COP LAND, James Mangold’s Breakout Film, Only Gets Better With Age

Looking back on Cop Land, James Mangold’s breakout 1997 police drama that helped fortify the Miramax stronghold on independent cinema throughout the decade, what’s most striking is the cast. It’s incredible. These faces and these bodies, ones of movie stars at different points in their career, seem to have gone back in time and lived as these characters for decades before we see them crash into each other in Mangold’s story. It lends even more authenticity to a near-perfect thriller that has truth and conviction in its bones.

James Mangold couldn’t have assembled the cast he did without selling his screenplay to Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The brash brothers from Buffalo, New York had transformed Miramax Films into the newest kings of tinseltown, thanks to the culture-shifting success of Pulp Fiction. Just about every young star – and a number of fading legends – were eager to find their Pulp Fiction and propel or resurrect their career, so when the Weinstein’s showed up with Mangold’s Cop Land, the producer was able to convince the majority of the impressive cast – Robert Patrick, Ray Liotta, Annabella Sciorra, Cathy Moriarty, Peter Berg, De Niro, Keitel, the list goes on – to work for scale.

The one holdout on that front was John Travolta, whom Harvey wanted to bring back this time to play the hero of the picture, Freddy Heflin, the downtrodden doormat sheriff of a city full of cops, deaf in one in because of an ear injury that kept him out of the NYPD. A lifetime of regret hangs heavy on Heflin. Weinstein argued that Travolta owed him for the windfall of Pulp Fiction, but Travolta felt he may have had something to do with the success of the movie, and he wasn’t so willing to reduce his asking price right in the middle of his new hot streak. Travolta didn’t fit in the mold of Cop Land anyway; he’d become a star again, and was too big a personality for this intimate drama. Mangold and Miramax needed to find someone on the downslope, the way Travolta was before 1994. Sylvester Stallone fit that description.

In 1993, Sly Stallone had a pair of solid hits – and two terrific films to boot – in Cliffhanger and the gleefully insane Demolition Man. Since that magical year, the well had run dry for the now aging ’80s icon: The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight were four consecutive bombs, so Stallone was all too willing to roll the dice and take the part for a minimal fee. It was a return to Stallone’s roots as a performer, as he added forty pounds to his petite muscular frame and tackled the most crucial performance in an imposing ensemble of actors, all with “bigger” moments than Freddy throughout the film. Stallone could not be more perfect in a role that was advertised at the time as his indie throwback attempt at “real acting” again. His Freddy Heflin begins in the pool hall of Garrison, NJ, drunk and virtually mute, and must slowly stir his soul awake and pull himself out of the fog as the story begins to evolve and sprawl out of control. Stallone does wonderful physical work as Freddy slowly wakes up to the evil all around him, and his dull eyes are shining and clear by the time he decides to stand up for himself, and for the honor of the badge he’s wearing – even if it isn’t that shining tin star of the NYPD.

The fact that Stallone is able to hold the screen against the likes of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and the manic energy of Ray Liotta and a mustachioed Robert Patrick, speaks volumes to his performance. Both Keitel and De Niro are right at home as opposing powers facing off over an investigation into the sudden disappearance of Murray “Wonder Kid” Babbitch (Michael Rapaport), who shoots an unarmed black man one night and promptly vanishes into thin air. The rest of these actors all inhabit different variations of the beaten down, alcoholic drecks that many of these hard-nosed policemen morph into over years of working the beat, and Cathy Moriarty and Annabella Sciorra admirably fill the thankless, hapless roles of the wives in the background, themselves hapless and minimized by the toxic world all around them.

Mangold executes the labyrinthine plot and emotional beats of Cop Land like a seasoned veteran, with an inspirational touch of Sidney Lumet or Clint Eastwood in his directing prime. The film is patient and intimate, but still manages to hit big action notes and ratchet up the tension at just the right times. I have always admired Cop Land since seeing it in the theater, but the deliberate pacing and distinct lack of visual flourish, which befell so many Pulp Fiction copycats in the back half of the decade, has allowed the film to appreciate on its own humanistic merit. It’s the performances that grow stronger throughout the years, first and foremost, as we look back on this roster of talent and see just how great it turned out to be.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Tries Hard, But it Can’t Escape the Past

For the better part of two decades, ever since its perfect farewell in 1991, studios and directors and producers and creators have been trying to reboot or continue or reimagine the Terminator franchise. Whether it’s going back in time, or into the future, or frivolously fixing the present, this is the franchise that’s felt tired for a long time. Terminator: Dark Fate almost course corrects the entire IP.

Almost.

None of these post ’91 Terminator movies have “worked,” not in the way anyone involved had hoped.  In 2003, the studio asked Jonathan Mostow to pick up where JAMES CAMERON left off, and Rise of The Machines was, at the very least, fun. Terminator Salvation was nothing of the sort; McG’s attempt to revive the franchise was more well known for Christian Bale’s on-set rant than any single moment in his dour, lifeless, aggressively brown movie. Then, in 2015, legendary filmmaker… (checks notes) Alan Taylor… gave us Terminator Genisys, which I can confirm was a movie that existed. Don’t press me for details.

Surely, the failure of Genisys was proof that the franchise was dead, and should have died with that final thumbs up in the molten steel. But, much like its titular T-101, this revisionist universe won’t be stopped. Enter Deadpool director Tim Miller, with a mercifully un-funny return to the basics in Dark Fate. Don’t expect the sitcom vibes of T3 or the crude humor of Deadpool, this film sticks to the action, which is an admirable approach in these days of self-referential humor and postmodern nostalgia trips that serve as nothing more than fan service.

That being said, Linda Hamilton is back, and she’s a sight for sore eyes. This franchise has been adrift since Hamilton’s been gone, with surprisingly little in the way of a strong female presence in any of the subsequent films. This time around, Sarah Connor is tasked with saving a young hispanic girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), from the clutches of a new advanced terminator called the REV-9 (Diego Boneta), who can detach his nano-tech skin/body from his robotic endoskeleton… it’s never really explained. Also in the mix is Grace, a human/terminator hybrid played terrifically by Mackenzie Davis. Grace is in charge of protecting young Dani as well, but that portion of the story is of little consequence, no matter how much Miller and his robust stable of screenwriters try and pull us in.

The problem with every Terminator movie post ’91 has been the same: none of them should exist. Terminator 3′s explanation that the story didn’t end in 1991 was “well, the apocalypse was inevitable, just go with us.” Salvation was in the future, in a story nobody cared about, and even though I am certain I’ve seen Genisys I still don’t know why it haphazardly starts the entire timeline over from the beginning with worse actors in literally every role. Once we get “the explanation” in Dark Fate, which happens in an early exposition dump and is far and away the best justification of any of these newer entries, a certain satisfaction level has been met with the story. “Oh,” you think, “okay, that’s how this movie exists. Fine.”

Dark Fate honestly tries to engage with society’s involvement with – and inevitable replacement by – technology in some fresh new ways early on, but again, once the reason for the story’s existence has been checked off, the movie devolves into little more than a series of CGI action sequences. And then, of course, it figures out a way to squeeze in a little Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s no surprise that Arnie is back as the T-101, and his new backstory is an interesting bit of creativity spilled out by this platoon of screenwriters; but, much like the society/tech angle, his whole scene is pretty much abandoned. Arnie’s presence is a benefit and a hindrance to the series. Since he is still willing, the Terminator franchise must always figure out a way to make his T-101 a part of the story; at the same time, because of Arnie’s dedication to the character they can never make a clean break and concentrate on making central characters we may deeply care about again.

Linda Hamilton is game for her role, and even though her performance is a lot of standing around she still does it with some much-needed gravitas. The best surprise in the new cast is Davis, who is physical and tall and commands your attention. The rest of the new players are basically voids, which is a big problem. As cold and quiet as Robert Patrick was in T2, he was still menacing and even a little scary as he stalked young John Connor across LA. None of that exists with Diego Boneta, who is nonexistent outside of the CGI that’s applied to his body. The same goes for Natalia Reyes, the key to the entire story who is shuffled to the background and practically forgotten at times. Remember that first 45 minutes of The Terminator where we got to know Sarah Connor and pick up on her mannerisms and personality and possible untapped strengths? We are given none of that for Dani, at least not in any meaningful way.

No matter how well the Dark Fate story tries to thread the needle, and even though it gets closer than any film that’s tried it before, it can’t escape the intimidating shadow of James Cameron. This was the best opportunity for the franchise to take a step forward, where an explanation was given and it was something worth embracing. Unfortunately, any of the interesting tidbits dissolve in a blaze of empty gunfire and CGI explosions.

THE LIGHTHOUSE: Melville Gone Mad

Out at the edge of the world, surrounded by an angry ocean, sits The Lighthouse, the subject of Robert Eggers’ captivating new period horror. This titular lighthouse is rude and rickety, craggy and seemingly sinking into the wet earth around it. It’s where we first meet Wake and Winslow (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson), the two forlorn seamen who arrive via ferry and watch as their tugboat taxi disappears into the fog. We are on our own, then, and Eggers uses all the tools in his belt to make this a harrowing showdown between two madmen. Here are two brilliant actors at different personal peaks of their respective careers, crossing paths, and it’s a blast to watch.

Pattinson’s Winslow is a young journeyman with a sketchy past, and he’s paired with Thomas Wake, a brillo-bearded former sea captain with all the grunts and snarls – and all the other body noises – of a sodden mariner gone to seed. Willem Dafoe is always worth seeing, but when he’s deep in the throes of genre the way he is here, there’s nothing quite like the energy he brings to the screen. This is a petrified seaman ripped from the pages of Herman Melville and soured by isolation and a casual sort of madness. Wake is in charge of this lighthouse, and of Winslow, and he treats Winslow like his personal slave, hauling coal, cleaning, repairing the roof, working like a dog while the salty supervisor gets drunk and threatens Winslow with docked pay.

The power struggle is one of several plates The Lighthouse has in the air. Some threads of this fraying knit sweater veer off into the supernatural, with some surprising mermaids and some pesky seagulls. Wake and Winslow bristle, then bond, and the rollercoaster heads into dark and dingy places that are often beautifully garish, thanks to Jarin Blaschke’s high contrast black-and-white photography. The sharp shadows and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio (it cuts off the sides of the screen, giving the film a boxed, early 20th-century look) set the claustrophobic tone. The score consists of moaning and wailing brass horns, and the soundtrack of the picture is heavy and industrial. You can feel the wind cut through these poor men as storms roll over them with little regard, and every belch and fart feels like it could creep into the theater with you.

But The Lighthouse is much more than visual parlor tricks, straightforward horror elements, and a few startling surprises that are best left unsaid. The push and pull between Pattinson – oddly resembling a 1920’s-era Gary Cooper at times – and Dafoe evolves and devolves as these men slip in and out of madness, typically fueled by endless booze. Much like he did with The Witch, Eggers is able to incorporate modern psychology with a classic cinematic setting, in a world that time has since forgotten. It may seem like The Lighthouse would work as a silent film, but that’s anything but the truth. This is a story that thrives on rich dialogue, and some strong monologues, from its dueling leads as they grapple with the gradual dissolution of their sanity. It isn’t as impenetrable as the dialogue in The Witch, but it certainly has its own authentic slang, and the characters have their own dialects that, once again, seem to be pulled from Melville’s nightmares.

The Lighthouse can be interpreted in a number of different ways, which appears to be another one of Eggers’ strength aside from strict attention to period detail. The journey of these two men takes on different shades of insanity if it’s taken at face value, or if it’s taken as an allegory for any number of things… that would potentially spoil the movie. This is a film that sticks to your sides like barnacles. It will be fun to revisit, some dark and stormy night down the road.

FIGHT CLUB Deserves a Better Legacy

For the last twenty years, David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club has slowly, steadily gained the reputation as a monolithic touchstone for toxic masculinity, a reckless movie that fills weak-minded young men with bad ideas. “If a man tells you his favorite movie is Fight Club, run away,” is a somewhat common social media sentiment nowadays. But is this sentiment based in any sort of reality, or is it merely a commentary on the gradual aging of Fincher’s groundbreaking 1999 film, a terrific action/drama/comedy hybrid that’s been unjustly cornered by the media?

Consensus seems to be that Fight Club delivered the wrong messages to impressionable young men, creating some anarchistic offshoot of wannabe Tyler Durden’s who bought into his nihilist rhetoric. In so many words, to so many people, the movie created douchebags who didn’t care about anything. Thanks to this unsubstantiated claim, Fight Club has been met with increased derision over the years. Vice seems to be leading the charge in the crusade to slam Fincher’s film, linking it to Men’s Rights Activists and alt-right loons. By fitting the film into this category, thanks to a small minority, it’s easy to dismiss all the brilliance at work.

No, Fight Club is not my favorite movie. It’s not even one of my five favorite in David Fincher’s filmography. But Fincher’s list of quality films runs deep, and his pitch perfect adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly comic salute to masculine fragility – not toxicity – deserves a better shake. Attributing the fractured fanbase to the film itself is akin to the sort of blame Marilyn Manson was receiving for the Columbine shooting a few months before Fight Club‘s release. It’s a lazy way to shrug off the real issue with young men in this country, and an even lazier way to categorize any fan of the film. I was 18 when I saw the film in the theater. At the time I had the poster, and I adored the movie and thought Brad Pitt was giving the coolest of cool performances. I never once thought about wreaking havoc on The Evil Corporate-Run Society. I simply grew up, and the picture evolved, and it became something funnier and more clearly satirical to me as time passed.

Fight Club isn’t to blame for some minuscule section of supporters, and it should be allowed to stand on its own as the satire Fincher and Palahniuk intended. Just because a few (again, not even a few, I’ve never met some Fight Club sycophant) soft skulls allegedly took the wrong message from the exploits of Durden doesn’t mean the film didn’t do what it set out to do. Tyler Durden’s decries of anarchy and destroying the system are heightened to absurd levels, a manifesto sprung from the troubled mind of an aimless young man, and his ultimate plan to blow up the credit company buildings is outlandish because it’s supposed to be. Taking a step back from the discourse that’s poisoned the well, Fincher’s intent is clear. Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a broad comic figure manifested from the bored brain of Edward Norton’s “Jack.” This is a rotten fantasy of penned up rage and stymied libido, the ultimate imaginary friend run amok, able to influence the “real world” with brutal fighting, anarchy, and phantasmagoric sex. Fight Club whisks along at a breakneck pace, and thumps with energy and style in every frame, and not everyone who admires it has psychological “issues” ripe for manipulation.

No matter how you see the story and its intent, there’s no denying that Fight Club was truly, without hyperbole, a groundbreaking cinematic experience in 1999. It felt like the potential for film was blossoming at the end of the millennium, right in front of our eyes, and Fincher’s balance of technical wizardry and visceral hyper reality and texture was hypnotic. Though I wasn’t around in 1969, three decades after Easy Rider welcomed in the New Hollywood of the ’70s, the industry looked like it was hitting a new level of enlightenment. Fincher’s film felt, at the time, like the tip of the spear. Perhaps twenty years of time has steered the culture towards favoring other ’99 films, but that doesn’t change how impactful Fight Club was when it unspooled in the theater.

For every MRA idiot sousing Durden’s prose on 4chan, there are a dozen film fans who count Fight Club as an important stepping stone in their own development into the understanding of, and the appreciation for, the craft of filmmaking – yours truly included. But, taking a step back, has Durden’s rhetoric ever been tied to any mass casualty events in this country? Did this film ever cause an outbreak of bombings or assaults or even underground fight clubs? No. Because Tyler Durden speaks to us when we’re 18, but even then he just seems cool and funny. Nobody ever truly bought the ridiculous message of Palahniuk’s clear satire, except perhaps the media who decry it as something #toxic and #problematic.

Like so many touchstones in the history of cinema, Fight Club showed audiences what films were capable of on both a narrative and visual levels. It pushed the limits of storytelling in a new direction and, like so many “big moment” pictures, it was often imitated, never duplicated. It deserves a better legacy.

Joaquin Phoenix Takes JOKER as Far as He Can

It’s been made clear what Todd Phillips is going for with Joker, his new “super twisted” and “ultra gritty” take on the iconic comic book villain, and the former comedy filmmaker certainly delivers on the obvious expectations. Joker is, of course, inspired by a pair of legendary Martin Scorsese pictures: Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. That much has been made apparent time and time again for what feels like years of pre-release discourse, and the story doesn’t shy away from its overt influences, it hits those reference points early and often. But it’s also a mishmash of dozens of other seventies movies all fighting for recognition in an obvious and painfully glib screenplay that Joaquin Phoenix almost manages to save on his hunched, bony shoulders.

This is a showcase for Phoenix, and it’s worth seeing just to watch him be great at Extremely Acting. Emaciated to near Christian Bale Machinist levels, Phoenix is a marvel not only in his physical performance, but in his dedication to Work Hard, and Work Big, to try everything he can to save a story that’s so satisfied with its own coolness and sophomoric references to venture beyond the comforting confines of familiarity. He is utterly fascinating in an utterly ordinary movie disguised as some deep, thought-provoking opus. And just because this is a comic-book movie doesn’t mean it’s not a remake of a classic – or multiple classics. Travis Bickle is just in clown makeup this time.

No matter how earnestly Phoenix tries to steer his Arthur Fleck into the depths of any honest character study, Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s screenplay brings everything back to the middle, so it can hit squarely on the nose time, and time again. Arthur Fleck is a sad sack, yes. Maybe an incel, who knows. The movie doesn’t really have an idea about anything one way or another. Arthur works as a sign-spinning clown and he gets his ass kicked by “society” in literal and figurative ways for quite some time until he snaps and the film has its much-publicized flashes of violence; they aren’t as bad as what you’ve heard.

Arthur lives with his ailing mother (Francis Conroy) in a dilapidated mid-1970’s Gotham/NYC, and he fancies his new neighbor, Sophie, played sparingly by Zazie Beetz. Arthur has aspirations to be a standup comedian but, as his mother asks, “don’t you have to be funny to do that?” The discouragement doesn’t deter Arthur, because nothing really affects Arthur Fleck. He can’t manage to complete the simplest of communicative tasks in society without making things awkward, thanks in most part to his affliction: when he is distressed or uncomfortable, Arthur belts out a pretty unsettling, chin-bouncing cackle. It makes uncomfortable situations even more cringe worthy, and it’s a compelling way to incorporate some mythos of the DC character into a “real world” setting, though very little else in the story has that sot of inventiveness.

We find out a great deal about Arthur in the middle of Phillips’ oppressively bitter movie, but it’s all so obvious. There are interesting developments in the back story of the character and its relationship to other DC properties, but even that is stretched beyond its effectiveness. One character tells Arthur that something isn’t true, and the audience knows now that information isn’t true, yet we have twenty minutes of Arthur investigating the claim… only to find out it isn’t true. Yeah, we know, we know all of this.

Scenes are languid and linger on Phoenix when they haven’t earned that sort of grandiosity. Nothing is as shocking as it thinks it is, at least not for anyone whose seen more than two violent movies in their life. There is nothing subtle about Joker. Not that there needs to be, but without any subtlety the entire story contains almost no surprise. We get it, this Big Apple stand-in is scummy and crime ridden with piles of trash bags lining city streets. It’s all background, though, referenced in radio and TV news reports. Arthur never engages with society in a substantial enough way to feel included in this world.

So much of Joker feels like an exercise in style, a setup to let Joaquin Phoenix be weird or act crazy or inexplicably dance to the music in his head in a dingy bathroom after a murder. Fleck never elevates beyond a cypher for Phillips and his attempt to push some sort of envelope nobody asked him to push, and he stylizes the whole thing within an inch of its life. The cinematography and painstakingly specific lighting in Joker is the driving force behind the picture’s achingly on point visual language, and as we fall deeper into despair with Arthur Fleck and the checklist of people and places abandoning him – his therapy sessions, his meds, his job, his mom, and on and on – every aesthetic beat and stylistic choice is as predictable as the mail.

Any time a scene or a shot or a brief moment has a chance to be something new and take the film in a different direction, the story upends its antihero and takes us back to the clearest, most obvious context, or the most hamfisted delivery. We are forced to watch Arthur go through one loss, and then another, and one uncomfortable situation after another, and all the while the nervous cackling affliction is played so often its eventually drained of its effectiveness. The story plays tricks on us, but we see the strings from the beginning. It’s not getting anything by us, and it grows repetitive in a hurry. By the fiftieth awkward laughing fit, about halfway through, I started checking my watch.

And yes, to tie in even more with King of Comedy, Robert De Niro has a brief role as Murray Franklin, a late night talk-show host whom Arthur idolizes. He plays prominently into the film, but again De Niro’s scenes add very little, if any, new texture to a character we’ve seen done as well as Phoenix before, only those performers had the advantage of being in superior movies that didn’t feel like they needed to spoon feed thematic material to the audience. By the time we hit the third act, I wanted to tell the movie, “I get it, okay? I get it!” But the movie never thought I really did get it.

Phillips definitely carries a disdain for critics and for most of his audience, it’s clear in most of his work. But he has talent, and Joker feels like the most accurate representation of Todd Phillips, Director. Moments of greatness flash by, but cynicism and a repellant attitude dominate, and aren’t so much provocative as they are bratty and obvious. To say this movie will be an inspiration for a mass shooter or will become the new silver screen incel manifesto is giving too much power to a film that doesn’t deserve all this hysterical reactionary discourse. Joker bends over backwards to be cool and nihilistic and murderous, but it’s still so concerned about what you think of it that it can’t ever venture into anywhere worth analyzing.

JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1998) is The Best of The Legend’s Later Films

John Carpenter had quite a decade from 1978 to 1988. In the years following the massive success of Halloween, Carpenter helmed a handful of genre films that, despite being commercial flops at the time, have been stamped as pure classics in the modern court of popular opinion. Now, fans flock to Carpenter’s output during this decade, heralding it as some of the greatest works of science-fiction and horror, proclaiming either The Thing, Escape From New York, They Live, or Big Trouble in Little China to be his masterpiece. Search long enough and you’ll find die-hards dedicated to the legacy of Christine or The Fog, or maybe even Prince of Darkness. 

It would take a bit longer to find anyone who celebrates Carpenter’s ’90s output, however. After They Live in 1988, the master seemed to slam into a creative wall. The clumsy Chevy Chase comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a curious misfire, and In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned made absolutely no waves one way or another (though Madness is worth a revisit). Escape From L.A. suffered a last-second budget haircut from Paramount that derailed the effects work and created an unfinished mess. After a string of commercial failures, Carpenter was all set to retreat from filmmaking and focus exclusively on his music career. That’s when he got his hands on Don Jakoby’s screenplay for Vampires, a direct horror-western hybrid film adapted from a John Steakley novel that spoke to Carpenter’s deepest genre passions. He was jazzed by the story and he dove head first into production; the end result is proof that John Carpenter, in 1998, still had his fastball.

Vampires is lost in the muck of the director’s late career failings, a robust action thriller with buckets of blood and style to spare, his best ’90s film that is worthy of a serious reevaluation. It stars the surliest possible version of James Woods, playing ace vampire hunter Jack Crow, a perfect guide as our cynical and cold-blooded hero. Crow runs a team of vampire slayers who, early on, are ambushed and massacred by the undead’s vengeful king, Valek, played by Thomas Ian Griffith, the cheesy-as-hell villain of The Karate Kid Part III. He’s much better here. Only Crow and his partner Montoya (a brilliantly scuzzy Daniel Baldwin) survive. They’re also saddled with Katrina, a girl who’s been bitten by Valek and is beginning to turn.

The rest of the film traces over familiar lines. It’s a road movie and a Western and a blood-spattered horror that leans heavily on style over substance. We basically move from one set piece to another, but that movement is with a surprising amount of focus and delivered with energy. Carpenter’s never-ending desert skies exist in that hazy, pink, photo-negative world – the Tony Scott aesthetic – clouds stretching vertically into oblivion, the scorched sun the one last defense for humankind. The blood is bright red against the brown canvas and the action all has weight to it, thanks in no small part to the attention to world building.

Vampires has a strong, simple mythology. These aren’t your grandparents vampires in tuxedos and capes with alluring Romanian accents. Garlic doesn’t phase them, and they’re even searching for a cross to give them the power to walk in the daylight, their one true nemesis. The story is simple and Crow’s methods are rudimentary, involving a cross bow and a wench to get these monster into the sun where they explode like fireworks. The history of these southwestern slayers is sound, though it has to be delivered in a series of predictable expository scenes. Thankfully, James Woods is the one doing the explaining, so he’s able to keep these monologues pumped full of interesting insults and crudity.

To say James Woods is a polarizing figure in 2019 is an understatement, but there’s no denying how great he once was, back in the days when politics didn’t inform every avenue of everyone’s life. It’s no surprise, then, that Woods is excellent when he’s playing a reluctant hero, or a straight-up asshole, always so charged up he’s about to explode. Here, he plays a combination of both (as he often does), and he carries the picture. That’s no slight on Daniel Baldwin, who stepped in when his brother Alec turned down the part. Daniel holds his own, an icy cool Robin to Woods’ manic Batman, and might even be the most underrated of all the Baldwins? He’s certainly better than Stephen, isn’t he?

Along with Woods and Baldwin is Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, who is dynamite in a tough role. Katrina is often relegated to convulsing while restrained, or staring hypnotized into the middle distance, or tied naked to a bed, or looking generally possessed by the spirit of her vampiric master. So much of the performance is physical, and Lee does admirable work with what she’s given.

Everything in Vampires is a little bit better than it should be, or better now than it once was. But it came in an era where John Carpenter’s aesthetic was outdated, so it was shuffled aside. The ’90s were a strange traditional period for the horror genre, more about Scream and meta-fiction and the onset of CGI. On top of Carpenter’s film seemingly being misplaced in the timeline of his career and the genre in general, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had just released From Dusk til Dawn two years earlier. Perhaps there was some resistance to another rowdy vampire western so soon. Even though there are direct echoes between the stories, Carpenter is working on an entirely different wavelength than the boys over at Troublemaker Studios. Thankfully, now, there’s more than enough space to enjoy both films.

Politics is Not the Issue With the Terrible RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

Rambo: Last Blood is a terrible movie. It is poorly written, even more poorly executed, it is stupid and half-hearted and insanely, excessively violent to the point of being repulsive, and it probably should have never happened in the first place. The critics may be right that it’s bad, but trying to frame this as some racist right-wing fantasy really is, aside from being a bad-faith argument, giving the film too much credit; it’s silly to apply anything heady to this disaster.

Rambo 5 is similar to Rocky V in that it’s clearly the worst film of its respective Stallone series. This was either written by someone who had a couple of hours to spare on a weekend, or an Eli Roth bot built by algorithms fueled exclusively by mid-2000s direct-to-video horror flicks – it is barely pieced together to get us to the killin’, and the first thirty minutes feel like an eternity.

We pick up where we left off with Rambo at the end of the 2008 film, at the ranch from those closing credits. Now, Rambo is taking it easy at the ranch, training a horse, pounding hot steel into large stabbing weapons that definitely won’t play a factor in later scenes, and building an extensive network of full-sized tunnels running all under the farm. Aside from it being literally impossible for even John Rambo to build these tunnels by himself, in his senior years, after decades of physical abuse, these tunnels become crucial in the film’s not-so-subtle budgetary corner cutting. It’s a cheap, easy set to light and shoot, and all the added darkness will help to disguise all those pesky details that would otherwise have to be filled in by art directors and set designers during a painfully extensive third act showdown. And really, who has the money for that?

Rambo lives on this ranch with his… housekeeper? It’s not really explained, because it doesn’t matter, because we gotta get to the killzzz. The housekeeper has an 18-year-old granddaughter whose father is an asshole who ran out on her after her mother died, leaving Rambo… you know what? Stallone and the other screenwriters are right, it doesn’t matter. Rambo advises Surrogate Daughter not to go to Mexico (not because it’s evil Mexico, but because he knows the dad and knows where in Mexico she will have to go), Surrogate Daughter goes, gets drugged and kidnapped and sold into slavery, Rambo goes to save her, and the plot is off and running. Well, that’s the plot, I don’t know about any running. Oh, and Paz Vega appears in Mexico (at the same time as Rambo, how fortuitous!) as a journalist whose daughter was killed by the bad guys, but saying she has a thankless role with nothing to do would be a disservice to previous roles where supporting characters were given thankless roles with nothing to do.

The story goes along, then horrible things happen, then there is a burst of disgusting violence, and everything eventually escalates to a brutalized Home Alone riff, sending everyone home with their bloodlust satiated. It’s kind of hilarious watching Rambo set up all these elaborate traps for the faceless gang members headed his way. Violence in films has never bothered me when it’s done with purpose and a sense of scene and story, or with style, or with love and attention the way it’s done in 80s horror. This sort of violence and the violence in the previous film is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous, a cheap ruse to distract us from the cheap craft on display; it feels gross and exploitative in all the wrong ways.

I spent many of the last few minutes of this mercifully short movie looking away from the screen, weary and over it. Everyone involved knows they have no time or money to devote to a competent story resembling anything from the first three films – which feel like classics at this point – so they replace it with buckets of gore and overt cruelty. Aside from the low-rent splatter fest, every frame of Last Blood looks cheap and ugly and is shot almost entirely using close ups. It’s astounding how close we are to everyone’s face at all times. Every dialogue scene has Stallone’s grizzled mug two inches from the screen to block out any necessary background detail, driving scenes are digitally-inserted using cheap software, and one scene in particular appears to have noticeably, digitally, touched up Sly’s face, one of the many incongruous bits of a lazily constructed mess. The makeup work is poor, the effects mediocre at best… the whole movie is just plain bad. But to paint it as some sort of politically-charged commentary on the U.S./Mexico border relations or (gasp) those scary MAGA folks and their murder fantasies, well, that is somehow more idiotic than this movie.

Multiple reviews of Rambo: Last Blood have made the film appear as if it’s painting some disingenuous portrait of Mexico as a drug-infested war zone when, in fact, it’s just telling a specific story. It’s being called “anti-Mexican,” despite the fact Rambo is trying to rescue a Mexican girl for her Mexican grandmother. Sorry the sex traffickers are portrayed as bad guys? That doesn’t stop “serious critics” from decrying it as a “MAGA Fever Dream,” citing examples like when Surrogate Daughter wants to go to Mexico and Rambo simply asks why. He doesn’t ask her why because he’s repulsed by the history and culture of Mexico and its people; he is asking because he knows why Surrogate Daughter wants to go, and where that means she will have to go. Even in a movie this stupid, a line delivery like the one Stallone gives here could not be more clear. Claiming that “[t]he tone and shocked look on Stallone’s face make it seem as if she just asked to join ISIS and not the tropical border country within driving distance of his home in Arizona” is intentionally misreading the line for the purposes of painting the movie in a certain way – just like the use of “tropical border country,” which is absolutely the first time anyone has used that term to describe Mexican border towns.

So I find myself in an interesting spot, defending a terrible movie. Last Blood isn’t trying to be political, because that would indicate this movie had anything on its mind at all. Last Blood isn’t worth the energy it takes to apply such duplicitous political warning labels.

The RAMBO Revisit: RAMBO (2008)

It had been twenty years since John Rambo fought alongside the Afghan soldiers in Rambo III, a high-budget, low-profit misfire that seemed to wrap up the character for good. But Sylvester Stallone’s nostalgia senses were tingling in the mid-2000s, and he had a sneaking suspicion that a fourth adventure with the reluctant super soldier would attract moviegoers. And, when all is said and done, he wasn’t wrong.

Sly signed on to direct Rambo, and he just needed to find a conflict in which to insert his hero. He settled on Burma, a country in constant turmoil under the threat of dictatorship and genocide. It made sense that Rambo would live here, just outside of the conflict, aware of it but never engaging with it. “Fuck the world,” Rambo tells Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze), a missionary doctor imploring Rambo to take them up river to Burma, to help the citizens. But Rambo has long since checked out of “the world” and its citizens, retreating to the jungle to wrestle wild cobras – because what else would he do?

To the surprise of no one, Rambo’s abstinence from conflict doesn’t last long. The missionary group, made up of predictably wooden, nondescript actors, is kidnapped, and in a twist unfamiliar to the franchise, a team of mercenaries enter stage left to work alongside Rambo. They are, of course, inept compared to Rambo, and they only accept him as the badass he is when he ices a half dozen soldiers with his trusty bow and arrow. It is one blood-splattered geek show scene in a long string of excessively violent and mean-spirited scenes, a side effect of the era in which Rambo was filmed.

The mid-2000s were an era in Hollywood where “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” were the hot-button terms. Christopher Nolan stripped away the camp of the Batman in 2005, The Departed won Best Picture in the spring of ’07, and 2008 brought us The Dark Knight and Grindhouse, films dedicated to making their movies look a certain way. In horror, Hostel II had just come out, and the Saw torture porn franchise was running strong. Things looked grim and bathed in blue filters and shadows. Stallone decided to capitalize on these aesthetics for his story, and that meant tapping into the CGI blood machine.

Bodies regularly explode into goo in Rambo to the point where the visual is numbing; the same effect was used once in First Blood Part II, and it was a thrilling and shocking action beat. Now excessive gore dominates. Heads are chopped off, jaws blown apart by bullets and arrows, one poor bastard is liquified after catching a .50-cal machine gun in the chin from three feet away, and the purple-tinted CGI blood spraying everywhere is distracting and silly. On top of the gore fest, the villains in Rambo are excessively horrific. I understand fully that these militia commit atrocities, but we get it. This is supposed to be entertainment, and these are the villains in your Rambo action picture; the close-up murdering of children and raping of women feels gratuitous in the vain of Eli Roth carnage.

It was clearly Stallone’s intention. He defended the violence, stating it was authentic to what would really happen in these situations. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t look particularly good on the screen. Critics took the predictable stance on the film – all three First Blood sequels average between 37% and 41% on Rotten Tomatoes – but the demographic interested in this franchise was never going to stay away. Rambo capitalized on its built-in audience, and it opened in second place with a beefy $18.2 million in ticket sales. The domestic gross only hit $42 million against a $50 million budget, but $70 million overseas bolstered its profit.

In the end, we see John Rambo walking down an Arizona farm road, headed back to his family home, accepting the world again and moving on as an active part in it. It’s the farm house we see in the previews for Rambo: Last Blood, at least that will be the intention when we pick up with our reluctant hero one more time this weekend.