Rocky IV (1985)

2018 #152
Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Russian | PG / PG

Rocky IV

Rocky goes a bit Rambo for an instalment that abandons the series’ early gritty social realism roots in favour of an anti-Soviet propaganda cartoon tone. And, in fact, it was released the same year as First Blood Part II, which actually marked Rambo’s shift from being about a vet with PTSD to an “America, fuck yeah!” action series. What was up with Stallone in ’85?

Anyway, back to Rocky. This time, his opponent in the ring is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a poster boy for Soviet superiority and their advanced training methods. With Drago’s team harping about his brilliance, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) elects to come out of retirement to fight him and prove America’s supremacy. But the fight goes sideways, setting up a grudge match between Drago and Rocky.

Interpreting a sports movie as really being about the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union might normally be considered subtextual analysis, but that’s not the case here — it couldn’t be more blatant. Sometimes this is as hilariously preposterous as you’d expect (Rocky’s victory speech is greeted by a standing ovation from the Soviet politburo!), but other bits actually work quite well. Take the sequence before the Creed-Drago fight: on one hand it’s a ludicrously OTT musical number; on the other, that’s the point, as shown by Drago’s confusion at the flashy spectacle going on around him, intercut with his wife’s exasperated sighs. It’s the mentality of the USA vs. the USSR encapsulated in a glitzy floorshow vs. a heavy frown.

USSR in the back

This isn’t the only bit of music in Rocky IV, though. Oh no. Far from it. Halfway through, the film basically stops dead for the sake of a music video montage of scenes from all four movies. It’s meant to signify a moment of introspection for Rocky, but it goes on for the length of an entire song. And that’s certainly not the only montage. Oh no. Far from it. At one point there’s a training montage… followed by another training montage. It’s like a spoof of itself.

And I haven’t even mentioned the robot that Paulie receives as a gift, which seems to have an AI. No, seriously. Later, he gives it a woman’s voice and refers to it as “his girl” while it delivers him beer and plays its favourite song. No, seriously.

Some people were trying a bit harder than writer-director Stallone, though. There’s a good supporting turn from Brigitte Nielsen, giving off Lady Macbeth vibes as Drago’s wife — she’s like his voice, doing all the talking in America while he just glowers around as a silent hulk of muscle. Carl Weathers is also given some good material as a Creed who’s miserable when out of the limelight, jumping at the chance to revive his fame — he revels in the renewed attention, even if it might mean his death.

Rocky IV is not a good film, but between the so-ridiculous-it’s-fun bulk and the genuinely good flashes, it’s certainly entertaining.

3 out of 5


And now, a special bonus review…

Rocky VI
(1986)

aka Rock’y

2018 #152a
Aki Kaurismäki | 8 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Finland / English & Finnish

Rocky VI

An early work from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (one of those world cinema names I recognise but couldn’t tell you a single film by), Rocky VI is not, in fact, the sixth entry in the Rocky franchise, but a short parody of the fourth one (the Roman numerals in the title being an inversion of the real film’s IV, obv.). Kaurismäki described the short as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole.” Don’t hold back, Aki, tell us what you really think!

The film is basically all a music montage — so that’s quite accurate, then. In it, weedy little American Rock’y fights burly bushy-browed Russian fatso Igor. Rock’y spends several rounds getting absolutely pummelled, eventually falling over dead without Igor having to throw a punch. And that’s the end.

It’s too slight to be especially funny, with nothing to say other than “hey, wasn’t Rocky IV just pro-American propaganda?”, which I think we all knew. Really, Rocky IV is a better parody of Rocky IV than Rocky VI is.

2 out of 5

The Expendables 3: Extended Version (2014)

2015 #77
Patrick Hughes | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15

The Expendables 3Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone continues his examination of masculinity and machismo amongst older men in this trilogy-forming instalment of his Expendables franchise.

You think I’m joking… because I am. But there is actually an element of that in this latest action-fest, as the leader of the titular band of mercenaries, Barney Ross (Stallone), chooses to retire his team of ageing soldiers (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and new re-recruit Wesley Snipes) after one of their number is put in critical condition, and replace them with younger models (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, and Ronda Rousey). It’s all in aid of capturing the team’s latest target, international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Ross thought he’d killed years ago…

That said, if you’re looking for any commentary on… well, anything… you’re going to have to read it in there yourself, because co-writers Stallone, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, and director Patrick Hughes (now attached to The Raid remake, incidentally) are more focused on providing the simple ’80s-throwback action thrills and bad one-liners that genre fans expect from The Expendables. There’s certainly an abundance of both, to varying degrees of success: there are plenty of lines delivered in a knowing way that don’t seem to contain even a trace of humour, while the plot is naturally built to string together the combat scenes.

Fears about the PG-13 rating — lower than the R of the first two, in a misguided attempt to improve the box office — are largely misplaced. Well, unless you really like CGI blood spatters (there are none, not even added in for the ‘unrated’ longer cut) or other such special effects. The action choreography is fairly slick, Mogadishu actionthough occasionally obscured by camerawork and editing that turns it into a cacophony of violence. The Blu-ray release helps expose this: the special features include an extended version of Statham’s main battle from the climax, and in that focused form you can see how it’s been carefully constructed and designed. In the film itself, it’s chopped up into ten-second chunks and intercut with everyone else’s duels. It becomes like an impressionistic painting of shooting, punching, kicking, stabbing, running, jumping… It’s a war, as the now-double-sized team of heroes takes on a literal army, and some will revel in the over-the-top-ness of it all. The sheer excess does have a certain charm.

The best bits come a little earlier on, though. A car/van/truck chase around the Port of Mogadishu is the action highlight, in my opinion; later, the young team attempt to infiltrate an artsy modern building in a sequence that seems to emulate a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film, which is at least a different style for this series. Elsewise, the supporting cast of cameos provide good value — in Harrison Ford’s case, literally, as he replaced Bruce Willis after the latter demanded $4 million for four days’ work. Ford just has to turn up on screen to be cool, though he has his moments beyond that. There’s also Kelsey Grammer as a merc talent scout who seems to have a habit of kicking off whole non sequitur conversations; a bigger role for Arnie, though still on the sidelines; and a pointless appearance by martial arts expert Jet Li, performing no martial arts whatsoever. The new kids are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Parkour-performing blabbermouthThe best addition, unquestionably, is Antonio Banderas. He’s a parkour-performing blabbermouth who keeps pestering Grammer for a job, but no one wants him because he won’t stop talking. And he’s hilarious. Of the 93 changes in the five-minutes-longer extended version (yes, ninety-three), most are split-second action beats, the vast majority during that big final battle, but a handful are more of Banderas just chatting away, and those are welcome. He takes a while to turn up, but when he does it lifts the whole film. His performance is the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. I mean, it’s not a reason to watch the films if you weren’t going to, but if you are anyway…

The Expendables 3 is, for my money, much for muchness with the previous two films. They all have different pros and cons, sliding different elements up and down on the series’ mixing board with various degrees of success, and this third entry is no different. It seems Stallone intends to keep producing Expendables flicks, with talk of who might appear in a fourth outing taking place even before the third was released (Pierce Brosnan, maybe? More recently, ex-wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan), though the box office of this instalment throws that into question: off a $90 million budget, it only made $39 million in the US… but then it did take almost $167 million from everywhere else — surely enough to consider a sequel? Especially if next time they can stop it leaking on the internet several weeks early…

Ageing action actorsI kind of hope they do make more. The Expendables movies aren’t great films — heck, they aren’t even really great action films — and they’re a bit too cheesy and in-joke-y for the own good — and yet, somehow, I can’t resist them, and I’ll be happy to keep watching them for as long as Stallone and co can keep making them. After all, there are an awful lot of ageing action actors who’ve not appeared yet…

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3 is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

The Expendables 2 (2012)

2014 #66
Simon West | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Bulgaria / English | 15 / R

The Expendables 2Sylvester Stallone’s ragtag collection of former action stars (and some current ones) reassemble for another throwback fight-fest, this time upping the daftness factor, to mixed results.

The story sees Stallone’s team of mercenaries coerced into another mission by Bruce Willis, which goes askew when a gang of villains led by Jean-Claude Van Damme intervene, killing one of Stallone’s team in the process — you’ll guess who well before it happens, because the characters are so constructed from cliché that the doomed one virtually has “Will Die Later” flashing on screen during some early backstory scenes. Anyway, the guys set out for revenge, of course, and in the process seem to wind up liberating an ex-Soviet country from the rule of this evil gang. Bonus.

Whereas the first film was played straight and fairly serious, the sequel has more of the self-awareness that fans expected — and, indeed, wanted — from the franchise: the action sequences are bigger, faster and dafter; the cameos are longer and more knowing. The opening quarter-hour and climactic half-hour are what we’ve come for, a ludicrously OTT explosion of action and too-knowing fourth-wall-shattering dialogue, where the guys get to show off the skills that put them here. In between, there’s a vague kinda story that mainly links the fighting together, alongside cameos airlifted in with little regard to meaning or sense.

Granddads fightingSo is it better? Sometimes. The whole thing is inherently silly — these are (mostly) grandfather-aged chaps kicking ass with the best of ’em — and it plays up to that with sly winks to the audience and implausibly-grand combat choreography. But at times the nudge-nudge factor goes a little far, and the disregard for building a wholly plausible story, especially towards the end, is a shame.

Plus, technically speaking, it’s a mess. Apparently it cost $92 million, which must’ve all gone on salaries because it looks closer to $9.2 million. There’s the worst CGI you’ll see this side of an Asylum movie; the worst cinematography you’ll see this side of a YouTube clip. Seriously: either someone f’ed up the Blu-ray transfer or someone fluffed the technical side further back in the process, and based on comments from those who saw it in cinemas, it’s the latter. Plenty of the film actually looks fine, great even, but there are shots and scenes where the the resolution all but disappears, everything goes kinda smeary-blurry, like someone applied a paint effect… or, more likely, decided they could digitally zoom in during the edit and didn’t think how awful it would look. It’s distractingly ugly.

Time for a little sit downBut you didn’t come for that. You came for classic action stars fighting each other. In that regard, it’s pretty much the definition of brain-off brawny fun. If you don’t care for ridiculous action and cheesy dialogue, both of which are laughable in a way that’s hard to tell if it was intended or not, then this is not a film for you. If that sounds up your street, however, then The Expendables 2 is no classic, but it is a fun time.

3 out of 5

The first Expendables is on 5* tonight at 9pm. The series’ latest instalment, The Expendables 3, is in UK cinemas from today, and US theaters from tomorrow.