!, conspiracy/spy films, Good Guys Wear Black, and the battle against the drug culture, A Force of One, Norris was able to make films that were more relatable than traditional martial art movies had been up to that time. There were no kung fu school rivalries or masters to be avenged. Norris injected his distinctive martial arts skills into what were usually standard pugilistic fight scenes and set himself apart. Here are the classic 70s films that brought an icon to prominence and every fan should see.
Breaker! Breaker! (1977) It may not be a well-known genre now, but in the 1970s, movies about truckers were very successful. Smokey and the Bandit was one of the top-grossing movies in 1977 and Convoy, based on C.W. McCall’s chart-topping hit of the same name, was a success the following year. Breaker! Breaker! is a different movie from TheWay of the Dragon, and it put Chuck Norris in a setting that American audiences could identify with (He’s looking for his missing brother in a corrupt town, ala The Dukes of Hazzard, which would debut a few years later) and highlight the one major difference that Norris could supply: Chuck Norris kicking ass.
Norris’ moves are crisp and they’re head and shoulders above the standard haymakers thrown in typical Hollywood movies at that time. With no special effects to hide mistakes, or wire work to enhance his movement, it is a testimonial to Chuck Norris’ ability that he sells the fights because he is a highly skilled martial artist. Overall, the fights are shot wide and there are no quick cuts. Today’s audiences may not be used to the look, but martial arts aficionados should be able to appreciate the work on the screen. The finale has slow-motion action, ala Sam Peckinpah and it should be noted that the final kick is the same flying kick used to sell his next movie: Good Guys Wear Black.
Good Guys Wear Black (1978) The first Chuck Norris movie I ever saw was Good Guys Wear Black. I had never heard of Chuck Norris and didn’t see TheWay of the Dragon until many years later. I remember coming home from school and seeing the TV ads, which featured a guy jumping and kicking through a car windshield. I had to see it. The film wasn’t just my first Chuck Norris movie, but the first movie I had seen with legitimate martial arts, and it made an impression.
At the time, America was still reeling from the Vietnam War and Watergate, and there was a general distrust amongst the citizenry of what had previously been unquestioned institutions. The unrest had given birth to a crop of films hinging on elaborate conspiracies, such as The Parallax View(1974) and The Marathon Man(1978). In Good Guys Wear Black, Norris plays, John T. Booker, once a member of an elite commando group called the “Black Tigers.” They were double-crossed on a rescue mission to retrieve POWs, and now someone is bumping them off, and Norris is next.
There is a big opening sequence that includes Norris dispensing kicks amid explosions and a firefight. Although the flying kick through the windshield was the selling point for the movie, the fight in the parking lot, later on, is where Chuck Norris shows his martial prowess against three opponents, one of whom is Pat E.Johnson, legendary stunt coordinator and martial arts choreographer on The Karate Kid.
Good Guys Wear Black provides the opportunity for Norris to do what his action star competition can’t, and that is to use incredibly quick punches, spinning back knuckles, and precise kicking where the standard, overly telegraphed, hook punches used to go. Because of it, and Norris’ cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor, he carved out a unique position in the genre and established himself as the one to watch.
A Force of One (1979) In A Force of One, Chuck Norris plays Matt Logan, a Vietnam veteran, as he did in Good Guys Wear Black, although now he’s fighting professionally and running his own karate school. The film features Bill “Superfoot” Wallace as Logan’s nemesis, “Sparky.” A killer is using martial arts to take out cops investigating drug trafficking, so the police decide to add some martial arts to their training while working the case. Norris’ Logan is enlisted to train the narcotics unit investigating the murders, which provides a chance to see Norris teach self-defense to the officers.
As Logan is a fighter, there is more action inside the ring than out of it. The kickboxing bouts are shot in a realistic style that is exciting and effective in getting the point across that Chuck Norris is for real. The fight footage shows Norris’ signature moves of kicking, punching, and throwing. Similarly, Bill Wallace’s character “Sparky” gets a chance to show his distinct style in the ring, and viewers get a taste of 70s kickboxing action. Pat E. Johnson, who wrote the story, makes an appearance as a referee of the first fight in the movie.
Norris showcases a variety of techniques in the ring, including spinning back knuckles and reverse crescent kicks to great effect in the match between Norris and Wallace. The match eventually spills out into the street and turns into a fight to the death.
A Force of One is my favorite of the three films and rounds out the Chuck Norris movies of the 70s. By making action films with great martial arts, rather than martial arts movies, Norris’ films enabled the viewer to enjoy them without understanding the esoteric nuances of the master-student relationship or other inside references. It broadened the scope of martial art films and made them accessible to a larger audience. For instance, my father had no interest in The Drunken Master (1978), but he took me to see Good Guys Wear Black because he wanted to see it too.
The work Norris put into the 1970s positioned him for the next decade and his next film: The Octagon. We’ll take a look at Norris’ work in the 80s next time. Until then, break out the bell bottoms and turtle necks, and have a screening of these action classics from the legend, and martial arts film icon: Chuck Norris.