Cartoon Spinoffs – Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoks]

For me, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos is the perfect Venn diagram intersection of dual fascinations, sitting in that sweet spot of ‘cartoons featuring real people as themselves’ and ‘weird as Hell 80’s karate guys’. I previously examined the macho kick-punch scene of that era in my book Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, and took a deep dive into Chuck’s ultra wacky Walker, Texas Ranger show, so when I discovered he’d produced a cartoon depicting his own fictional heroism, I practically broke both my legs in the mad rush to watch it.

Karate Kommandos, dangerously skirting towards a third aliterative K, centres on Chuck’s eclectic team of government toughies battling the evil forces of The Claw and his organisation, VULTURE; an acronym which is never revealed. Airing on consequtive days from September 15th – 19th, 1986, it was produced by Ruby-Spears, the team behind the basically-identical Mr. T cartoon. Clearly, Kommandos is one of the shows, along with Mister T, that’s parodied in Adult Swim’s Mike Tyson Mysteries, with the zany adventures of an animated celebrity bookended by short, live-action inserts, where everyone’s favourite convicted rapist says something cute. From its opening titles, Kommandos never lets you forget who its star is, with the name CHUCK NORRIS crashing onto screen in flashes of lightning, amid live inserts of him kicking and punching, with a gravitas-laden voiceover saying his name so often, it feels like the brainwashing induction video to a death-cult.

Chuck Norris… Chuck Norris, man of action… Chuck Norris stars in Chuck Norris: Karate Commandos. Chuck Norris; he’s got nerves of steel and strength to match. Chuck Norris, with his team…

01

Let’s meet that team! Chuck’s main heavies are Kimo, a Samurai in full feudal-era Japanese armour, and Tabe, a sumo champion who spends the entire show waddling around in a nappy. It may surprise you to hear Republican creationist Chuck runs a progressive workplace, with a female tech expert, Pepper; though she’s never allowed to fight and limited to the occasional fiddling with wires. Pepper’s brother, Reed, is Chuck’s teenage apprentice, and between them, the siblings get about one line of dialogue per episode.

Completing the line-up is young boy, Too Much, or, to give him a more honest name, Short Round. Gruff American action hero with a smart-mouthed Asian kid sidekick in a baseball cap; been to the cinema recently, Chuck, mate? On top of raising an apprentice, Too Much is Chuck’s ‘ward,’ which isn’t at all sinister for a middle-aged man who frequently visits Thailand. Too Much’s involvement invites so many questions; mainly who’d leave their kid in the hands of Chuck Norris? He’s dragged on endless life-threatening adventures, but not once seen reading a book or doing homework, and what kind of a name is Too Much? There’s probably a story behind it, like he warned Chuck not to eat too much sushi, but he did it anyway and got diarrhea everywhere and had to burn his best karate pajamas. Maybe that’s how his parents died.

02

There’s a huge quasi-Oriental vibe to the show, with Chinese menu fonts, and a cast of villainous ninjas and settings that draw from a heavily-stereotyped East. Chuck himself is presented in his Canon-era peak, shirtless and jacked, and yet, even in animated form, has the screen presence of a dad. Is it the moustache? The flat delivery? Like Hulk Hogan, Chuck Norris is one of those strange outliers that fits firmly in categories like muscular and famous, yet never in the category of sex symbol. I can easily visualise him roundhouse kicking a terrorist into a bonfire, but having sex or getting boners? No way. Even if he popped an accidental one, I’m sure it’d get instinctively chopped in half with the edge of his hand. “Down, boy!”

But despite this being pre-meme, 80’s b-actioner Chuck, it doesn’t feel like a kiddy version of either the Canon films or his martial arts flicks. Instead, Karate Kommandos strongly reminds the viewer of another franchise. With focus on a ragtag ‘family’ participating in vehicle stunts and enormous set pieces, the show’s closest spiritual neighbour is the Fast and Furious series. In fact, you could reboot it with the F&F cast with very little change. The nondescript features of Vin Diesel are easily animated by tracing an egg, they’ve got a couple of characters with absolutely no value (Tyrese and Ludacris), plus they could bring Paul Walker back, and maybe even give him a teenage apprentice.

03

Like most shows from that era, Kommandos has the stink of a hastily thrown-together ad for action figures, with each vehicle and weapon looking like a big plastic toy, and every character design real fuckin’ dumb. As suggested by his name, the Claw has a claw-hand, which is ludicrously oversized; about twice as big as his head. The first time he wiped his arse with it, he must’ve goatse-d himself. A solid gold arm that goes right up to his shoulder, it’s a mystery why he doesn’t just sell it, instead of all the convoluted crimes. The rest are equally stupid looking, with the imaginatively-named Super Ninja a flowing KISS wig attached to a purple mask, and the Claw’s other main thug running round shirtless in a balaclava and MC Hammer pants.

By their nature, the toy-ad ‘toons were repetitive and lazy, but KK is something else. As you’ll see, every plot is exactly the same. Literally. And they only made five! As with the Mr. T series, the best part is the live-action bookends with the man himself, giving life advice that supposedly ties in with that week’s adventure. Episode one opens with Chuck interrupting some karate to tell us about determination, and having to tough it out if we want to succeed. Mate, I’m sitting through your shitty cartoon for my Patreon, I’m well aware. The great part about these inserts is that we get to see how embarrassed he is, having to pretend that cartoon-Chuck and live-action-Chuck are one and the same, and look into a camera to earnestly tell us how “things got pretty tough for us down in Florida with… the deadly dolphins.” Poor bastard looks like he’d rather be feeding fifty feet of barbed wire into his urethra.

04

We open on the exotic island home of Chuck’s mate, Dr. Sanford, as the gang play with his trained dolphins. But the Claw sends in VULTURE to kidnap Sanford, so they can steal his creation; underground base Sealab, and use it to “dominate the oceans of the world!” Claw’s teamed with sea-specialist Angelfish, who amid a palate of grotesque weirdos is one of those sexily-drawn, dominant lady characters, like G.I. Joe‘s Baroness, in an obvious psy-op by Big S&M to create a generation of whimpering slaves who’ll spend billions on gimp masks. VULTURE’s attack emphasises Karate Kommandos as one of those weird “it’s an action show, but nobody can get hurt” deals, like The A-Team, but aimed at an even more delicate demographic.

04b

Every fake-looking gun makes laser noises and shoots light that never hits anything, though mostly, swords or guns are used to knock another gun out of an enemy’s hand. At one point, Kimo swats away a laser blast with his Japanese fan like he’s playing baseball. This is the violence of being knocked into a wall and having a comical item fall down and boink you on the head; where henchmen themselves are used as weapons, thrown at each other when making your escape. Though there is plenty of karate, it’s generally used to kick down doors, and Chuck resorts to other methods, like squirting thugs with a hose until they fall over.

Regardless, Claw’s goons get away, and locate Sealab by putting Sanford in a CAT scan and “reading his brainwaves.” Is that how Chuck Norris thinks CAT scans work? Refusing to get his chest pains looked at cos he doesn’t want doctors seeing the time he briefly glimpsed a bare lady’s bottom on a pop-up while browsing bible passages online? The gang head to Angelfish’s boat to rescue Sanford, inciting a fight where they’re shot at by yellow lasers which look like streams of urine, and eventually break into Sealab to save the day by riding trained dolphins into a pipe. We end on Angelfish getting batted between dolphin beaks like a ball, to a classic shoulder-shaking 80’s cartoon laugh.

05

The dumbness of the show is its real strength, forcing the self-serious Chuck Norris to earnestly recite dialogue about CIA dolphins, laser robots, and a nasty Super Ninja. Also, when limited to just his voice, Norris’ terrible acting is somehow even worse than normal. With nothing else to play off, forced to stand in a booth in front of a mic, unable to even hold a gun to help him imagine that he’s shooting someone, lines about Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands of the Claw are flatly announced in voice of a dad reading aloud a story from the local paper about the council changing the opening times of the allotment. Check out this short highlight reel I knocked up, where you can fully appreciate Chuck’s sheer level of boredom and terrible diction.

One question I found myself asking was is Karate Kommandos racist? It feels like it should be. Made in the 80s and heavy with broad-brush Japanese characters, every accent is very “ah, so!” Benny Hill; like appalling stereotype Mr. Yoshi, who greets Chuck with an “Ah, Norris-san!” under plinky-plonky Chinaman music. The VULTURE assassins speak in accents I’m pretty sure are racist, but they’re hard to place to any specific region, so I couldn’t commit to that in court. Tabe, the sumo guy, does have a comedy-Asian voice, but he’s also half the big fella from Green Mile; a big teddy bear referring to Chuck as “boss.” Perhaps to steer future viewers like me from crying “Hate crime! You’re cancelled!” his one-note joke is that he’s fat and constantly eating. Even his weapons are two massive golden platters strapped to his hands, like Alan Partridge’s big plate.

06

Skipping episode two, which is lost to history, and featured Chuck rescuing a stolen computer chip while Too Much is kidnapped by VULTURE, it’s onto third episode, Terror Train, where Chuck rescues a hi-tech Laser Robot, while Too Much is kidnapped by VULTURE. Karate Kommandos lack of imagination raises serious questions about Chuck’s guardianship. While much of the action involves multiple characters walking, running or sneaking in a single line past repeating backgrounds, another big KK fave is the multi-vehicle chase. Terror Train one-ups The French Connection, as Chuck runs down the boy’s captor first on jet-ski, then on foot, and finally jacking a motorbike from some fisherman, apologising with a very informative “sorry guys, this is an emergency. I’m Chuck Norris; contact me through the American embassy.

That Fast and Furious vibe is overwhelming in the incredible set piece that follows, which sees Chuck Point Break skydiving without a parachute twice to catch the goon, choking him out with one arm, freeing Too Much with the other, while hanging on at 40,000 feet, before casually landing on the roof of a speeding train where they have a fist fight. Perhaps this is why Chuck seems so rattled in his live-action inserts, disconnected and falling over his words, describing adventures of fighting the Claw as though they actually happened. Did the crew of Walker, Texas Ranger have to play along with his delusions like the family of a dementia patient, so he didn’t become distressed?

Gee, my back’s never been the same since Super Ninja threw me off that rocket. Too Much never calls me anymore…

I know, buddy, I know.”

07

It’s incredible how much nonsense they pack into twenty minutes, adding to the previous guff with an albino baddie that’s allergic to light, a bomb on a train, and the Kommandos being captured in a dungeon which floods with water, escaping by using a live snake as a climbing rope. If these were movies, they’d have $300m budgets, as the action shifts to Tibet, where there’s a car chase, sled chase, and plane chase, before Chuck catches up to the speeding train in a sports car, having a karate fight with Super Ninja on a tightrope which is attached between the train and car, both going about 100mph. He finally defuses the bomb, jumping on a passing plane and chucking it in the sea as he clings to the wing. Exhausting. It’s in Terror Train when they finally remember that Too Much has a ‘thing’, and finally exclaims “Too Much!” twice in a few minutes. And never again.

Like all franchises that go too big too soon, there’s only one place left to take it, leading to episode four, Menace from Space. Once again, there’s a powerful device that Chuck’s supposed to be protecting, which once again, the Claw steals for nefarious purposes. This time, it’s a space shuttle with a laser gun, hijacked by the Claw’s goon, Croc, a green-skinned, reptilian type with fucked up teeth, who parachutes down, accompanied by actual crocodiles, also on parachutes. As one of them crashes through the window, Chuck gets it in a headlock and locks it in a closet, putting the little kid in charge of it.

08

The Claw squashes a piranha inside his metal hand and demands $10b or he’ll start blowing up capital cities with the laser, so Chuck’s charged with returning the shuttle by the actual president, (seen only as the back of a head like Steinbrenner in Seinfeld). This leads to more croc-wrestling in the swamp, a trip to Alaska where they fall through the ice, a battle on a giant sub, and breaking into a museum to steal a rocket plane, so Chuck can fly it into space, for a low-gravity karate fight. We finish with the gang working out in Chuck’s dojo, except for Pepper, who’s drying her hair after a shower because she’s a girl. The end joke is a bamboozling line that’s neither a joke, a reference to anything that happened, or even a pun. Wondering what the Claw will do to Super Ninja now; “he probably took him out behind the woodshed,” says a chortling Chuck, kicking a punchbag off its ropes for the big He-Man laugh.

09

In the final live-action intro, clad in a ludicrous sweat-soaked belly-shirt and tiny footballer shorts, Chuck lectures us on mistakes. We all make ’em, and though it’s hard to face up to it, because you might get laughed at or punished, you’ll be a stronger person for it. Now sitting through my fifth episode of Karate Kommandos, I feel personally attacked. Episode five, Island of the Walking Dead, is the exact same plot once more, but still infinitely better than the popular TV show of similar title.

This week’s MacGuffin is a satellite that controls all military communications, hijacked by Super Ninja from right under Chuck’s nose, again. That said, in their many battles through the series, Ninja doesn’t land a single blow on Chuck, suggestive of the star’s creative control. Just as we hit the end of the run, Kommandos introduces its first black character, Tank, a mate of Chuck’s who briefly appears to get a ride to the gym, along with his barbell, in a really obvious shoehorning in of a potential action figure plus accessory.

They chase the downed satellite to Voodoo Island, a creepy place infested with actual zombies, led by a Papa Shango/Baron Samedi witch doctor. They fight the undead with sumo belly-bumps, and swing on vines into a cave to escape from a giant snake. Then it just becomes Indiana Jones, with Short Round accidentally setting off a booby trap that unleashes a giant rolling boulder, before getting trapped on a rope bridge, while Chuck’s downed by the stabbing of a Chuck Norris voodoo doll. In fact, Temple of Doom‘s brought to mind in every episode, as Too Much, a tiny child, beats up adult men three times his size with feeble karate, like those Thuggee guards who must’ve got fired by Mola Ram when he found out they got their dicks kicked in by an eight-year-old.

10

The rest of the gang are captured and caged, set to be barbecued alive, but Chuck saves the day and blows up the volcano by crashing a bulldozer into it. In his final live-action spot, he tells us mistakes are okay, and that everyone makes them. Us, our parents; “even me,” he says, with a rather knowing look in his eye, as his terrible filming experience on Karate Kommandos finally comes to a close.

Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos is a startling combination of zero imagination when it comes to plot, and yet wildly imaginative in its action. With its “this happened then this happened…” pacing, it’s a series as described to you by a little boy, which is likely exactly what they were aiming for. It clearly feels like the toys were designed first, with a basic construction and colour scheme, ensuring they’d look exactly like their onscreen counterparts. That explains why the weapons are so weird, with Pepper’s giant screw, Tabe’s big plates, and Chuck’s shite-brown horned staff all making it into the box as picture-perfect accessories.

11

After Kenner won the bidding to produce the toys, the line wasn’t a big success, resulting in ten figures and a single vehicle. All the Kommandos barring Too Much and Pepper got releases, with eight figures in the first series; three of those Chuck Norris variants (Battle Gear, Training Gi, and Undercover Agent). An aborted second series included ninjas, the Claw, another Chuck, and as I figured, Tank, no doubt with the famous barbell. But still no Pepper or Too Much. Though there was also a ‘Take Me Along’ playset, with plastic ninja stars and bandanas, if you want to pretend you’re Chuck Norris’ ward, and a comic book, drawn by Steve Ditko, which was binned after four issues.

[in my pants; dropping down from a pull-up bar, all sweaty] We’ve really learned something today.

If you’re a grown man who sits through a dreadful thirty-year-old cartoon aimed at children, and take 6,000 words of notes while doing so, and if you persevere with it long enough, through the frustration, the self loathing; through the noise of your neighbour endlessly revving their car; the temptation to fire up Pornhub and search for ‘PAWG + shower’ and have a tommy tank instead; eventually, you’ll craft a mostly-coherent piece of work that’ll bring in nine, ten… maybe a dozen hits for your blog. Hard work pays off. Namaste. [I bow, before collapsing]

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

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~ by Stuart on May 7, 2019.

One Response to “Cartoon Spinoffs – Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos”

  1. […] [previous entries in this series — Droids — Ewoks — Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos] […]

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