Written by Matt Bowes
It’s almost like a Zen koan. If a movie studio makes a sequel to a past hit, but casts a different actor in the starring role and doesn’t actually tell anyone that the two films are connected, is it still a sequel?
History is filled with scripts to sequels that never got made and were retrofitted to become original projects (for example, this year should finally see the release of the long-delayed Solace, a film whose script development began as Ei8ht, a sequel to Se7en that David Fincher ultimately rejected), as well as franchises that continued after their original stars bailed, but Avenging Force is the rare example of a film that was developed and made as a sequel, but then marketed and released without any mention of its connection to the previous film.
This seems especially odd when you consider the film was produced by Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Studios fame—as unabashedly sequel-happy a studio that has ever existed (to the point of being responsible for the most famous sequel title of all-time, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). As the dudes responsible for not one, but four American Ninja movies, six Lemon Popsicle films, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Rambo III, it seems bizarre that they would choose to play down the fact that Avenging Force featured the return of a popular action movie character. In fact, it’s so bizarre that there’s only one reasonable way to explain it.
They were afraid of Chuck Norris.
Because the original film in question was Norris’ Invasion U.S.A. and his refusal to take part in Avenging Force is easily explained once you’ve seen how spectacularly the politics of the two films diverge. According to IMDb, Norris turned down the role only because he was busy making The Delta Force and Firewalker for Golan & Globus that same year, but the fact is that the production of Avenging Force could have been easily delayed if that was the only issue. No, it went ahead without him because there was no way he would have ever appeared in a film in which he had far more in common with the villains than the hero.
Invasion U.S.A.was the first film for which Norris took a writing credit and it clearly shows. In it, he plays a former CIA operative named Matt Hunter, who—after a life of deadly action and danger—is now content to live a quiet life in the Louisiana bayou. But his tranquil existence is upended when a group of multi-ethnic communists engage in what is not so much the invasion suggested in the title, but instead a series of random acts of terrorism (including the off-screen bombing of an amusement park carousel filled with children).
Spurred back into action by his sense of outrage and duty, he then proceeds to become a one-man killing machine, mowing down the terrorists like they’re so much tissue paper—to the point that he makes it through the final gauntlet of them without so much as a cut on his cheek or a hair out of place.
It’s a quintessentially ‘80s Cold War action film—devoid of irony or nuance. In fact, the most entertaining part of watching it today comes from laughing at its complete sincerity. It’s a film co-written and starring a man who proudly voted for Ronald Reagan and who would only grow to become more publicly conservative as the years went on—“penning” (with liberal dashes of plagiarism) a syndicated column dedicated to his right-wing politics, along with a book entitled Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America, while also appearing in political ads for Republican presidential wannabe, Mike Huckabee.
It was as if Booth had taken Norris’ original concept and turned it into a photonegative of itself—turning the former film’s commie-panic into a liberal call to action against right-wing hegemony.
We can only imagine then how he reacted when he read screenwriter James Booth’s (a British character actor who would also go on to write the second American Ninja movie) script for the film’s sequel. In continuing the adventures of Matt Hunter, Booth did what a lot of screenwriters do—he looked at what happened in the first film and devised a scenario that reversed it. If in Invasion U.S.A. the villains were psychotic left-wing commie terrorists looking to cause chaos through fear and violence, then in Avenging Force they would be psychotic right-wing members of a secret society hell-bent on using their wealth and influence to mould the country into their survival-of-the-strongest racist worldview.
Not only did Norris read a script that found the villains espousing a philosophy similar (if a lot more cartoonishly extreme) to his own, but it also demanded that at one point he actually say the line, “Because sometimes in politics…you have evil men who won’t stop at anything to get rich and gain power over other people.”
It was as if Booth had taken Norris’ original concept and turned it into a photonegative of itself—turning the former film’s commie-panic into a liberal call to action against right-wing hegemony. So, the reality was that Norris was ALWAYS going to be too “busy” to make Avenging Force, no matter how long they waited for him.
Rather than rewrite the script to better suit Norris’ personal beliefs, the decision was made to film it instead with American Ninja star Michael Dudikoff as Matt and Steve James as Larry, the doomed black liberal Louisiana senatorial candidate targeted by the right-wing extremists. Directorial duties were handed over to Sam Firstenberg, who had helmed American Ninja, along with the already mentioned Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and Ninja III: The Domination, a film that bore zero connection to the two other Cannon Ninja films beyond the appearance of co-star Sho Kosugi.
The 14-year age difference between Norris and Dudikoff would appear to have necessitated some minor script changes. I’m assuming that in the original script Matt is joined by his young daughter and father rather than the sister and grandfather that appear in the finished film. If I’m right about this, then it begs the obvious question: Why didn’t they just change Matt’s name at the same time and make it a wholly original film?
Clearly the decision to not market it as a sequel was made after it was filmed. It’s easy to imagine that this was to placate Norris, who was not only working on the much more expensive The Delta Force, but who would also go on to make Braddock: Missing in Action III (which he also co-wrote) for Cannon a few years later. Whatever the reason for this, it’s status as a sequel would have likely gone unnoticed were it not for online genre fans noting the repeated use of the Matt Hunter name.
But beyond its status as a cinematic curiosity, how is it as an actual film? Pretty cheesy, but in that classic Cannon ‘80s action way that has you rooting for it, rather than against it. It’s ultimately as silly and cartoonish as Invasion U.S.A. is, but the change in political direction gives it a novelty that other film lacks. Firstenberg does a good job with the film’s many action set pieces, but whiffs all the film’s emotional beats, which in the hands of a more talented filmmaker could have been seriously devastating.
Dudikoff, a male model who made his way into acting through TV guest spots on shows like Happy Days, isn’t anyone’s idea of a great actor, but as Matt he brings a humanity to the character that Norris deliberately eschewed. This version of the character can actually be hurt and he only barely survives the Most Dangerous Game-style hunt he’s forced to endure in order to save his sister.
One thing the two films do have in common is a stubborn refusal to pass the Bechdel Test. Invasion U.S.A.’s only woman character is a journalist who follows Norris around on his adventures, but he barely acknowledges her existence and she has zero impact on the plot, while in Avenging Force the two female characters (Larry’s wife and Matt’s sister) only exist as plot points to drive Matt on his mission of vengeance. On that score, both films fail pretty spectacularly.
The film ends with Hunter warning the fifth and last surviving member of the “Pentangle” secret society that he has his eye on him, promising another sequel that never came. Avenging Force failed to make the same impact at the box office as Invasion had and Dudikoff and co. were tasked with more American Ninja movies instead.
Never released on DVD, Avenging Force appeared on Blu-ray for the first time in 2014 and nowhere in the packaging is the film’s connection to Invasion U.S.A. ever mentioned. But it doesn’t matter, because it stands on its own, especially in its defiance of the prevailing political attitudes of the genre of the time—the rare action film from that period that owes more to Noam Chomsky than it does to Ayn Rand.