(Second viewing, On TV, September 2017) The four-movie Rambo series may be all about an American icon, but it’s fascinating to see, peering closer, that all four movies have their own particular aesthetics. The first film is a gritty post-Vietnam drama about PTSD. The second in an all-out revenge fantasy. The fourth is a reprehensible pile of gory grittiness without much of a point. The third … is just plain dull. Heading to Afghanistan to help the soon-to-be Taliban in fighting the Soviet Empire, Rambo III goes through the motions of an eighties action movie without doing much more than the required minimum. The first half of the film has a mildly compelling arc in bringing back Rambo to the battlefield (so much so that it would form the backbone of the Hot Shots Part Deux parody), but the film’s second half loses itself in well-worn action movie tropes, although the ending sequence finally has some energy in it. It doesn’t make for a very good third entry in the series. While Rambo III’s troubled production may account for some of the lack of focus, the lack of excitement does doom the film to mediocrity—if Sylvester Stallone and the Rambo series weren’t linked to this film, it would be essentially forgotten today.
(Second viewing, On TV, September 2017) As a Canadian, it amuses me to point out that John Rambo, a character that has come to embody the worst excesses of American jingoism, was twice created by Canadians—novelist David Morrell for the novel that gave rise to the PTSD-ridden Rambo of First Blood, then screenwriter James Cameron who developed Rambo-the-war-machine of First Blood Part II. The real story is a bit messier than the sound bite (starting with the influence of all-American Sylvester Stallone in re-writing and playing the character), but it’s a reminder that the character has a far more nuanced origin story than simply seeing Stallone re-win the Vietnam war by himself. It’s practically impossible to re-watch Rambo II today from a simple-minded entertainment perspective: the film itself cries out for socio-critical commentary, either as a gold-plated representation of the Regan-era mindset, as a repudiation of post-Vietnam humility, as wish fulfillment writ national, or as a dispiriting proof that audiences will be gleefully cruel as long as you appeal to their base instinct. Because, not to put it too bluntly, Rambo II is in many ways a terrible film. The set-up makes no sense; the dialogue is blunt to the point of being ridiculous, the plot threads are barely disguised and the overall plot couldn’t be more obvious. Appealing to unsophisticated plot elements, the film gleefully multiplies Rambo’s enemies because, well, why not? It’s not enough to fight Vietnamese soldiers holding American hostages—let’s throw in even-more-evil Russians and duplicitous American weasels who clearly can’t measure up to John Rambo, Esq. as a true-blooded depiction of what it means to be American (mostly by killing everyone else). Sarcasm isn’t just easy in commenting Rambo II: it’s almost mandatory. But here’s the thing: it seems to work in a low-level cunning way. I’d draw the parallels with the rise of reactionary elements in American politics circa 2017, but you’re probably ahead of me in this regard—maybe it’s better to sign off while acknowledging than even in reaching for the lowest common denominator, Rambo II does find one and exploits it for all it’s worth.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) The good news are that Assassins is a crazy movie in the best sense of the term: It’s disconnected enough from reality to be enjoyable as a big basket of overdone action sequences and familiar genre elements. The not-so-good news is that it’s not really a good movie—much of the storyline is dull and for a movie involving the Wachowskis and Brian Helgeland, it fails to capitalize on its sizzle factor. Thanks to veteran director Richard Donner, there are some good sequences here and there: the taxicab blocked-by-a-bulletproof-window duel is ingenious in the way more of the movie should have been. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas ham it up enough as competing assassins. But the best thing about Assassins may be Julianne Moore: For an actress who has such a firmly established persona of mature dignity, it’s a real treat to see her in a pre-stardom role that asks her to be trashy/techno in one sequence, then doe-eyed/cute for the rest of the film. Assassins is also the source of the delightful “Antonio Banderas’s Laptop Reaction”.gif, so there’s a tiny bit of internet meme history along the way. Assassins isn’t a major movie in any way and has already ended up as a footnote in other people’s careers, and it should be approached as such: Not as a movie expected to be good, but a grab bag of things that may be interesting.
(In French, on TV, June 2017) Sometimes, we’ve grown so accustomed to the parody that we’ve forgotten what the original looked like. If your idea of 80s cop action drama dates from Last Action Hero, then go back to Tango & Cash for a look at what the pure ridiculous source material could look like. To be fair, it’s not as if Tango & Cash takes itself seriously—there’s already a bit of self-parody built in the film, and the results, as seen from nearly thirty years later, are often nothing short of ridiculous. There’s Sylvester Stallone, fooling no one by wearing glasses that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But then there’s Kurt Russell, chomping scenery as another loose-gun policeman. It takes place in Los Angeles, of course. It covers quite a bit of male bonding between two headstrong partners. It’s bonkers in the most asinine action-movie ways, such as sending two cops in jail, and them allowing them to break out. To be fair, the prison sequence is the film’s highlight—the subsequent investigation back in the world pales in comparison. Tango & Cash is a bit of a mess, which can be explained if you read about its troubled production history. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly entertaining one, except in bits and pieces. At least Stallone and Russell are both quite good in their characters, with a showy supporting role for Jack Palance and pre-stardom Teri Hatcher. Tango & Cash is a must-see for whoever is interested in the history of buddy-cop movies, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything essential for everyone else.
(On TV, February 2017) Some movies are burdened with a bad reputation well before we can see a single frame of it, and so Staying Alive remains widely vilified as a terrible sequel to the quasi-classic Saturday Night Fever. But an appraisal nearly thirty-five years later may be more forgiving: While it’s nowhere near the dramatic intensity and off-beat maturity of its predecessor, Staying Alive has become a strangely interesting follow-up, steeped into eighties atmosphere like few others. Our hero has become a struggling Broadway dancer, and much of the movie avoids disco entirely to focus on nothing much more than a story of love and ambition set against the New York music theatre scene. John Travolta is, once again, very good from a purely physical performance point of view: he dances well even though the spotlight is seldom just on him. Finola Hughes is also remarkable as the film’s enigmatic temptress figure. Otherwise, though—it’s your standard romantic triangle, climbing-the-rungs-of-success kind of film. Under writer/director Sylvester Stallone, it plays like an underdog drama set on Broadway, with a finale that has the merit of not being purely triumphant. It’s, in other words, an average film that would be hazily remembered today if it wasn’t for its association with its predecessor. I can imagine the let-down in 1983 as fans of the first movie watched this follow-up and wondered what happened. Today, freed from some of those expectations, Staying Alive is merely ordinary, although the eighties atmosphere has now become an advantage for the film.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) As a sequel in the Rocky series, Creed is far better than it could have been. Part of the appeal is to shift the perspective from Rocky Balboa to a new protagonist: Michael B. Jordan is very good as the new lead, but Sylvester Stallone turns in an even better performance that taps into the vulnerability of old age, wringing a lot of drama out of seeing a once-invincible protagonist facing down his own mortality. But Creed also works because it’s got a bit more on its mind than simply presenting an underdog boxing story: in its own way, it tackles racial inequality, class issues and romantic entanglements where the two lovers have their own agendas (the woman isn’t simply there as a complement to the male protagonist). It also helps that Ryan Coogler knows how to shoot a movie: The best sequence of the film is a two-round boxing match unbelievably shot as a single take from within the ring, giving a fresh and viscerally compelling look at boxing sequences that are usually stale and familiar. Creed adds up to a worthy generational passing-of-the-torch, an above-average boxing film and a film that dares go a bit beyond the expected to deliver something deeper and better.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) It’s funny how time can polish some things. If contemporary accounts are to be believed, Cop Land earned mixed reviews upon initial release, with a lot of people disliking Sylvester Stallone’s turns as a lumbering town sheriff dealing with a community of crooked cops on his watch. But seen nearly twenty years later, the film has somehow accumulated a lot of qualities along the way. For Stallone, his performance here still stands tall as a strong dramatic role, unglamorous and willing to play with the confines of a flawed protagonist. (Meanwhile, isn’t it awesome to see Robert de Niro not playing a parody of himself?) The dramatic heft of the crooked-cop themes is pleasant, as is the sense of morally-compromised characters trying to do the right thing even as they don’t understand who’s with them or not. The premise of a town almost dominated by policemen creates a unique atmosphere, and the film does earn its happy ending along the way. In short, Cop Land plays a lot better now that it seems to have done upon release, and it holds up as a solid police drama. …and keep in mind that I seldom say nice things about Sylvester Stallone.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) Grudge Match isn’t an unofficial remake of Rocky Balboa, but is sure does feel like it at times, as a retired boxer played by Sylvester Stallone takes up the gloves once again to face an old rival. But while Rocky 6 tried hard to keep up the serious underdog tone of its series, Grudge Match thankfully seems willing to let the natural comedy in its premise run free. Or so it seems for a while, it bits and pieces –because far too often, Grudge Match lets go of its comic premise and muddles down in emotional sequences that take away from its strengths. It doesn’t help that the film is deeply conventional – it’s not so bad when the characters are exchanging barbs or indulging in easy physical comedy, but when Grudge Match gets serious, it also gets dull. Still, there is considerable entertainment in seeing Robert de Niro take up old glories (although this does nothing to calm critics claiming that his twenty-first century output so far has been almost entirely riffing on his previous career), and Stallone arguably plays a better take on his Rocky Balboa character. Alan Arkin once again plays crusty-old-guy better than anyone else, much as Kevin Hart can somehow remain a non-obnoxious motor-mouth. It’s also good to see Kim Basinger again in a substantial role. The laughs rescue the film from rote emotional familiarity –there is, in particular, a single-shot silent gag involving a bridge, jogger, a scooter and careful composition. Still, Grudge Match is pretty good entertainment, especially for anyone in the mood for a solid way to pass the evening.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Given my less-than-favorable reactions to the first two films of The Expendables series, I’m not overly surprised to find out that the third installment isn’t any better. It’s different in that the directing duties are handled in an unexceptional fashion by Patrick Hughes, that it thankfully abandons the R-rated CGI gore for a PG-13 rating that doesn’t change much and that it features even more veteran actors in small roles. Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer both seem to have fun, but Mel Gibson steals the spotlight as the film’s antagonist –although it would have been more impressive had he not done almost exactly the same villain shtick in an even more grandiose fashion in Machete Kills. Sylvester Stallone is his usual smarmy self-indulgent self in the lead role, although he has the decency to play father-figure rather than romantic partner to women thirty years younger. There are plenty of meta-textual winks and nods (Wesley Snipes’ “tax evasion”, “out of the picture”, etc.), which is fortunate given how the only thing The Expendables series has going for it is the constant fan-service. The plot is dull, the action sequences are average (none more so than the final exasperating hand-to-hand showdown) and the actors are usually past their prime. There will be a sequel, but I don’t expect it to be any better either.
(In French, On TV, March 2015) I’m surprised to find out that I don’t dislike Rocky Balboa as much as I expected to. After all, I went in the film with a number of prejudices and shortcomings: I don’t particularly like Sylvester Stallone, I don’t have any special affection for boxing, my memories of the Rocky series (of which this is the sixth entry) are fuzzy to the point of uselessness, I dislike the trend of reviving old franchises and couldn’t make sense of this film’s premise, in which Rocky is brought out of retirement and improbably goes head-to-head with a top-notch boxer. What’s the point of this Rocky Balboa, then? But as it turns out, the result is decently entertaining without being overly compelling. The premise is still far-fetched, asking us to believe in a quasi-sixtysomething boxer holding his own against a much younger opponent. But the film acknowledges its own absurdity, dwells on the age of its protagonist and doesn’t exactly hand him anything but a moral victory. There’s a little bit of thematic depth regarding the irresistible lull that drives men out of retirement, and reconciliation between father and son. So it is that, even with everything running against it, Rocky Balboa ends up being a decent film firmly in the underdog tradition of the series. Viewers watching the European-French dub may get some extra entertainment value in hearing how some familiar English idioms are translated.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) Once upon a time, in the early nineties, a film featuring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone would have been An Event fit to explode all box-office records, fannish expectations and critical snark. Now, more than twenty years later, Escape Plan is… just another action B-movie, anchored by familiar faces but not nearly as earth-shattering as it could have been. It probably doesn’t help that the film revolves around Stallone (rarely a good actor, now increasingly ridiculous in his mumbling old age) and a rather hum-drum plot the likes of which we’ve seen a few times already. The action sequences are limp (although two of the fight scenes offer the expected pleasure of seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger trade a few body-blows), the villains are bland and the film doesn’t build up to much more than the obvious conclusion. Sure, there’s a few twists and turns and flashy “here’s how I did it” explanations… but the film simply has the feel of a low-budget action movie that just happens to feature two of the biggest box-office stars of two decades ago. Escape Plan has the merit of not being actively bad or unpleasant, just not as distinctive as it should have been considering the past caliber of its stars.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) The problem with making a movie that consciously call back to a sub-genre fallen in disfavor is that, well, there’s usually a reason why the sub-genre has gone away. With Bullet to the Head, veteran director Walter Hill clearly tries to model his movie after the countless buddy-cop action thrillers of the eighties, a fraction of which he himself directed. And to a certain extent, there’s an interesting clash-of-the-eras in pitting Sylvester Stallone against action upstart Jason Momoa. But the final result doesn’t do much more than string along a passable action thriller: Bullet to the Head is generic to a degree that would be almost laughable if it wasn’t for the suspicion that it’s actually trying to be as generic as it can be. While the dynamic between good-cop Sung Kang and secretly-nice-assassin Stallone can be fitfully amusing, there really isn’t anything new here. Stallone looks tired in yet another self-satisfied mumbling performance, and the dialogue that the script gives him really isn’t anything worth remembering. The plot is familiar, and while the various incidents along the way often try to make Stallone’s assassin character look far cooler than he is, he simply isn’t as interesting as the script believes him to be. There’s some value to the film, one supposes, in filling late-night slots, much like its 1980s predecessors once did. But if this is old-school, then it must be remedial class.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.
(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.