Thursday, September 19, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo' (2008)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When Sylvester Stallone returned to his other iconic movie character with 2006's Rocky Balboa, he took a more thoughtful approach to a character who had become a bit cartoonish, garnering positive reviews and positioning Rocky for a rejuvenation in commercial and critical success with the subsequent Creed movies. That seems to be Stallone's aim with Rambo, which brings back John Rambo after a 20-year absence, and is in some ways grittier and less cartoonish than the second and third Rambo films. But there's nothing thoughtful or sophisticated about this movie; it's a grim, shockingly violent B-movie with virtually no plot that barely runs 80 minutes before the final credits start to roll.

As the movie opens, Rambo is still living in Thailand, having traded underground stick fights for underground snake handling. He rents out his boat, helps the local handlers catch snakes and does various other odd jobs, living a seemingly quiet life. But that changes when a group of Christian missionaries from Colorado hire him to take them into Burma, where they want to bring medicine and food (and Jesus) to the persecuted Karen people. Stallone (who directed in addition to once again co-writing the screenplay) opens the movie with real-life footage of atrocities in Burma, setting the stage for movie's cheap exploitation, reducing the people of Burma (on both sides of the conflict) to faceless cannon fodder.

Like Afghanistan in Rambo III, Burma is just a convenient place for Rambo to go kill a bunch of people without feeling conflicted about what side he's on, so it's especially disingenuous for Stallone to pretend like he's doing some sort of humanitarian good deed by highlighting the paramilitary campaign against the Karen minority. The violence in this movie makes the second and third films look like G-rated Disney movies, and Stallone doesn't just rack up the body count; he also makes every kill as graphic and gory as something out of a Saw or Hostel movie, with limbs getting hacked off, heads exploding and blood and guts flying everywhere. At least the second movie humanized Rambo's Vietnamese love interest and the third movie had him bond with an Afghan kid. The Burmese characters in this movie (including the sadistic villain, played by Maung Maung Khin) have no personalities, and what little dialogue they get is often presented without subtitles, as if to further underline how unimportant they are.

The American missionaries aren't much more fully developed, and the connection between Rambo and compassionate missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) is little more than a plot device to get him in place to slaughter Burmese soldiers. Presumably Rambo's reputation has brought numerous people to him over the past two decades seeking help, so why after all this time is this the one plea he agrees to? There's no personal connection (Richard Crenna died in 2003, so Col. Trautman doesn't show up), and the missionaries' pitch is pretty weak. But Rambo helps them get into the country and then returns to save them when they inevitably get captured, leading a team of generic mercenaries that feel like the sketchy first draft of The Expendables.

As a character, Rambo is a bit more like the haunted, traumatized veteran of the first movie than the gung-ho warrior of the second and third, but that just makes his murder spree feel like drudgery, the resigned obligation of a man who's no longer fighting against the killing machine that the military turned him into. A single question from Sarah about life at home propels Rambo to the perfunctory epilogue, arriving back at the ranch apparently owned by his never-previously-mentioned father. But this movie is less a culmination of a pop-culture fixture's character arc than a tired, cynical exercise in brand extension.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo III' (1988)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

As absurd as Rambo: First Blood Part II was, at least it attempted to connect to John Rambo's history with the Vietnam War and his conflicted feelings about how it ended. Rambo III makes no such efforts, instead plugging its title character into a generic action story that could have been a vehicle for Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren just as easily as for Sylvester Stallone. After the events of the second movie, Rambo seems to have settled down in Thailand, living on the grounds of a monastery, where he helps the monks with maintenance jobs and probably meditates or something. He also, uh, participates in underground stick fights, which is where Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) tracks him down.

Trautman and American government functionary Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) want to recruit Rambo for a mission to Afghanistan, where the Soviet army has been waging war against local rebels. Apparently there's one Soviet commander who's so ruthless and effective that Afghan forces can't make any progress against his forces. So Trautman is going on a covert mission to aid the rebels, and he wants Rambo to come along. There's some hand-waving about Rambo being the best soldier of all time or whatever, but otherwise the movie doesn't really care about why Rambo's being recruited for this particular mission. In the movie's only consistent character beat, Rambo declines the offer, but when Trautman goes in alone and is captured by the Soviets, Rambo decides he has to rescue his friend.

Up to that point, Rambo III is actually somewhat restrained compared to the previous movie, but once Rambo gets to Afghanistan, he just goes ballistic, mowing down every Russian in sight in his quest to rescue Trautman. At one time, Rambo III held the records for both the most expensive movie ever made (surpassed just a year later by Back to the Future Part II) and the most violent movie ever made (a dubious record, but certified by Guinness), and it's not hard to see that onscreen. The second half of the movie features near-constant explosions (which Rambo always easily escapes, of course) and the wholesale slaughter of enemy soldiers, along with most of the Afghan rebels who are foolish enough to offer to help Rambo.

Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay, and he and co-writer Sheldon Lettich give Rambo some cheesy one-liners and a kid sidekick, making the character's transformation into a cartoon pretty much complete (Rambo had, of course, starred in an actual cartoon series for kids two years earlier). Crenna at least gets more to do here, even though it makes no sense that a senior officer like Trautman would be sent alone into a war zone. Marc de Jonge sneers as the Soviet villain but doesn't do much else, and Smith, who is great at playing callous government and corporate functionaries, disappears after his first couple of scenes, never turning into the kind of petty, power-tripping bureaucrat that Rambo took on in the first two movies.

Even more than the intensity and excess of its violence, Rambo III has become notorious for the way it positions the guerrilla fighters of the mujahideen (who would later form the Taliban) as the underdog heroes, with some uncomfortable political prescience when Trautman tells his Russian captor that Afghanistan will be their version of Vietnam. The movie doesn't really have any kind of political message beyond the same patriotic "might makes right" nonsense of the second installment, but its choice of the Afghan setting is telling. At this point, Rambo just needs somewhere he can go and slaughter dozens of people who can be dismissed as soulless enemy fighters, and in 1988, Afghanistan happened to be that place. The closing dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan" is just as hollow as all the onscreen ultraviolence that precedes it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' (1985)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

The second movie in the Rambo series (and the first to bear the character's name in the title) is the one that really cemented Rambo's place in the pop-culture consciousness. Pretty much any parody or rip-off of Rambo references this movie, which is every bit the excessive, reactionary ode to ultraviolence that First Blood was not. Much of Rambo: First Blood Part II plays like it was made by people who completely misunderstood the point of First Blood, although star Sylvester Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay (this time with James Cameron). Maybe it was the lack of David Morrell's source novel to guide them, or maybe Stallone just wanted to bolster his career as a star of action blockbusters. Either way, Part II ends up as the epitome of '80s action cheese, pretty much ruining the character of John Rambo in the process.

The movie opens with Rambo breaking rocks as part of a prison labor gang like he's in a 1930s melodrama, and it seems like he's been living a quiet existence for the past three years. Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up to change all that, offering Rambo the chance to return to Vietnam for a covert U.S. mission investigating POW camps to see if any American soldiers are still being held prisoner. Everything that we learned about Rambo in the first movie indicates that he wouldn't return to Vietnam for anything, but he doesn't hesitate to agree to Trautman's mission, and he's immediately let out of prison, apparently no longer obligated to serve his sentence for destroying half a small town and assaulting dozens of law enforcement officers.

None of that matters, because Part II is an entirely different kind of movie, quickly putting Rambo in a position to essentially re-fight the Vietnam War. While his resentment of "not being allowed to win" was just a small part of his overall trauma in the first movie, here it's his reason for existing, and he enters the country with what seems like a vendetta against the Vietnamese. Stallone, Cameron and director George P. Cosmatos turn Rambo into the eager, trigger-happy killer that everyone in the first movie misconstrued him as, and he murders dozens of people starting almost immediately after he enters the country. Discovering that there are in fact American POWs still being held at a prison camp in Vietnam, Rambo guns down every Vietnamese soldier in sight, and then when he's abandoned by the craven bureaucrat (Charles Napier, suitably craven) running the mission, he guns down dozens more, along with some Russian soldiers for good measure.

Part II isn't just over the top in its characterization of Rambo; it's full of absurdly bombastic action sequences that obliterate the grounded sense of reality of the first movie. Rambo doesn't just shoot a bunch of people and save the POWs; he seems to be literally invulnerable to bullets fired directly at him, and he's able to trigger explosions seemingly on command. At one point he shoots an explosive-tipped arrow at a single Vietnamese soldier armed with a handgun, and the guy blows up like he's a shed full of dynamite. I saw Weird Al Yankovic's Rambo parody in UHF way before seeing this movie, and what struck me most about watching Part II is that Yankovic barely exaggerates its ridiculousness.

The movie half-heartedly suggests that the spineless American officials represented by Napier's pencil-pusher are the real enemy, but that's hard to buy when Rambo spends all his time killing the Vietnamese (except his offensively cartoonish love interest, who dies in his arms) and the Russians. His killing spree culminates in the murder of the typically massive '80s computer (with lots of flashing lights) that supposedly determines the viability of rescuing POWs. In First Blood, Rambo was unhinged and irrational, a victim of bullying and neglect. Here, he himself is the bully, the filmmakers turning his justified frustration into crowd-pleasing bloodlust.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Summer School: 'First Blood' (1982)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

The first movie in the Rambo series doesn't even have the character's name in the title, and bears little resemblance to the cheesy, over-the-top jingoistic violence that forms the franchise's pop-culture reputation. First Blood is actually quite critical of America and American policy, especially the way that veterans are discarded and mistreated. Far from an indestructible action hero, Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo is a broken man suffering from severe PTSD, abandoned by his government and without any friends or family. The Vietnam veteran literally wanders into a small town in Washington after discovering that the only other survivor from his unit has succumbed to cancer.

All Rambo wants is something to eat and maybe an honest day's work, but the intolerant sheriff (played to asshole perfection by Brian Dennehy) doesn't take kindly to long-haired drifters in his town (although Rambo's hair is barely long enough to qualify him for a .38 Special cover band), and he hassles Rambo the moment he sets foot inside the town limits. When Rambo exhibits quiet defiance to the unlawful order to leave town, the sheriff arrests him for vagrancy, taking him to a police station where the small-town cops take sadistic pleasure in their abusive power trip over a seemingly helpless vagrant.

Despite his fragile emotional state, though, Rambo is far from helpless, and when the cops' treatment triggers flashbacks to his experience being tortured by the Viet Cong, he snaps, attacking the officers and fleeing from the police station, eventually establishing a strategic position in the dense forest outside of town. He just wants them to leave him alone, but the sheriff is now consumed by vengeance, enlisting the help of the state police and the National Guard to flush Rambo out and capture him. The title refers to Rambo's assertion that the cops were the ones who drew "first blood," and throughout the movie he goes out of his way not to kill anyone, even when he's not afforded the same courtesy. The only law enforcement death is accidental, caused at least as much by overzealous bloodlust as by any of Rambo's actions.

Stallone (who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on David Morrell's novel) makes good use of his limited acting range as a taciturn, traumatized loner. Rambo barely speaks until an emotional monologue at the end, which could seem a little overwrought but works as an expression of all the pent-up emotions that this trained killer has been keeping inside for way too long. The middle stretch of the film, as Rambo hides out in the woods, taking out the ill-prepared men chasing him, is tense and stark and full of well-crafted action, with Dennehy and Richard Crenna (as the military officer who trained Rambo to be a deadly weapon) sparring sharply over what to do about the situation.

Even before the final monologue, the climax goes a little too broad, as Rambo comes into town and starts exploding and machine-gunning everything in sight (even while scrupulously avoiding endangering any civilians). But Stallone and director Ted Kotcheff keep the focus on Rambo's expression of mental trauma, and the violence is always an outgrowth of that. Rambo lashes out at both protesters and the law-enforcement establishment, showing how alienated he is from all sides of the political spectrum. First Blood isn't liberal or conservative; it's just about human frailty, something that anyone can understand and sympathize with, regardless of their political perspective.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Friday' (2017)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's been a little while since I ran out of movies from the Friday the 13th franchise to feature in this series, but the concept of Friday the 13th is such a potent source for horror that there are still plenty of other movies that riff on that idea (and may get a little boost from the opportunistic association with a well-known property). Justin Price's straight-to-VOD crapfest The 13th Friday definitely falls into this category, with a title designed to catch the eye of Jason Voorhees fans even though the movie itself bears no resemblance to the adventures of the hockey mask-wearing killer. A Friday the 13th rip-off probably would have been more watchable than this completely incoherent mess, which makes absolutely no sense and contains nothing resembling scares or suspense.

I'm not even sure I can recount the basic plot, since the movie jumps around abruptly from scene to scene and character to character in such a haphazard manner that I was almost never sure what was happening or how the people onscreen were connected to each other. The movie opens with both expository title cards and expository narration, both of which begin with "It is said ..." and offer no useful information for what is about to happen. There's a prologue that is apparently set in the early 1900s featuring a woman setting her young daughter on fire, and as one Letterboxd user pointed out, the girl in this supposed period setting is wearing braces on her teeth.

That kind of sloppy inattention to basic detail is a hallmark of Price's work, which I've actually encountered before via his equally dreadful Christmas-themed horror movies The Elf and Elves. After the prologue, Friday introduces a bunch of people hanging out at the world's most listless party, holding obviously empty red Solo cups as they stand outside this supposedly haunted house (which is also a church, maybe?). The actors all deliver their lines so completely devoid of emotion that you could almost imagine this movie as some sort of experimental performance-art project commenting on terrible no-budget horror movies. But no, it's just a cheap, rushed production that follows these interchangeable people as they all die in various ways after they're cursed by this evil house (where they voluntarily have a party, for some reason).

The curse involves an object that looks kind of like the puzzle box from Hellraiser, but apparently is some sort of calendar that requires the group to sacrifice someone each month for 13 months (hence the title, I guess, although there is more than one Friday in a month). Price awkwardly fast-forwards through most of this, killing and introducing characters so clumsily that I had no idea who was who, even when he sort of settles on Lisa May's Allison as the protagonist. Some of the victims get sacrificed in a cave, although I could never figure out where the cave was or how they got there. There are some crappy-looking monsters that are obviously people in flimsy masks, but then there are also characters who are supposed to be wearing flimsy masks to make themselves look like monsters, I guess?

Anyway, it all relates to the young girl from the prologue being possessed by Satan, I think, and also to the erasure of the cursed 13th month of the year from the ancient calendar (also a plot point in the similarly awful bargain-basement horror movie 13/13/13). It doesn't matter, because the climax just involves the remaining characters wandering around the haunted house before the movie ends abruptly without resolving anything. May, who's worked with Price on multiple projects, delivers all of her lines in a sort of halting whisper, and the rest of the cast sound like they're being fed their lines one word at a time. The special effects are so rinky-dink that you can practically see the strings holding up the ghostly sheets, and even basic things like spiders and butterflies are created with horribly unconvincing CGI. Somehow Price keeps getting funding and distribution for these abominations (I watched this one on Hulu), but he's clearly not doing anything to improve his craft as a filmmaker.