ICYMI: Code of Silence (1985)
The career of Chuck Norris would never be mistaken for “high art.” Following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, he took a karate championship background and parlayed it into a successful string of B-action flicks in the late 70’s/early 80’s like Good Guys Wear Black, A Force of One, The Octagon, and An Eye for an Eye. He always carried himself with a solid screen presence and provided plenty of high-kicking excitement in the numerous fight scenes that his films were built around. What you may missed among the “chop socky” films was Norris’ best film, as well as the catalyst for the successful career of director Andrew Davis.
On paper, 1985’s Code of Silence may look like standard cops versus mobsters fare. On screen, we as seasoned film goers are treated to a highly entertaining thriller with a lot of good performances and a lot of Chicago flavor. The film stars Chuck Norris as Sgt. Eddie Cusack, the head of a well-oiled narcotics unit. In the opening scenes, their drug stakeout of Colombian dealers is interrupted by a rogue crew of Italian mobsters. What ensues is a full-scale war between the Colombians led by Henry Silva (in full-on slimy bad guy mode) and the Italians led by renown Chicago stage actor Nathan Davis. The main thrust of the film surrounds a mob lieutenant’s daughter (played by Molly Hagan, in her film debut) who becomes the target of the Colombians after the massacre of their soldiers. Again, this may sound conventional, but Code of Silence has plenty of surprises up its sleeve.
One of these surprises is a powerful subplot where an over-the-hill police veteran Craigie (Ralph Foody) shoots and kills an unarmed teenager in the aftermath of the opening stakeout. He realizes his error immediately and plants a weapon on the kid, in full view of his rookie partner, Nick (Joe Guzaldo). The rest of film unfolds with the majority of the department backing Craigie and his “version,” while Nick agonizes over the “Code of Silence” where you back up your partner no matter what. This story definitely takes on more relevance now in the world of the Black Lives Matter movement. Norris himself gets a taste of reciprocity when he testifies against Craigie at a hearing and then finds himself stranded at a Colombian hangout with no one willing to respond to his call for backup.
Another surprise in the film is the Chicago environment established by director Andrew Davis. The film includes actual Chicago cops turned actors including Ron Dean, Joseph F. Kosala, and the great Dennis Farina. The film has the rhythm and language of the Windy City through the filter of these long-time civil servants. There is a very funny scene where a pair of low-level hoods make the mistake of trying to rob a cop bar. And Farina, in particular, gives a glimpse of his comedic prowess that would be on display in future films like Midnight Run, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He plays Norris’s partner who gets sidelined after getting shot in the opening stakeout and spends the rest of the film trying to coax Norris into a series of post-police jobs that include alligator farming and working a sausage cart at Wrigley Field.
But its Chuck Norris who is front and center providing the film with surprising gravitas. He easily inhabits this world, never over-reaching or stepping on any of his few one-liners. He reminded me of Steve McQueen, providing effortless cool and even showing a paternal side in his need to protect Molly Hagan’s Diana Luna. And even the shootout at the end of the film is a pleasant surprise with Norris going up against an army of Colombian bad guys with a shotgun and The Prowler – an unmanned police robot unit that is demonstrated early in the film by none other than a pre-“Frasier” John Mahoney.
As for Andrew Davis, Code of Silence became something of a calling card with his staging of effective action sequences on Chicago locations with plenty of Chicago actors. The film also includes an impressive fight on top of an L train. Davis would go on to direct two of Steven Seagal’s best vehicles (Above the Law and Under Siege) as well as find blockbuster success with 1993’s The Fugitive. Sadly, Norris would never find this kind of material again, or a director like Davis, but Code of Silence is a testimonial to the kind of that career that might have been.