Operation Eagle Claw is being aborted after a fatal helicopter crash, with the U.S. Delta Force evacuating to their C-130 transports. Among them is Captain Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris), who, against orders, rescues his wounded comrade, Peterson (William Wallace), from the burning helicopter before the team finally evacuates. McCoy expresses his disgust for the politicians and the military hierarchy that forced the mission to launch despite the risks, and announces his resignation.
Five years later, a group of Lebanese terrorists hijack American Travelways Flight 282, a Boeing 707 flying from Cairo, Egypt to New York City via Athens, Greece and Rome, Italy. Taking all 144 passengers and crew hostage on the Athens-Rome leg, the pro-Khomeini New World Revolutionary Organization, led by two terrorists named Abdul Rafai (Robert Forster) and Mustafa (David Menahem), force Captain Roger Campbell (Bo Svenson) and his crew to fly the 707 to Beirut, Lebanon, where they make demands to the United States government that, if not met, will result in the death of each of the hostages. During the crisis, they segregate the Jewish passengers from the Americans by forcing flight purser Ingrid Harding (Hanna Schygulla) to identify them. Ingrid hesitates to do so due to her German heritage. A Catholic priest William O'Malley (George Kennedy) joins the Jews in solidarity. Unbeknownst to the authorities, the Jewish hostages are then taken off the 707 and transported to a militant-controlled area of Beirut, while a dozen additional henchmen are brought on board.
The Boeing 707 departs for Algiers, where the terrorists release the female hostages and children. Meanwhile, Delta Force, led by Colonel Nick Alexander (Lee Marvin) and McCoy (who has been recalled to duty and promoted to Major) are deployed to resolve the crisis. Once the female hostages are evacuated, they launch their assault, only to discover too late that there are additional hijackers on board. When the Delta Force blow their cover, Abdul kills a U.S. Navy Diver named Tom Hale (Charles Floye). He then forces the pilots to return to Beirut and takes the remaining male passengers with him.
Upon returning to Beirut, the terrorists transport the passengers to a separate location, while the pilots remain in the 707. Using a sympathetic Greek Orthodox priest, Israeli Army Intelligence prepares an operation to free the hostages. In a prolonged campaign against the terrorists, the Delta Force bide their time to identify the terrorist leaders and locate the hostages. Once the hostages are located, the Delta Force assault the terrorist holdouts, freeing the hostages and evacuating them to the airport. During the battle, McCoy, Peterson and their team hunt for Abdul and the Jewish hostages. They kill most of the militants but Abdul gravely injures Peterson and flees. While the commandos tend to Peterson, McCoy chases Abdul and tracks him down to an abandoned home. He then engages him into a vicious hand-to-hand fight, breaking Abdul's arm. As the terrorist leader prepares to shoot McCoy, he is killed when McCoy launches a rocket into his car.
With the hostages and rescue teams secured, the team seizes Flight 282 by secretly infiltrating the airfield through a cotton field. Using silenced weapons, Alexander and the Delta team assassinate the terrorist guards and save the crew. They board the 707 with all of the hostages, taking off to Israel just as McCoy storms the runway on his motorcycle; managing to board after destroying several terrorist jeeps. On board, the team tends to the wounded passengers and the dying Peterson. After having confirmed the hostages are safe and en route home, Peterson says his farewells to McCoy before succumbing to his wounds. In the main cabin the ex-hostages and Delta commandos join together in a rousing rendition of "America The Beautiful", not knowing about Peterson's death, except for Alexander and Bobby. In Israel, the Boeing 707 lands safely and the hostages are greeted by their families, while Delta Force disembarks with Peterson's body in tow to their C-130. The team concludes their operation and departs for the United States amidst celebrations by the people.
The Delta Force was entirely shot in Israel. Pentagon scenes were shot at the GG Israel Studios facility near Jerusalem, owned by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The Athens, Beirut, Algiers, and Tel Aviv airport scenes were filmed at Ben Gurion International Airport and its military portion, Lod Air Force Base, although one Athens airport scene where an accomplice of the hijackers exits a taxi, was filmed at the eastern terminal of Ellinikon International Airport while the Athens airport concourse (interior) scenes were filmed in Ben Gurion's main terminal, which at present, is terminal 1. The scenes of the siege and hostage rescue in the Beirut countryside including midnight oceanic scenes were filmed in Jaffa. The film's budget was $9 million.
The Lockheed C-130H Hercules in the film actually belonged to the Israeli Air Force, registered as 89-9106. It was lent to the Golan-Globus company for filming after it was given a false registration, 14X-FBB and U.S. Air Force designs. Its lease arrangement was similar to Iron Eagle, wherein the United States Air Force refused to participate due to a long-standing policy about not cooperating on any film involving the theft of an aircraft, causing the filmmakers to turn to the Israeli Air Force for the necessary aerial sequences. The army vehicles for the military and terrorists came from the U.S. Army and Israel Defense Forces.
The Boeing 707-139(B) with the registration N778PA, was operated by several airlines including Olympic Airways, Aer Lingus, Saudia, Turkish Airlines, Pan American World Airways, which operated it as Clipper Skylark from 1962 to 1976. Prior to filming in 1985, the aircraft had been operated by Israeli charter-operator MAOF Air and was retired from commercial service in December 1984. The aircraft was then leased to Golan-Globus Productions in late 1985 while in storage at Tel Aviv (just after the TWA-847 hijacking) and repainted with the fake airline name "American Transworld Airlines" while retaining the MAOF livery, but later changed to "American Travelways Airlines" to avoid confusion and legal action. Upon completion of the film, it was sold to Jet Avionic Systems Incorporated on May 28, 1985. Aerocar Aviation acquired it in January 1986 and sold it to Boeing Military Aircraft Company on March 20, 1986 to be used as a source of spares for the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker program. The U.S. Air Force acquired it later on and parted its vertical stabilizer and engines for the Boeing KC-135E Stratotanker. N778PA was destroyed by fire in a welding accident while in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 1992. Portions of the airframe may still exist.
The 1985 Suzuki SP600 motorcycle used by Chuck Norris was designed by Suzuki specifically for the film. After modifying it and adding the weaponry, Suzuki America gave the bike to Golan-Globus production in Israel prior to filming.
Alan Silvestri's electronic score gained a new life when ABC Sports used it to intro their Indianapolis 500 broadcasts from 1988–1998 and again in 2001. It was also used for the intro of the Brickyard 400 until ABC lost the race rights to NBC Sports in 2001. According to famous Indianapolis 500 anchor Paul Page, he does not want any ESPN/ABC anchor to use this music in intros for the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 unless he narrates the intros himself. It is now used on the XM Satellite broadcasts of IndyCar racing events, of which Paul Page is the announcer.
The soundtrack album was initially released by Enigma Records, and later by Milan Records (minus "The Rescue") on an album paired with Jerry Goldsmith's King Solomon's Mines; in 2008 Intrada Records issued a limited edition CD with the entire score. Quartet Records released a two-disc set in 2013 featuring the Intrada album programme on disc one and the Enigma album listing on disc two; all are now OOP.
The Delta Force opened in 1,720 theaters and debuted as #3 in the box office losing to The Color Purple and Down and Out in Beverly Hills; it beat Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Youngblood. The Delta Force earned $5,959,505 on its opening weekend and had a total gross of $17,768,900 in the United States. The film was released on DVD on September 28, 2000. The Delta Force has been released on Blu-ray in the US, and more recently in the UK by video label Arrow Films.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 20% of ten surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 3.9/10. In a positive review for the Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and called it "a well-made action film that tantalizes us with its parallels to real life." Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that it "will be the 1986 film all others will have to beat for sheer, unashamed, hilariously vulgar vaingloriousness." Variety described it as "an exercise in wish fulfillment for those who favor using force instead of diplomacy." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote in his review: " ...of so big a project, The Delta Force is drawn out and complicated."