Lock Up

January 24, 2013

lockupSylvester Stallone’s new movie, Lock Up, begins with shots of our hero exchanging loving hugs with his girlfriend and sifting through sentimental old photographs, all accompanied by sensitive piano music.

Piano music? And they call this a Stallone movie? Well, yes, as it turns out. Soon enough, Lock Up gets back to basics. It turns out Sly is a convict on a weekend furlough; he’s quickly back in prison, where he awaits his upcoming release. (His crime, of course, is completely justifiable, so there’s no problem being on his side.)

Unfortunately, he gets transferred from his comfy county club jailhouse to the state’s “garage dump,” a place run by a psychotic warden (Donald Sutherland) who has it in for Stallone. When Sly arrives at the prison, the warden takes him down to look at the nice electric chair and, bathed in red light, announces, “This is hell. And I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

The tour consists of the next 90 minutes, wherein Stallone is beaten up, slammed into the mud, knifed, and driven into the sewers. Such masochism is, of course, a Stallone hallmark, and as always he revels in getting shellacked. There’s also a lot of absurd buddy-bonding, as well as the customary Stallone catch phrases (“Nuthin’s dead ’til it’s buried, man,” is the favorite here).

Director John Flynn (Best Seller) does a competent job in terms of moving things along, but the film is watered down, colorless. The only suspense comes from waiting to see which of Stallone’s little buddies is going to get killed and thus set him off into a climactic rage.

You find yourself waiting for Donald Sutherland to glide into view, because it’s such a relief to see someone who’s interested in doing a little acting. Sutherland doesn’t have very much to work with—most of his role consists of walking over to a window to watch Stallone be humiliated in the courtyard below—but he does bring an elegant sense of depravity to his scenes.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

Not often mentioned when Stallone’s 1980s career is cited, and it was no blockbuster. But as you can see, it taps into some of the man’s most cherished obsessions, and nothing is dead until it’s buried, man.


May 29, 2012

A drunk, our hero, shuffles into a dive in the seediest part of Los Angeles. He sees a woman at the bar who looks about as broken-down as himself. He sidles over next to her and orders a beer. Her conversation starter: “I can’t stand people, I hate them. Don’t you?” He replies thoughtfully, “No…but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Somehow this exchange sets the tone for their friendship, which is the main focus of Barfly, a weirdly wonderful new film written by Charles Bukowski and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Fans of Bukowski’s lowlife writings will recognize his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a down-and-outer who spends his days and nights drinking steadily, getting into fights, and scribbling down stories on stray pieces of paper. He’s actually reasonably content with this existence, until he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), the woman at the bar.

She, as much a drunk as he, rouses a few relatively noble instincts: Henry even takes a shot at getting a job. Meanwhile, Henry’s being pursued by a literary agent (Alice Krige) who wants to buy some of his stories.

Bukowski’s screenplay, and French director Schroeder’s light touch with it, consistently finds the humor and poetry of these gutter-level lives. Bukowski doesn’t sentimentalize or apologize for anything; he also doesn’t spare us any of the grunts or groans or other bodily functions that occur in such a lifestyle. Frequently a line of dialogue will soar too poetically, as with Henry’s observation that Wanda looks like “some kinda distressed goddess,” but this becomes part of the weave of the fabric.

Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller manage a visual delicacy, too; in the way the afternoon light spills into the bar when the door is opened, or the cool night that surrounds Henry when he bends down to a fire hydrant to wash his face after a fight.

Faye Dunaway takes on her uncharacteristically disheveled role and comes out with her best performance in years. There’s also nice supporting work by J.C. Quinn and Frank Stallone (yes, Sylvester’s songwriter brother) as the good and bad bartenders at the Golden Horn, Henry’s hangout.

And Mickey Rourke…well, Mickey Rourke has got to be seen in this one. We know about Rourke’s penchant for roles that are grungy and unkempt, as evidenced lately in Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying. But Rourke gets something completely new here, a wholecloth performance of rolling gait, bruised knuckles, and lilting speech. His line delivery is a singsong that plays devilish tricks on your expectations of how dialogue should be read, and also suggests a background of hurt and humor for his character. You may love or hate this performance, but either way it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

I feel pretty good about this review. There must be some kind of story about how Faye Dunaway got into this unlikely project, and I do not know what that is. Man, you see Rourke’s inventive work here and wonder what might have been.


March 22, 2012

Sylvester Stallone, it seems, will not make a movie today unless he can monkey around with it. He did an on-location rewrite of First Blood that turned a screenplay examining the effects of Agent Orange on some vets into a dumb (if sometimes brutally effective) hunt movie.

Then he trashed Staying Alive, which he rewrote and directed, by creating an appalling hybrid of Flashdance and his Rocky films.

Somewhere Stallone must have read that drama is built on conflict. Unfortunately, Stallone’s character clashes exist just for the purpose of creating meaningless friction. One of the reasons Staying Alive died at the box office after its huge opening weeks was that Stallone had dragged the film down with dreary, senseless exchanges between John Travolta and his female co-stars.

Rhinestone, which Stallone rewrote, has these same dopey disagreements. There’s no reason for Stallone (playing a New York cab driver) and Dolly Parton (playing a country-western singer) to bicker, but they’re periodically given irrelevant excuses to do so.

Parton is a singer in a Manhattan club owned by a weasel (Ron Leibman); he handles Dolly’s career and would like to handle much more of her. She makes a bet with him: If she can take the first person they see, and turn him into a country singer who can last through a single song on the stage of Leibman’s rowdy club, Leibman has to release her from her contract.

If she doesn’t do it, then Leibman gets to extend her contract—and he gets a no-strongs roll in the hay.

Of course, the first person they see is uncouth Italian hack Stallone, and Dolly carts him down to her Southern home town to teach him how to be Country in two weeks’ time. There ensue some amusing adventures, although the gags sometimes have a condescending attitude toward the South that becomes rather smug.

After Stallone’s first rehearsal with Dolly’s pickers and fiddlers—in which he screams an eardrum-bursting version of “Devil with the Blue Dress On”—Dolly’s father (Richard Farnsworth, adorable as always) sidles up to Stallone and levels with him: “That was scary, son.” I can’t improve on that.

But Stallone gets a taste of country when he goes on a drinking bout with a local singer (Tim Thomerson). Their drunk scene is one of the funniest in the movie, but Thomerson is later thrown away as an interesting supporting character so he can be a villain and Stallone can punch him out. Actually, Parton punches him out first.

Rhinestone does make the effort to depict Parton as a perfectly self-sufficient, independent person, and the cast (under the direction of Bob Porky’s Clark) has fun with the fact that she often grabs the initiative before Stallone has a chance.

If you have any doubts about how the film ends, then you’ve never seen a Rocky movie. However, by the time we get to the finish, we’re worn out from the arbitrary crises that crop up time and again. Besides, the film has already had one climax: Before they leave the South, Stallone gets a try-out in front of Parton’s home-town crowd. They sing a delightful duet (something like, “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love, I Just Want to Fall in Bed”—like all the film’s songs, written by Parton) and bring the house down.

It would have been nice if the film had ended there. A subject this wispy shouldn’t have to be stretched to more than 90 minutes. But like Stallone’s showy, wisecracking performance, the movie doesn’t know when to stop.

First published in the Herald, June 1984

I don’t really know what else to say. The movie doesn’t exactly haunt my dreams, but you’d think that somebody might have been able to take the raw ingredients and actually make something fun out of it.

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.


January 31, 2011

shades + matchstick = '86 radness

It seems almost irrelevant to synopsize Sylvester Stallone’s newest film—but would you believe it, Sly plays a renegade cop who resorts to his own unorthodox methods to clear the streets of scum? And would you believe his superiors are always wringing their namby-pamby hands over such trifles as First Amendment rights?

Stallone, as he repeatedly makes obvious through the dialogue and action, has had it up to here with this innocent-until-proven-guilty nonsense. Cobra is his Dirty Harry, and he’ll take care of business—in this case, a subhuman serial killer and maniacal followers—with an arsenal of guns and grenades.

The movie, written by Stallone and directed by his Rambo collaborator George P. Cosmatos, delivers exactly what you’d expect. It’s a vehicle for violence, and the bruising pace is maintained throughout its 90-minute running time.

Cobra is the nickname for this specialty cop who deals in extreme situations. This guy drives a vintage car as oversized as himself, wears blue mirrored sunglasses, and sucks on a matchstick. You can see it right away: attitude problem.

He’s drawn into the serial-killer case when he protects the only witness (Brigitte Nielsen, Stallone’s wife and Rocky IV co-star). After she’s attacked in a hospital, he and his partner (Reni Santoni) spirit her away to a small town in rural California, which is promptly descended upon by dozens of gun-toting motorcycle-riding freaks.

At least one action sequence is okay—the opening, in which Cobra defuses a psycho in a grocery store (Psycho: “I’ll blow this whole place up!” Cobra: “Go ahead, I don’t shop here.”) Of course there are a couple of gonzo car chases, plenty of rock music, and lots of flying glass.

Equally important to Stallone (it seems) is the opportunity for pithy political commentary. He throws his unread newspaper (full of bleeding-heart editorials, no doubt) in the hibachi. He declares the court-and-jury system hopelessly civilized. And a wall photo of Ronald Reagan hangs prominently in his office.

However, the president doesn’t rate quite as high in the film’s pop iconography as Pepsi, who probably paid big bucks to have their logo turn up just about everywhere, including a huge neon sign outside Stallone’s apartment.

Most of Stallone’s hijinks are laughable enough to shrug off. But his final response to a fellow cop’s conciliatory handshake, coupled with the relentlessness of the film’s vigilante message, make Cobra a little more unpleasant than his usual.

I said that Cobra contained nothing unexpected. I correct that. Although Stallone still likes strutting his physique—he sticks his chest out a lot—he does resist the urge to take his shirt off at any time during the film. Perhaps we may view this as a significant variation in Stallone’s storytelling formula. Then again….

First published in the Herald, May 1986

You couldn’t get away from those blue mirrored sunglasses on the poster for Cobra the summer this came out. The film seems nastier and stupider than some of the other breast-thumping action pictures of the period, unleavened by humor or Chuck Norris-level cheesiness. For a good parlor game, try guessing at the actual duties of George P. Cosmatos on his Stallone vehicles.