Cliffhanger (1993, directed by Renny Harlin)

Sylvester Stallone is Gabe, a mountain climber who also works as a rescue ranger.  Michael Rooker is Hal, Gabe’s colleague and former best friend.  Hal blames Gabe for the death of his girlfriend, Sarah.  Gabe also blames himself and is planning on getting out of the rescue game.  But before Gabe can quit, he’s got one last mission to perform.  Qualen (John Lithgow) is a psychotic former spy who has masterminded a multi-million dollar robbery.  A plane crash leads to the loot getting scattered in the mountains.  Qualen takes Hal and Gabe prisoner and tries to force them to help him track down the money.

Cliffhanger was made during one of the slower periods of Stallone’s career.  He had temporarily retired the roles of both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo and, as an action star, he was being overshadowed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Stallone had tried to reinvent himself as a comedic actor, with the result being Stop!  Or My Mom Will Shoot!  The former Oscar nominee was now only winning Razzies and he was running the risk of becoming better known for his messy divorce from Brigitte Nielsen than for his recent films.  Things weren’t looking good for Stallone but, fortunately, the box office success of Cliffhanger revived his career.

Seen today, Cliffhanger holds up well as an undemanding but enjoyable action film.  It’s a very much a film of its time, complete with John Lithgow hamming it up as a British villain and Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner playing Stallone’s loyal, helicopter-owning girlfriend.  Stallone’s best films are the ones where he is willing to surrender his ego and he does that in Cliffhanger.  It may be a Stallone film but the best lines go to Michael Rooker and the true stars of the film are the mountains and the scenes of Stallone and Rooker trying to climb them.  With Cliffhanger, Stallone was smart enough to stay out of the way and just trust that the image of him dangling above the Rockies would bring in the audience.  It was a smart decision.  Though Cliffhanger is often overshadowed by Stallone’s other 1993 hit, Demolition Man, it’s still an entertaining film in its own right.

Cliffhanger was directed by Renny Harlin, the Finnish action specialist whose promising career would subsequently take a hit and never really recover from directing Cutthroat Island.  Mountain climbing and Renny Harlin just seem to go together and Cliffhanger is one of his better films.  Here’s hope that, just as Stallone has done many times in the past, Renny Harlin will eventually his comeback as a director.

Scenes That I Love: The Robot Montage from George P. Cosmatos’s Cobra

On this date, in 1941, future director George Pan Cosmatos was born in Italy.  Cosmatos would go on to direct some of the most financially successfully (if critically lambasted) films of the 80s.  He’s also credited as being the director on Tombstone, though it’s generally agreed that Cosmatos largely deferred to Kurt Russell on that film.  (Cosmatos was a last minute replacement for the film’s original director.)

Other than Tombstone, Cosmatos is best-known for the films that he did with Sylvester Stallone.  And today’s scene that I love comes from the 1986 film, CobraCobra stars Stallone as a motorcycle-riding cop who never asks question when he can just shoot a big gun instead.  Stallone’s show-no-mercy attitude may upset his superiors but it turns out to be just what’s needed to take care of a murderous cult.  Now, Cobra may be a fairly dumb film but it does have one sequence that pretty much epitomizes an era.  If nothing else, George Pan Cosmatos deserves to be remembered for Cobra’s famous robot montage.  While Sylvester Stallone searches for the murders who are decimating his city, model Brigitte Nielsen poses with a bunch of life-size robots.

One reason why this sequence works is because it really does seem to come out of nowhere.  The film goes from Stallone promising to wipe out the bad guys to a bunch of adorable robots.  It’s all very 80s.  And we have George Pan Cosmatos to thank for it.

Here’s a scene that I love:

Film Review: Stallone, Frank That Is (dir by Derek Wayne Johnson)

Frank Stallone is a great musician and a talented guy and you should really spend some money to see him perform.

That would seem to be the main message of the new documentary, Stallone: Frank That Is. This documentary, which profiles the brother of Sylvester Stallone, was produced by Frank himself so we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that it’s full of people attesting to what a great entertainer Frank is. Billy Zane, Billy Dee Williams, Christopher McDonald, Joe Mantegna, Duff McKagen, Richie Sambora, and Frankie Avalon all pop up and assure the viewers that Frank is a talented musician. Arnold Schwarzenegger tells us that Frank deserves to be known as more than just Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother. Sylvester Stallone himself shows up, to tell stories about how he and Frank once lived in a condemned apartment building and how they smashed a hole in the wall so that their two apartments could become one big loft.

What’s interesting is that, despite the fact that the film often seems like it was largely made to provide Frank Stallone with some encouragement and an ego boost, it also convinces us that Frank does deserve to be known for being something more than Sylvester Stallone’s brother. There’s enough performance footage to show that Frank Stallone actually is a pretty decent singer. Though the film is honest about the quality of most of Frank’s filmwork, there’s still enough footage from the 1987 film Barfly to convince us that, when cast in the right role, Frank Stallone is capable of giving a memorable performance. When he’s interviewed on camera, Frank Stallone comes across as being likeable and a good raconteur. He’s someone who you might want to have dinner with, just so you can listen to his stories about being a struggling musician in New Jersey in the late 60s. (Be sure to ask him about the time that he and his band opened for Bruce Springsteen.) Frank is also honest about how much of his career his owes to his brother, even if he never comes across as if he’s really made peace with that fact.

In fact, Frank Stallone is actually pretty forthright when it comes to admitting that being permanently overshadowed by his older brother totally sucks. After spending several years struggling to make it as a musician, Frank wrote a song for Rocky. Sylvester admits that the main reason Frank was asked was because the budget was too tight to hire anyone who wasn’t a relative. Frank and his band appeared in Rocky, as well as the film’s sequels. He went on to record songs for several of Sylvester’s films, most famously for Staying Alive. And while working on Sylvester’s films made Frank known and even helped him achieve a brief stardom when one of his Saying Alive songs reached the top of the charts, Frank also knew that everyone assumed that he only got hired because he was Sylvester’s brother. When Frank would perform at clubs, he would be credited as being “Rocky’s brother, Frank Stallone.” Understandably, Frank was not happy about that. (Sylvester at one point says that Frank was bitter and that “Frank’s still bitter and that’s one reason why I love him, he’s consistent.”) The only people less happy about the situation than Frank were Frank’s bandmates who found themselves overshadowed by the guy who was best known for being overshadowed by his brother. Frank admits that he often struggled to deal with his odd claim to fame and, as a result, his alienated a lot of people around him.

For all of the celebrity testimonials and funny stories, there’s also wistful sadness that runs through this documentary. As positive and upbeat as Frank Stallone tries to present himself, there’s always a feeling that there’s a lot of regret right underneath the surface. Being Sylvester Stallone’s brother comes across as being both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it opened doors for Frank that probably would never have been opened, On the other hand, it also ensured that Frank is always going to struggle to get people to take him seriously as anything other than a famous sibling. (Even in this documentary, some of the most memorable moments come from Frank imitating Sylvester’s trademark deep voice.) Stallone: Frank, That Is does a good job of suggesting that Frank deserves to be known for more than just his family while also admitting that it probably won’t ever happen.

Scenes That I Love: The Opening of Staying Alive

We’re still in the process of recovering from last week’s winter storm down here and I have to admit that, for me personally, it’s been a bit of a struggle to actually maintain my focus.  Last week’s combination of power outages and freezing weather threw me off of my usual rhythm and I’m still getting it back.

Fortunately, I have a little help from my friends.  Earlier tonight, a group of us watched the 1983 film, Staying Alive.  Staying Alive is the somewhat notorious sequel to Saturday Night Fever.  If Saturday Night Fever was actually a dark and gritty coming-of-age story disguised as a crowd-pleasing musical, Staying Alive is …. well, it’s something much different.  It’s a film about dancing and Broadway, directed and at least partially written by Sylvester Stallone.  Why exactly would anyone think that Sylvester Stallone was the right director to make a movie about dancing and Broadway?  Your guess is as good as mine but, in the end, the important thing is that Stallone wrote a key supporting role for his brother, Frank Stallone.  Frank not only performs several songs but he proves that he can glare with the best of them.

As for the film itself, it opens with Tony Manero (John Travolta) having left behind Brooklyn and the world of disco.  Now, he lives in Manhattan, he teaches a dance class, he humiliates himself looking for an agent, and he’s struggling to make it on Broadway.  (Basically, he’s turned into Joey from Friends.)  When Tony’s lucky enough to get cast in a lavish musical called Satan’s Alley, Tony has a chance to become a star but only if he can …. well, I was going to say control his ego but actually, his ego isn’t that much of a problem in Staying Alive.  Actually, there’s really nothing standing in Tony’s way, other than the fact that — in Staying Alive as opposed to Saturday Night Fever — he’s portrayed as kind of being an irredeemable idiot.  If Saturday Night Fever was all about revealing that Tony was actually smarter and more sensitive than he seemed, Staying Alive seems to be all about saying, “Whoops!  Sorry!  He’s just as obnoxious as you thought he was.”

Staying Alive is a notoriously ill-conceived film, though it’s also one of those films that’s just bad enough to be entertaining when viewed with a group of snarky friends.  That said, the opening credits montage — which features Tony dancing while Kurtwood Smith glares at him — is actually pretty good.  Travolta smolders with the best of them and the sequence does a good job of capturing Tony’s mix of desperation and determination.  It’s unfortunate that Kurtwood Smith pretty much disappeared from the film following the opening credits.  Judging from what little we see of him, Smith would have been pretty entertaining as a permanently annoyed choreographer.  Finally, how can you not love the neon credits?  This a scene that screams 80s in the best possible way.

So, while I continue to work on getting back to my usual prolific ways, why not enjoy this scene that I love from Staying Alive?

Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992, dir. by Roger Spottiswoode)

I always thought this was a made-up movie but it does exist!  I just watched it on Showtime.  This thing is real!

Sylvester Stallone is a tough cop whose mother (Estelle Getty) comes to visit him.  She witnesses a murder and, even though she could easily identify the killers and get them off the streets and save lives, she decides to lie to the police because she’s looking for an excuse to spend more time with her son.  Mother and son team up to take down the bad guys and Sylvester Stallone shouts, “Stop!  Or my mom will shoot!”

I laughed a few time when the movie started, because it was actually funny to see Sylvester Stallone freaking out because his mom was coming to visit.  I even laughed when his mother decided to clean his service revolver with Clorox.  I probably shouldn’t have laughed when Estelle Getty pointed the barrel of the gun right at her face so that she could check to see if it was loaded but I couldn’t help myself.

But then, mom witnesses the murder and lies to the police and Stallone has a dream where he’s an adult but he’s still wearing a diaper.  There are car chases and shoot outs and Getty tries to help Stallone hook up with his boss by sending her a hundred red roses.  Getty shoots a man and then says that no one hurts her boy.  During the entire film, Stallone has a look on his face like he knows that he’s just made the worst decision of his life but it’s too late to get out of it now.  Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot really one has one joke, which is Sylvester Stallone being nagged and embarrassed by his mom.  That jokes get stale after 15 minutes.  By the time mom actually shoots, there’s nothing left.


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.