I remember seeing The Expendables 2 at the cinema last summer and marveling at how the audience went absolutely nuts when Chuck Norris made his grand entrance halfway through the film. Before that scene, Norris had not made an acting appearance in seven years, but becoming one of the world’s most prominent Internet memes has almost made Chuck Norris more famous today than he was during the peak of his stardom. I have enjoyed some of Norris’ films (most especially The Delta Force) and even written a list detailing my favourite moments of his, but a serious question must be asked: has Chuck Norris ever made a legitimate honest-to-God “good” movie? Well, I’d say the answer is “yes” and that his best attempt at quality cinema was the 1985 effort, Code of Silence. To be sure, this is your typical formula Chuck Norris action picture, but it’s got a lot more intelligence and wit than you’d expect, and some surprisingly interesting characters. Norris’ films were never known for garnering great reviews from the critics, but Code of Silence actually managed to get the patented “two thumbs up” from the late Siskel & Ebert. It’s possible that the main reason this film works so well is because it wasn’t originally intended to be a Chuck Norris vehicle. The screenwriters, Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, had previously penned two Clint Eastwood films, The Gauntlet and Pale Rider, and clearly had the actor in mind for the lead role here. It was a tailor-made character for Eastwood, but he wound up turning it down, and Chuck Norris was cast instead. As a result, Code of Silence is a project with a lot more depth than usual for a Chuck Norris vehicle as it actually goes to the trouble of surrounding its star with a real movie.
The protagonist here is an honest, no-nonsense Chicago cop named Eddie Cusack (Chuck Norris), and he is in the midst of an elaborate sting operation at the beginning of the film. The cops are planning a major drug bust against a Colombian crime family called the Comachos, but a rival mafia family lead by Tony Luna (Mike Genovese) beats them to the punch, murdering several people and stealing their money and drugs. The head of the Comacho family, Luis (Henry Silva), swears vengeance on Tony Luna and starts wiping out Tony’s entire organization and his family. One of the Luis’ prime targets is Tony’s young daughter, Diana (Molly Hagan), but Eddie steps in to rescue her and vows to protect Diana until the Comachos are stopped. When Eddie goes after them, he takes the opportunity to deliver one of the greatest action one-liners of all time: “When I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you”.
Of course, Eddie becomes a one-man army who is forced to take on the bad guys all by himself at the end of the film. However, there’s actually a legitimate reason for Eddie’s “lone wolf” act here, which makes for an interesting subplot. In the opening police raid, an over-the-hill, alcoholic cop named Cragie (Ralph Foody) accidentally shoots an innocent kid and plants a gun in his hand to make the shooting look like self-defense. Cragie’s rookie partner, Nick Kopalas (Joseph Guzaldo), witnesses this and debates about whether he should testify against Cragie. Eddie advises Kopalas to simply tell the truth, but the rookie is torn by the aforementioned “code of silence”: a cop never rats out a fellow cop, even if they’ve done something wrong. When Eddie speaks out against Cragie, he is ostracized by the department. As a result, the only ally Eddie has during the big climax is… uh, a giant police robot named “Prowler”.
Yeah, now you can see why Family Guy and The Muppets are always making jokes about “80s Robots”. It seems that literally every other movie from that decade had to have a robot in it, no matter how ridiculous or out-of-place it was. The characters even refer to Prowler as the “future of law enforcement” which, needless to say, has not exactly panned out. However, gratuitous robot aside, Code of Silence is a surprisingly intelligent action film. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it isn’t content to simply be routine and by-the-numbers. The director of Code of Silence is Andrew Davis, who has always been known for delivering solid action films and hit his peak when he directed The Fugitive, which garnered a “Best Picture” nomination at the Academy Awards. Davis also directed Above the Law and Under Siege, which are considered to be two of Steven Seagal’s best films, so he definitely knows how to handle action stars. Davis is a lifelong Chicago native who is considered to be one of the best filmmakers for capturing the ambiance of that city. He makes great use of Chicago locations here, particularly during a spectacular chase sequence which climaxes with Eddie fighting a bad guy on top of an elevated train. Davis also perfectly captures the camaraderie of being a Chicago police officer, and offers a lot of nice moments of quirky humour. One of the funniest scenes features a pair of dumb criminals attempting to stick up a bar which happens to be the city’s most popular cop hangout, and this is apparently based on a real-life incident.
While Chuck Norris isn’t exactly called upon to flex his acting muscles here, he’s perfectly fine in the lead role and makes a very likable hero. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its supporting cast. Andrew Davis loves to use the same stock of Chicago character actors for many of his films and they always do a good job at elevating the material. Very few of the characters in Code of Silence are dull and generic, as even the smaller roles are populated by someone with a unique colourful personality. One of the standouts is veteran Chicago actor Ralph Foody, whom you’d probably recognize as the violent gangster from the film-within-a-film in Home Alone (“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal”), but delivers a very convincing performance here as the scummy Cragie. Some of the cops here are played by real Chicago police officers, which adds a lot of authenticity to the scenes. In fact, one of these cops just happens to be Dennis Farina, who worked for the Chicago P.D. for 18 years before embarking on a successful acting career. Code of Silence was one of Farina’s earliest roles and he pretty much steals every scene he’s in as Eddie’s quirky partner. So, in the end, this film successfully delivers the goods for the action crowd and fans of Chuck Norris, but the colourful supporting characters, witty dialogue, and intelligent subplots are almost icing on the cake. While there are other Norris vehicles which do offer more entertainment value, this movie probably represents his career peak from a pure quality standpoint. Code of Silence is not just a pretty solid action movie, but also a pretty solid movie, period!