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Sylvester Stallone takes his iconic John Rambo character and places him in what amounts to little more than an ultra-violent MAGA wankathon in Rambo: Last Blood—easily the worst film in the franchise, and one of the worst films in Stallone’s career.

The Rambo movies have been on a slow downhill slide all along, but have always been watchable. First Blood was awesome; Rambo: First Blood Part II was fun and silly; Rambo III was passable action but a little tired; and Rambo (2008) was bit of a drag, albeit with some decent action scenes and carnage.

Alas, Rambo: Last Blood is an abomination in the way all the Charles Bronson Death Wish sequels were terrible: This film does absolutely nothing to merit its existence. As a Rambo/Stallone fan, I wish I could pretend it didn’t happen, but it has, and it is pure dreck. Stallone has said he will continue to play the character if the film is a success. Well, I almost want this piece of crap to be a success so we can get a better swan song for Rambo—because it would be a shame for the saga to end this way.

The film picks up 11 years after the last chapter, with Rambo sporting a clean haircut and a cowboy hat, and him living a peaceful existence on his late father’s farm in Arizona. He rides horses and hangs out with the housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) and her niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Montreal), who has taken to calling Rambo “Uncle John.” Rambo finally has a “normal” existence.

Gabrielle starts talking about going to Mexico to visit her long-disappeared father … and it becomes apparent where things are going: No, she doesn’t have a nice reunion down there; instead, she winds up a sex slave who is addicted to drugs in one weekend. Rambo to the rescue!

It all builds up to a final half-hour in which Rambo finally goes into Rambo mode, fighting a Mexican drug cartel on American soil in the tunnels he conveniently built under his daddy’s farm. He manages to booby-trap the place in the few hours it takes for the cartel to reach him from Mexico. (The Mexicans are fully armed and ready to kill, mind you. Damn that void-of-a-wall Border Patrol!)

Did this have any chance at being good? I don’t think so. At this point in Rambo lore, you could go two routes: Examine Rambo’s incurable PTSD, during which he goes crazy and becomes a vigilante who hunts American, homegrown terrorists and the KKK; or take a plot like that and go the pure camp route, giving us a wall-to-wall experience of Rambo blowing shit up and taking out bad guys—with no attempt at serious exposition.

This one starts with a “Mexico is bad” angle that is very biased and one-dimensional. It tries to be serious about Rambo’s condition, but not really. (We see him popping a lot of prescription pills, but with no explanation.)

David Morrell, author of the original First Blood novel and creator of the John Rambo character, has disavowed this film, calling it “a mess” and “a clumsy exploitation film.” Thank you, Mr. Morrell! At just less than 90 minutes, Last Blood was rumored to have gone through a lot of reshoots and rewrites—so it’s pretty clear Stallone and company really didn’t know what to do with this movie. Need evidence? The preview trailers are full of scenes not in the film. Maybe this one got massacred by preview-screening exit polls and meddling studio dummies? Whatever happened, there’s a persistent stank coming off what wound up onscreen.

At the end of this Trump propaganda reel—excuse me, movie, the sad, familiar Rambo theme starts to play, and they show us a montage of the past movies behind the credits (just like Twilight!). It drove home the fact that this movie didn’t earn the right to associate itself with those past efforts, even with Stallone’s participation. It’s a cinematic disgrace.

Rambo: Last Blood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie get-together at the diner. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son, Viktor, with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned; he’s replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in the first chapter, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This success actually surprises me, because the film dared to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports-underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on 1980s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character, and by then, Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth. Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Adonis (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Does this sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances; a sense of humiliation oozes from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen). Caple and his screenwriters (including Stallone) manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

The movie wisely jettisons the U.S.-vs.-Russia angle and just focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. An actor playing Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV: Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader! Nuclear war was averted! God that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing of a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it really hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment, a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky; he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on Creed, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV 33 years later. That’s a notable accomplishment.

Creed II is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Trippy Marvel fun continues with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a big, nutty, spiraling sequel that brings the fun—along with a lot of daddy issues.

Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), had him some major mommy issues in the first movie; this time out, dad takes a turn at messing with his head. Dad comes in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell … yes!), who we see hanging out with Quill’s mom in the 1970s during the film’s prologue. (Both CGI and practical makeup were reportedly used to de-age Kurt Russell, and it looks great.)

After a killer opening-credits sequence that features a battle with a giant slug thing while Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra, the Guardians—Quill, Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (David Bautista) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper)—find themselves on another quest. They are quickly diverted to Ego’s planet, where Quill finds out more about his celestial origins.

Russell proves to be perfectly cast as Quill’s bombastic father, as Pratt possesses many of the legendary action film star’s alluring traits. Seeing them onscreen together—at one point playing catch with an energy ball Quill conjures with newfound powers—is one of the film’s great joys.

That scene also proves to be misleading, as writer-director James Gunn isn’t going to settle for an easy story about a wayward son reuniting with a dream dad. As it turns out, Ego makes Darth Vader look like Mike Brady as a father: Vol. 2 is as dark and nasty as it is silly and action-packed.

Quill’s daddy issues don’t end with Ego. Oh, no, that would be too easy. Gunn and his cast have come up with a story that is far more complicated than that of your average comic-book movie. Of course, there’s also the whole sibling-rivalry thing between Gamora and her twisted sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). When these two fight, it goes way beyond kicking each other in the shins.

Another subplot—the film has quite a few—involves Michael Rooker’s disgraced Yondu looking for redemption. This storyline results in one of the greater surprises offered by the franchise so far. Rooker, an underrated actor, makes Yondu’s journey compelling.

All the story threads hold together well as the film ratchets up the action at a frantic pace that Gunn always manages to keep under control. The director has a way of going crazy with his visuals and pacing—yet making it all comprehensible and coherent.

Bautista, good in the first film, graduates to greatness here, providing most of the film’s big laughs. His newly minted relationship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s travelling companion, and his frankness about her physical appearance make for one of the film’s great running gags.

Sylvester Stallone makes a brief appearance as a renegade thief; while he doesn’t share screen time with Russell, we’ll just go ahead and call this a Tango and Cash reunion.

A couple of years back, Yes album cover illustrator Roger Dean took James Cameron to court, claiming Avatar’s production designs looked a lot like his work. He might want to fire up the lawyer brigade again, because Ego’s planet looks like it was completely inspired by Dean’s paintings. Whenever there was a pan of the planet’s landscape, I had Yes’ “Starship Trooper” playing in my head.

While Yes doesn’t make the classic-rock soundtrack, songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” do. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 works as an ode to classic vinyl rock.

The Guardians will be back in another sequel, along with an appearance in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, so the fun is just beginning. As always, stick around for the credits; there are scenes still to be had after the main movie is over.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Nine years ago, Sylvester Stallone seemingly closed the book on the Italian Stallion with Rocky Balboa, which featured a 60-year-old Rocky actually getting in the ring to fight somebody half his age.

This film made up for the lunacy of him getting into an illegal street fight with Tommy Gunn the last time we saw him (the abysmal Rocky V) and gave fans a more sophisticated, “officiated” type of violence to close out the Balboa saga. It was a little unrealistic, yes, but Rocky Balboa wound up being a cool and fitting conclusion to the franchise. Or so it seemed.

A few years ago, word leaked that Ryan Coogler, the promising director of Fruitvale Station, was going to fire up the Rocky machine again, focusing on Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis. There was also speculation that a certain lovable oaf with grey sweatpants and a droopy lip would be Adonis’ coach. The whole thing seemed a bit farfetched.

However, Coogler came through—and now we have Creed, with Michael B. Jordan of Fruitvale Station as Adonis, and the one and only Stallone as Rocky yet again. Coogler’s film manages to be an original work while paying homage to the classic series—and it’s the best Rocky movie since the 1976 original. There’s plenty of life in the old Stallion after all.

The film opens in the late 1990s as an angry teenager gets into a fight at a juvenile-detention center. A kind woman unexpectedly shows up to visit young Adonis. That woman is Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of Apollo Creed. Apollo was a bit randy in his heyday—and had a son out of wedlock. Adonis is that son, and the charitable Mary Anne wants him to come home and live with her. 

The film then moves to the present day. Adonis has grown up to be a responsible man with a job in finance—but it doesn’t suit him. He moonlights in Mexico with boxing matches, and eventually decides he wants to be a professional fighter. He winds up in Philadelphia, seeking the help of his father’s friend, the former heavyweight champion of the world.

At first, Rocky just isn’t into it. He’d rather visit the grave of his wife, Adrian, which is now next to the grave of Paulie, who died in between Rocky Balboa and Creed. Of course, Rocky eventually can’t resist the temptation to show off his punching knowledge and his chicken-chasing trick—so a new boxing combo is off and running.

Jordan may be the most-convincing make-believe boxer in the series, and that includes Stallone. He has a physical resemblance to Carl Weathers (who played Apollo) and looks like he could strike up a pro career in the ring. His performance is across-the-boards excellent. Tessa Thompson proves invaluable as Bianca, Adonis’ neighbor and love interest, an aspiring musician who is dealing with progressive hearing loss. The love story is quite sweet.

Stallone could find himself in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination given his work in Creed. He makes the character the warm, lovable lug he was in the original, a sweetheart of a guy who could kill you with one punch. The movie has a dramatic twist that gives Stallone a chance to show the vulnerability of this character, and he’s impressive. It is, far and away, the performance of his career.

Coogler makes some of the best movie fight sequences since Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the first fight plays like one take. The final bout, between Adonis and Irish villain “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), is sports cinema at its very best. Coogler also finds a way to weave that iconic Bill Conti music into the score at perfect moments.

When Rocky IV came out in 1985, I complained about how stupid it was. I genuinely hated it. However, without Rocky IV, which killed off Apollo at the hands of cartoon character Ivan Drago, we wouldn’t have Creed. I guess I’m retroactively grateful for the existence of Rocky IV.

Creed is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Sylvester Stallone and his awesome band of old crows take some major missteps in The Expendables 3—an unfortunate leap backward for the aging-action-star franchise.

Stallone and company jettisoned the smarmy Bruce Willis in favor of the growly Harrison Ford, and this is a great change. They also added Wesley Snipes as Doctor Death, Antonio Banderas as fast-talking comic relief and, most notably, Mel Gibson playing himself (aka The World’s Biggest Asshole).

Stallone and director Patrick Hughes should’ve stopped right there and given the group (which also includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and many others) a decent script. This is a sufficient cast for any action movie—so get cracking with the pyrotechnics, and focus on a story that makes sense!

Alas, that didn’t happen. Perhaps because the production could only afford the big guys for a minimal amount of time, the script has Stallone’s Barney Ross putting the old guys on ice after the first 30 minutes in favor of a new, mostly younger crew—and most of that new crew is uninteresting and lacks the charisma of their older counterparts. Too much screen time is given to the likes of mixed martial arts superstar Ronda Rousey, who can most certainly kick the shit out of people, but can’t act for squat. Names like Kellan Lutz (the Twilight films) and boxer Victor Ortiz round out the boring faction of the new cast.

The plot is a mish-mosh of action-movie clichés, as Barney finds himself gathering the new team to go up against Stonebanks (Gibson), a former Expendable turned arms dealer and bad guy. Gibson gets a couple of scenes to show off his catcher’s-glove face (seriously … stop smoking, Mel!) and act all crazy.

After some tedious scenes introducing the new crew (featuring Kelsey Grammer, of all people), Barney eventually lets the old guys back into the movie, and this results in a halfway-decent finale during which many things blow up. It also has a typical showdown between Barney’s good guy and Stonebanks, during which the villain gets the upper hand, yet throws away his weapon in favor of hand-to-hand combat. Gibson vs. Stallone is a bit outlandish, even if Stallone is something like 95 years old.

I did like the sight of Harrison Ford piloting a helicopter, Han Solo-style, and Snipes is fun in his few scenes. The screenplay has a lot of inside jokes about his tax-evasion jail sentence that warrant a chuckle or two. Dolph Lundgren’s “Sore Loser” T-shirt also put a smile on my face, as did Terry Crews, once again letting loose with his really big gun.

I don’t understand the Jason Statham phenomenon. He’s been OK in a couple of films, but most of the stuff he slums in is trash. I’m sort of grateful that this movie puts him into more of a background role.

In an effort to give the film more earnings potential, it was made for a PG-13 rating (while the previous installments were R-rated). Dumb move. The target audience for this sort of stuff likes movies filled with bloody carnage and F-bombs. This boneheaded move, along with a pirated copy of the film that has been downloaded by millions, resulted in The Expendables 3 having a bad box-office opening.

Unless this movie catches fire overseas, the franchise may be in jeopardy. If you can’t get it done in the third installment, you are usually toast in Hollywood.

The Expendables 3 is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Talk about your blown cinematic opportunities. Man, this should’ve been fun: Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, riffing on their iconic boxing characters Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, have one last boxing match. It sounds to me like the setup for something great, nostalgic and even funny.

Instead, director Peter Segal managed to make this undertaking a morose, unfunny slog. Stallone plays an unhappy character, while De Niro plays a total jackass. Their characters wind up in a scenario that gets their almost 70-year-old bodies into the ring for a rematch 30 years after their last fight. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are wasted in supporting roles.

The fight itself is OK, with both men looking fit for their age. However, everything leading up to that fight is oddly paced, and sometimes painful to watch, especially when Kim Basinger is on screen as a confused love interest.

Stallone and De Niro show the more negative, unappealing aspects of their once-great characters. While they aren’t named Rocky and Jake in this movie, those characters are certainly on the brain. De Niro should’ve allowed his character to be a little more punchy, and Stallone should’ve shot for something a little more lovable and virtuous. Both performers seem truly lost, as if they signed up for a fun movie and discovered it was depressing.

This seemed like a sure thing, but Segal blew it. This counts as one of 2013’s biggest movie disappointments.

Special Features: You get an alternate opening and some alternate endings; some extras with Stallone, De Niro and Hart; and some fun with Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield. The extras are much better than the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

At long last, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up for a movie together in which they both play big parts. Yes, they have been in The Expendables films together, but Arnie has only done guest spots.

Escape Plan has Sly playing a security expert who escapes from prisons for a living. Things go bad when he gets buried in a maximum-security prison—and the folks who put him there plan to keep him locked up. Arnie plays a prisoner who befriends Sly on the inside, and they together look for a way to get out of a seemingly inescapable place.

Stallone is good here, and I haven’t enjoyed Arnie this much since well before he became governor. Arnold has one scene in which he raves to the warden about God in German. It turns out the warden is played by Jim Caviezel, who did, in fact, play Jesus for Mel Gibson, which makes the scene extra insane.

Escape Plan is junky fun, and it will make fans giddy. Yes, Stallone and Schwarzenegger are getting old, but they look great and have a lot of life in them. This bombed in the U.S., but did OK overseas, where the two aging stars appear to still have a little box-office clout.

Special Features: A commentary with the writer and director, deleted scenes and some behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Grudge Match should’ve been really fun. Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro—riffing on their iconic boxing characters Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta—have one last boxing match. It’s a setup for something great, nostalgic and even funny. Instead, director Peter Segal manages to make this undertaking a morose, unfunny slog.

Stallone plays a generally unhappy character, while De Niro plays a total asshole. Their characters wind up in a scenario that gets their near-70-year-old bodies into the ring for a rematch 30 years after their last fight. The fight itself is OK, with both men looking pretty fit for their age. However, everything leading up to the fight is oddly paced, and sometimes painful to watch, especially when Kim Basinger is onscreen as a confused love interest. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are wasted in supporting roles.

This seemed like a sure thing, but Segal blew it. The film takes itself too seriously, and it doesn’t know when to smile.

Grudge Match is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jason Statham and James Franco star in this piece of silliness from the pen of Sylvester Stallone. While I can’t say I liked Homefront, I can say that fans of Statham and Franco won’t be too disappointed, because they do good jobs of presenting the stupid material.

Statham stars as Broker, a former drug-enforcement agent looking for a new life with his young daughter—in a place he obviously should’ve avoided. Franco stars as Gator, a small-time meth dealer looking to go bigger. When Statham’s daughter punches his nephew out on the school playground, Gator decides to get involved, and things go haywire.

Statham is better than usual here, while Franco is actually kind of great as the bad guy. The problem: Stallone’s screenplay is so routine that you can guess the plot points 10 minutes before they happen. Still, it does have Kate Bosworth and Winona Ryder as meth-heads, so you could do worse at the movie theaters.

Homefront is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

At long last, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have teamed up in a movie in which they both play big parts. (Yes, they have been in the Expendables films together, but Arnie has only done guest spots in those.)

Escape Plan has Sly playing a security authority who escapes from prisons for a living. Things go bad when he gets buried in a maximum-security prison—and the folks who put him there plan to keep him locked up.

Arnie plays a prisoner who befriends Sly on the inside, and they both look for a way to get out of a seemingly inescapable place. Stallone is good here, and I haven’t enjoyed Arnie this much since his films before he became governor of this great state.

Arnold has one scene in which he raves about God in German—and he’s raving to the warden. It turns out the warden is played by Jim Caviezel, who did, in fact, play Jesus for Mel Gibson, which makes the scene extra-insane.

This is junky fun, but it will make fans giddy. Yes, Sly and Arnie are getting old, but they look great and still have a lot of life in them. 

Escape Plan is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

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