Sunday, 31 July 2016
Rambo III is simplicity itself. Divorced from a modern framing inclined to laser in on the dissonance created by having Rambo fight alongside the Mujahideen, Peter MacDonald's film is basically Cowboys and Indians relocated to Afghanistan. James Cameron's First Blood 2 screenplay, not to mention the successful film it spawned, kickstarted a mini-movement of high-tech action epics centred around steely-eyed loners. Cannon recruited Chuck Norris for their Missing in Action series, while Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled in at Fox with Commando, an obvious attempt at emulating Stallone's success.
Each knock-off diluted Cameron's original black ops concoction, toning down the politics and Soldier of Fortune trivia to arrive at a breezy sequence of events that allow a hero to murder his enemies in interesting and inventive ways. Commando proved to be particularly notable in this regard, introducing rusty gardening implements into the action man arsenal, and providing even more connective tissue between shoot-out films and slashers. Schwarzenegger mangled his victims with the same detached, dispassionate efficiency as Jason Voorhees.
John Matrix cuts a similar hulking but chaste shape as his Friday the 13th doppelganger, happy to evoke the same overpowering but sexless masculinity. Under Schwarzenegger these films were safe, kids raised in-front of Masters of the Universe or the WWF could score a video rental and experience the transcendental thrill of on-screen mutilation without any obvious signs of pain or suffering. Rambo III builds on this conceit, paving the way for the likes of RoboCop 2 and Predator 2, and is itself the key example of a violent film series explicitly repackaging itself in an effort to appeal to children.
Accounting for these home screening mutations results in a psychologically lighter film than its predecessors. Stallone and his co-writer Sheldon Lettich (Bloodsport and Lionheart / AWOL: Absent Without Leave) craft a Rambo free of the obligations Vietnam burnt into him. When Colonel Trautman finds Rambo in Thailand he's shed his nationalism and maybe even his Christianity. Just in case we think he might have turned soft, we're introduced to John acting as a blunt instrument to raise funds for a crumbling temple. Rambo is still happy to offer up the safety of his body for what he deems to be a worthy cause.
Importantly, Rambo isn't exactly what you'd call happy here, he just has purpose. A low-impact role in an endless refurbishment job that could comfortably occupy decades. Rambo may have rendered himself emotionally neutral but he's still allowing himself to be used as a tool. His role at the monastery may convey virtue but it's an assignment that deliberately fails to make full use of his incredible talents. Rambo III then starts to build towards a place where the titular hero could truly feel at home. After refusing Trautman's call, John is eventually dragged to Afghanistan to rescue his ageing (incompetent) commander after an unsuccessful run-in with an airborne Soviet general.
Rambo: First Blood Part II proposed catharsis as a way of healing its hero. Rambo was given the opportunity to correct the mistakes made by America during the Vietnam conflict. He represented a surgical, wilfully primitive response to a technologically sophisticated Rock 'n' Roll war. Rambo didn't need napalm or Agent Orange, he had a quiver full of arrows. First Blood Part II's Rambo represents the Vietcong's guerrilla tactics cannibalised and regurgitated back at them. The film pushed deep into wish-fulfilment territory too by having Rambo confront and kill the Soviets bankrolling North Vietnam's quest for reunification.
Rambo III goes further still, placing Stallone's chewed-up ubermensch inside another East vs West proxy war, only this time he gets to fight alongside a unified indigenous people. Afghanistan is a framing device for Rambo, designed to strip the character of any internal conflict. The Mujahideen's struggle against the Soviet Union's blitzkrieg campaign is presented as just and decent. Stallone is moving his character beyond personal revenge into a state of benevolent altruism. He wants to help and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan are happy to be helped.
MacDonald's film doesn't just posit a political synchronicity between Rambo and the people he meets in Afghanistan either. Rambo III stresses a sense of belonging for the nomadic hero, it gives him a home. The Mujahideen are portrayed with the same kind of macho shorthand as Rambo - they're tough and self-reliant, a tribe of taciturn men who express themselves physically rather than verbally. Rambo instantly fits in, asserting his place in the pecking order with an electrifying, ego-stroking, buzkashi performance. This is the root of Rambo III's biggest failing, it doesn't follow through on the idea of a Rambo content to live out his days amongst the gallant people of Afghanistan. We are denied a sense of conclusion.
Stallone and Lettich are instead content to file off John Rambo's last vestiges of uncertainty, aligning the character's silver screen portrayal with the action figure seen in his syndicated cartoon spin-off. The audience is being reassured, they aren't to worry, we've moved beyond complicated, cloudy matters of post-war identity into a binary state of good vs evil. Rambo III is the Reagan Doctrine as action entertainment, movie stars gleefully rolling back the tide of Communist expansion. With that as a starting point, it's no wonder the film is so deliriously untethered. This is apex Dead Red cinema. Stallone not only breaks into, then out of, then back into a makeshift Gulag, he stares down an entire battalion of jeeps and attack choppers, each one bristling with machine guns and rocket pods.
This is the fun of Rambo III, it runs on contempt. There's no reality in its confrontations, Rambo is simply here to win, the star of own $65 million Wild West stunt show. Faced with an army's worth of death zooming straight at him, John simply jumps out of the way and into a waist-deep hole. Naturally, that's enough to confound the USSR's finest. The film reduces the entire Soviet-Afghan conflict down to a hyper expensive game of tag with its hero as a spoilt brat who'd rather change the rules on the fly than lose. Everything is grist for the Stallone ego machine. Shrapnel, far from being a debilitating setback, is instead just another opportunity for Stallone to assert his hero's all-consuming hard man credentials.
Faced with an oozing, gut gash, Rambo loads the wound up with gunpowder then sets himself alight, Stallone literally burning out even a suggestion of weakness. With this psychotic self-surgery episode in mind we arrive at the crucial difference between Stallone and his weightlifting rival. In films like Commando or Raw Deal, Schwarzenegger's body is largely presented as a bubbling, cosmetic delight. He's complete and comforting, an exploded, towering father figure designed to make an audience feel safe. Stallone's aesthetic, particularly when playing Rambo, is completely different. He puts you inside the addictions that power this brutalised frame. If Schwarzenegger's body represents health and vitality, then Stallone's communicates pain and obsession.
Monday, 25 July 2016
As a series, Sonic the Hedgehog has been struggling with irrelevance since the late 90s. While arch-rival Mario has made several successful generational leaps, Sonic has floundered, lumbered with dozens of games that wilfully obscured the core appeal of colourful speeding to concentrate on empty RPG worlds and an extended cast of insipid furry friends. Thankfully, Sega has finally wised up, handing over the needle mouse's reigns to Christian Whitehead, the ace programmer / digital curator who lovingly rebuilt Sonic's best games on the iPhone. Sonic Mania sees Sega's mascot back leaping and sprinting around pixel landscapes that resemble Saved by the Bell's opening credits.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Sunday, 10 July 2016
The theatrical release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice didn't have scenes in the traditional sense. Information was rationed out in condensed, discordant blips that sat awkwardly in the assembly. Story didn't develop naturally, people and identities came and went as the action demanded, and no-one but Ben Affleck's Batman was allowed a distinct point-of-view. This had the cumulative effect of saddling the caped crusader with the role of the protagonist, a job that the character, as presented here, couldn't shoulder without seriously unbalancing the film.
Dawn of Justice's Batman is reactionary and paranoid, a man dealing with survivor's guilt by putting himself on a collision course with an alien who dwells in the sky. The cinema release did such a poor job of communicating the virtues of Henry Cavill's Superman that the film couldn't help but fall in line with Bruce Wayne's blinkered world view. There was no alternative. Worse still, his mission, the film's backbone, is founded on misinformation planted by Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. Batman wasn't even the master of his own destiny.
Action films demand heroes that express individuality, it's their defining trait. They're going against the grain, betting everything they have on their ability to succeed. Action films, and the hero myths they are descended from, are a way in which human culture expresses the desire to be special, to be unique and lauded amongst your peers. By founding Batman's goal on a willingness to be manipulated so thoroughly, the filmmakers abdicated Wayne's prime positioning. They'd made him appear weak just to twist the knife. Power does not reside with this Batman. He's old and misguided, tragic even.
Lex Luthor then is crowbarred into an authority role that the film doesn't account for. Lex is a cipher, a colourful Google era recontextualisation of Superman's stock, big business bad guy. He isn't supposed to drive the film, he's an irritant. In the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, Luthor gloating is the most powerful moment in the whole piece, it up-ends assumptions and throws everything into chaos. In this Ultimate Edition it's nothing. The weight of the revelation matters less because we already have another character bearing narrative weight - Superman.
The seismic shift in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate Edition is that it embraces a perspective other than Batman's. The snipped, unforgiving progression of the theatrical cut framed everything through the prism of Bruce Wayne. His ideas and opinions stood unopposed. The Ultimate Edition corrects this mania by apportioning credible dramatic space to Clark Kent. We watch Kent running down inconclusive leads in the rain, we see him ringing his mother at some ungodly hour just to hear the voice of another person who loved his father.
Theatrical Superman plays solely into his omnipotent powers - he was everywhere he needed to be, armed with an opinion. He wasn't a person, he was an obstacle. Ultimate Superman we discover isn't really Superman at all, he's a different expression of Clark Kent. Ultimate's biggest addition is the clarification that the Kent persona isn't just a disguise or a hobby for this stranded God (think Hellenic, rather than just Judeo-Christian), it's the true expression of the man. He wants to be good, to make his Dad proud. He also cares about journalism as something beyond access and the opportunity to hang out with his girlfriend.
This new context works two-fold, it reveals Clark Kent's character and clarifies the abject horror of the news media he navigates. Clark is presented as a man out of time, a reporter chasing a genuine scoop in era of cut-and-paste copy. He's also a Superman coping with a 24 hour news cycle that is happy to skew spiteful when it finds itself starving for content. Toxic talking heads were all over the big screen release, but it's the contrast that Kent's scenes now provide that makes plain their presence beyond a glib The Dark Knight Returns callback.
In Zack Snyder's longer cut Superman is pitted relentlessly against apathy and outright bigotry. Mankind is portrayed as teetering on the edge of damnation, a people motivated by small, petty emotions that appeal to their inherent hate. Personal prejudice rules; facts and data a distant consideration. In this milieu, Affleck's Batman is finally allowed to assume the position he was always designed for - he's the antagonist, the ultimate, mechanised expression of reactionary political posturing. Removed from the responsibilities of the leading man, it's fun to watch a Batman so damaged that he's happy to move on convenient truths and outright lies. Simply, he's scared.
Although the theatrical cut's laser focus on Batman hobbled the film, you can understand the intention - Affleck and Jeremy Irons both give magnetic performances, not to mention The Dark Knight's proven, recent, track record on film - but it's Superman's story that has a satisfying, evolving arc. We discover the person behind the divine image. Comparatively, Batman is stationary, simmering in his juices. The cinema release masked David S Goyer and Chris Terrio's rehabilitation of a character that, in Man of Steel, registered as acutely selfish. This Ultimate Edition leaves us in no doubt that Clark Kent is this being's core identity. He wants to hold down a job and spend his life loving and looking after Amy Adams' Lois Lane.
The Superman persona then is something truly distinct, and perhaps even unwanted. It's a role that Kent assumes not out of joy or even necessity, but out of guilt. He knows he can help. The confrontation with Batman isn't motivated by the hypocritical urge to tidy away the human vigilante, the greater detail here points to a Superman that is alarmed by a man who doesn't even try to understand the consequences of his actions. In that respect, Batman becomes a personification of all this film's oozing, capricious humanity. Bruce Wayne is oblivious and indulgent, filled with certainty and acting without any thought or consideration for what Superman brings to the world.
When Lex cajoles Superman into confronting Batman, the Man of Steel is being given the opportunity to pummel an avatar for a society that wilfully misunderstands and rejects him. Clark has been given every reason in the world to cut loose and obliterate this fallen Batman, his decision not to is critical. In this moment we understand the two distinct headspaces that have tracked naturally to this crisis point. Goyer and Terrio have worked hard to place these two American icons in a situation that demands they try to murder each other. Thanks to the Ultimate Edition's additions though, the context has changed completely.
Batman v Superman is no longer a WWF dream match, it's a misanthropic suicide pact between two broken idols, disgusted by the world that surrounds them (see also - Optimus Prime in Transformers: Age of Extinction). This viewing, when Batman intones "You were never a God, you were never even a man." he might as well be talking to himself. He knows he's gone too far, he's working against his mission, betraying his vow to Gotham and his dead parents to appease his bruised ego. By apportioning equal time and motivation to Superman we get a fresh perspective on a Batman desperate to be swept up and saved.
The film now naturally acquires the despairing emotional sweep that the theatrical edition merely assumed. The much derided Martha moment plays less like a grinding gear change and more like a moment of divine inspiration striking at the core of Bruce. We've just watched Superman pull his punches. He didn't burn Batman down or twist his head off, Clark instead fought to halt. These actions clearly demonstrate Superman's capacity for selflessness and decency, any lingering doubts about Man of Steel's man-child are erased. We absolutely do not want to see this Superman killed by a Batman so lost that he has convinced himself that pulling the sun out of the sky is the right thing to do.
The deletion of Superman's path to this fight robbed Batman v Superman of its sense of tragedy. Martha Kent's rescue is not only the film's emotional climax now, it's the moment a bitter enemy redeems himself, finding purpose working alongside an altruistic superhuman whose last thoughts were of his mother. The chivalrous, Arthurian imagery present in the superfluous CG crescendo that closes the film has been given purchase in something other than an Excalibur poster outside the Wayne family's death cinema. They're the model for future films - Knights without countries finding common cause fighting for the ideals of a God that died for his adopted planet. Batman's promised Justice League seems less like an economic imperative and more like a logical progression from the moment an alien made Bruce Wayne feel small then ashamed.