Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Favorite Era: Rambo: First Blood Part II

Since it's Memorial Day tomorrow, the official start of the summer blockbuster season (though recently that seems to have been bumped to late-April/early May as of late), I thought I'd take a closer look at one of the biggest hits of the summer of 1985, the second Rambo movie.  Stallone is back and this time, as tended to be the case between 1983 and 1986, he's going back to Vietnam to try and rescue POWs still being held.  It's a terminally silly, endlessly entertaining 96 minutes that became an iconic summer blockbuster.

Whereas the original First Blood was a somewhat more realistic, gritty and serous affair with Rambo being hunted by a small town Sheriff's department led by Brian Dennehy, the sequel is just a balls-to-the-wall simplistic comic book.  In other words, perfect summer eye candy.

Stallone is in action mode here so the bulk of his performance is a physical one.  Happily, Sly has always been good at the physical stuff and this time out is no different.  Richard Crenna is also solid as Trautman, Rambo's former commanding officer and really his only friend.

On the villainous side of things, we get the fantastically hammy Steven Berkoff in his third turn as a bad guy in an American action movie.  The first two, Octopussy and Beverly Hills Cop, we'll get to another day.  He plays a Russian Lt. Colonel who captures and tortures our hero.  Needless to say, that doesn't work out so well for him and Berkoff plays it with his usual flair.
 
Charles Napier is also on-hand as a treacherous government bureaucrat who tries to stymie Rambo as he tries to turn his simple reconnaissance mission into a rescue operation.  He's good as usual, full of slimy charm.

Action is good too as Rambo uses his explosive tipped arrows, huge knife, even more huge machine guns, a helicopter and his bare hands to rack up a huge body count.  The action is shot fairly well and the film is never better than when it's knee deep in its action scenes.  Happily, the last forty five minutes or so are basically one long action beat so one can't say they don't get enough cluck for their buck.  The action is also helped by Jerry Goldsmith's thunderous action score, one of his best efforts.

When it tries to get serious however, it stumbles.  Rambo has a rather superficial friendship with a local woman Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) who assists him only to be killed before the last act; the conspiracy stuff is rather predictable and to be frank, the film is about rescuing prisoners of war in the same way that the Karate Kid films are about finding a way to solve problems without kicking the problem, in the face.  In other words, not a hell of a lot.

Like the first film, there is also a heartfelt speech for Rambo to deliver, though this time Stallone doesn't dissolve into tears.  He did one of his patented re-writes after the original script by James Cameron (yes, that one) was approved.  The end product is an exciting, but quite stupid action movie.

This opened the same weekend as our previous subject, A View to A Kill.  Needless to say, this trounced the Bond flick rather soundly, though they're both about equal in terms of overall quality (both are silly and stupid but in very different ways).  The film was a massive pop culture success, inspiring toys, scads of knock-off movies, philosophical debates (because the Sunday morning talk show circuit gets bored sometimes) and a cartoon series of all things.  I swear to god, I am not making that one up.

In the end, the film is a loud, violent crowd pleasing icon of the 80's that gets the job done when it's sticking to the action but fails when it tries to do anything else.  I like it but it's really the sort of film where you have to ignore the politics and just kick back and turn your brain off.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Favorite Era: A View to A Kill (1985)

The 14th James Bond film was my introduction to the series and boy is it...Well, sort of mediocre in hindsight.  Actually, it isn't really that bad a swan song for Roger Moore but as an overall movie, it sort of drags here and there plus Moore probably should have hung it up after Octopussy (which we will get too soon enough).  Let's take a closer look.
  • Things start off pretty well with a fun pre-credit sequence as Bond recovers a microchip and gets into a nice skiing action scene with some Russian baddies.  John Barry's score is great as usual and the sequence in general really gets things off to a fantastic start.  Really, the only flaw with the action is that it's relatively obvious Moore is being doubled (as it is in his latter outings as 007).  The Beach Boys cover song that plays in the middle of things is also an odd touch since it sort of breaks the tension but it still works fine for me.
  • Om a side note, it's more than a little creepy to see a rather deep into middle age Moore seducing women about twenty years younger than him.
  • The main title theme by Duran Duran is also great, a nice driving rock song that is very cool to hear.
  • The overall plot is something of a reworking of the classic Goldfinger with a millionaire trying to corner the market on a resource through psychotically murderous means.  It's not a total success as in this case you're really trying to recreate near-perfection but it does have one thing on the former that I will get to later.
  • I sort of dig Robert Brown's take on Bond's chief M.  Whereas Bernard Lee played the character in a sort of stern paternal fashion, Brown veers a little closer towards resigned exasperation with a little more irritability.  It's done rather nicely as he never goes too overboard.
  • Christopher Walken is an inspired choice for Zorin, the main villain of the piece.  While you would generally expect him to go into quirky overdrive (since he's been in that mode since the mid-90's), he goes in the opposite direction with a more reserved performance.  It's pretty strong too as he only raises his voice a few times, making the moments where the certifiably nuts Zorin loses it more effective.
  • I also love the rather over the top notion that Zorin is a product of genetic engineering done by a former Nazi scientist working for the Russians.   It's pretty damn goofy but it also works more or less.
  • Handling the over the top villainy is Grace Jones as Zorin;s henchwoman May Day.  She gained some notoriety the previous year in the second Conan film and she does fairly well here, providing a fairly intimidating villain.  She's not the best or anything but she's certainly memorable.  Her super strength is not really a factor for the most part outside of a few moments but it does tie in with Zorin's backstory, sort of.
  • I also enjoy Patrick Macnee as Tibbett, Bond's helper for the first half of the film.  Macnee and Moore have an easygoing, natural chemistry that makes for one or two amusing bits.
  • The Eiffel Tower stunt and ensuing car chase is pretty damn good.
  • The fixed horse race/steroids angle that takes up the first hour or so is a decent but ultimately irrelevant as the real plot revolves around microchips and earthquakes.  Not sure what they could have done instead but it does leave a rather large hole in the plot.
  • To be fair, there is a mention of microchips being used to fix the horse race but it's rather thin as a connecting device.
  • In spite of this, Moore and Walken are fun to watch as Moore's Bond was always at his best when just being an utter wiseass and Walken, well...The man is cool no matter what he does.
  • I also get a chuckle out of Macnee serving as Bond's butler, this is where the two actors really gel as a duo.
  • The film has a rather leisurely pace for the most part (all 131 minutes, in fact) and while this let's the audience breathe a bit it also has the unfortunate side effect of causing the plot to meander a bit.  Moore is charming and Walken is fun but that;s no substitution for a decent pace.  Contrast this with the preceding and following films which are about the same length but move like hell.
  • The gadgets are somewhat downplayed this time out with a few useful items like hidden cameras and check duplicators used in the second half hour but for the most part, Bond uses his wits to get out of sticky situations.
  • Tanya Roberts as the Bond Girl for the evening is...okay, I guess though she won't go down in history as one of the best female leads.  It's sort of hard to judge, really since since this rather odd but is casting we've had Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist (oh, I'll get to that, believe me) and Halle Berry as an NSA agent allegedly equal to Bond.  Taken on its own, her performance as Stacey Sutton is decent enough as Roberts is sexy and charming.  It's a bit of a stretch for her to be believable as a geologist (and to be frank, she isn't but the film doesn't really require her to be too often) but given the era, it sort of works okay as her job isn't the main focus of her role in the film.
  • I get a kick out of Bond being exposed by an out of place vial in a cabinet that Zorin's ex-Nazi doctor assistant notices.
  • The horse riding action scene and Bond nearly being drowned in his car makes for a pretty good sequence.  Walken is nicely low key and I like Bond surviving by sucking the air out of the tire of his car.  It's a nice change of pace considering Moore's Bond usually relied on a gadget to save his ass.
  • I enjoy the scene of Zorin's KGB handlers reading him the riot act.  Series regular Walter Gotell puts in an appearance as General Gogol and there is a brief cameo from future action star Dolph Lundgren as a KGB agent.
  • One thing that always makes me chuckle is the rather overdone grunting Moore does in action scenes.  A few other action stars do it too (mainly Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford) but in Moore's case, there's a rather exaggerated "Ooohhh!" that gets used a few times in the film.  It's amusing, though not for any of the right reasons.
  • Zorin's speech to a bunch of businessmen is not only a very good sequence but it also solves a minor problem in Goldfinger.  In that film, Bond eavesdrops on the bad guy explaining his plans to a bunch of gangsters he then has killed, save for one who opts out of the deal and gets offed anyway later on.  Here, Zorin makes his speech and offs the lone dissenter instantly afterwards, letting Bond figure things out later.  It's a small change but it does work better.
  • The reveal of the blimp is also nice.
  • The last hour and change takes place in San Francisco, my favorite city.  I freely admit this plays a part in my affection for the film as I've always loved the place and any time it appears onscreen, I smile.
  • In spite of the great scenery which comes naturally from shooting in San Francisco, the film does drag for the next twenty minutes or so.  Stuff does happen (Zorin kills a KGB guy trying to spy on him, Bond seduces a female KGB agent and puts one over on her, Bond and Stacey team up after Bond saves her from some of Zorin's goons) but the film is paced so casually that it comes off as somewhat less than engaging.
  • The house used for Stacey's home was also used in the first Phantasm film.
  • As a California native, I'm amused at Bond being woken up by a little 2.8 tremor.  Not to be macho, but it generally takes at least a 5.1 to for me to even get up and get under a table at this point.
  • The City Hall stuff is pretty good (though Tanya Roberts screaming and a really good sound system are not a good match) and the fact that the filmmakers were allowed to actually set the building on fire (with controlled flames of course) is pretty cool.
  • The chase with the fire truck is pretty good too, though I could have done without the comic relief cop chasing Bond.  It was annoying as hell in the first two Moore outings and here it's just tiresome.  I don't know why every now and then the filmmakers decided to sabotage a perfectly good action scene with this sort of thing but in all fairness it's nowhere near grating as it is in, say, The Man with the Golden Gun.  It says a lot that out of all the movies, that's the only one I can honestly say I dislike.  And mind you, I'm the guy who is willing to give stuff from Cannon Pictures a bit of a break.
  • Zorins's plan of using a bomb to flood the San Andreas and Hayward Faults to cause a huge earthquake to corner the microchip market is a fairly good one, though most of the stuff with him carrying out his plans in a mine is a little too slow for my liking.  The highlight though is him going completely apeshit and mowing down his own employees with a machine gun while explosions are going off.  Walken really cuts loose here for the only time in the movie, laughing insanely the entire time.
  • May Day turning on Zorin and helping Bond at the cost of her own life is a pretty good touch, though in all honesty it's sort of predictable for two reasons.  First off, there isn't a person alive who wants to see Roger Moore beating the crap out of a woman.  Second, there's no way in hell to make it believable that a 57 year old Roger Moore could take Grace Jones in a fight.  I don't care how many stuntmen you use or how many different angles you shoot the scene from.
  • Before I talk about the climax, I just want to point something out.  The general knock on the third act is that Stacey manages to get ambushed by Zorin's blimp which sneaks up on her.  For the record, and really you just have to watch the damn movie to see this, it's really more of a tie if nothing else.  She glances back just as Zorin grabs her, about a second and a half after Bond yells to her.  It's hardly the dumbest thing in the film, really.  There are plenty of legit reasons to knock this movie without resorting to stupid crap like that.  It could have been shot better, I will say that.
  • To the climax, it's up there with my favorites in the series as Bond ties up the blimp in the Golden Gate Bridge and fights to the death with Zorin.  It's a real fun sequence, once again aided by Barry's fantastic score.
  • As I said, this is the last Bond film for Roger Moore and to be frank, he really should have left after Octopussy.  He's not awful or anything, he just seems a little tired and the stunt doubling is a little too obvious at times.  Still, he gave us seven solid movies (with at least two being awesome) and a heap of great memories.
At the end of the day, this is a very middle of the road Bond outing with a few good moments.  I still like it though as it was the first Bond film I ever saw and nostalgia counts for a lot when it comes to my reviews.  It's not the greatest thing you will ever see, but worth seeing at least once.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Favorite Era: Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter's Escape From New York is one of his best, a lean and mean action flick with a bare bones plot and an iconic Kurt Russell performance.  Russell is Snake Plissken, a loner in the classic Clint Eastwood mold (though much more cynical) who has been press ganged into saving the life of the President (Donald Pleasence).  There's good action, a great cast and just an utter sense of coolness that permeates the entire film.  Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, this is another one of those films in the 70's and 80's that spawned a bunch of European knockoffs.  The best one is 2019: After the Fall of New York which I have examined elsewhere on the site.
  • To the film, it starts us off on the right foot with Carpenter's awesome main title theme.  Carpenter did the music for most of his films and this is one of his better scores.
  • The cast is, as I said, awesome.  Russell is great of course but you also get good work from Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Pleasence and Isaac Hayes.  Now that's a damned cast!  We also get bit parts from a few Carpenter regulars such as Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins.
  • I dig the simple, basic way the story is set up with a little text and narration telling us New York City has been turned into a maximum security prison.  Carpenter is generally quite good at this sort of lean storytelling.  I say usually because, well, it has been quite a while since he had a good movie.
  • Russell is fantastic as Snake, managing to out-badass Clint Eastwood by simply growling out the few lines of dialogue he has in a whispery drawl while stalking around with his eye patch and a big gun.  He just oozes cool.
  • Lee van Cleef is fun as usual as Bob Hauk, the guy who enlists Snake and he brings a certain charm to the role.
  • Pleasence is fun as always, though it's a little odd to have the American president played by a rather small bald guy from England.  I've read reviews that say he's a little too wimpy in the part but considering the story requirements, it works to have a crap president in charge of what has become a rather crappy country.  The world the story inhabits is quite well put together and it  makes one wonder what the rest of the world looks like.  Plus, he does get to kill the bad guy at the end while cackling insanely as only Donald can.
  • Like most action films of the early 80's, this one takes its time setting up the story.  It's nearly eighteen minutes into the 99 minute running time before Snake is given his task.  Carpenter keeps the film moving though, never letting the viewer become bored.
  • Injecting Snake with mini-explosives to make sure he sticks to schedule is also a nice touch.

  • The film was put out by Avco/Embassy and released on Embassy Home Video.  Always like the box art.
  • I love that some of the denizens of the prison are putting on a Broadway revue.  Just a great touch.
  • The trio of Borgnine, Stanton and Barbeau are an entertaining trio as Borgnine provides some good natured humor; Stanton is fun and Adrienne Barbeau is cool as always.

  •  Isaac Hayes is great as The Duke of New York.  Cool, eerily calm and casually violent, he's one of Carpenter's better villains.  The chandeliers on the guy's car are a nice touch as well.
  • Back to Kurt's performance, one of the great things he does is give Snake a sense of casual urgency.  He wants to get the job done, since it's his neck...literally but the way he goes about it is nicely understated.  He observes and thinks things through, a rarity in the genre.  He's also quite amusing in a dark way,
  • Gotta love the fight Snake is out into with a huge mountain of a man (former pro wrestler Ox Baker).
  • I get a kick out of Frank Doubleday as The Duke's right hand man.  He's just a weird, bizarre little freak who fits in nicely with the rest of the film.  Doubleday was also in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 which is also pretty damn good.
  • The escape from Duke and the following action sequence with Snake and company trying to cross the heavily mined 69th Street Bridge is pretty good with Carpenter showing no mercy to his characters.  By the end of it all, only Snake and the president are left standing.
  • I get a chuckle out of Snake making the president look an idiot as the end credits roll.  It's a nice cynical touch.
Escape From New York is one hell of a fun ride that still works pretty well today.  The 1996 sequel Escape From L.A. is also decent, though it is really just a re-working of the first one which is kind of cool in a way.  The first one is the best, however, with a great Kurt Russell performance, some good action and a fantastic look.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

TNT Jackson (1974)

TNT Jackson is the breakout film (and that's pushing the term in many ways in this case) of famed Filipino action director Cirio Santiago.  Playboy Playmate Jeanne Bell stars as the title character who travels to Hong Kong after her brother is killed in the first scene.  She teams up with a local fighter named Joe and together, they fight against the local drug dealer and his henchman Charlie (Stan Shaw).

Santiago made the film for Roger Corman's New World Pictures and it's a fairly blatant attempt to create a new Pam Grier since the real deal was just getting popular.  The film is, to be frank, quite terrible.  The action scenes are shot badly with an obvious stunt double for Bell; the film somehow manages to drag despite running a lean 72 minutes, the plot is essentially non-existent, the editing is choppy as hell in places, the score is criminally un-funky  until the last nine minutes or so considering the period in which it was made and for the most part it comes off like a re-hash of any number of better action films of the period.

Performances are not really too much to talk about as Bell is rather wooden and unlikable (though she's very attractive which is the main reason she was hired) though Stan Shaw makes for an acceptably slimy killer.

Having said that, the film is actually pretty entertaining if you like bad kung fu films.  The action is plentiful (the highlight being a pretty decent chick fight and Bell taking on some bad guys while topless), the film is shot badly enough that it's funny and there are the usual out of nowhere twists one gets in this sort of film that generally make one chuckle.  The  bad guy's girlfriend turning out to be a fed is a decent enough twist but the payoff of her killing the drug dealer (and herself in the process) comes off as perfunctory.

TNT Jackson is not a good movie by any stretch but it's worth seeing if you're in search of something bad in a funny way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Favorite Era: Starcrash (1979)

Once again we venture into the world of cheesy Italian versions of hit movies with the wonderfully daft riff on Star Wars, Starcrash.  Caroline Munro (herself alone worth giving this film a good review) is Stella Star, our ostensible hero for the evening though she doesn't do nearly as much as one would expect from a lead character.  Joining her in her fight against evil are former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as Akton, her mysterious alien sidekick, Judd Hamilton as a robotic cop and the immortal David Hasslehoff.

Opposing them is the evil Lord Zarth Arn, overlord of the universe, played by the late Joe Spinell and Christopher Plummer also has a supporting role as Emperor of the universe.  Add to that a soundtrack from John Barry and  this easily beats seven shades of crap out of Galaxina!

Not that that's a tall order, as anyone who has seen that film (including myself) will tell you.

Luigi Cozzi directs and I have to say that he may be my favorite director of Italian genre pictures, right along with Lucio Fulci and Enzo Castellari.  When you go into one of his sci-fi movies, you pretty much know what you're going to get.  Cheesily awesome starscapes (he uses the same ones here that he does in the Hercules movies), lots of action and blissful insanity.

The plot is fairly episodic as Stella and Akton are enlisted by Plummer's Emperor to find his missing son Simon (The Hoff!) and stop Zarth Arn and his super weapon (concealed in a planet), going to several different planets and getting into wild, cheesily fun battles.  To be honest, the plot of the actual Star Wars movies aren't much more deep than this one.  The only real difference is one of budget as the pacing here is just as breakneck.

Munro is hot as usual, though her voice is dubbed for some odd reason, as is Joe Spinell's.  Actually, in the case of Joe I can see it since an evil overlord of the universe probably shouldn't sound like a numbers guy from Brooklyn.  Come to think of it, I think most of the actors are dubbed here.

Still, even dubbed the guy manages to deliver a wonderfully hammy performance, even if he doesn't really do all that much besides stalk around his fist shaped ship (because he's evil) and shout.

The rest of the cast has fun too with Gortner turning in a wooden but entertaining performance, Plummer doing his usual and...Well, that's about it really.  Hasslehoff doesn't get to do much but the simple fact that he's there makes this a must-see for fans of cheese.  To be fair, he does take a turn with a lightsaber, so there's that...Which is nice.

Action is pretty damn good, some nice space battles and one scene where Akton cuts loose with a lightsaber.  It's just simply, goofy fun.

The same can be said for the movie as a whole.  Sure, the f/x are cheap, the plot is goofy, the dialogue inane and the acting wooden but honestly, it's such a blast to watch it just doesn't matter.  Pacing is good, Caroline Munro is scantily clad throughout, we get giant robots, Amazons, if nothing else it's a lot more fun that The Phantom Menace!

Starcrash is one of the more entertaining bad films you will find.  It's worth checking out, just don't expect anything brilliant.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Licensed Video Games

I'm not really an avid gamer (the last system I owned was a Super Nintendo and I take an unreasonable amount of pride in having mastered the Nintendo 64 controller in 2004 or so, at the expense of the sanity of one of my cousins.

Having said that, I've played my fair share of video games based on hit movies (as in a bunch of stuff before 1995) plus one or two more recent ones.  So here it is, the good the bad and the ugly of my licensed gaming travels.

 Let's start off with a few that are good, though I never beat the damn things.

 A legend of 16 bit gaming, this is also one of the most horrifically difficult games I have ever tried to play.  I also has just regular Star Wars for the Gameboy and good lord, I think trying to beat it may have given me some sort of mental disorder.

 Had the non-super version of this on Gameboy as well and I have never made it past the Hoth levels on either version.

 Ditto for this one, though it's a very enjoyable game to play.

 I actually like this one quite a bit as it puts the first three movies into one giant game (something I always thought would have been cool for the James Bond series to do) and it's actually quite awesome providing you like the 16 bit era.  I made it to the very last level but never quite pulled it off.  Still, a damn fine game and you get to play Harrison Ford.

 This actually surprised me as I didn't really care for the film but the game is a pretty nice (though really long) shoot-em-up.  Bonus points for playing Kurt Russell which is just cool.  It gets a little repetitious but the bad guys are pretty easy to kill (your character is basically nearly impossible to kill) and it's a pretty decent challenge.

Equally challenging but nowhere near as fun are these two games based off of mid-90's Stallone flicks.  I'd mention the Cliffhanger game, but I never played more than thirty seconds of the thing before giving up.

 The first level of this is actually pretty entertaining.  The rest of the game I've seen... Well, the first level is okay.

 This one is just a royal pain in the ass to play.  That is all I have to say about it, really.

Next we have a prime example of how to do a good movie to game adaptation and how not to do one.

 This is a fantastic, difficult but manageable, fun game that sticks to the film and is a hell of a lot of fun to play.  Hell, it even holds up today.

 This however, is a steaming pile of excrement.

 I don't why but for some reason, I played this a lot when I was a kid.  It was fairly decent, as far as Gameboy games go.

 Let's go for something a little more recent (a ten year old game still counts in this case) with this pretty acceptable 007 first-person-shooter.  The missions are okay (but really repetitive after a while) and while there are some fun shootouts the last level is just a royal pain to try and beat.  I had the PC version and after beating it once or twice, I just used the three or four levels I actually enjoyed to blow off steam after a bad day at work.

 This one is actually a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine (as is the one below) as while both of these games are decent, the regular film adaptation is a little too easy to beat (my best time was about thirty minutes I think) and the arcade version is too hard to beat.


 And now, I have to vent about a really, really, horrible piece of garbage.

 This is maybe the worst thing I have ever tried to play in my entire life.  Confusing, virtually impossible to play, the fact that the Gameboy version is better is the worst thing I can say about it.  And that version sucks, believe me.  I played it a lot, I know.  Just awful.

With that being said, here's my favorite SNES game of all time.

There are so many things about this admittedly bland shooter that are hilarious it just boggles the mind.,  The Arnold sprite is funny (it looks like Arnie hit Dunkin' Donuts for a week before the game starts), you get some hilariously overdone blood pools after you kill a bad guy (and there are tons of them) and the ending is a bit of a cop-out as you have to just kill this guy weilding two machine guns and then you get digitized screens from the end of the actual film.  Honestly, the best way to play this is to use the cheat codes that give you invincibility and unlimited ammo.  That way, you're genuinely emulating a Schwarzenegger film!

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.