e martë, 29 janar 2008

Do We Get to Win This Time?

For Rambo, I have come out of my self-exile, which, by the way, I spent much like Rambo: forging steel by hand, stick-fighting, and generally stewing.

There are several reasons why I have been... shall we say, preoccupied with the new Rambo: 1.) it's a big, percussive action movie; 2.) it propels this peculiar wave of Hollywood nostalgia forward; and 3.) it is one of those absurd sequels that I love so much. There is something quixotic about making a sequel to a franchise no one really thinks much about anymore.

Short and lumbering (not unlike Stallone himself), Rambo satisfies, but falls well short of the success of Stallone's other recent resurrection, Rocky Balboa. Of course, Rocky is a more beloved character than is Rambo, but if that's inherent to the franchises, it's not Rambo's true flaw.

Rambo's major flaw is--so help me, even I can't believe I'm saying this--is that it's not silly enough. As writer, director, and star, Stallone takes this one too seriously--and from the very beginning. He opens the film with actual stock footage of the actual atrocities actually taking place in the actual Burma. Perhaps this was meant to stoke my desire for some of Rambo's righteous retribution, but it doesn't. It makes me feel ashamed that I'm sitting in a comfortable theater with stadium seating and $4 bottles of water, about to gorge myself on fantasy.

It's a bit odd, this Rambo, in that it's the most self-important of the series, but the least obsessed with Self. Maybe it's Stallone's aging, but this movie, like Rocky Balboa before it, is much less an exercise in sheer narcissism than the films of both series were before. This maturation serves Rocky Balboa well. Not so much here. In Action Speaks Louder, I quote a critic who said of Rambo III that the movie is "loony with self-love." That absurdity, that cartoonishness, is what I missed most in this fourth installment.

Rambo also does little to pay off the 20-year stretch the franchise spent dormant. One pleasure of a good sequel is that the audience catches up to where the characters have been moved since--by--their last adventure. Geographically, sure, but really, psychologically. James Cameron (ironically enough, an original writer on Rambo: First Blood Part II) is uncommonly good at this. So was Stallone with Rocky Balboa. But again, not so much with Rambo. Indeed, Rocky Balboa is a story that could only work after a great passage of time; Rambo, on the other hand, could have just as easily been made in 1991.

But while the movie is entertaining enough, where it really comes alive is in its use of the late Jerry Goldsmith's score from First Blood. And not only does Stallone pay tribute to Goldsmith throughout the film, but he saves the best tribute for last: the movie ends with an end title cue Goldsmith recorded for First Blood, but which was replaced by the ballad sung by Dan Hill, "It's a Long Road." So now, 26 years after Goldsmith composed it, and 3 1/2 years after the composer's death, the cue is finally heard issuing out of a movie theater sound system.

The movie certainly has its moments. John Rambo can still stalk like the best of 'em, and his dream sequence is dizzying (in a good way, not a Cloverfield way). And at the risk of validating the ridicule I sometimes attract as a scholar of action movies, I am compelled to say this:

Rambo has one of the best explosions in recent memory.

I'm not talking about size, here, but truly about technique. Not only is the effect and the photography of it great, but the aftermath--a whirlwind of leaves ripping through the jungle--is a spectacular bit of business, and feels more authentic than any of the series's action since First Blood.

But for me, the most striking moment was this: during the opening credits, several rows ahead of me, someone was recording the movie on his cell phone. Until he got caught by the theater management, I could see the compositions on the big screen and on his little display at the same time. I wouldn't have thought about it at Cloverfield or Transformers, but it gave me pause during Rambo. In 1988, when the last Rambo movie was in theaters, no one would have imagined such a scene. Pirating a movie with a portable phone?

The world really is changing. Maybe it's for the better that Rambo does not.

3 comments:

Earl Newton said...

Eric -

I enjoy reading your blog a great deal, and wanted to get your insights on this.

I got the impression that you enjoyed the new Rocky Balboa film. I'm really curious as to what inspired that. I went into it, having been totally sold by the trailer, but the film seemed a bit like Forrest Gump meets the Italian Stallion (per its multiple life-explaining monologues, and lack of a real opponent).

I say this not as a flamer, but as someone who was looking forward to seeing the new Rocky, and hoping that I might have missed something when I did.

Eric said...

Hi, Earl.

Thanks for writing.

"Forrest Gump Meets Rocky Balboa"--I like that. And I think it does pinpoint one facet of the movie: its sentimentality.

I did enjoy the movie. Very much. One of the reasons why is that it confronts (and I think overcomes) its main liability: the sheer ridiculousness of there even being a Rocky Balboa. Both Stallone and the character are too old to be at it again, but that's what the movie is about.

I thought this one succeeded in really being about an idea (age and the inability to move beyond the past). I also thought it was credible, if not realistic: he's a modestly successful restauranteur, neither too rich for his surroundings nor too poor given where he's been; he doesn't want to fight the champion, just some small, local club fights; Mason Dixon breaks his hand, which evens the odds; that he forms a relationship with Marie, but not a romantic one; etc.

Also, it was nice--if surprising--to see that Stallone could still emote from inside that character. I don't think he'd done a good job doing that since "Rocky II" in 1979! But the scene where he breaks down in front of Paulie, where he says he still has "some stuff left in the basement," a little schmaltzy, sure, but not half bad. Not half bad at all.

Plus, the movie belongs to this nice wave of nostalgic movies that are giving the reboot to a bunch of '70s and '80s franchises. There's a reason for this, I think. Mainly, it's that having these characters back, in a time when things seem to be going to hell, feels good. I loved the trailer for Rocky Balboa, too. And I loved that whenever I saw it, audiences would laugh, but not with derision. There was just something different about the laughing, something warmer. Something that said "Sure, I know it's a little hokey, but it feels good to have him back, and if a little hokum is the price of admission, I'll definitely pay it."

I think that was the promise of the movie, and I do think the movie delivered on it. On that and also on the idea that grief and age and the Past all have real weight in this life.

Rocky Balboa struck me as shrewd and the first in the series since the original (or maybe Rocky II) to have an adult heart. I do think the movie has some flaws, but overall, it summoned the spirit of the original with the maturity that the sequels lacked, and without the loony self-love on which several of them gorged themselves.

Again, thanks for writing. And thanks for the kind word.

Vern said...

Hey Eric,

I knew you'd have to post about RAMBO. I'm right with you on this one and ROCKY BALBOA. ROCKY was much more satisfying because it was so much more about the character and exploring what would happen to that guy when he's older. And I completely believed that that was the same guy. In RAMBO, as you pointed out, the time gap is irrelevant to the story, and that seems like a wasted opportunity. Not many iconic movie characters get that chance to jump forward that many years.

As much as I liked all the ridiculous carnage of RAMBO I was much more interested in him as a character. The best parts to me (as good as the bow and arrow scene was) were things like Rambo not responding to the mercenaries as they talk shit to him, and telling the lady who doesn't know what to say "then you shouldn't say anything, should you?" and the hopeful ending that recalls FIRST BLOOD but seems to be saying that this time he'll come home and not flip out and kill a bunch of cops. Hopefully.

But in ROCKY those types of character moments were 2/3 of the movie, here it's just bits in between killing. I would rather have a smarter, character driven movie like FIRST BLOOD but since that's not gonna happen I would accept as a substitute exactly what you said, something more silly. I really hope he does a part 5 with Rambo going to war in a major American metropolis.

Me and a buddy were talking today about a ridiculous cliffhanger ending they could've done. Rambo comes home to his father's farm, as seen in the movie. He walks in and we see Wilford Brimley wearing a headband. He says, "Son, I'm glad you're home. They've got your mother," as he flips open a secret compartment revealing a militia's worth of weaponry. Smash cut to end credits.

Anyway, good post. I'm glad you got some enjoyment out of it even if it's not as great as it could've been.