Thirty Years Ago, SEA OF LOVE Rescued Al Pacino’s Career

Al Pacino had a strange decade in the 80s, and it was Sea of Love that steered his career back on track.

Yes, one of the greatest actors in a generation of all-timers, responsible for a staggering number of classics in the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s, had almost a solid decade of duds, save for the story of one outrageous Cuban immigrant. Coppola’s Godfather films and his work with Sidney Lumet in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon had cemented his status as one of the hottest, most compelling young stars in the game in the 70s, but 1979’s …and Justice for All was a middling film, and William Friedkin’s highly-controversial and oft-protested Cruising – also a bomb at the time – seemed to level off Pacino’s upward trajectory.

His next film was Author! Author!, Arthur Hiller’s story of a playwright stressing over his latest production. The movie went absolutely nowhere, a shrug. The next year, Pacino did bounce back in Brian DePalma’s garish pop-culture touchstone, Scarface. It was praised by some critics and did well at the box office, though many voiced their disgust with the ultra violence of the picture. Pacino took this new Scarface cache and used it to make Revolution, a $28 million historical epic set for a Christmas release in 1985. It was wholly dismissed; Revolution closed its run after two weeks, and a $350,000 haul.

Pacino retreated to the stage, and didn’t star in a movie in 1986, ’87’, or ’88. He’d become an afterthought in Hollywood, a great actor with an untouchable run whose time had come and gone. Enter Richard Price, a novelist who’d just written a detective thriller about a woman killing men she meets through personal ads in the newspapers – these were ancient times. Price’s screenplay had been optioned, and he’d written the part of Detective Frank Keller – the investigator who poses as a blind date for a series of women in an attempt to catch the suspect, only to fall for a woman who may or may not be the killer – for Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman was being fussy, demanding rewrites, so the production moved on and Al Pacino recognized the potential.

Directed by Harold Becker, Sea of Love turned out to be anything but your typical noir mystery. It’s a more emotional film, its characters more human in their imperfections than the heightened miscreants of the pages of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. Keller is a good cop, tough but fair, as evidenced in the opening scene where he gives us a reason to root for him:

Pacino’s partner is Sherman, played by John Goodman, whose work through the 80s and 90s as “the cop hero’s partner” is, on its own merits, quite impressive. Keller and Sherman set up an undercover operation at a restaurant where they try and match fingerprints at the murder scene with wine glasses from the date to figure out who might be killing these men. These montage sequences of the dinner dates are airy and smartly constructed, the monotony played for laughs and the banter gives the scenes terrific energy, until Helen Cruger arrives. Cruger, played by Ellen Barkin at her absolute peak sultriness, practically overpowers Keller with her boundless sexual energy. Clad in red leather when we first see her, Helen turns out to be not what she seems in some surprising ways. The way Barkin evolves in her performance from beginning to end, and the way small details can create doubt or suspicion, is the best work of an underrated actresses career. She is the perfect pairing for Pacino, who is putty in her hands. We never doubt her control for a second.

Is she the killer? That’s the big question. The story around that is equally as interesting, perhaps even more so, than the stock thriller elements that allow us to solve the mystery. Thankfully one side of the film never outweighs the other, and Becker never toys with us when it would be so easy to do just that. The initial sex scene between Pacino and Barkin is perfect, and Barkin sinks her claws into the viewer when she pulls herself away from Pacino, only to slowly circle the room, remove her jacket, and go back in for the kill. It is a masterful mood setter. Their relationship evolves like few do in this genre or this setting, and the result is a much richer experience than so many thrillers in this era, where action and gore superseded intelligence or realism.

The mystery of Sea of Love comes and goes, but the relationship between Keller and Helen endures, and it’s why the picture was met with the best reviews of Pacino’s career since the late 70s. Buzz was properly in place, and the film opened in mid September at number one with just over $10 million. It bowed with $58.6 million, a robust hit for 1989. More than that, it was return to form for Al Pacino. His name was back in the trades, back on shortlists, and he was gearing up for a second half of his career that would have moments of sheer greatness before the eventual descent into self parody.

Pacino was rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Sea of Love, and he was off to the races. He was in Dick Tracy, he played Michael Corleone one last time in a polarizing end to Coppola’s Godfather saga, and he dominated a handful of scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross. In 1992 Pacino won what’s often considered a “make good” Oscar for Scent of a Woman, which was more a reward for a career of excellence. It happens to the best of them, see: Paul Newman. It was an appraisal of a career of a great actor, one that had been rescued from the pit of obscurity in 1989.

The RAMBO Revisit: RAMBO III (1988)

Rambo III was the most logical next step not only for our reluctant hero, but for Sylvester Stallone, who had managed to turn both of his successful franchises into political mouthpieces for correcting America’s mistakes of the past, and securing the future. In the summer of 1985, First Blood Part II longed to heal the wounds of Vietnam to the tune of $150 million; that fall movie season, Rocky Balboa delivered a pointed call to action to end communism after defeating Ivan Drago, and Rocky IV dominated the box office with $127.8 million. That gave Stallone two of the top three films of the year. Continuing in that tradition, and with his sights set on another dominant year, Sly Stallone set his sights on defeating the Russian invasion of a meek Middle Eastern country called Afghanistan.

“Most people can’t find it on a map.” That’s what Griggs, the shady CIA operative played by Kurtwood Smith, tells John Rambo when he and Colonel Trautman visit John Rambo at a monastery in Thailand. Rambo wants nothing more than to live his life in peace, even if he does tangle in an incredibly photographed stick fight as the film opens. Griggs and Trautman want Rambo’s help to help the feeble Afghan army defend itself against the invading Ruskies. But he turns them down; it’s only when Trautman, his surrogate father, is kidnapped by a sadistic Russian colonel that he decides to take on another fight.

The rest of Rambo III is a journey across Afghanistan with several familiar action beats and a few iconic franchise moments, like Rambo healing a wound with gunpowder, and the line “I’m your worst nightmare,” which became parodied into oblivion. Stallone had originally hired Russell Mulcahy to direct based on his latest film, Highlander, but when Sly arrived in Afghanistan to see dozens of blonde-haired, blue-eyed extras instead of threatening Russian heavies, the director and star had reached an impasse on the direction of the film. Clearly, the star won that battle, and Mulcahy was replaced by second-unit director Peter MacDonald.

The direction is nothing spectacular, but it’s also not a hindrance to the film. It’s a brisk 100 minutes, and there are aesthetic elements of the film that work better than First Blood Part II.  John Stanier’s cinematography (which passed through three different hands prior to the shoot) has more texture and depth than the soft, soap-opera tones of Jack Cardiff’s photography in the first sequel. There’s also the fascinating matter of the story at hand, and how it all fits together in a post-9/11 world.

Basically, in this fictional world set in a real-world conflict, John Rambo is fighting the evil Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) alongside Osama bin Laden. Nobody knew it at the time, but this is definitely a more problematic battleground than Vietnam in the years after that conflict ended. The fact that these very Afghan soldiers would turn against America within a decade casts a strange, one-of-a-kind pall over an otherwise underrated action adventure.

At the time, Rambo III was the most expensive movie ever made at a budget of $63 million. To create even more pre-release strife, the conflict in Afghanistan had ended and the Cold War began to crumble in the weeks and months before the film’s release, making it dated before it ever opened. It opened Memorial Day of 1988, and landed in second place with $8.2 million, behind Crocodile Dundee II in its second week. The Paul Hogan sequel had already made $47 million on its way to a $109.3 million domestic haul. Just an amazing time to be alive.

Rambo III, on the other hand, never gained any traction with audiences who had moved on from the character and his new adventure. It ended it’s seven-week domestic run with a paltry $53.7 million. Luckily for everyone involved, the foreign box office was $135 million, enough to make the film a global success. Alas, it seemed like the end of the road for John Rambo. The 80’s were closing their doors, and for a time Rambo was hermetically sealed off in that decade’s vault.

Until, in 2008, Stallone decided to ramp things up to an absurd level.

John McTiernan’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR is 20

In 1999, John McTiernan had quite a tumultuous month of August. Mired in the disastrous shoot/post-production/feudal malaise that was The 13th Warrior, which would open August 27 and promptly bomb, McTiernan released his remake of Norman Jewison’s breezy caper picture at the beginning of the month. The original starred Steve McQueen as the debonair thief Crown, and Faye Dunaway as the insurance agent pursuing him. 

McTiernan’s remake is superior for a number of reasons, and one of the key reasons it stands above Jewison’s enjoyable original is the duo of Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, whose chemistry together is off the charts. Brosnan is perfect as the aloof high-end criminal, but this film belongs to Russo for a number of reasons, reasons I laid out in Chapter 23 of my book John McTiernan: The Rise and Fall of an Action Movie Icon

Here is that chapter. Thank you for reading, and if you like what you’re reading you can purchase a copy of the book:

Chapter 23 – The Catherine Banning Affair

Pierce Brosnan’s slick businessman and part-time art thief might be the title
character of The Thomas Crown Affair, but something is made perfectly clear as the story advances: this is a film about the journey of Rene Russo’s Catherine Banning.

John McTiernan paid special attention to the Banning character that is, by the
sheer fact that forty-five-year-old Russo is cast in the role, the most important character in the film. Movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, blithe adult capers with intense romances at their core, had almost exclusively involved an older actor and a romantic lead who is five, or ten, or maybe fifteen years younger than the male protagonist. The original Thomas Crown is a perfect example, with a thirty-eight-year-old Steve McQueen romancing twenty-seven-year-old Faye Dunaway.

The same year as McTiernan’s remake, the teacher/student heist film Entrapment featured a sixty-nine-year-old Sean Connery in a battle of wits against a twenty-nine-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones. The age disparity between actor and actress subconsciously allows the male lead to play the dominant force in the relationship. Even when romance is not directly involved, as with the aforementioned Entrapment, the fact that the male lead is the older of the two implies his being the wiser. Not this time around, however.

The early scene where Banning is interrogating one of the pitiful criminals, where
McTiernan opted to remove unimportant subtitles from the scene, is one of the first
instances where McTiernan worked to build Banning’s sexual independence. Instead of reading, the viewer grows captivated by Russo’s performance, as Banning pushes in on this weaker male thief, manipulating him with her overt sexuality. She squeezes a confession from the thief, who finds himself almost powerless in her presence.

From early in the film Catherine Banning is set up not as an object of desire for
Thomas Crown, but a romantic equal. She is less enthralled with Crown than she sees him as a worthy adversary in her own game. There is a moment after one of their first dates together where Crown, working on an assumption, makes a move to insinuate he will be following Banning upstairs to her apartment. With a telling glance and playful glare, Banning pushes back his advances, taking immediate control of the situation. This character is in charge of her body more than most female leads in Hollywood movies, including Faye Dunaway’s Vicki in the original Thomas Crown Affair, who is left in bed by McQueen’s Crown, wilting like a dry flower. Banning, on the other hand, will let Crown know when she is ready to take their relationship to the next level.

Crown and Banning are both hardened characters who commit wholly to their
work and leave romantic relationships sidelined; that is, until they met each other. It is likely that neither of them had ever maintained a long-term relationship. Keeping their love lives in check is a form of control, and that is not a trait exclusively belonging to Crown.

Once these two rulers of their respective realms fall into each other’s arms,
following a sexually charged dance sequence, McTiernan stages many of these passionate moments with an acute attention to Banning’s orientation in the shot. An early glimpse of the two naked and making their way across Crown’s apartment frames Russo in Brosnan’s arms, but lifted above his head and looking down. While it represents Crown’s strength, it is an intentionally dominant blocking setup for Banning as she towers over her prey.

There is a scene shortly thereafter where the two lovers lie together, naked in bed,
and this is a clear indicator that McTiernan wants to replace Dunaway’s weakened
character with the confident, imposing persona of Catherine Banning. Rather than have Banning lie next to Crown in bed, framed in the background behind him, McTiernan shoots the scene with Banning draped over the top of him. The shot is a strong visual cue regarding the relationship dynamics of these two characters. Banning is in charge.

The sex scenes in the picture are tastefully framed and steeped in eroticism more
so than physicality or shock value; and they are some of the most electric, scorching
scenes of their kind, at least in a lighthearted caper movie of this ilk. The scenes were out of McTiernan’s comfort zone as a filmmaker—eroticism in the 1990s belonged to directors like Adrian Lyne—but he has always been eager to tell a new romance in a familiar setting. What he helps create, in turn, is the pinnacle performance in Rene Russo’s career.

Banning is not only a sexually liberated female lead, and the perfect romantic foil
for Thomas Crown, she is confident in all avenues of her life. She is perfectly unkempt in her mannerisms, gulping a can of soda right out of the vending machine or choking down green goop while she paces the police station break room; her hair is never entirely in place, but she is always dressed impeccably and brimming with confidence, parading her feminine power and flaunting her independence in the presence of these flummoxed New York cops. When she eventually does sleep with Crown, Banning is not simply swept up by some charming scoundrel; she knows the angles too, and she plays the game right along with him.

The relationship between Banning and Denis Leary’s sad-sack detective, Michael
McCann, is another interesting power play working in Banning’s advantage. McCann clearly fancies her, but he is almost immediately intimidated by her Alpha female confidence. She wears incredible, expensive clothing, she floats through life with seemingly nothing to weigh her down, and even though she shares this theft investigation with McCann, she could not be from a place less accessible to him.

It could be argued that Banning is ultimately punished for her sexual
individuality. She falls in love with Crown, and shortly thereafter she is shown photos (given to her by McCann, who of course wants Catherine to himself) of Crown with a mysterious young blonde. Their relationship fractures, and Banning has moments where her confidence has clearly been broken. She cries on the stairs, she stands in the rain, set adrift by the emotional attachment she felt with Crown, pushed away from her stern presence into just another victim of love.

McTiernan and costume designers Kate Harrington and Mark Zunino
intentionally soften Banning’s attire as she begins to gradually open herself up to Crown. This is not a punishment, but a breach of the emotional wall she had built around herself. It breaks her down, sure, and we have moments watching her trying to get that hardened persona back in place. It doesn’t work. She has finally found an emotional attachment, and she is not so much punished for this as knocked off her center. Banning has changed, and in these moments her arc becomes the focus of the entire film.

Thomas Crown is the title character, but he exists in the background of his own story, creating various catalysts in order for the plot to move forward. His emotional journey takes a definite backseat to the evolution of Catherine Banning, however. Make no mistake, Rene Russo is the lead character from just about every conceivable angle, no matter what the title says.

Buy a copy of John McTiernan: The Rise and Fall of An Action Movie Icon 

The RAMBO Revisit: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985)

Most action franchises, if they go on long enough, eventually stray so far from their source material that it’s sometimes hard to even see the connective tissue under all the nonsense. Think about the chasm between the first Lethal Weapon and the farcical Lethal Weapon 4, or how Die Hard and whatever the fifth one is called aren’t even in the same universe in terms of quality. Both action and horror franchises will willingly branch off in ridiculous directions, and one of the first ones to wade into these absurdist waters was, without a doubt, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For a moment, put aside how ridiculous the title is. It’s First Blood, but the second part? Anyway… First Blood had been a surprise hit for Stallone, much like Rocky was in 1976. And like he did with the Italian Stallion franchise, Stallone saw potential in a big, corrective, heroic sequel to his muted, subtly thrilling character debut. He found the story he wanted to tell in a screenplay from the up-and-coming sci-fi director James Cameron, who wrote the initial draft, called First Blood II: The Mission.

Stallone took Cameron’s screenplay and held on to the dynamic action scenes while Cameron moved on to direct Aliens; as for the dialogue exchanges connecting these action beats, Stallone injected some politically-charged dialogue that tied directly to Ronald Reagan and his Morning in America message to the country, where the failures of the previous decade were shed like old skin. John Rambo had been persecuted in First Blood and now, in the hands of his creator, would be able to go back to Vietnam and make things right. “This time,” he asks Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who’s visiting him in a prison camp as the film opens, “do we get to win?”

That’s up to Rambo, but not until being thrust into a world of corrupt bureaucrats and blue-collar mercenaries, jealous that they didn’t have their own war. Charles Napier and the dastardly Martin Kove are the film’s central villains, who assure Rambo the journey back into Vietnam is not to save any POWs, but to take pictures of them. It’s a setup for failure, and the film hops into its rather thin, uneven storyline.

Rambo is captured, tortured, escapes, and seeks vengeance for the death of his romantic interest, Co (Julia Nickson), the weakest part of the story. There is little to no chemistry between Nickson and Stallone, and it stifles the story every time they have a “big emotional moment.” Nevertheless, at a brisk 94 minutes Rambo: First Blood Part II gets in and gets out and does the job to which it was intended. The story is nothing special, but the action set pieces are tremendous exhibitions of 80s pyrotechnics, where a single bomb creates multiple explosions up and down a waterfall and characters leap into the air from their spring boards to avoid fireballs. It’s fun and loud and almost nothing like its predecessor.

First Blood was a moody character piece with action beats anchored more to suspense than bombastic stunts. Just as Ted Kotcheff was a great fit for the original film, George P. Cosmatos was clearly a perfect fit for the departure from reality into more wild action. It may not have worked as effectively as the first film on an emotional level, but that didn’t seem to be the goal here. This is Reagan’s land, where dingy browns and grays are replaced with soft-focus and bright daytime action.

More than anything, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a cultural touchstone that captured a specific place in time better than any film in the earlier half of the decade. This was the attitude of the country, full steam ahead, and Stallone had an uncanny ability (and desire) to speak to the political landscape through his most iconic characters; the same year John Rambo is correcting the outcome of Vietnam, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa defeats Ivan Drago and puts an end to the Cold War – at least in his mind.

Critics were not particularly kind to Rambo II, which in turn did not matter one bit. It opened Memorial Day weekend in 1985 to more than $20 million on its way to a $150.4 million domestic haul, best for second place on the year-end list behind only Back to The Future. It spawned video games, cartoons, and spoof material for a solid decade. The critics were probably mostly right to dismiss the film at the time, but like so many items from the 1980s, the very distinct cultural iconography and afterglow of parody and mimicry tied directly to this film has endeared it to us all in a way. It’s certainly not the best of the franchise, but First Blood Part II is definitely the first thing most of us think of when we think of Rambo.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is a Heartfelt, Hangout Masterpiece

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood delivers everything you would expect from the pop pastiche auteur. That is to say you have no idea where he is headed, or how he’s going to get there. This masterfully-constructed, melancholy ode to a city in which he grew up – a city that has longe since disappeared – is the best journey he’s put together in a decade, arguably longer.

This is Tarantino remembering the city that was Los Angeles, and Hollywood, in 1969. Told episodically, the world we’re inhabiting often blends seamlessly with scenes from the films and television shows always dancing in the periphery. Tarantino has built a universe around these characters, a backlog of films and stories that would fill a 10-episode series on HBO. We hang out here for a while, then there, and while it might take a minute or two to catch the wavelength Tarantino is on, once you’re on it, the story he tells is borderline transcendent. This is a film about a terrific friendship, about the fleeting days of stardom, about failures and the need for acceptance, all set against a backdrop of a world turned upside down.

At least, it seems that way for Rick Dalton.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a matinee idol of years gone by, former star of Westerns, killer of Nazis in war pictures. But it’s 1969 now and here comes Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda, and “damn hippies” challenging the Old Guard and altering the look and feel of cinema. These new radicals with their sideburns and their beads changed the leading man landscape in Hollywood seemingly overnight, leaving Rick Dalton and those like him in the rearview mirror. Squares. And now, Rick is relegated to playing bad guys in TV shows, heavies existing solely to bear the brunt of the new, young heroes fisticuffs.

Rick can see the writing on the wall, he can feel his star fading, and he doesn’t handle it all that well. Were it not for his friend and longtime stunt double partner, Cliff Booth, Dalton would have met a tragic end somewhere along the way. Cliff is played by Brad Pitt, exuding just as much cool confidence as DiCaprio exudes crushing insecurities. The picture basically follows these best friends across Hollywood a few days in February (before jumping ahead six months, of course), where we learn the lay of the land, and we find out Rick Dalton lives next door to hot young director Roman Polanski and his beautiful bride, Sharon Tate.

Margot Robbie plays Tate, who serves to give the story an injection of heart. Robbie is brilliant in her limited role, and despite the screen time she ultimately has, Tate never feels far from the edge of the frame. It’s best not to spoil major plot points, or minor plot points for that matter. Appearances vary in size; actors drift in and out of the story, events happen, and it all feels authentic to a time in place that clearly affected a young Quentin Tarantino. The director’s ability to transport us into a hyper-specific avenue of Hollywood lore, in such an iconic era, is borderline euphoric in its authenticity, with it’s rich, textured art direction and Robert Richardson’s warm cinematography. This is Tarantino at his most affectionate.

And so the story goes, and there are surprises and cameos, and it’s best left unspoken. These are actors hanging out with each other, pulling each other through life, trying to find their footing. It’s tough to compare and contrast DiCaprio and Pitt’s performances because they’re so drastically different. Pitt feels born to play Cliff Booth, but needed the years and the wisdom to pull it off with such aplomb. DiCaprio, on the other hand, is doing big work, something he often tries to sidestep in his roles. Thankfully, here, he frees himself up to be a little desperate, and that’s always when he taps into his underrated comedic chops. He is quite funny, quite often, and this movie is quite brilliant from start to finish.

 

The RAMBO Revisit: FIRST BLOOD (1982)

Sylvester Stallone, upon seeing the rough cut of his new action picture First Blood, wanted to buy the rights to the film from producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, because he wanted to destroy all evidence of its existence.

The first cut was a long-winded, unwieldy behemoth running over three hours, which is almost impossible to comprehend given the propulsive perfection of the final product. It practically sickened Stallone and his agent, but of course Kassar and Vajna were never going to sell the rights. Cooler heads prevailed, and after editor Joan Chapman and director Ted Kotcheff began trimming away the fat, they managed to cut the film in half, more or less. What remained after the heavy edits is, dare I say, a masterpiece. It’s at least a masterwork of action cinema, pure and lean, thrilling early and often.

Stallone was already three films into his Rocky franchise, having just wrapped on Rocky III two months before tackling the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who is forced to square off against a hateful small town sheriff, Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy. It didn’t begin with these two squaring off, however; at one point Kris Kristofferson was up for the Rambo part, with Gene Hackman as Teasle and Lee Marvin as Rambo’s Army mentor, Colonel Trautman, which ultimately went to Richard Crenna. Typically, these early casting choices don’t feel right, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that version could have been killer.

The film had bounced around Hollywood for a decade, ever since David Morrell’s novel was published in 1972. Sydney Pollack was attached early on, then Mike Nichols wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Rambo. After dodging that bullet, prolific journeyman director Bruce Beresford was offered and passed; eventually, the early screenplay made its way to Ted Kotcheff, who’d been directing TV since the 50s and tried his hand, on occasion, with features. His 1979 football drama North Dallas Forty had been a hit, and he agreed to direct the picture for Kassar and Vajna. But he needed some re-writes.

Some twenty-six rewrites later, it was Stallone who eventually finished the final draft (he shares credit with Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim. Shot in British Columbia, First Blood is a film that sinks its teeth in you immediatelyWe side with John Rambo right off the bat, allowing the audience to empathize with the troubled vet as he takes out these unsuspecting, unprepared small-town cops. Our empathy towards Rambo is aided not only by Dennehy, but by his closest deputy, Galt, a monstrously sadistic police officer who meets a most satisfying end, played by Jack Starrett. The cruelty of these men set the plot in motion, and they help build the myth of John Rambo, our pacifist hero who isn’t looking for conflict, just as much as these small-town wannabe tough guys are.

From the outset, Ted Kotcheff had intended Rambo’s revenge on Teasle and the town itself to be a suicide mission. In the film’s original ending, Colonel Trautman kills Rambo, a mercy killing as Rambo is surrounded by hundreds of police and military officers ready to gun him down. Once they finished the scene, Stallone approached Kotcheff:

Sylvester got up and said, “Ted, can I talk to you for a second?” He said, “You know, Ted, we put this character through so much. The police abuse him. He’s pursued endlessly. Dogs are sent after him. He jumps off cliffs. He runs through freezing water. He’s shot in the arm and he has to sew it up himself. All this, and now we’re gonna kill him?”

Kotcheff found himself in lock step with Stallone’s thoughts on the character. He didn’t necessarily want Rambo to die either, so they set up an alternate ending on the spot. Kotcheff and Joan Chapman would cut right before Trautman pulls out his pistol and shoots Rambo, and instead he would surrender and be led out of the police station. A quick insert showed Teasle being loaded into an ambulance, shot but not killed. It was a shrewd move, one that further solidified the sympathetic foundation the audience had built under Rambo throughout the picture.

On its own, First Blood is a brilliant, lean thriller anchored by a tough, physical performance from Stallone; he’s often considered the strong silent type, but it’s easy to forget how meanderingly chatty Rocky Balboa is, because most of it is marble-mouthed and low energy. Here, however, Stallone’s performance is almost entirely silent, save for a few lines at the beginning and an emotionally-charged tirade during the finale that is some of his best work as an actor. His breathy expressions and sad eyes add dimension to a character where exposition wouldn’t fit. Without Stallone’s basset hound gaze and physicality, the film would fall apart.

Since Rocky won Best Picture in the spring of 1977 and spawned a franchise, Sylvester Stallone’s other films – outside of the Norman Jewison 1978 union thriller F.I.S.T., which doubled it’s budget at the box office – had all been flops. His other passion project, a wrestling drama which he also wrote and directed, 1978’s Paradise Alley, failed miserably. Nighthawks, the 1981 police thriller where he and Billy Dee Williams chase the terrorist Rutger Hauer through the streets of New York, had also been a flop (thankfully, this terrific film has found its second life and a devoted following nowadays). Stallone also starred in Victory, a John Huston movie about a World War II P.O.W. soccer team who plan their escape around a soccer match against the Germans in Nazi-occupied Paris. Surprisingly, that rock-solid premise didn’t generate big bucks.

First Blood bucked the trend in Stallone’s career. Against a budget of $15 million, First Blood opened number one at the box office in October of 1982 with $6.4 million; it held the top spot for three weeks before ending its run with nearly $50 million domestically and $125 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the domestic number is over $144 million.

It was a legitimate success, standing on its own outside of the Rocky franchise and opening the door to a new possible franchise, thanks to Stallone and Kotcheff’s smart last-second decision to redo the fatalistic ending. Watching the film now, with the baggage of a franchise on its tail, it’s amazing to consider that a film so naturalistic, so small, and so focused, could spawn such an unwieldy collection of sequels.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM Goes Beyond 11

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum has everything, and then some. And then some more.

It has mixtures of mythologies, even more world building, balletic violence, humor, stakes, a tactile palette of neon, dedicated performances, swords, knives, guns, horses, dogs, a book with a sturdy spine, hints of horror and fantasy amid the chaotic Hong Kong-inspired action… it may be too much sometimes, sure, but who really cares when this sort of precise vision and energetic, robust filmmaking is on display? Pick it apart if you must, I’ll be over here fist pumping.

Keanu Reeves is, of course, front and center as the unstoppable assassin. It’s remarkable that Reeves has been able to build on his legend with an entirely new generation of filmgoers. He is John Wick to so many, inseparable from the name, just as he was one and the same with Neo in the Matrix trilogy twenty years ago. The third entry in his new sensational franchise only solidifies his status as an icon, and the athleticism and dedication he pours into this role is awe inspiring.

The film picks up right where Chapter 2 (still my personal favorite of the trio) left off, with Wick disavowed by The Continental and fleeing the city before the contract on his life goes live and seemingly hundreds of assassins spring into action all around him to claim the bounty on his head. In no time, we are in a library and we get the first fight, a thrillingly low-tech battle with an adversary whose casting is a stylistic flourish in and of itself, the first of a seemingly endless barrage of action set pieces that are better left secret. From there, the plot swallows up the audience right along with Wick.

Trying to divulge the plot in John Wick: Chapter 3 is a fool’s errand. Wick seeks help, finds it, and layers of the story unfold as we spend time with Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, franchise newcomers Angelica Huston playing a vampiric ballet instructor, and Halle Berry, showing off some impressive skills in an epic fight sequence in the middle of the film. But this isn’t as much about the plot – although the continuing world building here only strengthens the trilogy as a whole – as it is about shuffling our hero from one exotic, lavish interior to the next. Dan Lausten’s cinematography, with a major assist from the lighting department, paints an alternate-universe popping with neon beauty, an elegance that helps to counterbalance and further separate the real world from the stunning amount of violence and brutality. It is everything in Chapter 2 turned up beyond eleven.

Chapter 3 pushes everything to the middle of the table, elevating visuals and themes to the loudest possible frequency. Early in the film, Wick has to retreat to old technology as his aides all around the city begin turning their back on him and the assassins close in. Western mythology blends seamlessly into samurai lore, and vice versa. The action reaches for the laughs a little too much on a few occasions, but the further visual enhancements of the hand-to-hand action and gun and knife play is as balletic and jaw dropping as it is vicious and brutal.

The ending will be a topic of discussion for some time, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it. The rules of this world are fast and loose in Chapter 3, but the final few moments rely on the viewer, and how far they’re willing to bend the rules of this universe to accept what happens. It isn’t bad, just strange, and it seems the same result could have been done without the flourish.

As messy and overloaded with plot as it might ultimately be, John Wick: Chapter 3 is undeniably watchable eye candy, anchored by the great Keanu Reeves. His all-in nature pulls us into this world, and his reliability as an action superhero keeps us there. I would be hard pressed to try and think of a single other actor who could fill these shoes. It’s a character nobody knew about five years ago, it’s become one of the tentpole action franchises of the modern era. That’s the power of Keanu.

Transcending Tragedy: THE CROW at 25

Before seeing a trailer, a press release, or any proper media buzz for Alex Proyas’s adaptation of The Crow, James O’Barr’s comic-book series, there was the shocking tragedy.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee, son of the legendary martial artist and international movie star Bruce – and a blossoming action star in his own right – was filming a scene as Eric Draven, the slain angel of vengeance at the center of the picture. The scene in question called for Lee’s character to walk in a room and be immediately shot by a member of the gang of hoodlums who murder Eric and his fiancé. Lee hit his mark, the prop gun fired, and the grocery bag he was carrying properly exploded thanks to the squib inside.

Lee fell to the ground on cue, and it took a moment or two for anyone on the set to realize that the prop gun had either a piece of metal lodged in the barrel, or a live round loaded into the gun. Whatever the case, Lee was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the gut, where he died after hours of surgery and pints of blood.

He was 28, and he was gone.

Controversy still lingers around Lee’s death (a .44 caliber slug was retrieved from Lee’s body), though it was ultimately ruled an accident in 1993. Nevertheless, The Crow was only two weeks from the finish line at the time of the accident, and now a distraught Alex Proyas and crew needed to make a decision in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Ultimately, Proyas and the production team decided to move forward. After a six-week hiatus, script rewrites, and some stand-in work from Lee’s stunt double, future John Wick director Chad Stahelski, The Crow wrapped production in June of ’93. Except now, it needed a distributor after Paramount dumped the film after the delays.

A young upstart studio called Miramax picked up the project, and set it for a May 1994 release. After a year of sadness and controversy in the face of despair, Proyas delivered Brandon Lee’s dark, bloody, grim revenge tale to audiences who, with a mix of morbid curiosity and genuine interest, made the film number one at the box office on its way to a substantial $50 million haul.

The aura of Brandon Lee looms large over The Crow, even 25-years later. Lost amid said aura, however, is a nasty gothic superhero thriller that introduced audiences to the distinct visual language of Alex Proyas. Since 1980, the Egyptian-born, Aussie-raised filmmaker had been directing short films and music videos for the likes of INXS, Fleetwood Mac, and Crowded House. The success of The Crow opened doors for Proyas, who went on to direct two vastly underrated science fiction thrillers in Dark City and Knowing, one of the strangest, most exciting Nicolas Cage studio pictures of the new millennium.

Proyas leans heavily into the stark black-and-white panels of O’Barr’s comics, and adds an industrial tinge to some of the interiors that make everything feel cold and detached. Very little color exists in this hellscape of urban decay, save for the splashes of blood and the harsh lighting of drug dens and grunge-poisoned nightclubs. It is a haunted noir universe where characters are hopelessly lost, and Proyas wisely never allows the story to drift into camp or let his characters stray from the elevated gothic vibe he’s crafting. The Crow is, first and foremost, a style exercise, but it still has a soul thanks to its most soulful hero.

Even though the tragic history of The Crow never fades completely, Lee’s performance manages to still push through and transcend the distraction of his own passing. Lee’s long face makes the white makeup pop off the screen, and his ability to over-articulate his words in a natural way add a layer of menace to his delivery as Draven stalks and executes everyone responsible for his murder and the murder of his love, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). Lee’s performance is also boosted by the presence of some rock solid character actors, all who elevate the pulpy material and give it an identity that would never return in the increasingly terrible sequels.

Ernie Hudson is the hangdog beat cop trying to keep his feet in a reality that is slowly dissolving around him, and keeping an eye on the precocious teenager, Sarah (Rochelle Davis); there is T-Bird, the leader of the murderous gang of thugs, played by the great David Patrick Kelly, who stole our hearts when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped him off a cliff in Commando. The criminal pulling all the strings is Top Dollar, a reptilian gangster played by Michael Wincott in an eerie, repulsive performance.

The success of The Crow was initially spurred by a morbid curiosity, there is no getting around that. But after it’s $11 million opening weekend and the number one spot at the box office (hard to imagine, isn’t it?), Brandon Lee’s captivating farewell proved to have legs beyond the ghoulish gimmickry involved with seeing a final performance and a film mired in controversy. Proyas captures the very essence of O’Barr’s work, and in Lee the writer and filmmaker found the perfect deliveryman.

It’s difficult to predict the future for Brandon Lee. Had he lived, The Crow may not have gotten that early surge in ticket sales and could have been the type of film that finds its legs on home video. The only thing that was certain with Lee, is that his star was on the rise, and this was destined to be at least his next stepping stone. The low key success of Showdown in Little Tokyo and the stellar Rapid Fire were clear indications that he was just beginning to step out from his father’s ubiquitous shadow and forge his own path as an actor.

Now, however, he is Eric Draven for legions of fans. There is no separation anymore, which makes the endless attempts to get a remake off the ground seem more and more like a bad idea. Fans of the character see Lee in the makeup and goth attire forever, a ghost trapped in a rain-soaked city, etched firmly into this moment in timet. The Crow may not be a perfect film, too melodramatic perhaps, too grim for some, but there is a dedication to the tone that cannot be denied and a propulsive quality to Proyas’s direction that compensates for any perceived shortcomings.

Above all else, there is a young star who became a posthumous pop icon.