Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) review



Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), Charles Napier (Murdock), Steven Berkoff (Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky), Julie Nickson (Co), William Ghent (Captain Vinh), Martin Kove (Ericson)

Directed by George P. Cosmatos

"I want what they want... and every other guy who came over here and spilt his guts and gave everything he had. Once... for our country to love us, as much we love it... that's what I want!"

The Short Version: The sequel to FIRST BLOOD is the epitome of War Porn. Action director Cosmatos's vision of 90+ minutes of money shots reads mission accomplished. There's scores of explosions, bullet-riddled corpses, and Sylvester Stallone's sweaty, muddied-up muscles making love to the camera at five minute intervals. The plot sends Rambo back to 'Nam to find remaining POWs; but it's really just an excuse for Stallone to run around half-naked and blow up anything that moves. RAMBO 2 is macho bravado at its finest. Any resemblance to Ted Kotcheff's psychological war thriller is purely coincidental. 

Imprisoned for five years, Rambo is offered a job to return to the hell that is Vietnam to find any remaining POWs still trapped there. Ordered to only take pictures while a Delta Force team will perform the actual extraction, Rambo is dropped into the jungle, and later learns he's been double-crossed by the very men that sent him there. Vowing to return and settle matters with his employers, Rambo must escape not only from the clutches of the Viet Cong, but also Russian field operatives.

The first sequel to FIRST BLOOD (1982) abandons the psychological motif of that movie, and settles for a scenario that calls for everything in sight to be blown straight to hell. Bullets and explosions are more frequent than dialog; and Stallone shows off his oiled, muddied up muscles for Jack Cardiff's lingering camera much like Robert Tai did with Alexander Lou Rei's toned physique in a string of awful "ninjer" movies.

Sylvester Stallone was a pitiable presence in Ted Kotcheff's movie, and the sort of man an audience could rally behind. That version of John Rambo was grounded in reality. For this sequel, the audience still rallies behind him, but he's far from realistic. Rambo is turned into the Japanese equivalent of Godzilla. Rambo is so over the top, he's no longer pragmatic; he's a comic book character; a force of nature. It was reflective of the times. Everything was big and boisterous in the 1980s, and so were the cinematic heroes.

Just like the weather, you can't control Rambo. When the storm comes, it's a whirlwind of catastrophic proportions. The finale when Rambo wages a one-man war on the Vietcong encampment is an operatic, majestically edited sequence of dictatorial destruction -- a hailstorm of rockets and machine gun fire evaporating the Communist oppression. The lush greenery of the jungle mixed with the bright yellows of explosions are a cornucopia of carnage captured by Jack Cardiff's caressing camera. This bullet ballet is climaxed with a dynamic dogfight/chase between two helicopters. 

Mind you, Rambo's rage isn't confined to the evil empires the world over. He unleashes on the unscrupulous, corrupt government officials who only care about the bottom line as opposed to the men who've signed their lives away in defense of their country. 

For its time, Rambo was the near invincible purveyor of truth, justice, and the American way; a template that wasn't exclusive to US made productions. Other countries followed suit, or had been doing it before we did. Rambo, particularly with this first sequel is arguably the most influential representation of the flesh and blood superman stereotype. This perception of the invincible champion was likely the driving force behind the films wild popularity.   

Like the array of explosions from so many bombs and rockets, RAMBO 2 was a massive hit all around the world. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it. The popularity of the picture certainly left an impression on European viewers. FIRST BLOOD lit the fuse, and FIRST BLOOD PART II was the explosion. A small onslaught of Rambo rip-offs assaulted theater screens overseas, but these were relegated to stealth missions on video store shelves in this country. Some of these were homegrown productions, but Italians and other foreign producers were never ones to let a hot property cool down. With titles like THUNDER WARRIOR (1983), FINAL MISSION (1984), an Indonesian clone titled PEMBALASAN RAMBU (1986), STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), DEADLY PREY (1987), THUNDER WARRIOR 2 (1987), and THUNDER WARRIOR 3 (1988), there was no shortage of machismo on a budget. There were more Philippine lensed entries too numerous to mention, but you can read more about those films HERE.

On the surface, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is strictly an entertaining movie made during a time when the country was enjoying unparalleled economic and military strength. Meanwhile, the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race kept tensions high between the USA and the USSR while Ronald Reagan kept the country safe.

The political pandering in James Cameron's and Stallone's script (more the latter's work than the former) is sporadic, yet there's plenty of patriotic chest-thumping misinterpreted as propaganda. The character of Rambo, as exaggerated as he is, is the cinematic embodiment of American military might, the stars and stripes, and the foundations of freedom that many fought and died for. Again, this was a reflection of the time. It seems oddly out of place today because we've succumbed to a doom and gloom society. And on top of this, it's just a damn movie.

Furthermore, the jingoism is not on display from frame to shining frame. The script depicts an unflattering view of the government while positing those who served in combat as the purest form of honor, integrity, and working class exceptionalism. In essence, they are alone in this world; surrounded by a government that saw them as expendable, political chess pieces; and a public that saw them as the scum of the Earth.  

The one time the film truly shows its red, white, and blue colors is in the very last sequence. Sly invokes his closing speech from FIRST BLOOD with a capsule commentary that's less about the plight of one man than a flag-waving mantra devoted to love of country (quoted at top).

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is director George Cosmatos's magnum opus. It's his biggest hit, as well as being one of the biggest box office bonanzas of the 1980s. His other films include ESCAPE TO ATHENA (1979), OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983), LEVIATHAN (1989), and TOMBSTONE (1993). He passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

Prior to RAMBO 2's release, Cannon Group unleashed one of Chuck Norris's most highly regarded works, MISSING IN ACTION (1984). It's worth mentioning that despite it coming out first (the first two MIA's were shot back-to-back), and bearing no resemblance to FIRST BLOOD (other than the 'Nam subject matter), many view it as a clone of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985). Whether you like this movie or not, there's no denying its worldwide popularity; touching a variety of nerves in a great many people -- patrons and movie producers alike.

If you've never experienced the 80s action hero movie, and you're curious, the sequel to FIRST BLOOD is possibly the signature example. It remains a bewilderingly divisive movie when it shouldn't be. Packed with explosions, gunfire, lots of blood and sweat, and starring Sylvester Stallone's muscles, it's the sort of movie that will give your home theater system one helluva workout.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate Blu-ray.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rocky III (1982) review



Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith (Mickie), Mr. T (Clubber Lang), Talia Shire (Adrian), Burt Young (Paulie), Tony Burton (Duke), Hulk Hogan (Thunderlips)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

"Three years ago, you was supernatural. You was hard, and you was nasty... and ya' had this cast iron jaw... but then, the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter.... you got civilized."

The Short Version: The ROCKY series got the Eye of the Tiger with this sequel, and kept it for one more round before the series stumbled with audiences. Stallone's third directorial gig was a rarity among movie sequels in that it surpassed the box office of its predecessors. Usually three-quels go down for the count, but this one pulled out the ol' Rope-a-Dope strategy. It not only gave fans some instances of tearjerking and adrenaline racing moments, but introduced Mr. T as the hungry, fool pitying fighter, Clubber Lang. Having gone the distance since its release, ROCKY III is a fight film worth the ticket price.

Riding a wave of successful title defenses and the wealth that comes with it, Rocky Balboa enjoys the fruits of his labor while unwittingly losing the determination that took him to the top. Meanwhile, a new, hungrier opponent named Clubber Lang steadily climbs in the rankings, vying for Rocky's world title.

Rocky Balboa returned for a third round in this ferociously entertaining second sequel. Stallone delivered a three punch combo starring, writing, and directing -- the third time he would do so in his career up to that point. It's another testament to the actors versatility and ability to fashion a polished product with that level of consistency. Audiences reacted in a big way, making Balboa's third box office battle a champion for cash registers the world over. 

ROCKY III entered the theatrical ring on May 28th of 1982, and knocked out its predecessors at the box office with over $124,000,000 domestically and some $270,000,000 globally. This was at a time when a lot of movies didn't pass the hundred million mark by domestic gross alone. One of the keys to its success is in its script. There's a likable hero, a formidable villain, a set-up for a fall, redemption for the hero; and holding it together are some instances of comedy, shock and poignancy, and lots of feel-good moments accompanied by an adrenaline pumping score; to top it off this is the movie that gave us the ultimate song to pump iron by, Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger'.

Stallone was unique in the canon of Hollywood Tough Guys in the respect that he controlled multiple aspects of the films he appeared in. He focused primarily on writing the scripts for his movies post ROCKY IV (1985), leaving the directing to others, although he would sporadically revisit the directors chair over the years. Two of the franchises he was crucial in building are two of the most profitable in cinema history, those being Rocky and Rambo. Part of that success is a reflection of the time period. The former represented the undaunted human spirit, overcoming odds, and attaining goals; the latter was symbolic of the strength, patriotism, and superiority of the US military at that time. Nowadays everything is all doom and gloom; but back then, self-confidence, strength through adversity, and pride in country were ways of life.

The Rocky Balboa of ROCKY III is possibly the most complex of the six films the character featured in. He's not forgotten the fans that helped him accomplish his loftier ambitions, but he has forgotten the burning desire that made him champion. Having attained his riches through determination and hard work, he loses that edge. It's a flip-flop of the Balboa seen in the two previous movies. Rocky's image is everywhere -- advertisements and TV programs. He's no longer the guy pounding frozen slabs of beef in a cold storage, he's the guy who could own the cold storage. Fattened up from the spoils of boxing, that hunger that led him to fame now resides within another, brutish boxer, Clubber Lang.

"I can't be beat, and I won't be beat. This time I'm gonna train even harder. There won't be no quick knockdowns. I'm gonna torture him. I'm gonna crucify him... real bad."

Mr. T (real name Laurence Tureaud) makes an impressive, memorable debut as the Southside Slugger, Clubber Lang. He brings the pain; and in addition to packing a flurry of powerful punches, he's armed with a litany of classic, quotable Tough Guy lines. He has zero respect for the Italian Stallion, but as he makes clear, he doesn't hate Balboa, but he pities the fool. Clubber strikes an imposing figure with his Mohawk and feather earrings; these and an array of gold accouterments became signatures of Mr. T once his popularity exploded after THE A-TEAM hit the airwaves in 1983.

Before becoming a media and pop culture sensation, Mr. T was a bouncer and bodyguard for an assortment of high dollar clientele including boxers Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, and Joe Frasier. His nasty, yet colorful Clubber personality paved the way for a few decades of success for Tureaud, as well as being a role model for legions of kids. By the mid 1980s, Mr. T was everywhere. There was a menagerie of Mr. T toys, clothing, cartoons, even a Mr. T cereal! A motivational speaker, Mr. T was the host of the 1984 video, BE SOMEBODY... OR BE SOMEBODY'S FOOL! The theme of the production, while non-existent nowadays, was typical of the day in reaching out to kids by teaching them to respect their elders, families, and to have confidence in themselves.

If Mr. T weren't already an American phenom, he counted professional wrestling among the areas where he left his mark. Having first appeared in what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE), he also showed up on two other big promotions -- in Texas, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), and in the 90s, at World Championship Wrestling (WCW).

Speaking of wrestling, another future icon made their debut in ROCKY III in the form of WWF's Hulk Hogan. Playing a flamboyant brawler dubbed Thunderlips, Rocky is set to face him in a 'Boxer vs. Wrestler' exhibition match for charity. Hogan announces himself as "the ultimate male versus the ultimate meatball". This is one of the funniest parts of the film as well as one of the best shot and edited. It's one of the things about ROCKY III that takes it out of the realm of serious drama and turns it into amusing entertainment. The Hulkster really comes across as a monster, making Stallone look like a featherweight.

In 1976, a similar exhibition had been set up between American boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestling superstar Antonio Inoki. The match was highly touted, with audience anticipation off the charts. Unfortunately, the result was more miss than hit. Originally intended as a real fight, the rules ended up being changed multiple times. None of the paying customers were aware of the restrictions placed on Inoki before the fight; and while the fans were the real losers that night, neither Ali nor Inoki came away unscathed. Despite Ali and Inoki pocketing 6 and 4 million respectively, Inoki broke his right leg while Ali's leg Inoki kept kicking got infected and nearly ended up being amputated. Thankfully, the bout seen in ROCKY III was far more satisfying.

Carl Weathers returns once more as Rocky's former nemesis, Apollo Creed. This time Creed takes up the mantle of training Balboa. The hook in ROCKY III is the death of one of the main characters. Most everyone should have seen the movie by now, so it's safe to say that Apollo becomes the new Mickie, but minus the deep, guttural voice and crotchety old man behavior. Mickie (Burgess Meredith) was like a father to Rocky, but Apollo, once taking over as trainer, becomes Rocky's most trusted friend. This new arc between the two former rivals is where the film reaches its macho apex. It's also interesting because it's like Rocky is starting over again from a professional boxing standpoint. A chapter ends and a new one begins. 

The segment of the movie where Mickie dies is an incredibly powerful moment. The arc between manager and the managed had been built up over the course of the previous two movies. A great deal of time was spent watching this relationship grow, so to see it end in this manner was a bit of a shock. Balboa's loss is summed up in a tracking shot from inside the mausoleum where Mickie is interred to Rocky parked on his motorcycle outside after hours. There's no dialog, and Stallone sells it with facial expressions while a sad piano driven cue plays on the soundtrack. It's like a trusted dog mourning his dead master. He then rides over to his bronze statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He stares at it, seeing the image of the champion he once was. He feels anger and guilt over losing Mickie and feeling like his run as champion has been a lie. It's at this point Apollo re-enters Rocky's life to offer redemption for the fallen fighter.

All this drama and personal loss leads to the return engagement in the ring against Clubber Lang. Stallone and his crew have meticulously built up this monumental battle of good and evil by making their villain so over the top, so brutal in his boxing style the audience isn't so sure Rocky will come away a winner even though we know he will. Not every movie can do that, but this one does. The fight itself is a marvelous piece of choreography. Clubber is a power puncher; he puts all his force behind every swing. He goes for a quick knockout every time. The sound effects reflect this. The sounds of his punches landing have a punishing, bone-breaking resonance to them. He's sort of a precursor to Mike Tyson. Meanwhile, Rocky's swings are more frequent, yet less devastating. Unlike the previous movies and ROCKY IV, this match doesn't go the distance. For the return fight, Rocky floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, initializing the ol' Rope-a-Dope maneuver to outwit, outlast, and outswing his opponent.

ROCKY III's got it all and then some. It took the dramatic elements of the previous entries and made escapist entertainment out of them. Packed with memorable lines, some welcome comedic touches, speeches that wanna make you go out and realize a dream or two; not to mention the epitome of macho anthems and Bill Conti's iconic score, Stallone showed off his filmmaking muscles for this very successful series.

This review is representative of the MGM Blu-ray.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Road House (1989) review


Patrick Swayze (Dalton), Kelly Lynch (Elizabeth Clay), Sam Elliott (Wade Garrett), Marshall Teague (Jimmy), Julie Michaels (Denise), Red West (Red Webster), Jeff Healey (Cody), Kevin Tighe (Tilghman), Kathleen Wilhoite (Carrie), Terry Funk (Morgan), Anthony De Longis (Ketchum), Keith David (Ernie Bass)

Directed by Rowdy Herrington

"Well, it was a good night... nobody died."

The Short Version: One of the finest examples of Tough Guy cinema is this rambunctious throwback to Southern Fried 70s style macho movies, six-shooter cinema, and Chinese kung fu films. Patrick Swayze is Dalton, "the best damn cooler in the business", hired to pacify -- in the most painfully persuasive way possible -- the uncouth elements of the swangin' Double Deuce bar. It's an oasis of testosterone packed with blood, sweat, and bare chests; barroom brawls, kung fu, strippers, tough talk, and beer. Lots of beer. 

Famous bouncer James Dalton is coerced into relocating to Jasper, a small Missouri town to clean up The Double Deuce, an out of control bar where bottles and heads are broken every night. Upon his arrival, Dalton discovers the entire town is under the control of a sadistic, corrupt businessman named Brad Wesley. Eventually the situation spirals out of control leading to a kung fu fightin', gun-blastin' climactic confrontation with Wesley and his small army of murderous thugs.

With the 80s winding down, the era of the action hero was coming to an end. Entering the next decade, this celebrated style of hero began flying its flag at half mast, where it remained these last few decades. ROAD HOUSE (1989) -- a two hour male fantasy -- was one of the last of its kind before guys like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal took the torch; only for egoism and bad behavior to cause their careers to quickly dim, finding sanctuary on home video. 

ROAD HOUSE is unique among its burlier, hairier, more muscular colleagues. It's a 1970s Drive-in movie storyline that had a bit too much to drink, and stumbled into a 1980s setting. Those movies seldom adhered to reality and ROAD HOUSE is about as unreal as you can get. It jettisons the popular 80s action template of a seemingly invincible hero taking on scores of gun-toting adversaries without so much as a scratch. Our level-headed cooler Dalton is definitely not invincible. He's a flawed, philosophical, and complicated guy. He's got an answer for every situation, and often that answer comes with an exclamation point in the form of a fist or foot; yet where ROAD HOUSE beats the hell out of reality and throws it out on its ass is in its depiction of law and order -- there is none! 

This is one of those movies where the police are never seen. Even when buildings are blown to kingdom come the police never show up. We're told the evil Wesley owns them, but aside from the climax, no one ever need ask that question about the Bad Boys -- "What'cha gonna do when they come for you?" Regarding his ownership of the local constabulary, it's interesting that the one time we do see the perfunctory police, it's at the end during the wildly over the top settling of accounts at Wesley's mansion. Naturally, nobody saw a thing, and everybody still standing lives happily ever after.

A great many 70s Drive-in films with plotlines revolving around revenge, car chases and excessive violence were little more than modern day westerns; and no doubt in some of those out of the way hamlets, life carried on like it did back in tumbleweed time periods. ROAD HOUSE is an example of this. Jasper, Missouri is essentially an Old Western town married to Chinese kung fu physicality. 

Another thing Rowdy Herrington's rowdy little movie has going for it is attitude. The script contains a staggering amount of balls that's so abrasive, a sign should read on every page of the screenplay, 'only utter lunacy and improbability allowed'. The dialog alternates between the usual macho lingual badassery and old fashioned exchanges heard on countless kung fu movies such as this classic proclamation, "Prepare to die!" It sounds silly here, but only adds to the whole free-wheelin', beer-guzzlin', barroom brawlin' good time that ROAD HOUSE maintains for nearly two hours.

The old western mentality extends to the dialog as well. There's a running gag for Dalton -- everywhere he goes, he's told by those he comes into contact with, "I thought you'd be bigger"; him being a bouncer and all. This being a reference to the "I heard you were dead" line from the John Wayne classic BIG JAKE (1971). John Carpenter reused that line for his ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and later modified it for ESCAPE FROM LA (1996) with "I thought you'd be taller."

Chuck Norris had cornered the market on American made martial arts movies in the 1980s. By the mid 80s onward, he'd given up those more grounded epics for more explosive actioners with less emphasis on karate, and more attention towards big guns and even bigger explosions. ROAD HOUSE contains some impressive martial arts sequences choreographed by martial arts champion, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez. The Jet had appeared in movies prior to this one, his first being FORCE: FIVE in 1981. He was really allowed to shine in two of Jackie Chan's HK made movies, WHEELS ON MEALS (1984) and DRAGONS FOREVER (1988). In America, he was primarily a fight coordinator. You can spot him as one of Wesley's thugs in the car dealership demolition sequence (he's in the blue shirt in insert pic).

One of the keys to the films longevity with action fans is, not surprisingly, the Dalton character. The scriptwriters wisely gave him a backstory -- a fragmented one with just enough info passed along that not only elevates Dalton to legendary status, but doesn't require a whole lot of exposition on Swayze's part other than to spout Zen mantras like "Pain don't hurt" -- often coming before or after an action scene; and like the 70s actioners ROAD HOUSE emulates, there's not a great deal of action to begin with; at least not on the scale of something like a Rambo movie. All the action scenes are limited to brutal brawls accompanied by lots of broken glass, furniture, and bones. There's some spectacular stunts, too.  

Patrick Swayze wasn't an action star on the level of heavyweights like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Stallone. His strength was in his ability to successfully cross into other genres that satisfied both male and female demographics. His career is dotted with Tough Guy roles (UNCOMMON VALOR, RED DAWN), romantic movies (DIRTY DANCING, GHOST), and dramatic television events (NORTH AND SOUTH, NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II). ROAD HOUSE is among his best, and best remembered works. Swayze passed away September 14th, 2009 from pancreatic cancer. He was only 57 years old.

Kelly Lynch plays Elizabeth Clay. She's the pretty doctor that instantly becomes attracted to Dalton when he shows up in her emergency room with a knife wound and a laundry list of past bodily injuries to make Buford Pusser jealous. She's mostly referred to as "Doc". And like all good doctors, she doesn't go all the way on the first date... she waits for the second date. Lynch doesn't add much to the movie other than to be Dalton's love interest, and look good with her lithe, toned frame and full lips. 

Women in general are just window dressing in ROAD HOUSE. It's a GUY movie, after all; and one of the last of a dying breed before, unlike the cops in the movie, the PC police began whipping out the batons on rugged masculinity by the new millennium. But going back to the ladies of ROAD HOUSE, it's reflective of the bar culture. There's women dancing on tables; women using their bodies to turn men on (the vivacious Julie Michaels); and women with a tough attitude (the mouthy Kathleen Wilhoite of MURPHY'S LAW). To be fair, the filmmakers show just as much male skin as female, so there's equality among the sexes in this film; now let's talk about Julie Michaels for a bit.

The hard-bodied beauty was far more than the alluring, sexy pawn she plays in ROAD HOUSE, her film debut. She became a stuntwoman in the 90s for various movies and television programs pulling off some dangerous acts of daredevilry. You may remember seeing her in POINT BREAK (1991), or even WITCHBOARD 2 (1993); or at the beginning of JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993) during a brief encounter with the infamous Crystal Lake slasher just prior to him being blown to pieces. She's appeared in about as many movies as she's performed stunts in. Julie Michaels is still doing stuntwork today, and is still stunning all these years later.

A cult classic in the making, Rowdy Herrington's wild, sexy, lawless oasis of masculinity has aged like a fine wine. One of the supreme examples of hairy man movies, ROAD HOUSE is a drunk and disorderly good time; a satisfying mixed drink made up of only the best ingredients action cinema has to offer.

This review is representative of the MGM/Fox Blu-ray.

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