Cinemax Friday: Eye See You (2002, directed by Jim Gillespie)


Today, now that he’s received a second Oscar nomination for playing Rocky Balboa, directed several Expendable movies, and reemerged as an icon of American pop culture, it’s easy to forget just how bad Sylvester Stallone’s career was going at the start of the 21st Century.  After appearing in a notable series of flops and going unrewarded after his attempt to reinvent himself as a serious actor in Cop Land, Stallone was in danger of fading into irrelevance.  While Arnold Schwarzenegger was preparing to run for governor, Stallone found himself facing every former star’s nightmare: a career in direct-to-video thrillers.

Eye See You comes from that period of Stallone’s career.  It’s basically a slasher film, except that the victims are all middle-aged alcoholics instead of nubile teens.  Stallone plays FBI agent Jack Malloy, who hits the bottle pretty hard after his girlfriend is murder by a serial killer.  After Malloy attempts suicide, his partner (Charles S. Dutton) sends Malloy to an isolated rehab clinic, one that caters only to cops on the edge.  Unfortunately, the serial killer follows Malloy to the clinic and, when a sudden blizzard hits, the killer starts to pick off all of the cops, one-by-one.

Eye See You (which was originally called D-Tox until someone finally realized that made the movie sound like it was about a robot learning how to be human) is really bad.  Jim Gillespie also directed I Know What You Did Last Summer and he brings out all of the usual slasher tricks but they’re less effective when the people being stalked are adults who should have enough common sense not to split up when there’s a killer on the loose.  The film tries to throw in some of The Thing‘s paranoia and it also tries to duplicate The Shining‘s sense of isolation but none of it really works.  The Thing was set in an arctic research facility while The Shining was set in a hotel that was specifically closed in the winter because of the risk of blizzard.  There’s really no logical reason for Eye See You‘s rehab center to be located out in the middle of nowhere except for the fact that the film needed to get Stallone and the other cops isolated.  Even if you accept that the rehab center needs to be away from civilization, why build it in a location that is certain to get regularly hit by life-threatening weather?

The film is full of great character actors but it wastes them.  If you’re going to have Tom Berenger, Robert Patrick, and Kris Kristofferson all in the same film, one of them should turn out to be the murderer!  Instead, they’re just there to die and it’s hard not to resent a waste of good actors.  For his part, Stallone seems to be mentally checked out, as if he knew during filming that this wasn’t going to be his comeback vehicle.

Fortunately, even after appearing in films like Eye See You,  Stallone was able to eventually make a comeback.  As has often been the case in his career, he did it by taking matters into his own hands and bringing both Rambo and Rocky Balboa back to theaters.  The Expendables films, while hardly being high art, served to remind people of why they liked Stallone in the first place and Creed reminded everyone that Stallone actually can act when he has the right script.  Fortunately, Sly was saved from spend the rest of his career appearing in direct-to-video films and I’m glad.  Direct-to-video is the perfect place for Steven Seagal but Sylvester Stallone belongs on the big screen!

Escape to Victory (1981, directed by John Huston)


In 1942, during the height of World War II, Nazi Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) is surprised to discover that professional English footballer John Colby (Michael Caine) is a prisoner of war in France and that he has formed his own soccer league with his fellow POWs.  Seeing a chance for a propaganda coup, von Steiner arranges for a team led by Colby to be travel to occupied Pairs where they will play a match against the German national team.

Colby agrees, on the condition that it be a real game and that the teams not just be made up of officers.  At the insistence of his senior officers, Colby also allows an American prisoner named Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) to serve as the team’s trainer.  Hatch is plotting to use the match as a cover for his own escape.  When it appears that there’s a chance for the entire team to escape during the match, Colby and his team are forced to choose between defeating the German team or making a run for freedom.

I think that, for most people, that wouldn’t be too difficult of a decision to make.  If I have to choose between escaping a POW camp or winning a match, I’m going to go down the tunnel and do what I have to do to make it across the English channel.  In the movie, though, it’s a matter of pride and I think Michael Caine is probably the only actor who could make such a conflict feel credible.  Though Stallone got both top billing and a romantic subplot with a member of the Resistance, it’s Michael Caine’s movie all the way through.  From the minute he demands to know “what the bloody hell” is going on, Michael Caine owns Escape to Victory.

Escape to Victory is an old-fashioned war film.  Think of it as being The Great Escape with tons of soccer kicked in.  Fans of the game will probably enjoy seeing legendary players like Pele and Bobby Moore cast as the POWs who make up Colby’s team.  The movie has some slow spots but it’s ultimately a rousing adventure, featuring good performances from Caine, von Sydow, and Sylvester Stallone.  It’s interesting to see Stallone cast as someone who isn’t automatically the best player on the field.

The film is based on a true story, one that sadly did not share this film’s happy ending.  In 1942, a group of Ukrainian POWs played an exhibition match against their German captors.  When the POWs won the match, the Germans responded by executing the majority of the players.  The true story of the Death Match (as it was later called) was told in 1962, in a Hungarian film called Two Half Times In Hell.

Nighthawks (1981, directed by Bruce Malmuth)


DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are two tough New York cops who just want to be left alone so that they can arrest muggers and purse snatchers.  However, because they both have a background in the military, they are assigned to work with an international anti-terrorism task force that is being headed up by Detective Inspector Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport).  Rumor has it that the notorious terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) is coming to New York and Hartman tells DaSilva and Fox that they must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to take Wulgar down, even if it means taking a shot while he is hiding behind a hostage.  DaSilva says he’s not sure that he could shoot an innocent person, even if it meant stopping Wulfgar from escaping.

Wulfgar has no such moral qualms.  Wulfgar is a terrorist-for-hire who claims to be fighting for the people but whose main interest is remaining employable.  Unfortunately, Wulfgar has become so ruthless and so cavalier about killing civilians (including children) that most terrorist groups have started to refuse to hire him.  He brings too much bad publicity to his employers.  Wulfgar has come to New York to lead a bombing campaign, with the hope of once again making himself employable.  Wulfgar’s partner in all of this is the equally ruthless Shakka Kapoor (Persis Khambatta).

Nighthawks was one of the films that Stallone made after he found stardom as Rocky but before he redefined his career by playing John Rambo.  Stallone actually gives a surprisingly good performance as DaSilva.  DaSilva may be another tough cop who plays by his own rules but the script still gives the character some unexpected shadings and Stallone plays him as being more cerebral than you might expect.  It’s interesting to see Stallone play a character who is worried about using excessive force to do his job and, to the film’s credit, it actually takes DaSilva’s conflicted feelings seriously.  Billy Dee Williams, unfortunately, is not given as much to do as Stallone and his character is far more one-note than Stallone’s.  He’s the loyal partner and, with his natural charisma, Williams deserved a role with more depth.  Also appearing in small roles are Joe Spinell (as Stallone’s boss), Lindsay Wagner (as Stallone’s ex-wife), and the legendary pornographic actor Jamie Gillis (as Wagner’s boss).

Not surprisingly, the film is stolen by Rutger Hauer, who gives a performance that, in many ways, anticipates his more acclaimed work in Blade Runner.  As played by Hauer, Wulfgar is a charismatic sociopath who knows exactly the right thing to say but who, because of his own arrogance, is still vulnerable to allowing his emotions to get the better of him.  He and Stallone both play-off each other well and their face-to-face confrontations are intense.  It probably helped that Hauer and Stallone did not personally get along during the filming.  (Both, however, were very complimentary towards each other in the years that followed Nighthawks, with Hauer especially saying that there was nothing personal about their on-set arguments.)

Nighthawks is hardly an in-depth look at the realities of international terrorism but it has a handful of exciting action scenes and two excellent performances from Stallone and Hauer.  It’s currently on Netflix and worth watching.

Cobra (1986, directed by George Pan Cosmatos)


“You’re the disease.  I’m the cure.”

When a madman pulls out a gun in the middle of a supermarket, he starts out by firing at the produce department.  He doesn’t shoot at anyone who works in the produce department.  Instead, in slow motion, he blows away cabbages and apples.  Then he shoots a shopping cart.  He finally gets around to shooting one innocent bystander after telling him to walk down an aisle.

Outside the supermarket, a 1950 Mercury Monterey Coupe pulls up.  The personalized license plate reads Awsum 50.  The car’s driver (Sylvester Stallone) steps out of the car.  His name is Lt. Cobretti but everyone calls him Cobra.  Detective Monte (Andy Robinson, who played the killer in Dirty Harry) tells Cobra to stay out of it.  Cobra ignores him and goes into the store.

The guman raves that he’s a part of the “new world.”

“You wasted a kid for nothing,” Cobra says.  “Now, I think it’s time to waste you.”

And then Cobra does just that.

After getting yelled at by his superiors, Cobra drives back to his apartment, throws away his mail, and uses a pair of scissors as an eating utensil.  Just another day in the life of Cobra.

If you hadn’t already guessed, Cobra is the ultimate Sylvester Stallone-in-the-80s Cannon film.  In 1985, Stallone could do any film that he wanted to and, even if he wasn’t the director, the job was usually given to someone who wouldn’t stand in the way of letting Sly achieve his vision.  (That vision usually involved Stallone getting all of the good shots while everyone else dove for cover.)  Stallone is credited as the writer of Cobra and whatever else you can say about the man and his films, Stallone the screenwriter knew exactly what Stallone the actor was good at.  There’s not much meaningful dialogue in Cobra and most of it is made up of either Stallone threatening to shoot people or characters like the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson) bragging about how Cobra can’t touch him because of the constitution.  There is more intentional humor in Cobra than I think most people realize and there are a few scenes that only make sense if you accept that Stallone was poking fun of his own monosyllabic image.  For the most part, though, Cobra is nonstop violence from beginning to end.

Amazingly, Cobra started out as Beverly Hills Cops.  Before Eddie Murphy was cast as Axel Foley, Beverly Hills Cop was briefly meant to be a Sylvester Stalllone film.  Stallone, however, rewrote the script and took out most of the humor.  After the film’s producers reminded Stallone that they were trying to make a comedy, Stallone left the project and most of his ideas ended up in the script for Cobra.  The film features a murderous cult, led by the knife-wielding Night Slasher, that is determined to destroy anyone who they think is standing in the way of the “new world.”  Only Cobra can both stop them and also protect the life of their latest target, a model named Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen).  It’s hard to imagine Eddie Murphy dealing with any of this but it’s perfect for Stallone.

Cobra is a live-action cartoon and Cobra’s battle with the Night Slasher should be taken as seriously as He-Man’s battles with Skeletor.  The Night Slasher has no motivation beyond just being evil, Cobra never runs out of bullets or takes even a piece of shrapnel despite having hundreds of cultists shooting at him, and there’s an extended sequence where Ingrid poses with life-size robots.  Cobra chews on a toothpick and wears dark glasses and that’s all the personality he needs.  After all, crime is the disease and he’s the cure.

 

Rambo: Last Blood (2019, directed by Adrian Grunberg)


John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, of course) is back!

He’s in his 70s now.  He talks a little slower.  He moves a little stiffly.  He wakes up every morning and takes a hundred different pills.  He says that he has finally given up his anger but, deep down, he’s still the same Rambo who blew up the town of Hope, Washington before becoming an international problem solver.  He still likes to dig underground tunnels and make weapons.  When he’s not doing that, he and Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) run his father’s old horse ranch in Arizona.

When Maria’s granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), sneaks down into Mexico to search for her biological father, Rambo goes after her.  When he discovers that Gabriela has been kidnapped and drugged by a Mexican cartel, Rambo announces that he’s going to rescue her and get revenge, even if it means blowing up the entire southwest to do it.

There’s a scene in Last Blood where Rambo literally rips a man’s heart out of his chest and holds it in front of his face while he dies.  That’s pretty cool and doubly impressive when you consider that Rambo’s not that young anymore.  I’m 40 years younger than Rambo and I can’t do that.  Other than that, though, Last Blood is a disappointment.  The cartel makes for a forgettable group of villains and too much of the plot depends on otherwise intelligent people suddenly doing something stupid.  The Rambo films have never been known for their carefully constructed storylines but, even by the standards of the previous films in the series, Last Blood feels as if it was hastily slapped together.

The main problem, though, is that John Rambo doesn’t feel like Rambo.  There are references to the time that Rambo spent in Vietnam and Rambo does use several VC-style booby traps to take out most of his enemies but otherwise, Sylvester Stallone might as well have just been playing John Smith.  I spent the whole movie waiting for Rambo to at least say something along the lines of, “A friend of mine from Nam — his name was Sam Trautman — taught me this,” but instead, the previous Rambo films go largely unacknowledged until the end credits, during which we see some scenes from our hero’s past adventures.  If you’re going to make a Rambo film, it should feature a story that could only happen to Rambo and a problem that only he can solve.  Last Blood felt like it had more in common with Taken than Rambo.

Rambo’s had a good run but, on the basis of Last Blood, I think it may be time to let the character enjoy his retirement in peace.  He’s earned it.

 

Rambo (2008, directed by Sylvester Stallone)


When a group of Christian missionaries needs someone to guide them into Burma so that they can provide medical supply to the oppressed Karen people, they approach John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).  The missionaries think that Rambo is just an American living in Thailand who makes a meager living as a snake catcher and a boat guide.  Because we’ve seen the previous Rambo films, we know that John Rambo is actually a Vietnam vet who, after destroying the town of Hope, Washington, was recruited by the government to rescue POWs in Vietnam and fight the Russians in Afghanistan.

At first, Rambo tells the missionaries that it’s foolish for them to go anywhere near Burma and that he wants nothing to do with them.  It’s only when Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) asks him personally that Rambo agrees to ferry the missionaries up the Salween River.  Rambo isn’t doing it for the missionaries.  He’s doing it to protect Sarah.

Unfortunately, on the way to the village, Rambo is forced to kill a group of pirates and he is rejected by the pacifist missionaries and, after he drops them off at the village, they order him to leave.  However, after the village is attacked and Sarah is taken prisoner by the Burmese military, Rambo returns.  This time, he’s with a group of younger mercenaries who, like the missionaries before them, don’t know what Rambo is capable of doing.  Rambo soon proves that he might not be as young as used to be but he’s still just as deadly.

During the final 11 minutes of this movie, Rambo kills over a hundred people but fortunately, they’re all bad.  It’s excessively violent and gory and it’s also totally awesome.  When you go to see a Rambo movie, you’re not expecting to see Shakespeare.  You’re expecting to see Rambo blow away the bad guys and, on that front, this film definitely delivers.  Even more than the previous films in the series, Rambo is up front about what happens when someone gets shot by a machine gun or blown up by a bomb.  It’s not pretty picture.  The violence is so gruesome that Rambo could almost pass for an antiwar film if the people that Rambo blows up weren’t all portrayed as being almost cartoonishly evil.

Rambo is also upfront about what that type of violence would do to a man’s psyche.  This film features one of Stallone’s best performances.  Eschewing the comic book heroism of the 2nd and 3rd films in the franchise, Rambo reminds us that, when first introduced in First Blood, John Rambo was portrayed as being a seriously damaged and bitter man, someone who hated what the war had done to him and who felt that he no longer had a home in the normal world.  Stallone was 62 when he starred in Rambo and he surrendered enough of his vanity to actually allow himself to look and sometimes act his age.  In this film, Rambo may start out as bitter but he finally accepts that his pain doesn’t have to define his life.  “Live for nothing or die for something,” Rambo says, a line that has subsequently been picked up by the real life Karen National Liberation Army in Burma.

Of the four sequels to the original First Blood, Rambo is the best.  It has the biggest action sequences, the best Stallone performance, and it alerted people to very real atrocities being carried out against the Karen people.  Coming out shortly after Rocky Balboa, Rambo was one of the films that reminded audiences that Sylvester Stallone still had it.  Rambo was a box office success and, 11 years after its release, it was followed by Last Blood.  I’ll be reviewing that one tomorrow.

Here’s The Trailer For Rambo: Last Blood!


So, today, twitter is all abuzz over the trailer for the upcoming Rambo film.  Apparently this film, which is called Rambo: Last Blood, will be the final time that Sylvester Stallone will ever play John Rambo and it features Rambo coming home and fighting a Mexican drug cartel.

Look, to be honest, this trailer pretty much looks like a typical Sylvester Stallone trailer.  It could just as easily be the trailer for another Expendables film, except for the fact that Rambo has become an iconic figure in the annals of cinematic mayhem.  Just the mere mention of the name gets certain filmgoers excited.

Of course, I watched First Blood earlier this year and I was surprised to discover just how good a film it actually was.  And, of course, action film enthusiasts are still talking about that scene in Rambo where the title character kills the population of a small country in a matter of minutes.  So, I get why people are excited about this trailer but, at the same time, it still feels a bit generic.

This trailer also features Old Town Road because God knows it’s not like that song is currently overplayed or anything.

There’s one thing that I do think we definitely have to give Sylvester Stallone credit for.  I’ve read that, during the first part of his stardom, Stallone wasn’t always pleasant to work with and that he sometimes resented being thought of as just being an action star.  But, during the twilight of his career, it would appear that Stallone has definitely made a sort of peace with the roles that define him.  He understands what he does well and he tries to give his audience what they came for.  I’m predicting that, when Stallone’s 90 years old, he’ll probably still be making movies where he beats up terrorists.  By this point, of course, the terrorists might be attacking a retirement home but Stallone’s going to be there to put them in their place.

And we’ll all be better off for it!

Anyway, here’s the trailer:

Music Video of the Day: Peace In Our Life by Frank Stallone (1985, dir by ????)


On a whim, after I finished my review of First Blood, I decided to check to see if there were any music videos featuring Sylvester Stallone’s brother, Frank Stallone.

Lo and behold, from 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Enjoy!

Film Review: First Blood (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


First Blood was not what I was expecting.

From everything that I had heard and seen over the past few years, I was under the impression that this 1982 film was the ultimate in mindless action.  I figured that the film was basically just two hours of Sylvester Stallone hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and eventually blowing up a small, bigoted town.  It wasn’t a film that I was in any particular hurry to experience but I knew it was one that I would have to watch eventually, if just because of how many filmmakers have cited the film as an influence.  On Sunday night, First Blood aired on the Sundance Channel and, for the first time, I watched it all the way through.  What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to First Blood than I had been led to believe.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s definitely an action film.  Stallone spends a lot of time hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and blowing up a town.  Somewhat improbably, only one character actually dies over the course of the film, though quite a few end up getting maimed and wounded.  There’s even a close-up of Stallone stitching up a nasty gash on his arm, which totally made me cringe.  But, even with all the gunfire and explosions, First Blood has more on its mind than just carnage.  It’s a brooding film, one that angrily takes America to task for its treatment of its veterans and outsiders.  In its way, it’s an action film with a heart.

Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled drifter who is still haunted by not only his experiences in Vietnam but also by the feeling that his own country doesn’t want him around.  When Rambo, with his unkempt hair and wearing a jacket with an American flag patch prominently displayed, shows up in the town of Hope, Washington, it’s not to cause trouble.  He just wants to see an old friend, a man with whom he served.  Unfortunately, his friend has died.  The man’s bitter mother says that he got cancer from “that orange stuff they were spraying around.”  Even though the war is over, it’s still killing the only people who can possibly understand how Rambo feels about both his service and his uncertain place in American society.

As Rambo walks through the town, he’s spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy).  Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee and relax.  Teasle, however, views Rambo as being a stranger and, therefore, a possible threat to his town.  Teasle wants Rambo to leave.  Rambo wants to know why, after everything that he’s sacrificed for his country, he’s being told that he needs to get a haircut.  From this simple conflict — a misunderstanding really, as Teasle doesn’t know that Rambo is mourning the death of his friend and instead interprets Rambo’s sullen silence as being a threat — an undeclared and unwinnable war soon breaks out.

Technically, Teasle is the film’s villain.  He’s the one who arrests Rambo for vagrancy.  It’s his abusive deputies who cause Rambo to have the flashbacks that lead to him breaking out of jail.  It’s Teasle’s arrogance that leads to him ignore the warnings of Rambo’s former commanding office, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna).  And yet, Teasle himself is never portrayed as being an evil man.  Instead, Dennehy plays Teasle as being well-meaning but stubborn.  It’s been written that the most compelling villains are the ones who don’t realize that they’re the villain and that’s certainly true in Teasle’s case.  Teasle’s job is to protect the town and its citizens and that’s what he’s determined to do.  If his actions become extreme, it has less to do with any deliberate cruelty on his part and everything to do with the fact that, towards the end of the film, he finally figures out that he’s in way over his head.

Once Rambo has disappeared into the woods and maimed (but not killed) all of Teasle’s deputies, he only has one request and that’s to be left alone.  He simply wants to stay in the woods, hunting for food and free from a society that has nothing to offer him during peacetime.  What’s interesting is that, at the start of the film, everyone wants Rambo to just disappear.  He’s a reminder of not just the turmoil of the Vietnam era but also the fact that Vietnam was the first war that America lost.  Rambo’s presence is viewed as being like an ugly scar that you wish would just fade away.  However, once Rambo does actually vanish, people won’t stop looking for him.  As opposed to the later films in the franchise, the Rambo of First Blood doesn’t want to fight anyone.  Rambo just wants to be left alone in solitude and considering the way that he’s treated by the town of Hope, it’s hard to blame him.

And so, you end up sympathizing with this John Rambo.  Even thought he’s blowing up a town during the Christmas season and there’s a few scenes where he’s kind of scary, it’s impossible not to feel that he has a right to his anger.  You find yourself wishing that the Sheriff had just left him alone or that maybe Rambo had just taken Teasle’s earlier advice and left town.  Because, as you watch the film, you know that 1) there was no good reason why any of this had to happen and 2) things probably aren’t going to end well for either John Rambo or Will Teasle.

First Blood was based on a novel that was first published in 1972.  The film spent nearly a decade in development, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors circled around the project.  At one point, First Blood was envisioned as an anti-war film that would have been directed by Sidney Lumet and which would have featured a bearded Al Pacino lurking through the wilderness and killing not only Teasle but also several deputies and national guardsmen.  When Stallone agreed to star in the film, he also rewrote the script, transforming Rambo into a sympathetic outsider who goes out of his way not to kill anyone.  The end result was an underdog story that audiences could embrace.

Seen today, it’s interesting to see how many familiar faces pop up in First Blood.  For instance, a young and really goofy-looking David Caruso pops up and totally overacts in the role of the only sympathetic deputy.  A less sympathetic deputy is played by Chris Mulkey, who would go on to play other unsympathetic characters in a huge number of movies and TV shows.  Interestingly enough, the most sadistic of the deputies was played by Jack Starrett, who directed a several classic B-moves in the 70s.  (One of Starrett’s films was The Losers, in which a bunch of bikers were sent to Vietnam to rescue an American diplomat.)

As opposed to many of the films that it subsequently inspired, First Blood holds up surprisingly well.  It may be violent but it’s violence with a heart.

Here’s The Trailer for Creed II


The first Creed was a boxing film that was so good that even a non-boxing fan like me could enjoy it!

Will the second Creed be as effective?  It’s hard to say.  Michael B. Jordan is returning.  Sylvester Stallone is returning.  You know who isn’t returning?  Ryan Coogler.  And while Jordan and Stallone were both a huge part of Creed‘s success, Ryan Coogler’s contribution — as both a director and a writer — cannot be underestimated.

Creed II is based on a screenplay by Stallone.  (Reportedly, Stallone came close to directing it as well, before hiring Steve Caple, Jr. for the job.)  This time, Adonis Creed battles the son of the man who killed his father.  Apparently, Rocky survived the illness that was threatening his life in the first Creed because he’s back and once again offering up punch-drunk advice.

Will the second Creed live up to the first?  It’s hard to say but the trailer certainly looks effective.  Creed II will be released on November 21st.  While I don’t think anyone is expecting Creed II to be an Oscar contender, the film could potentially help Michael B. Jordan’s supporting actor campaign for his role in Black Panther.  And if Creed II is a failure …. well, who knows?

We’ll see what happens!

Here’s the trailer!