Scenes I Love: Rambo

Watching Ninja Assassin made me think about how much film and special effects technology has advanced to the point that the ways people can die in a film really is only limited by the imagination of the filmmakers involved. My new choice for “Scenes I Love” may make me come across as some gorehound, violence-loving neanderthal (the first two are actually correct but the third is false since I’m homo sapiens), but I love this scene I have chosen because it’s so over-the-top yet holds many truths to the events happening therein.

Rambo was Sylvester Stallone’s attempt to restart the Rambo franchise and to a certain extent he does so. The film was better than the third one and in terms of storytelling was equal to the second one and just a tad short of the original film. It’s a film one will not write to the Academy about, but Stallone brings back the franchise to what made it popular in the first place. He brought the character of John Rambo back to being the self-destructive, self-loathing, war-scarred veteran who just wants to be left alone to live his miserable life, but always gets dragged into one good-intentioned crusade after another.

This scene happens right at the very end and one could say it’s the film’s climactic eruption of testosterone. Rambo literally explodes Burmese soldiers’ bodies through his effective use of a .50 caliber heavy machine gun (and those who think the gun’s effect on people’s bodies was over-the-top…those people would be wrong. That is exactly what a .50 caliber round does to a body. It doesn’t do a body good) and some help from the people he’s trying to rescue. It’s hard not cheer Rambo in this scene after watching these very same soldiers massacre an entire Burmese village, raping captured young women and bayonet little kids before throwing them into a hut’s raging fire.

This scene also shows why the Rambo films have been labeled as nothing but mindless violence trying to make itself to be something profound (he is killing the bad people and trying to save those who are defenseless). I always though this franchise was just about one very angry guy who may or may not be right in the head, but who definitely has a weird sense of right and wrong. Not to mention very good at killing massive amounts of people in very messy ways.

There’s a part halfway in this scene where the higher-than-though leader of the Christian missionary group (who had earlier in the film lectured Rambo for being too violent in saving his and his people’s lives) played by Paul Schulze sees the carnage happening all around him and decides to go all caveman on one soldier who killed one of his congregation. A part of me actually smirked at this part. I knew that no matter how well-intentioned, principled and civilized a man thinks he is there’s something primal deep down inside that wants to commit violence.

Lisa Marie Does A Line With The Cocaine Fiends (dir. by William A. O’Connor)

Back in the 1930s, the American film industry regulated itself with the Motion Picture Production Code.  The production code stated that, in films, crimes would always be punished, profanity would not be heard, bodies would remain clothed, and drug abuse would not be portrayed.  The only way to get around these rules was to make sure that the film was “educational” and that it pretended to condemn the behavior shown on-screen.  This was the birth of what would eventually become grindhouse cinema.

It’s always interesting to watch these early grindhouse films because, even with the inclusion of such forbidden elements as nudity, violence, and drugs, they all still seem oddly innocent.  Yes, there’s always a scene or two of the lead actress undressed but the camera rarely lingers as if it’s aware that it’s somehow breaking the rules.  Whenever one of these films dealt with drug addiction or white slavery, the depictions were often so heavy-handed and silly that it was obvious that nobody involved with the film had any first-hand knowledge of what they were showing.  The end results were often undeniably fun.

I watched one of these films last night, 1935’s The Cocaine Fiends (also known as The Pace that Kills, which is a much better title).  The Cocaine Fiends starts with a waitress named Jane (Lois January) who meets and falls in love with a mysterious fellow named Nick the Pusher (Noel Madison).  For most people, I would think that Nick the Pusher’s name would be a dead give away to what he does for a living but Jane is from the country and, by this film’s logic, this makes her an idiot.  Anyway, Jane goes to the city with Nick.  Whenever Jane starts to get a headache, Nick gives her some headache powder.  Jane snorts the powder and her headache goes away.  Soon, she’s calling herself Lil and sleeping with strangers to get money so that Nick will keep giving her headache powder.  Soon Jane/Lil discovers that she hasn’t been doing lines of headache powder at all!  Nope, that white powder is cocaine!

(Now, I know you’re probably laughing at Jane but I have to be honest and admit that last year, I was at work when I got a terrible migraine.  This woman who works in the same building as me took sympathy on me and gave me a little packet of white powder.  I quickly got out my credit card and a dollar bill and cut myself a line.  “Wait, what are you doing!?” she said as I held the tightly rolled dollar bill up to my nostril.  “I’m going to do a line,” I said.  “Oh no, honey,” she said, sweetly, “you don’t snort B.C. Headache Powder.”  True story.)

Anyway, Jane’s brother, Eddie (Dean Benton), comes to the city looking for his sister and gets a job working as a carhop.  At his job, he befriends Fanny (Sheila Bromley) who, seriously, is one of the greatest film characters ever.  Seriously, I had a huge girlcrush on Fanny by the end of this film.  Not only is she hot and independent but she also hides cocaine underneath her garter and says stuff like, “Tonight, I’m going to take you on a sleigh ride with some snowbirds.”  Eddie has a crush on Fanny too and they end up hanging out at sordid nightclubs together.  Unfortunately, Fanny also gets Eddie hooked on cocaine and soon, they both get fired.  Eddie forgets about finding his sister while Fanny turns to prostitution to support her habit.

Meanwhile, Fanny’s friend Dorothy (Lois Lindsay) doesn’t use cocaine but she still ends up getting kidnapped by Nick anyway.  Apparently, Dorothy’s father is rich.  While Eddie spends his time at an opium den (a surprisingly effective sequence), Dorothy’s boyfriend Dan (Charles Delaney) recruits Lil (remember her?) to help him rescue Dorothy and hopefully reveal the secret identity of the shadowy figure in charge of the city’s dope trade…

Did I mention all of this happens in 61 minutes?  Seriously, the Cocaine Fiends is one busy film.  Now, to be honest, all of this plot doesn’t leave much room for anything resembling introspection or nuance but perhaps that’s appropriate for a film about cocaine. I do have to admit that the Cocaine Fiends isn’t as much fun as some other exploitation films from the roadshow era.  Unlike a lot of those films, Cocaine Fiends actually does have at least a tenuous connection to reality in that, when abused, cocaine actually is a dangerous drug that can contribute to people doing some pretty dangerous things.  Still, for those searching for sordid melodrama and committed overacting, they’ll find it a surplus of it here.

 That said, like the best grindhouse films, the Cocaine Fiends occasionally offers up a moment or two of true insight.  For me, what made this film more than just a camp oddity was its sympathetic portrayal of women trapped in a cold, male-dominated underground where being female means being a commodity.  What sets The Cocaine Fiends apart from other films of that era (not to mention most films made today) was the fact that it didn’t attempt to present their tragic fate as some sort of karmic punishment or divine retribution for straying from what society deemed the proper feminine path.  Most films continue to insist that women “ask for it.”  Whatever other faults The Cocaine Fiends may have, it knows better than to think anyone asks to be violated, abused, and exploited.

To be honest, the main reason I occasionally watch a film like The Cocaine Fiends is because I’m a just a history nerd at heart.  Watching a film like The Cocaine Fiends, made outside of the idealized worldview of the Hollywood Establishment, is probably about as close as I’m going to get to using a time machine to go back to the 30s and experience the culture firsthand.  I love how Eddie, when Fanny offers to let him stay at her apartment, automatically responds with, “But we’re not married.”  And then there’s the sequence in the “dangerous” night club which, as far as decorations, music, and proper attire are concerned, reminded me of my senior prom.  It’s also where Eddie freaks out upon getting a bill for $9.97.  Luckily, Fanny is there to loan him enough money to pay it.

Anyway, for those who have an hour to kill, here’s 1935’s The Cocaine Fiends…

Quickie Review: Ninja Assassin (dir. by James McTeigue)

There comes around a few films every year which I end up enjoying despite how awful it is to most everyone. I’m a major fan and follower of all things grindhouse and for some grindhouse means it was made during the late 60’s and through most of thru the 70’s. I always thought of grindhouse as a state of mind. I mean I like to believe that’s why Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino make the films that they make (all of them grindhouse films at heart if not execution). So, it happens that in 2009 there was one film which was panned universally by critics and mainstream audiences everywhere. It was the second film by Wachowski Brothers protege James McTeigue. He was the same director who made the impressive V for Vendetta film adaptation (I still believe to this day that the Wachowski Brothers had a hand in directing that adaptation).

When word came down that he was going to do a modern ninja film which included Sho Kosugi (he practically was the star of most, if not all, of the best-known ninja grindhouse flicks of the 70’s and 80’s) there was no doubt that this film would rock. The heightened anticipation for this martial arts extravaganza would turn out to be more a whimper than a bang. James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin became one of 2009’s worst films of the year and part of me don’t agree with how most people viewed it.

The story for this film was quite simple. Former ninja assassin tries hiding from his former ninja clan and it’s badass ninja leader (played by badass ninja-man himself, Sho Kosugi). The part of this former ninja was played by Korean singing pop sensation who went by the name Rain. He got the lead part for this film due to the Wachowski Brothers and uber-action producer Joel Silver having been impressed seeing his work on the Wachowski Brothers’ very-maligned and misunderstood live-action take on the classic Japanese anime series, Speed Racer. The brothers and Silver saw a start on the rise in their midst and decided to make a film around Rain. The fact that the film ended up being Ninja Assassin must’ve been one reason why we haven’t heard of him in the US since.

Still, Rain did a good enough job as the blank-faced, albeit master of the ninja arts, Raizo. He was chosen because he looked the part, moved like the part and probably powers that be thought him being shirtless half the time would bring in the huge J-pop and K-pop demographic. Again, the producers might have been reaching a bit much when they were developing Ninja Assassin.

The rest of the film is Raizo being chased by his former clan, having flashbacks of his time as a child being trained by the Ozuna ninja clan to become their top assassin, then back to the present trying to kill as many ninja as possible, while avoiding getting killed himself. Believe me when I say that the blood and body parts rain down like dismembered bodies were on sale at Wal-Mart and everything was tagged “Entire Stock Must Go!”.

Ninja Assassin will live and die through it’s action sequences and despite the heavy use of CGI-blood the action in this film were pretty good. There’s the usual slo-mo tricks the Wachowski Brothers have become well-known for and it seems like their protege have learned from them well. I actually thought that the ultra-violent and very gory action scenes is why this film reminded me of past martial arts grindhouse flicks. Those were also very bloody and violent. It was as if the filmmakers of those film were telling McTeigue that the more blood and violence the merrier.

I would mention that the film had some good performances from the non-ninja roles played by Naomie Harris and Ben Miles, but I’d be lying. Their work here was passable and just needed to fill the slow and dialogue-heavy gaps in-between ninja butchering. These non-ninja butchering scenes actually slowed the film down. I do believe that if they were replaced with more ninja butchering hapless Interpol security agents and vice versa then Ninja Assassin would’ve turned out a hundred times better. Sometimes mindless gory violence is better than wince-inducing dialogue and exposition.

From the sound of this review one would think that I didn’t like Ninja Assassin. Part of me doesn’t like this film, but the part of my brain which understands the nature of grindhouse flicks loved this film because of the very awful things people say about it. This is a film which was so bad that it passed the point of awfulness and became entertaining in its very own way. I mean this film definitely felt like a Sho Kosugi ninja flick but of the digital age. I always believed that no matter the era and no matter how advanced film techniques get there will always be filmmakers out there who go about in a serious manner to create a good film, but despite their best intentions and plans the overall execution and final product don’t live up to their expectations. In a way, that’s what most grindhouse films tend to be in the end. Films made with the best in mind but got lost in its very own grandiose plans to come out batshit nuts on the other side.

PS: Those wondering how ninja having no guns can take on militayr-trained agents in tactical armor wielding the latest in assault rifles. Well, who needs a Heckler&Koch G36 assault rifle when one can throw shuriken as fast as an assault rifle. In the end, Ninja vs. SWAT makes for a badass, mindless climactic battle scene.