(On Blu Ray, September 2018) After mostly holding up for three entries, the Rocky series took a serious hit with Rocky IV and became even worse in Rocky V. Within five minutes of the previous film’s conclusion, capricious plotting shows up to ruin everything: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is brain-damaged, and suddenly penniless except for a convenient boxing gym. The riches-to-rag story feels like a cheap shot this far in the series (not to mention that it makes no sense for an athlete as famous as Rocky to be suddenly penniless—even the movie itself, later on, has his name plastered on magazine covers) and the result makes for a poor follow-up to the series so far. Five movies in, it feels like a soap opera, not helped along by the nature of the film that spends far too much time around the dinner table and not enough in the ring. We cannot believe in the film’s attempt to return to the humble roots of Rocky’s character, not at this point. There’s a nice narrative fillip in having Rocky be a rather bad mentor and seeing his protégé turn evil, but whatever originality is sought is sabotaged by the execution of the film—The Rocky series has never been about subtlety, but seeing the character of Duke being presented as cartoonishly evil, and the journalists acting as plot explainers is a low for the series. Even the familiar characters behave in dumb ways, with Rocky not quite noticing his neglect of his suddenly teenage son, Adrian keeping her emotions in check until her mandatory once-a-movie shouting scene and brother-in-law Paulie is just an idiot (who also got rid of his robot). Annoyances abound—I still can’t fit rap music in the pre-Creed Rocky universe, and the ending street fight seems to step out of the series as well—and the film’s execution seems perfunctory at best. No wonder Rocky V is often left off from movie marathons of the series.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) If the first three Rocky movies have an admirable consistency to them (sure, the first one is considerably more realistic, but the second and third volumes do provide satisfaction to viewers), the same absolutely cannot be said about Rocky IV, which jumps all sorts of sharks to include a robot assistant and have Rocky win the Cold War in order to avenge the death of a friend. Whew. How did we get here? It’s not as if the film is terrible … it’s that it’s got those weird things to it that make it easier to dismiss. Picking up once again by repeating the last few minutes of the previous film, Rocky IV has a dumb birthday interlude (introducing the robot!) before things get underway, as a Soviet boxer comes to compete with American heavyweights and Apollo Creed answers the call out of sheer boredom. Things don’t go well, and Rocky suddenly thirsts for revenge, travelling all the way to the USSR to teach the communist empire a lesson. The classic montage scenes contrasting the honest American way and the cheating Soviet one is a classic (I recall seeing it in class in the 1990s because my classmates used it to illustrate some dubious high-schooler thesis on dehumanization) even though, like much of the film, it doesn’t deal in subtleties. All the Americans are virtuous (although they obviously can’t tolerate a bit of pushback during press interviews), while all the Soviets are duplicitous. So it goes, until a final inarticulate speech in which Rocky promotes world peace and, I suppose, hastens the fall of the USSR. Whew. As an episode of the Rocky series, it does plant seeds that eventually become important in the excellent Creed. As a standalone, though, it has visibly aged faster than most other entries until then, and it doesn’t quite follow from previous episodes in the way that, say, Rocky III did. The plot is formulaic to the point of being laughable, with the training montage taking the place where a second act would go. It’s still reasonably entertaining (Sylvester Stallone does sport a really cool beard at the end of his rural training) and the series regulars all have a moment or two to shine. Still, this is where the series breaks form—and as Rocky V showed, the fallow period was a long one.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I may not like Sylvester Stallone or boxing all that much, and most of the Rocky series has left me lukewarm at best, but there’s something surprisingly interesting about this third film in the series and how it evolves naturally from the first two instalments. The opening five minutes is a montage (set to Survivor’s classic “Eye of the Tiger”) that pretty much give Rocky everything he’s ever wanted: Boxing success, a happy family, money and the mastery of the media that so eluded him in the second film. Naturally, there’s only one way to go from there, and after a hilariously mismatched bout with a wrestler, it’s on to a fight with a boxer with more fury and drive than Balboa at that point. As it usually goes in movies, losing means finding oneself, and so steps in Apollo Creed for a third and far more sympathetic turn in as many movies. While Rocky III is seldom less than formulaic, it does evolve with its characters, balance humour and tragedy (even of the melodramatic kind) and ends on a satisfying note, closing off a trilogy of sorts with a full character arc. (It’s interesting that the underdog roles have been switched a few times, but the film is clear about character being the ultimate determinant of valour—the antagonist here is hungry and driven, but ultimately not nice and henceforth inferior to a humbled hero.) Rocky III does have a few other charms, chiefly being a terrific capsule of the early eighties with no less than both Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in early roles. Carl Weathers is once again very good as Apollo Creed, while Sylvester Stallone does put in a few impressive physical scenes in portraying a heavyweight boxer. Even Talia Shire gets a nicely overdramatic sequence to play with, showing how her character too has evolved over three movies. It all amounts to a surprisingly interesting sequel at a time when most series are getting winded. After all, how different can you make movies all ending with a triumphant match?
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) It’s interesting to see how hard Rocky II works at both following its limited protagonist in the aftermath of an unexpected success, and then again to remove much of the pleasant ambiguity of the first film. Whereas
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) Intriguingly enough, Rocky is one of those movies that you think you’ve seen even if you haven’t: It was a massive success, earning both an Oscar and great box-office returns. It made Sylvester Stallone an icon, complete with iconic visuals (arms raised over Philadelphia) and sounds (“ADRIAN!”) It spawned a series of sequels still going forty years later, and is often used as shorthand description of just about every underdog sports drama out there. I may have seen Rocky as a kid, but not, to my recollection, as an adult. Remedying to that, I was struck by how (contrarily to many other movies so popular that you think you’ve seen them even if you haven’t) Rocky is darker than expected yet almost exactly what it says it is. It follows a declining not-too-bright boxer as he’s given a second chance, pursues a girl and dislikes his job as a loan-shark “collection agent.” Stallone is at his Stalloniest as Rocky Balboa, playing a simple character with some nobility. If it works, it’s because Rocky’s sports aspect takes a visible back seat to the character-driven drama: even the premise of a champ giving a chance to an unknown is purely arbitrary, albeit cloaked in good work from Carl Weathers. Talia Shire is cute enough as Adrian, with one good scene toward the end of the film being enough to elevate her role above being simply the romantic interest. Some of director John G. Avildsen’s visual touches are interesting—while most commentary about the film’s visuals focus on the “Rocky Steps” training montage, I was more impressed by a quiet static neighborhood shot showing Rocky hiring his manager, with a train passing in the background as a flourish. Rocky is not subtle, and it’s not sophisticated, but (much like its eponymous character), it’s tough and can absorb a lot of punishment. It holds up, and not just for those who like boxing.
(Second viewing, On TV, January 2018) I saw Judge Dredd in theatres back in 1995, accompanied by a good friend who had already seen the movie and was looking forward to my “wow” reaction at the cityscape revealed early in the film. My reaction to it then is pretty much my reaction to it now—the first half of the film has some worthwhile world building before disintegrating in a forgettable Sylvester Stallone action film—and very little of the movie has anything to do with the original Judge Dredd comic book. (But that’s why we got Dredd in 2012.) Another viewing twenty years later highlights the clumsiness of the adaptation attempt—the film isn’t smart enough to execute the satirical vision of the Dredd comic book, so it comes across as silly most of the time. Still, there is some effort here in trying to create a future (as dark and nonsensical as it can be) and it’s that effort that sustains the film during its first act, and then again at the beginning of its third. Otherwise, though, don’t hope for much. Stallone is his humourless self here (not contributing in the slightest in the film’s satirical potential), while Armand Assante does his best as a featureless antagonist and Rob Schneider is intentionally annoying as a sidekick. Diane Lane and Joan Chen aren’t too bad, though, but that’s a relative assessment when the plot has so little use for them beyond the obvious. We now know that the production of the film was troubled by an ongoing argument between Stallone and director Danny Cannon, each of them pulling in a different direction. The result, sadly, is still with us—worth a look for some of the production values, but definitely not as a cohesive science-fiction film and even less so as a Dredd adaptation.
Action, judge-dredd-1995, 1995, 2018-01-03
(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.
(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.
(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.