Masters of the Universe

September 1, 2011

He-Man. You-By-Comparison-Not.

I don’t know much about the Masters of the Universe, but evidently they appear in toy stores everywhere, a Saturday morning cartoon series, and a previously released animated feature film. The storylines, it seems, are full of grotesque characters and incredible mayhem and violence. Kids, of course, love ’em.

Now the characters are in a live-action movie, called, rightfully enough, Masters of the Universe. This film pits those two great antagonists, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and Skeletor (Frank Langella).

As it opens, Skeletor has darn near the entire universe as we know it within his bony grasp. But he must humiliate He-Man, because he hates the fact that He-Man is good, and covered with flesh. (Lots of flesh—Lundgren is the blond behemoth who fought Stallone in Rocky IV).

But He-Man still has control of this gadget that makes noises and emits rays and somehow holds the key to the contest. It falls through one of those holes in the space-time continuum, and lands in a small town on Earth, 1987. The Masters follow. A girl (Courteney Cox, famed for dancing with Bruce Springsteen in the “Dancing in the Dark” video) and her boyfriend mistake the thing for one of those new Japanese synthesizers.

So the rest of the galactic superbattle takes place on boring old Earth. There are a couple of good reasons for this: The same fish-out-of-water routine worked well in Star Trek IV, and you save a bundle of money shooting on a small town location rather than building a bunch of expensive futuristic science-fiction sets.

You can sit there and wonder why Frank Langella would appear in a movie such as this. You can sit there and wonder why Dolph Lundgren works so mightily to disguise his Scandinavian accent, when the future is probably multi-national, anyway. You can sit there and wonder what Barry (“Ernie”) Livingston, who plays the owner of a music store, has been doing since “My Three Sons” went off the air and why he’s in this movie rather than Back to the Beach with the rest of the TV dinosaurs. Then again, you can probably just as well wonder these things without going to the movie.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

Speaking of Barry Livingston, I noticed him in Horrible Bosses and looked him up at that time. The man is indefatigable, still filling out roles in Zodiac and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and the upcoming Hostel III. Good for him. For productivity, he can’t hold a candle to Billy Barty, who was also in this movie and who had a busy Eighties as well. As for the rest of Masters, I cannot say, but it must have had some sort of humor to it just on the casting alone.

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.

Red Scorpion

January 5, 2011

Hollywood has been trying to find something for Dolph Lundgren to do ever since he provided a gargantuan foil for Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV. Lundgren is a huge, blond, muscle-bound slab of beefcake who has since appeared as a cartoonish figure in Masters of the Universe.

The prerequisites for one of his films are: (1) an explanation for his thick accent, (2) lots of excuses to take off his shirt, (3) plenty of ammo to please the “Soldier of Fortune” crowd, and (4) no Shakespearian soliloquies. Dolph’s new film, Red Scorpion, meets all of these qualifications.

The big man plays a Soviet special-services agent, an indestructible assassin with a very funny haircut. He’s sent into an emerging African country where rebels are raising arms against the Soviet occupying force. Lundgren’s assignment is to kill the spiritual leader of the rebel forces.

Once behind the lines, Dolph realizes the error of his political thinking. He’s taught the ways of the African plain by a bushman, a Yoda character, and he decides to help the rebels after the natives tattoo a scorpion on his chest.

This section with the bushman makes Red Scorpion seem a bit offbeat, but director Joseph Zito, a veteran of this kind of action picture, quickly gets things back in gear by dragging in the really heavy artillery. This sort of movie measures its success by the number of explosions it sets off, and there are plenty here.

The movie’s ugly American is played by M. Emmett Walsh, a character actor who specializes in sleazeballs.

The Soviets and the Cubans are the bad guys, in particular a Cuban torture expert who gets Dolph chained up in a cell and begins to push long needles through our hero’s skin. “I am very good at avoiding vital organs,” he chuckles, in the film’s craziest line. Obviously, this movie has “hit” written all over it.

First published in the Herald, April 27, 1989

Nothing too special about this review, but the movie came into mind this week because I watched Casino Jack, the sordid saga of Jack Abramoff, a man whose ethical sleaziness is beyond the reach of M. Emmett Walsh at his slimiest (though Kevin Spacey gives it a spirited go). Abramoff produced Red Scorpion, and the most amazing thing about that fact is that it wasn’t enough for Abramoff to produce a dumb exploitation picture, he had to do it with money allegedly channeled from South Africa, which was still enjoying the strange fruit of its apartheid system. Leave it to Abramoff to sully the proud tradition of crappy grindhouse movies.

As for the film itself, I don’t remember it, but it has strong anti-Communist overtones. Lundgren acquitted himself well in The Expendables, and it does seem as though he should have gotten into some decent films somewhere along the line. Not that there’s anything wrong with I Come in Peace.