Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II is the polar opposite of the accepted, prize-winning, way in which the Vietnam War was being presented in American cinema. Instead of the usual strung out, psychedelic chaos, Rambo imagines the conflict as a household task that has simply been neglected. America didn't lose the war, it just forgot about it and moved on to something else. In that sense Rambo is emblematic of the rhetoric that drove the Reagan administration - the film was about making the country great again. James Cameron was contracted to write the sequel to First Blood, the writer-director dashing it out alongside a new draft of The Terminator and his Alien sequel, whilst waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish up his contractual obligations to Conan the Destroyer. Cameron's script, entitled First Blood II: The Mission, is a sombre continuation of Ted Kotcheff's film that begins in the bowels of a psychiatric hospital then goes on to explore the post-traumatic stresses that haunt Rambo.

As he displayed with apex sequels Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron has an innate sense of where to take a character next. Cameron approaches his writing from an almost psychoanalytical perspective, drawing out internal conflicts as a means to construct plot. Like Ripley, Rambo must return to the scene of the crime and exorcise his demons through conflict. Only then can his past trauma be resolved. As with Ripley, Rambo is elevated by his past experience. They are both uniquely able to shoulder the responsibilities ahead because of the suffering they have endured. It's interesting then to see how Sylvester Stallone approached this material for his rewrite. He retained the mythic, prowling, sense of an unfettered Rambo but deleted much of the supporting architecture. Cameron's draft, taking in frazzled fly boys, a co-starring role that screams John Travolta and intense, body-shredding violence (that Stallone would go on to employ in 2008's Rambo) is jettisoned. Cameron's writing made himself the star, an avowed military nut working his way through all the data and anecdotes he'd assembled whilst researching CIA black ops. Stallone doesn't need any of that. He's the star, he's the machinery.

Stallone's take on First Blood Part II begins in a quarry, with John working hard time cracking rocks. The star's physique is tanned and intense, despite his incarceration. First Blood's emaciated attack dog is gone, instead we have a Muscle & Fitness pin-up. We're instantly keyed into a state of glamorous unreality: Stallone will fight the Vietnam War again, single-handedly, and this time he will win. Rambo then marks a clear cultural shift. Any event, no matter how recent or mired in defeat, could be used to tell a Cambellian tale and sell some licensed merchandise. Lured back in-country by a POW rescue mission, Rambo immediately nixes his surveillance brief and attempts to get one of the prisoners out. Despite a heroic effort dragging some half-dead GI across endless, exploding paddy fields, Rambo is betrayed by his superiors and left to rot. So begins the scourging of Rambo, Stallone piling on the hurt for his very own Battle Christ. At a loss how to proceed, the Vietnamese soldiers holding Rambo call in their Soviet superiors to physically and spiritually destroy the American super soldier.

Despite having enough electricity ran through his body to dim the local barracks, Rambo refuses to break. It's only when his skeletal companion is threatened with a blazing knife that the hero agrees to comply. What makes Rambo so notable then is his total lack of complication. He's just a walking job, searching for appropriate purpose. He doesn't even respond well to the rigid structure of military life, only taking orders from his beloved father figure Colonel Trautman. He has to believe in the mission. First Blood proposed a man seeking validation for the sacrifices he made in war. First Blood Part II goes beyond that, making America itself the source of his resolve. It's his religion, the strength he uses to surmount difficulty. Rambo represents an idealised, inflated version of the flag-waving, patriotic US citizen. Unlike the CIA spooks that cooked up this non-mission, he doesn't ignore the suffering of his fellow soldiers. He embraces it, then transforms it into his own. Rambo would rather be put through the wringer himself than see another grunt suffer.

This notably Catholic conception of Christianity is everywhere in Stallone's films. The Rocky series tracking a simple man through a variety of rebirths, usually in-step with the actor's own fortunes. Staying Alive turned the idea of relentless exercise into a kind of self-flagellation. Tony Manero broke his body down and rebuilt it for the opportunity to take his place in Broadway's pantheon. Rambo goes one further, engaging with the punishment and destruction that facilitates the saviour's triumphant resurrection. The film is explicitly reaching for iconography, Stallone cluttering the film up with adoring, obsessive, close-ups. His eyes heavy with regret, his head held in repose, like a Renaissance painting. Stallone and his favourite yes-man George P Cosmatos are attempting something new. This is the action movie as a healing prayer, salving the frayed American psyche and offering a Messiah that won't look the other way or turn his cheek. Instead he'll climb into a Huey attack helicopter, lift himself into the air, then obliterate America's enemies with whirring mini-guns and belching missile pods.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rhinestone

Excretable culture clash shite that, ambitiously, tries to sell Sylvester Stallone as a comedic proposition. Sly plays a gruff New York cabbie mugging opposite a beleaguered night-club singer, played by Dolly Parton, who boasts she can turn anyone into a credible country musician. Rachel's Dad from Friends (Ron Leibman) pops up as a sleazy club promoter who never looks Parton in the eye. In fact, no-one in Rhinestone can resists the urge to appraise Parton's chest, not even the actor playing her father.

Rather than approach his image from a playful, ironic distance (like Schwarzenegger), mandatory screenplay rewriter Stallone inserts himself into an undercooked Pygmalion, hoping that his mumbly, arrogant charm will carry the film. It doesn't. As if to reassure the audience that yes, they are in fact watching a comedy, Black Christmas director Bob Clark inserts shots of his actors chuckling through Stallone's terminally unfunny antics. Parton manages a cheery sincerity throughout, her snickers communicating the good-natured kindness of an indulgent friend.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Staying Alive

Rocky III trumpeted Sylvester Stallone as a director able to divine bracing imagery out of noise. His style is a rough jumble of telephoto snooping, grimacing close-ups and pop video assembly. In that sense Sly is the perfect choice to chronicle Tony Manero's plunge into fleeting, plastic fame. Staying Alive picks up a couple of years after Saturday Night Fever with Manero struggling to break onto Broadway.  

Remembered as a misbegotten sequel, Staying Alive does come on like a toothless retooling of its predecessor, deleting an extended cast and any associated grime in favour of all-consuming exercise. Dancing is no longer Manero's release, it's the totality of his experience. Even serving drinks in some yuppie beer hall, Tony slinks rather than clods, weaving in and around the boozed up dancers like a self-satisfied snake.  

As Manero is consumed by dance, so too is Staying Alive. Stallone shoots long, dreamy sequences of practice and repetition. John Travolta's coiled, sinewy body is dwelled upon to a fetishistic degree. Stallone painting an immortal record of this lithe, actualised form, his eye hovering somewhere between a Jane Fonda jazzercise vid and Shinya Tsukamoto's all-consuming love of musculature. 

Staying Alive's certificate may be family friendly but Manero is still the exact same arch, emotional manipulator he was in Fever. Everybody is grist. Every encounter, no matter how personal, is transformed into an opportunity to climb. Manero himself seems only dimly aware of this coercion while Stallone's film is not only non-judgemental, it depicts his power over women as a positive. 

Manero's emotional abuse isn't just tolerated, it's the ability that facilitates his crowning glory - having successfully fucked his way into a starring role in some absurdly expensive interpretive dance nightmare, Manero hurls his leading lady aside to perform a wholly unsanctioned dance solo. The stage director's objections die in his throat, drowned out by an audience screaming their approval. 

Saturday Night Fever promised a positive change in Tony. We left that film assured that there was a chance that he might be able to evolve to the point where women registered as actual people, rather than just something pliant he gets to jab his dick at. Staying Alive has no such pretensions, it doubles down on a venal little lizard that will do or say anything to get his shot at fame. 

Invasion of Astro-Monster by Jeff Zornow

Living Colour - Cult of Personality

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - First Blood

Sylvester Stallone has a great look in First Blood. His body is pallid and wiry, teetering on the edge of malnourished. As an outline, it's worlds away from the inflated, oiled musculature of the later instalments. Stallone's physique isn't the draw here, instead it's a tool, a coiled visual signifier in a despondent film about being chewed up then spat out by an uncaring world. Complimenting the star's brutally svelte form is a long, unkempt hairstyle that acts as a frame for his face. The mop sits like a pair of drooping Basset Hound ears, drawing out Stallone's massive, brown eyes. In Rocky III, Stallone shot his own face to suggest sternness, a massive patriarchal figure struggling to make sense of his messy extended family. 

For First Blood, Ted Kotcheff and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo use Stallone's eyes as a way to communicate a frazzled, bestial, calculation. John Rambo is always cautious, constantly running angles and assessing his predicament. Undermined by a brace of sequels that revelled in increasingly bloody violence, First Blood distinguishes itself by focusing on a character that is reluctant to do any real damage to his opposition. The Police and National Guard that chase Rambo up into the hills aren't engaged as an equal threat. Instead he stalks them, bleeding and undermining, demonstrating a withering assessment of their position in the pecking order. Rambo's violence is a calculated attempt to assert a terrifying level of dominance - he doesn't intend to kill his pursuers, he'd rather scare them off. Rambo just wants to be left alone.

Frankenstein vs Baragon by Jeff Zornow

Monday, 8 February 2016

Super Bowl Spot - Jason Bourne

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon to the rescue! Rather than let Jeremy Renner tank the franchise, the Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum team are back, driving SWAT trucks through brightly coloured gridlock. Based on this short clip Greengrass is still very much in love with chaotic, hand-held reportage. The arrangement does look a little less seizure inducing though - we're asked to drink in Damon as a twisting, mechanical lump here rather than just glimpsing shredded encounters between countless darkly coloured limbs.

Super Bowl Spot - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Bebop? Rocksteady? KRANG?


Super Bowl Spot - Independence Day: Resurgence

Enormous alien superstructures lancing cities while weightless, metropolitan debris fills the sky? While prepping Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich and his CG teams were clearly hard at work, studying the destruction of Lithone sequence that opens the magnificent The Transformers: The Movie.

Super Bowl Spot - Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War's superhero piley-on is a strange direction for Marvel's best sub-franchise. Captain America: The Winter Soldier turned heads by focusing on 80s action norms like car crashes and bone-crunching interpersonal violence. Civil War bucks that trend, threatening more weightless, CG tomfoolery.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

13 Hours

Herr Bay dials it down. Instead of his usual coke and catwalks take on American exceptionalism, we get a refreshingly chaotic Fox News reconstruction that proposes the Benghazi siege as a critical moment in the Jocks vs Nerds debate. This is Bay seizing his moment, daring to dream of post-American Sniper box office (Oscar?) glory whilst simultaneously raking away at that security contractor itch that hounded his Transformers franchise. 13 Hours is basically Cemetery Wind: The Movie. A Mozambique drilling, brass-checking, thump of new machinery that dies alone on its arse every time someone tries to string a reflective sentence together.

As ever, Bay struggles with human perspectives. The operators are portrayed as malfunctioning kill-bots that occasionally buzz out the kind of human experience an alien might gleam from an infomercial. Conversely, the CIA are nebbish ditherers incapable of making any decision more forthright than passive observation. David Costabile's Chief is positioned as the kind of hysterical white collar dork Bay insists prop up the flabby mid-sections of his Bad Boys films. He's here solely to frustrate commitment. Contrast that arrangement with a silent, mechanical opposing force that rises out of a literal zombie land before attacking in increasingly hectic wave formations and it's clear where Bay's ire is directed - inaction is the only true opposition.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rocky III

Writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone takes a different tact with the third Rocky outing, arriving at a film that's as much about the numbing effects of money and fame as it is boxing. After several successful defences of the title he won from Apollo Creed, Rocky discovers that his manager has been secretly arranging squash matches to dodge challenges from genuine competition. The deception has a profound effect on Balboa, undermining his achievements and leaving him with an acute case of imposter syndrome.

Conflict rooted in ego drives Rocky III. Just as the title character has to overcome a paralysing lack of self-esteem, every other player is in search of personal validation that can only be conferred by locking horns with Balboa. Inveterate scumbag Paulie wants to be whisked up and given a job despite his unending negativity; Apollo Creed would rather set aside months building Rocky into a fluid fighting prospect than spend time with his own family. Mr T's elemental Clubber Lang has the most to overcome. He needs to conquer this evasive champion to get where he needs to be.

It's not like Lang doesn't put the work in either. While Rocky burns money transforming his training regime into an embarrassing expo event, Lang knuckles down, exercising alone in an environment that resembles the crawl space beneath a murderer's house. Shouldn't we be rooting for this loner? Is Rocky's gauche Scarface lifestyle supposed to be aspirational? Rocky III flips the underdog narrative on its head, asking us to cheer for an established and explicitly unearned status quo. Lang is too violent, too temperamental, too black to be the hero. Despite the two boxers sharing the exact same motivation - the paralysing fear of being poor in Reagan's America - it is assumed that the audience instinctively believes that one of these fighters is worthy to hold the title while the other is not.

Terror of Mechagodzilla by Jeff Zornow