Rambo III

February 2, 2012

Rambo III lurches under way with one of Sylvester Stallone’s most outrageous concepts ever: that the “full-blooded combat soldier” and full-time war wacko John Rambo would find solace in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Yes, the one-man wrecking crew is seeking inner peace when he’s dragged again into the violent fray.

But this time, as the ads so lugubriously put it, it’s for his friend. That is, the colonel (Richard Crenna) who appeared in the first two Rambo films.

He’s been kidnapped by the Soviet army while on a covert mission within the borders of Afghanistan. When Rambo gets wind of this, he suspends his Buddhist studies and heads west.

That’s the set-up, and if you can’t guess the rest of the movie, you obviously lead some sort of rarefied life. With the intermittent help of some Afghan rebels (one labeled Comic Relief and one labeled Youthful Apprentice), Rambo lays waste to a lot of desert country.

Once the clunky half-hour opening is past, Rambo III really gets into its weave of destruction, and jogs through a bunch of sadistic details: Rambo and the Afghans playing an ancient game that involves the corpse of a sheep; Rambo and friends navigating the sewer system underneath the Soviet prison; Rambo shooting down a state-of-the-art helicopter with a bow and arrow; and, most spectacularly, Rambo removing a piece of shrapnel from his side and cauterizing the wound, a sequence that had the preview audience stamping its feet with approval.

Moments such as the latter almost suggest that Stallone is aware of the ridiculousness of these movies. If so, he didn’t tell director Peter MacDonald, who shoves the action sequences along with grimly efficient regularity. There isn’t anything like character development here. As in comic books, it is assumed that the audience already knows the characters and expects them to do what they always do.

The movie cost something in the neighborhood of $63 million, which puts it among Hollywood’s most expensive ever. (Most reports have pegged Stallone’s fee at $20 million.) The sum is amazing, especially since there’s no sense of it on the screen; how can it cost so much to blow things up? There certainly weren’t any cost overruns on rehearsal time for the actors.

Rambo III will make back a good chunk of that money over the next few weeks, though it will have to perform strongly to match the take of the previous sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. remember, was about refighting the Vietnam War, and in its own pulpy way it touched a national nerve. You have to wonder: Were Hollywood producers kicking themselves when the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan, thus robbing Rambo III of its cultural urgency? But that may be as cynical a suggestion as Rambo himself.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I know what you’re thinking: I saved the “most spectacularly” designation for Rambo pulling shrapnel out of his side, not for shooting down a helicopter with a bow and arrow. That should tell you something about the shrapnel scene. How Stallone resisted sending Rambo back to Afghanistan when he brought the character back in the 21st century I don’t know, but perhaps by sifting again  through this original somebody will find a foreshadowing of the U.S. war there. I myself won’t be doing that.

Rocky IV

May 30, 2011

It’s a bit difficult to remember that the first Rocky was just a movie—and an enjoyable, funny, and sweet movie at that. The subsequent entries have gotten exponentially bloated, so there’s no longer any sense of these things as merely films. They’re cultural phenomena, big and tacky and seemingly bearing no relation to other films.

All the sequels have been written and directed by mega-star Sylvester Stallone; and Stallone may be many things, but he’s not stupid (despite some of the airhead statements he’s made in interviews). He’s got a gut-level instinct for what works on an audience’s emotions. But he blows up his narratives (like his bulging muscles) to such huge proportions, you wonder how he’s going to top his awesome 1985 one-two punch of Rambo and Rocky IV.

Rocky IV finds the Italian stallion happy in his home life (Talia Shire still suffers as his wife, Burt Young still slobbers as Paulie) but wondering about a new challenger form the Soviet Union, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), also known as the Siberian Express.

This Drago, who is roughly the size of Vladivostok, is apparently trained by computer and pumped with steroids. Stallone shrewdly sets him up as the exact opposite of Rocky: Drago is bigger, blonder, colder, and run by committee. Not like our boy.

When Drago demolishes Rocky’s pal Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in a gaudy Las Vegas exhibition (James Brown and some showgirls do a pre-fight routine), Rocky vows to pulverize this Russian—and do it in Moscow. This sets up the obligatory scene in which Talia Shire tells Rocky, “You can’t win,” to which the big guy mumbles something about doing what he’s gotta do.

Rocky retreats to a woodshed somewhere in the Soviet wasteland (really filmed in British Columbia), where he trains in the snow by carrying logs across his shoulders—the most embarrassing of Stallone’s many Rocky-as-Christ images.

This all leads up to the big fight in Moscow, and of course I can’t give away the ending—that would ruin it for those half-dozen or so people who actually wonder whether Rocky might lose. But Stallone has put together another audience-pleaser, and one that is (in my estimation) a lot more fun than Rocky II or III.

Having set his film in Russia, Stallone seems to have been inspired by the great Russian montage filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: Stallone has gone montage-mad. Every 15 minutes or so, the soundtrack erupts with a song that cues a montage of Rocky training, or flashing back through the last three movies, or running up a mountain, where he stands at the summit with his arms outstretched like the Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

And speaking of summit, of course, this film has its own view of American-Soviet relations. Surprisingly enough, after 90 minutes of jingoistic hooey (you’ll be booing those Commies with the rest of the audience), Stallone turns around at the end and opines that hey, we’re all just people after all, regardless of our nationality. Even Drago exhibits a tremor of capitalistic independence. In its own inarticulate way, Rocky IV gets sweet on us again, right at the end.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1985

Stallone never topped ’85, the year of Rambo and Rocky IV, but who has? That duo so perfectly captured the inflated moment of the USA post-Reagan reelection, post-Grenada, post-L.A. Olympics, and pre-Iran scandal/market crash. The fight in Rocky IV is ludicrously stage-managed for maximum manipulation, and it turns out that’s exactly what everybody wanted.

Rocky III

April 11, 2011

They’re saying TRON is the first computer-generated movie. That may be technically and literally true, but my vote goes to Rocky III. The third segment of the (heaven help us) possibly endless Rocky series is the most lifeless and hollow entry by far. Now, I was one of the millions of people who liked Rocky. (Pause for pet peeve: please don’t call the first movie Rocky I. There are no such titles as Rocky I or Jaws I or Godfather, Part I. These original films do not have numbers attached to them. Referring to them this way only furthers the implication that they are somehow connected with their [usually inferior] sequels. But it ain’t necessarily so.) I even thought Rocky II was okay. Not good, but professional if unimaginative in the plodding exercise of following the original’s formula.

But Rocky III is the worst: scenes—and sometimes even shots within scenes—are not connected by any kind of logic, in terms of space and sometimes in terms of plot. The movie has a dead, flat look as though a series of paintings (by LeRoy Neiman) had been hung and photographed. (In the last shot of the film—after an amazingly limp finish—that is exactly what happens.) I’m not really a boxing aficionado, but I know enough to see that the fights are ridiculously staged; one guy hits steadily for a couple of rounds, then the tide turns abruptly and the other guy has the next few minutes—I mean, Sylvester Stallone has it so carefully arranged not to confuse the audience about whether or not they should boo or cheer, he has one guy unable to land a single punch while the fight is going against him.

If the boxing is bad, the story is nonexistent, and the regular crew of actors is required to go through their usual Rocky mannerisms: Burt Young shambles, Burgess Meredith growls, and Talia Shire carries on with what must be the wimpiest characterization in talking pictures. The new cast member—Mr. T as Clubber Lang, Rocky Balboa’s major challenger—can’t really act, but he is pretty scary. Hovering over it all is writer-director-star Stallone, who seems more bizarrely physically overdeveloped in this Rocky. I think he’s done a bad job this time out, but a lot of people seem to disagree. So Rocky may still be a box-office champion, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s really not even a contendah.

First published in The Informer, July 1982

“Bizarrely physically overdeveloped”? I had no idea what was coming in Rocky IV or Rambo—Clubber Lang, all is forgiven. This movie looks innocent by comparison. As lousy as the sequels are, they did get to people; when Rocky Balboa came out, the movie became a surprise hit and generated a lot of online comments about how important these films had been to kids growing up and seeing the Rockys with their dads over the years. More ritual than movie, then: and the formulaic nature of the films becomes part of the point.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

November 28, 2010

Jesus Christ, it's Rambo.

The sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s smash First Blood is here, and it must be noted that the new film is superior to the original, if only because it is even more single-minded and uncluttered than the first orgy of violence.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (I figured they wouldn’t call it Second Blood) continues the adventures of John Rambo, a soul-dead Vietnam vet who is the muscle-bound personification of a fighting machine. He laid waste to most of British Columbia in First Blood.

In Part II, he’s tapped by an Army higher-up (Richard Crenna, repeating his role from the original) to take a secret mission back into Vietnam (the movie was filmed in Mexico). This time, Rambo is to find a prisoner-of-war camp with American GIs, collect photographic proof that they’re still there, and bring the pictures back. That’s all.

Rambo finds the camp. And, being an excitable fellow, he decides he doesn’t like photography. He grabs one of the prisoners and hauls him away to the Army pick-up point.

Then: a double-cross. Turns out the big cheese in charge of the mission (Charles Napier) actually wants the mission to fail, so that the books can be closed once and for all on the POW question. The presence of prisoners distresses him, and he yanks the rescue effort—leaving Rambo at the mercy of the Viet Cong and their Russian allies.

When Rambo finds out he’s been crossed—well, stand back and duck. Stallone shifts into high sneer and the carnage becomes widespread.

It’s hokey and manipulative, and in plot and bam-bam style it’s reminiscent of the recent Chuck Norris Missing in Action quickies. It’s certainly got action, though, and that’s what this kind of movie is all about. The screenplay is credited to Stallone and James Cameron, the man who brought us that quirky hit The Terminator last year. Ultimately, however, Stallone’s collaborators are irrelevant. When he gets involved in a movie, he becomes the whole show, and he rewrote Rambo to suit himself.

Stallone contrives to make this action movie into a message picture by including a protest at the way the returning Vietnam veterans were treated by the war-weary American public. It is difficult to know how sincere Stallone is: he makes his statement at an emotionally effective moment, but appearing within the context of a brutal, bloody gorefest, the sentiment strikes a weird chord.

One note for connoisseurs of presumptuousness: Stallone plays with a Christ motif for his hero here, as he has in the recent Rocky films. This appears to be his lone, feeble attempt at intellectual ambition—similar to the way he uses 50-cent words when he appears on talk shows, as if to say: “See? I think.”

He loves to stretch his arms out into a meaningful, Christlike posture, and when Rambo arrives at the Army camp, someone greets him by saying, “So, you’re the chosen one, eh?”

Sylvester Stallone has no shame.

Originally appeared in the Herald, May 25, 1985

The movie, of course, become a monster hit, and a defining film of its decade. Feeling the need to explain who James Cameron was is a charming little reminder of where we were in ’85. I erred in suggesting that Stallone’s only attempt at intellectual ambition was his beloved Christ imagery; of course he’s tried many other stabs at heaviosity over the years.