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.

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