Escape Plan (2013, Mikael Håfström)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

EscapePlan

Watched: 7 February 2020
Format: I’d found the DVD in a branch of CEX while on holiday in Stratford-upon-Avon in October 2019.
Seen before? No.

Review: After a few decades of showbiz rivalry, mutual business deals and mooted movies that never happened, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone began teaming up on screen just as Arnie’s political career was coming to an end. After a brief appearance in Sly’s film The Expendables, their next joint venture was this expensive slice of exploitation cinema, which takes a gimmick and wrings it until it’s bone-dry.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who tests high-end prisons by going undercover as an inmate and looking for a way to escape. His fee: $2.5 million. The opening sequence shows us how successful he can be. Ray vanishes from a solitary-confinement cell, and we learn how he got out via a Sherlock-style flashback montage. It’s a fun start to the movie, and you get the tone straightaway: big and flashy and not too deep. And certainly more playful than the flabbily po-faced Expendables films.

Ray has a team to help him, including a business partner played by Vincent D’Onofrio and a couple of others who feel like those secondary characters in a TV pilot whose names you never quite catch. Then one day, a self-possessed government lawyer shows up at their offices and recruits Ray on a very dangerous mission. She wants him to test the security at a top-top-top-secret facility where the US authorities hide away the most dangerous criminals and terrorists – Guantanamo Bay-style, off the books, out of sight. Ray reluctantly accepts, even though he won’t be told where the prison is and he won’t have any contact with the outside world while he’s in there.

Obviously – and this movie’s obviousness is part of the fun – things go wrong. The prison is a sci-fi set-up full of industrial walkways and glass-walled cells propped up on stilts. The guards, one of whom is played by Vinnie Jones, wear fascist black leather and masks. Then the fey, sadistic warden (a hammy Jim Caviezel) refuses to believe Ray’s story about being undercover and claims not to recognise the safe word. Ray’s only glimmer of hope comes from fellow inmate Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who befriends him and offers assistance as Ray attempts to form – that’s right – an escape plan.

It’s all quite silly and preposterous and wildly implausible. But there’s nothing wrong with this type of film if it’s also diverting, which Escape Plan is (at least until an action-dominated final third). The publicity at the time of the film’s release likened it to a Tom Clancy novel or the Michael Mann film Heat or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In truth, Escape Plan is *nothing* like those – nowhere near as smart or classy. But this is unpretentiously enjoyable popcorn trash, played out by two actors clearly loving the chance to spar with each other on screen and not just in the press.

Seven hot boxes out of 10 

Next time: Around the World in 80 Days

Welcome to the Jungle (2003, Peter Berg)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

TheRundown

NOTE: This film’s original title when released in the US was The Rundown.

Watched: 1 February 2020
Format: A secondhand DVD bought online.
Seen before? No.

Review: Visiting his friend Dwayne Johnson on the set of his new movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger was persuaded to make an exceedingly brief cameo. It comes early in the film as we follow Johnson’s bounty-hunter character, Beck, into a busy nightclub. He’s there to extract a debt from an arrogant NFL star, but on the way through the crowd he passes a tall, middle-aged man (Arnie). ‘Have fun,’ says the man.

In the context of the film, it’s utterly meaningless. But, intertextually, there is something going on in this moment. At the time of filming, Schwarzenegger was just beginning his sabbatical from Hollywood in order to serve as Governor of California, while Johnson – still commonly known as The Rock – was starting out *his* film career after making a name as the biggest draw in WWF wrestling. The ‘Have fun’ comment is the passing of the baton, from one former-strongman-turned-movie-star to another. The king is dead, long live the king. 

The film itself, which didn’t make much impact when released in 2003, is a generally enjoyable if disposable action caper. Beck is tasked with travelling to a Brazilian mining town to locate and bring back home the son of a rich criminal. But Seann William Scott’s cocky Travis doesn’t want to return to daddy because he’s on the verge of discovering a valuable sacred artefact. Beck tries to extract him using strength; Travis resists using bravado and sarcasm. They make a watchable double act. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson is Travis’s spiky love interest, Christopher Walken plays the local nut-job hard man, while Ewen Bremner is a comic-relief chopper pilot.

The movie has an outlandish 1980s-style plot – hints of Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone – but tells it with the flashy editing and cartoon violence that would later become the norm in Fast & Furious films (some of which, coincidentally, feature Dwayne Johnson). There’s an ironic flamboyance to everything, and Johnson is a huge part of that. His only previous large role had been as the mythological bad guy in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, but here he’s pure movie star: a commanding screen presence, plenty of charisma, and a handle on the script’s droll comedy. Very reminiscent of Schwarzenegger in his 1980s heyday, in fact. And while Arnie moved on to the political phase of his career, Johnson replaced him as one of the go-to stars of action films and high-concept comedies.

Seven hallucinogenic drugs out of 10

Next time: Escape Plan

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, JJ Abrams)

SWTROS

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Long thought dead, the evil Emperor Palpatine is back. He wants Supreme Leader Kylo Ren of the First Order to command his ‘Final Order’ forces and take over the galaxy, but Kylo has a different plan. And it involves the last remaining Jedi knight…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – the Resistance’s most buccaneering pilot – is at the helm of the Millennium Falcon as the story begins. This feels so perfectly spot on: throughout his trilogy of films, Poe has been the clear successor to Han Solo (another charismatic scoundrel driven by boyish bravado). During a journey to collect a communique from a spy, for example, Poe even uses an unorthodox and daring ‘light-speed skipping’ manoeuvre, which involves jumping vast distances across the galaxy but re-entering normal space inside a planet’s atmosphere. (Ignore the logic, enjoy the visuals.) However, the spy’s message confirms some terrifying rumours: the powerful Emperor Palpatine, a dark lord of the Sith who was killed by Darth Vader around 30 years ago, is somehow back on the scene… There’s also trouble in the rebels’ camp. Safely back at base, Poe’s irritable with his powerful Jedi friend Rey because she’s prioritising her spiritual training over helping to fight the totalitarian First Order. Thankfully, she soon gets on board (literally) when she, Poe and others all head out on a mission to find the Sith homeworld. It’s a complicated quest. The gang eventually stumble across a dagger, which has an inscription that details how to find a Wayfinder – a kind of stellar compass that will lead to the Sith’s planet. But there’s a big problem: the inscription is in the runic language of the Sith, and although Resistance droid C-3PO *can* read it, his strict programming doesn’t allow him to translate from that language (for… reasons…). The team have little choice but to take C-3PO to the planet Kijimi, where they employ a droid blacksmith to retrieve the information from his memory banks. Poe knows this world well – it’s a bleak, wintery, urban, film-noir place, and he used to smuggle spice here. Much later, after Rey has identified the location of Sith planet Exegol, Poe – who’s now the commander of the entire Resistance – coordinates a mammoth plan. Most of their available forces will attack the planet, while others will head off to seek reinforcements. Poe being Poe, he doesn’t sit back at base like a general. He pilots one of the attack’s lead crafts, flying into danger… Throughout all three of these movies, Oscar Isaac has been sensation as Poe, perfectly capturing the swashbuckling tone that’s always there when Star Wars is at its best.

* On the early mission with Poe, stormtrooper-turned-good-guy Finn (John Boyega) collects the intel from the spy within the Nazi-like First Order. Later, while on a desert planet trying to track down information about Palpatine, Finn and his friends are sucked into quicksand. Just before his head bobs under the surface, Finn starts to tell Rey that he has something important to tell her – but his words are cut off. (We all know what he was going to say.) After being one of the genuine highlights in his debut film, The Force Awakens, John Boyega should be disappointed by how his character has fared in films two and three. He’s a very good actor giving a really likeable performance, but sadly Finn often feels underused and a bit sidelined.

* The Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is still a big part of the Resistance movement, but he’s seemingly killed off when Rey believes her Force powers have caused a tragic accident. (Don’t fret. We soon find out he’s okay.) Near the end of the movie, Chewie is then involved in perhaps the most cloyingly ghastly Star Wars moment outside of the prequels. While everyone else celebrates the destruction of the fascistic Final Order fleet, his alien friend Maz walks up to Chewbacca and says, ‘This is for you.’ She passes him a chunky gold medal, which most fans will recognise as the same type given to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – but notably not Chewie – after the destruction of the Death Star in the 1977 film. The fact he was overlooked at that ceremony has long been a favourite ‘oddity’ of Star Wars connoisseurs (alongside a stormtrooper who bangs his head on a door and, of course, the fact that siblings Luke and Leia share a kiss in The Empire Strikes Back). But to ‘solve’ the issue 42 years later is just cringeworthy. It also smacks of a bigger issue with The Rise of Skywalker: that fan-pleasing continuity is more important than focused storytelling. (On the upside, Chewbacca is at his most expressive and characterful in this film, thanks to an improvement in the prosthetic face mask.)

* The droid R2-D2 (Hassan Taj and Lee Towersey) clicks and whistles occasionally, continuing his record of appearing in every Star Wars episode. His memory banks thankfully contain a copy of C-3PO’s personality, which comes in handy when his droid colleague has his mind wiped.

* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is now the last remaining hope for the Jedi. (Her mentor Luke Skywalker is dead, while her Resistance boss Leia has her hands full fighting fascism with guns and space ships rather than the ability to levitate rocks with your mind.) As the film begins, Rey is training in the jungles of the planet Ajan Kloss (didn’t he play for the Netherlands in the 1970s?) and it’s going okay. But with no Yoda figure to guide her, Rey has been struggling with maintaining concentration. Learning that Palpatine has returned, Rey realises some old notebooks of Luke’s are vital. Years ago, he was hunting for the Sith planet Exegol and discovered that a mystical object called a Wayfinder will pinpoint its location. So Rey, Poe and the others head off to pick up where Luke’s trail went cold: on the desert planet Pasaana (yes, that’s right: yet another desert planet in Star Wars). A convoluted series of clues (eventually) leads them to an ocean in the Endor system where Rey finds the Wayfinder in the ruins of the Empire’s second Death Star. However, Kylo Ren, the leader of the evil First Order army, shows up too – and destroys the compass. He also taunts his adversary and reveals her true heritage, a question that has dogged her since childhood. Rey, it turns out, is the secret granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. (Who saw *that* coming? Well, no one. Most of us had guessed that Rey was Luke’s daughter, or Han and Leia’s daughter. Or, as The Last Jedi seemed to confirm, that her parents were just a red herring. Her parental history has been a mystery since The Force Awakens, so having her be the granddaughter of a character not introduced until *this* movie in the trilogy is a bit of a curveball. Agatha Christie wouldn’t have tried something like this.) Anyway, Kylo is engaged in a power struggle with Palpatine and wants Rey’s help in defeating him; he hopes she will turn to the dark side so they can rule the galaxy together. She’s having none of this, though, and the two fight atop the Death Star ruins. She fatally stabs her rival, but because he’s never been *totally* evil and she knows there’s still good in him, she then uses her Force powers to revive him. This results in a moment of clarity for Kylo, who realises he can resist the temptations of the dark side. Later he and Rey fight together to defeat Palpatine… The movie then ends with a coda that sees Rey travel to Tatooine, to the farm where Luke grew up. She reverentially buries his and Leia’s lightsabers in the ground, then is asked her name by a passing woman. ‘Rey,’ she says. ‘Rey who?’ asks the woman. ‘Rey Skywalker,’ comes the reply, proud and defiant. She’s finally found her family – not the one she was born into, but the one she chose… As with Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, Daisy Ridley has been superb in these films. Rey is the trilogy’s equivalent of Luke Skywalker; the emotional centre of the story and the audience’s primary identification character. Ridley has played her with energy and intensity as well as humanity and sass.

* Early on, the spherical droid BB-8 helps out with Rey’s Jedi training regimes, but ends up getting bashed by a falling tree for his trouble.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in overall command of the Resistance forces, issuing orders and platitudes from their secret base. She has also taken an interest in Rey, teaching her in the ways of the Force and becoming a kind of mother figure. Now a strong Force user herself, Leia later reaches out psychically across the stars in an attempt to make contact with her troubled son, Kylo Ren. But the effort is so draining that it kills her and she fades away from existence… As is well known, Carrie Fisher died in December 2016. Many assumed that Leia would therefore be absent from Episode IX, which was still 20 months away from being filmed. But director JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm supremo Kathleen Kennedy decided to include the character via repurposed footage taken from unused scenes shot for The Force Awakens. It’s hard to fault the intention, which was surely driven by noble motives. Leia has been a vital part of the Star Wars saga since the first five minutes of the opening film, so to have her be missing from the finale would undoubtedly have been unfortunate. However, and sadly, the result is more unfortunate. The iconic Princess Leia is reduced here to static shots of Carrie Fisher rotoscoped and dropped into scenes filmed long after her death. The other characters in the scenes have to use clunky phrases so Leia’s dialogue will connect to what they’re saying, and you never for one minute sense a genuine connection between anyone. The pull to include Leia in this film also upends Rey’s character arc. Her mentor in the previous film had been Luke, not Leia, but he’s now little more than a cameo. (The Poe/Leia connection that built so well in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is also mostly ignored.) Leia should have been allowed to die when Fisher did.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)… Well… She’s in the film, certainly. The Resistance mechanic hangs around the Resistance’s jungle base, occasionally says something functional, and declines an invitation to go on the Wayfinder hunt. (Perhaps she knows that storyline already has too many characters.) After her spunky debut in The Last Jedi, it’s rather pathetic to see Rose pushed to the periphery here. Even worse, in that last film she formed a potentially romantic bond with Finn; now, it’s like the two have barely met. Some critics argue that JJ Abrams was keen to ignore The Last Jedi as much as possible because he hadn’t directed it. They may be spot on when it comes to Rose. 

* Maz Kanata (Lupira Nyong’o), the diminutive alien we first met in The Force Awakens, has now gone all-in with the Resistance. We’re told she has experience and ability and knowledge without her ever being given the chance to demonstrate it. She doesn’t *do* anything. (As anyone who’s read this far in this blog post will know, The Rise of Skywalker is rather overpopulated with characters. Why Maz needed to be involved *at all* is difficult to fathom.) 

* Humanoid protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is on hand to translate the Sith runic on the dagger the gang find on Pasaana, then promptly announces that he’s forbidden to share the info. (In a less cluttered film, this would be a great gag. But it’s just one of 700 arbitrary obstacles so comes off as annoying.) Later, a droid blacksmith tinkers with Threepio’s head and manages to extract the information Rey and the others need: the Wayfinder can be found in an Imperial vault on a moon of the Endor system. Beforehand, knowing the procedure will wipe his entire memory banks, C-3PO wistfully gazes at Finn, Rey and Poe and says he’s ‘Just taking one last look at my friends’. It’s a lovely moment of charm. With this film, of course, Anthony Daniels completes the full set: he’s the only actor to appear in all nine movies of the Skywalker saga.

* General Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) makes a surprise cameo on the planet Pasaana. He saves Rey and the others from some stormtroopers then conveniently helps them in the latest stage of their quest. He tells us that years earlier he and Luke Skywalker teamed up to search for the assassin who might lead them to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld. They didn’t find him, but Lando does know where his abandoned ship is. In other words, Rey and co now head off to find the ship that will lead to the assassin who might lead to the gizmo that could lead to the Sith homeworld where Palpatine is. (It’s like a videogame, this. Characters set sequential quests to find different MacGuffins.) It’s fun to see Billy Dee Williams back in a Star Wars movie, of course; it’s his first appearance since 1983. But Lando feels like he’s being wheeled out to please fans and he actually plays precious little role in the narrative. (Also, Lando and Luke were apparently the best of mates? Do they even *meet* in the original trilogy?!)

* D-0 (voiced by JJ Abrams) is a cute, small droid with a conic and comic face. He was once owned by the Sith assassin Ochi and now teams up with Rey and friends. He is entirely superfluous to the story.

* Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), an old flame of Poe’s, seeks him out when she hears he’s come to her home planet of Kajimi. She wears a full body suit and a helmet with face mask, aside from one moment when we see her eyes through a visor. She holds a bit of a grudge against Poe, but it’s clearly a love/hate thing and the former half wins when she gives him an Imperial badge that he can use to get out of tricky situations. She’d been saving it for her own attempt to escape her dreary planet, so it’s quite a sacrifice.

* Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson) is a tiny alien who works as an illegal droid blacksmith on Kajimi. Speaking in a sometimes unintelligible babble, he’s able to get the information about the Wayfinder out of C-3PO’s memory banks – but the procedure involves rebooting the droid to factory settings.

* Rey’s parents (Jodie Comer and Billy Howle) appear briefly in flashback when we learn that they were killed by agents of Palpatine who were hunting for the young Rey.

* Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is a rebel who lives on the Endorian moon where the Death Star from Return of the Jedi crashed and burnt. She and her dialogue-less friends like to ride horses, even when going into battle on a space ship. In her one real scene of substance, Jannah reveals to Finn that – like him – she was conscripted as a First Order stormtrooper when just a child. She was called TZ-1719 but then deserted after being ordered to kill innocent people. Given that this perfunctory character’s only connection is with Finn, why was her role in the story not given to Rose in order to develop that relationship?

* Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan) is a member of the Resistance who gets a few lines here and there. In The Force Awakens, a similar role was played by the actor Ken Leung. Was he unavailable for The Rise of Skywalker, so JJ Abrams replaced him with another cast member from Lost?

* Han Solo (an uncredited Harrison Ford) appears to his son, Kylo – as a psychic vision or a ghost or probably just a daydream – when the latter is having a crisis of faith.

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has a one-scene cameo too, though it is actually him speaking from the afterlife. Angered by her failure to find the Wayfinder and emotional because she’s learnt her grandad is the biggest baddie in the universe, Rey flies off and hides on the same planet where Luke once lived in exile. At her lowest ebb, in fact, her mentor appears to her as a Force ghost – and gives her a pep-talk. At one point, she’s about to destroy his storied lightsaber, but he stops her. ‘A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,’ he says, which is a pointed reference to the controversial moment in The Last Jedi that had Luke toss his weapon away with disdain.

* Wedge Antiles (Denis Lawson) gets a *two-second* cameo during the final battle. He’d been a Rebel Alliance regular during the original trilogy, when his screentime had been slightly longer.

* Wicket W Warrick (Warwick Davis) from Return of the Jedi likewise makes a look-down-at-your-phone-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance.

BAD GUYS:

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is now in total command of the First Order, after his coup in The Last Jedi. But a new threat is apparent in the form of the resurrected Palpatine, so Kylo wants to destroy his rival. Finding Palpatine hooked up to elaborate machinery in a dark, grimy, vast factory on the Sith homeworld, Kylo is surprised to be offered a deal. Palpatine wants Kylo to be the new emperor and has even built an enormous fleet of powerful ships with which they can crush any resistance. Having agreed, Kylo symbolically starts wearing his old face mask again – which has been soldered back together after he broke it during a tantrum in The Last Jedi. However, Kylo’s obsession with Rey still continues. He’s certain he can turn her to the dark side, so reaches out psychically and taunts her about her parentage. The fascinating thing about Kylo has always been the implication that he’s conflicted. In the original Star Wars trilogy, his grandfather Darth Vader went two and a half films before we sensed any doubt in his dastardly motives. But right from the start of The Force Awakens, thanks to good writing and excellent acting by Adam Driver, Kylo has been different. He’s felt trapped. In a strange way, he’s a victim of evil rather than a perpetrator of it. So, it’s completely plausible when, in The Rise of Skywalker’s final third, he joins forces with Rey to defeat Palpatine – not in order to replace him, but to vanquish the evil. The two have had a strong emotional connection throughout all three movies and we now seem them fight side-by-side, simpatico; even passing a lightsaber from one to the other via Force powers. They do manage to kill Palpatine, but at a cost: Rey lies dead. So Kylo returns the favour she gave him earlier and sacrifices his remaining ‘life force’ (that good old sci-fi standard) so she can live. He also gets a quick snog from her before he carks it himself.

* Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back! How do we know he’s back? It says so in the opening crawl of explanatory text. And how do we know *how* he’s back? Well, we don’t really. There’s talk of cloning and ‘dark arts’, but it’s all pretty vague. In part, the film presents his resurrection as a recent event, but then we’re told that he’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for decades – he was manipulating previous First Order supremo Snoke, for example, and was conducting a search for Rey when she was a child. When he finally meets Rey, he hopes to taunt her into killing him; this will complete her descent into darkness and she can take his place as the leader of all evilness everywhere. He tried the same with Luke in Return of the Jedi, obvs. It didn’t work then; it doesn’t work now.

* Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant) is a severe and humourless First Order military commander. When he identifies a spy in their organisation, he cold-heartedly executes him on the spot. We later learn that he’s a long-time acolyte of Palpatine’s. Grant is typically classy in the role, playing a sneering bastard with conviction.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) reveals himself as the spy while saving Finn and Poe from execution by First Order stormtroopers. He’s not been helping the Resistance because he wants them to win, he says, bitterly; it’s because he wants his rival Kylo to lose. 

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Poe, Finn and Rey rescuing Chewie from the Star Destroyer is ace – there are lots of zippy tracking shots as our heroes run down corridors, shooting at stormtroopers, while Rey also gets to use her Force powers (see next section).

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Encountering armed stormtroopers, Rey is able to swiftly nullify them by using a classic Jedi mind trick. They lose their aggression, drop their guns, and do what she says. Poe and Finn look on, both impressed and confused. ‘Does she do that to us?’ asks a worried Poe. 

MUSIC: John Williams fulfils his life’s masterwork. The Star Wars series constitutes a nine-movie symphony of film score that is totally without parallel. 

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on Thursday 19 December 2019 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London. As has been the tradition with new Star Wars movies since 2015, I went with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. We had time to kill before the 8.45pm screening, so went for a meal at The Grapes, a lovely little pub in Limehouse co-owned by the actor Sir Ian McKellen.

REVIEW: There’s an episode of the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H in which Alan Alda’s character, army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, desperately wants some new boots to replace a pair with a hole in the sole. But the supply officer won’t provide any, instead being more concerned about a sore tooth. So Hawkeye cuts a deal: the boots in exchange for him arranging a dentist’s appointment. However, the camp dentist says he’s too busy, so Hawkeye offers to get him a three-day pass to Tokyo in exchange for seeing the supply officer. But then the commanding officer won’t issue the pass unless Hawkeye helps with a personal problem he’s going through, and so on and so on – a comedic chain of tasks and negotiations, all so Hawkeye can get some new boots. The plotting in The Rise of Skywalker can sometimes feel like this too. Rather than character-driven storytelling, our heroes lunge from one short-term goal to another; it’s all very breathless, and provides plenty of movement and action, but you rarely get a sense of anyone learning anything or developing. It’s a shame, as when we do get emotion it really socks home – surely there are no dry eyes when Rey, Poe and Finn share a celebratory hug after winning the day. But all too often, instead of us experiencing the story with our heroes, events just happen around them and are then quickly forgotten. For example, Rey was the plot motor of her first film, driven by a desire to have an adventure and discover who her parents were. Here, she’s guilt-tripped into joining in, then told a guy who she thinks is beyond evil anyway killed her parents, which raises the ante in precisely no ways. Poe encounters an ex-girlfriend, who has no effect on his personality or motives in this story. Finn meets a fellow stormtrooper-survivor, but his character arc would be no different if she were removed from the cut. The movie also suffers horrendously with schmaltz. Perhaps it was inevitable, being the looooooong-awaited finale to cinema’s most popular series, but the fan-baiting references (Lando! Chewie’s medal! Tatooine!) begin to overload the story, while the perceived need to include a character whose actor has died is a well-intentioned folly. The Rise of Skywalker is still Star Wars; it’s still beautiful to look at, with thrilling action and moments of comedy and pathos and revelation. On a surface level, it’s entertaining and diverting and never boring. But, sadly, regrettably, it’s the weakest film in the Skywalker Saga outside of the prequels.

Seven complete redacted memory bypasses out of 10

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Terminator3Arnie

Watched: 1 December 2019
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 19 August 2003 and a couple of times since.

Note: I have already reviewed this film as part of another blogging series – you can read it here. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about how its iconic star turned his back on acting soon after the movie’s release…

Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final films before his move into professional politics. He announced his candidacy for Governor of California in August 2003, just six days after T3 had been released in the United Kingdom, and then won a recall election in October. Almost inevitably, he was soon nicknamed the Governator.

He’d made no secret of his electoral ambitions while an actor, talking publicly about his Republican leanings, attending a rally for George Bush Snr in 1988, and later serving in some ambassadorial-type roles for President Bush. Considered a moderate Republican – a centrist who advocated financial conservatism but also supported liberal issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – Governor Schwarzenegger was initially a popular leader. For many, he came across as sensible, no-nonsense and conciliatory, even appointing a Democrat as his Chief of Staff. In 2006, he claimed a second term by a winning margin of more than a million votes. However, his approval rating dropped appreciably during his time in the Governor’s Mansion, finishing on a record low of 23 per cent, and he was dogged by allegations about sexual misconduct.

All this meant that Arnie’s movie appearances were put on ice for a few years, with the period 2003 to 2012 notable only for some cameos. He’d already filmed an ear-scrappingly awful appearance in 2004 adventure film Around the World in 80 Days before running for office, then he took time away from his political schedule to work briefly on comedy The Kid & I and action mash-up The Expendables.

An actor who deliberately engineers such a long break from a Hollywood career is an oddity. Studios clearly favour stars with recent cachet and assume audiences have short memories. So when Arnie returned to the movies full-time after seven years as California’s 38th Governor, he found that the world had moved on. He was now on a noticeably different level of the industry. It’s true that his star had begun to wane anyway, his appeal lessened by age, over-familiarity and the fact that his style of high-concept action film was going out of fashion. His starring roles in the years immediately before his gubernatorial adventure – End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – were simply not in the same class as his 1980s heyday. But not playing a lead character for nearly a decade resulted in the post-Governor Arnie having to accept roles in what were essentially straight-to-video projects.

He starred as a sheriff in The Last Stand, a prisoner in Escape Plan, a SWAT team leader in Sabotage – undistinguished parts in films that most people have now forgotten. In fact, the return to the big time came only when Arnie went full circle. In 2015 and then again in 2019 he returned to the Terminator series, essentially short-circuiting the two halves of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Another close friend I wanted to touch base with was Andy Vajna, who with his business partner, Mario Kassar, had produced Total Recall and Terminator 2 and owned the rights to Terminator 3… If they were enthusiastic [about Arnie’s political ambitions], I meant to hit them up for a lot of money for the campaign… When I went to their office to talk about the governorship in April 2001, I didn’t expect them to bring up Terminator 3. I’d signed a “deal memo” to star in it if it ever got made, but the project had been in development limbo for years… Jim Cameron had moved on to other projects, and as far as I knew, they didn’t have a director or a script. But as I made my pitch about politics, I saw them looking at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, running for governor?”‘

Seven nano-technological transjectors out of 10

Next: Red Sonja

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019, Mike Mitchell)

LegoMovie2

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various heroes including Batman must team up after an invasion by the Duplo aliens results in the Lego world of Bricksburg being turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland…

After the pop-art explosion of joy that was the first Lego Movie, and a still-enjoyable spin-off film that centred on Batman, events turn darker in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. This is a film about annihilation and invasion… albeit told through the franchise’s kid-friendly storytelling means of relentless jokes, bold colours and frenetic cutting.

We mention the film on this blog, of course, because of the inclusion of Batman. Again voiced by Will Arnett and again a lot of fun, Bats gets swept along on another adventure and is given plenty more self-referential gags to aim at the adults in the audience, mostly revolving around his laconic loneliness and arrogance. ‘How many movies have they made about you?’ he bitterly asks the Elizabeth Banks-voiced Wildstyle at one point. ‘Because there are, like, nine about me and, like, three others in various stages of development.’

This is the fourth Lego-based film in five years – there was also a Ninjago-based entry in 2017, without Batman – so the immediate impact has dulled and there’s a sense of seen-it-before. But this still contains thrillingly inventive, Mad Max-style action sequences slammed up against messages of positivity and inclusivity. A kaleidoscope of cultural references fills the frame and the stiletto-sharp animation is again a wonder to behold. You have to admire it for its sheer, unapologetic, full-on energy, even if some of the awesomeness from the 2014 original has begun to wear off now.

Seven catchy songs out of 10

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

Terminator3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his encounter with a cyborg assassin from the future, John Connor faces another deadly threat…

Main characters:

 * Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career had been tailing off alarmingly in the lead-up to this third Terminator movie. Bored perhaps of the diminishing returns of his late-90s action duds, he returned to his most notable role 19 years since his debut in the series… When this film’s T-800 arrives in the present day – we all know the time-traveller-from-the-future score by now, right? – he has the same mission as his predecessor in Terminator 2: to protect John Connor from an assassination attempt. He hunts for John and finds him just in time to save the now 20-something from another Terminator, a stern, expressionless, female-looking cyborg called a T-X. After a few major action sequences, he gets John and his friend Kate to safety, then the plot kicks into another gear at the hour mark when the T-800 reveals that Kate’s dad holds the key to Skynet taking over the world… which is about to enter a nuclear winter later that day. The cyborg wants to take John and Kate to Mexico, to avoid the fallout from the first bombs, but John argues that they need to stop the self-aware computer system Skynet from starting its attack… In his third go at this character type, Schwarzenegger – now in his mid-50s – still has the expressionless face and drone voice. But the steel and intensity from the first film have gone. So too has the character development from the second. 

* In the first of many lazily sexist aspects of the character, when the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken) time-travels into the present day she lands in the shop window of an upmarket clothes store. Ha, ha – women really like clothes, right? As with the previous Terminators earlier in the series, she’s naked when he arrives – so quickly steals a passing woman’s tight-fitting leather suit. Then, when the cops pull her over for speeding, the T-X takes inspiration from a nearby Victoria’s Secret billboard and artificially enlarges her breasts. She’s also later jokingly called the Terminatrix. (It’s all a far cry from Arnie’s intimidating ‘Your clothes: given them to me’ in the 1984 movie.) The T-X’s mission differs from Arnie in film one and the T-1000 in film two. As she doesn’t know where John Connor is in this time period, she wants to murder the young people who will grow up to be his associates and allies; they’re all now innocent kids going about their lives. A cross between the metallic, battering-ram rigidity of a T-800 and the fluid, restorative nature of the T-1000, the T-X has some nifty qualities. She can analysis blood by licking it – another idea you can imagine the writers jumping to because they knew the character would be played by an attractive woman – and can remotely control other machines (such as cars). She lacks the impact of her forebears. She also doesn’t have the James Cameron-style sci-fi plausibility of the earlier bad guys, coming off more like a comic-book villain.

* John Connor is lost when we first meet him, in more ways than one. Judgment Day never happened, thanks to his and his mother’s efforts in Terminator 2, but now the grown-up John lives off the grid, drifting from job to job and having nightmares. (He’s also all alone in the world: mum Sarah died of leukaemia not long after averting the end of the world.) When he breaks into a veterinarians’ to steal some painkillers for a leg injury, the wiry and jumpy John encounters an old school friend who works there – Kate Brewster, with whom he once shared a childhood kiss. Then two Terminators show up – one out to kill him, one out to protect him. Kate is also a target because, we learn, she will one day marry John and be his closest advisor in the future war with the machines. (Yes, that’s right: it turns out that the events of the previous film have only *delayed* Judgment Day, not written it off entirely. The enigmatic empty-road metaphor that ended T2 is well and truly pissed on.) When John and Kate team up with their protector from the future, the T-800, John has to be a bit of a moron for script-exposition reasons and keep forgetting that this cyborg is not the same one he met when he was 10. But when he realises there’s a chance to stop Judgment Day (again), John smartens up and shows some of the leadership qualities we’ve always been told he has. He orders the T-800 to help him and Kate reach the Skynet central computer so they can destroy it before it launches its attack on humanity… T2’s Edward Furlong was originally signed up to reprise the role, but was going through some much-publicised drug problems, so a change was decided upon. Drafted in to replace him was Nick Stahl (who’s actually two years younger than Furlong). He gives a decent enough performance, but because the character is damaged and lonely and bitter, he can’t bring in any of the cheek and swagger that Furlong had established.

* Kate is a young woman who thinks she has a nice-enough life: a fiancé, a job, a good relationship with her loving dad. But all that comes crashing down quickly. When she’s called to the vets’ surgery where she works at 4am to deal with an anxious cat-lady, she finds John – who she recognises from her school days – hiding in the back room. He tries to take her hostage, but she disarms him with ease and locks him up while she calls the cops. However, then the T-X shows up intent on killing them both… Kate is another character initially cast with someone else, but Sophia Bush was released after a month of filming because it was deemed she looked too young. Claire Danes replaced her and gives a fairly vanilla performance.

Other characters:
* Kate’s boyfriend, Scott Mason (Mark Farniglietti), seems a pretty boring bloke so it’s not a huge tug on our emotions when he’s brutally killed and then impersonated by the T-X.
* Kate’s dad, Lieutenant General Robert Brewster (David Andrews), is a military bigwig at a US military base inside a mountain. He’s the programme director of Cyber Research Systems, an autonomous weapons division… In other words, Skynet – the operating system that will eventually become sentient and declare war on humanity. At the start of the story, he’s dealing with a computer virus and is urged by a colleague to use a revolutionary new AI to clear out the problem. However, Lieutenant General Brewster wants to keep ‘humans in the loop.’ When various civilian and military computer systems begin crashing, he has no option to activate Skynet… which immediately locks itself off and takes over.
* A secondary character from the first two Terminator movies, Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), gets a superfluous, silly and irritating cameo during a sequence at the tomb that supposedly houses Sarah Connor’s remains. (The T-800 reveals that she was actually cremated; the tomb is a secret weapons store.)
* In a scene cut from the finished film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played another character. Sergeant Candy is the US serviceman who’s been chosen to be the model for a new line of human-looking super soldier. In other words, the T-800s Arnie has been playing since 1984. Candy’s accent is Southern American, but it’s said they can replace that with something more neutral. Probably best this piece of continuity-woven nonsense was dropped.

Where: John moves around early in the film, appearing in various unspecified areas of America. The T-X arrives in Beverly Hills; the T-800 in the desert outside LA. After locating John and Kate, the T-800 drives them south back into the desert – intent on heading into Mexico. Then stop off at a cemetery before heading to a military research base two hours’ drive away and then ultimately the Crystal Peak instillation in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

When: Okay, things are getting complicated now. In voiceover, John tells us that the events of Terminator 2 happened over 10 years ago. That means this film’s story is playing out two or three years into the future (its cinema release was in 2003). However, John also claims that he was 13 when he encountered the T-1000. Given that it’s been established that John was born in 1985 and Judgment Day was due in 1997, the stated age of 13 seems to be a continuity error based on the age of actor Edward Furlong, who was 13 when he played John in the second film. We’re also now in a new timeline where that Judgment Day didn’t happen, of course, which causes all kinds of logical complexities that we’d be better off ignoring. The present scenes in Terminator 3 begin during night – it’s late enough that a shopping district is deserted, but a nightclub is still open – and continues through the next day, which is the delayed Judgment Day. It’s due to kick off at 6.18pm.

I’ll be back: Given that the threat in this film looks like a woman, Arnie gives his catchphrase a twist: referring to the T-X, he says, ‘She’ll be back.’ Later, she completes the gag when she says, ‘I’m back,’ after emerging from the wreck of a crashed helicopter. Arnie also says later ‘I’m back,’ when the T-800 comes out of a reprogrammed befuddlement. Since the previous Terminator movie, Schwarzenegger had continued to treat audiences to his favourite phrase, almost like a singer wheeling out an old hit. In 1993’s Last Action Hero,­ a clever spoof of the type of movies that had made Arnie’s name,­ his character, Jack Slade, tells a young friend, ‘I’ll be back… Ha, you didn’t know I was going to say that, did you?’ The lad, Danny, who is aware of his Schwarzenegger’s fictional persona, is unimpressed: ‘That’s what you always say… Everybody waits for you to say it. It’s like your calling card.’ The phrase is quoted a couple of other times elsewhere in the film too, then appeared in 1994 comedy Junior (‘It’s nice to be back’) and the terrible sci-fi flick The 6th Day in 2000 (‘I might be back,’ Arnie says to a sales assistant. ‘Oh, you’ll be back,’ comes the knowing reply).

Review: There’s a definite drop-off of quality from the first two Terminator movies, almost inevitably because writer/director James Cameron was not involved. (He’d sold his interest in the franchise to other producers.) For one thing, there’s little intrigue in the storytelling. It’s assumed that we’ve all seen the earlier films and no attempt is made to disguise what’s going on, so everything feels very ‘surface’. Elements of goofy humour – Arnie deadpan as he puts on disco sunglasses is the worst offender – have crept in, and there’s a sense that the filmmakers have thrown in sequences and moments on the basis of ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if?’ rather than character-based scripting. Did we really need a tiresome cameo from Sarah Connor’s psychiatric doctor? Did Sarah’s will stipulate that her stash of guns should be buried in a tomb for any reason other than a director’s wish for a cool shot as Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a casket on his shoulder while firing at police officers? However, there are also undoubted plusses. Terminator 3 is a competently shot movie and is pacey enough to keep the interest. Some of the action is world-class, especially the truly great chase sequence that sees the T-X hounding our heroes in a crane-truck, which is bombastic and enormously loud and destructive yet also staged and shot clearly and precisely for maximum impact. In its second half, the film also pulls of a bravado rug-pull. During their attempt to stop Skynet, John and Kate are told that the central operating system is contained in a bunker inside a mountain in Nevada. They race there with the help of the T-800, all the while chased by the T-X. But it was a con. The mountain base doesn’t contain the means to defeat Skynet. It’s a fallout shelter designed for VIPs. John and Kate realise there was never any way to stop Judgment Day. It was about surviving it so they could run the human resistance.

Seven hands (talk to them) out of 10

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)

ForgettingSarahMarshall

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10

Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr)

Creed II

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Adonis Creed climbs to the top of the boxing world, but then is challenged by the son of the man who killed his father…

What does Stallone do? He co-wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa for an eighth time. Sly was 29 years old when he wrote the original Rocky and he’s now in his early 70s: this character has been a lifelong project… When we rejoin the story a few years after the events of the previous movie, Rocky – grey-haired after his cancer battle – is still the trainer of boxer Adonis Creed. The two men part ways, however, when Adonis is offered the chance to fight Viktor Drago – the son of the boxer who killed Adonis’s father during an exhibition fight in 1985. Rocky advises against it, saying Adonis has everything to lose while Viktor has nothing to lose, but Adonis ignores him and promptly comes off second best in the bout. Lonely Rocky is reduced to watching the fight on television in the restaurant he’s been running for the last three films, then is shunned when he tries to visit Adonis in the hospital. Later, after a rapprochement, Rocky takes the younger man into the desert to train for a second bout with Drago…

Other main characters:
* Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has had a bad 33 years since he was defeated by Rocky (as seen in Rocky IV). His wife left him to raise their son alone, and the Russian people sneer at him because he lost a fight that was intended as Soviet propaganda. When he sees that the son of his former foe Apollo Creed is now a champion boxer himself, Ivan flies to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky. He wants Adonis to fight his son, Viktor… Lundgren barely speaks in the film, which is probably for the best.
* Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) is a bruiser of a heavyweight. When not beating people to a pulp in the ring, he works in a loading yard. He has the upper hand during his first fight with Adonis, but is disqualified for hitting his opponent when down.
* Adonis’s girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson, very good), is now suffering from hearing loss and wears a hearing aid. She says her time is running out; she knows she will eventually become fully deaf. After Adonis proposes and they get engaged, the pair leave Philly for LA and have a daughter together, who has to undergo tests to see if she’s inherited her mother’s heading issues.
* Early in the film, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) becomes world heavyweight boxing champion and can hardly believe it. Then he learns that Russian boxer Viktor Drago – the son of the man who killed Adonis’s father during a fight in Moscow in 1985 – wants a shot at the title. Adonis can’t resist the temptation, seeing it as a way of exorcising some ghosts: ‘I can’t let that slide,’ he tells Rocky, who refuses to train him for the event. However, during the resulting fight, Adonis is badly beaten up and knocked unconscious; he only retains his belt on a technicality. He then faces a long recovery period – and pressure to fight Viktor again. At least he makes amends with Rocky, just in time for Rocky to accompany Adonis to the hospital to attend the birth of his daughter. He then gears up for a rematch with Viktor Drago, which takes place in Moscow and is a brutal brawl with both men struggling to stay upright.
* Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) is the promoter who puts on the first Drago/Creed showdown. He goes public with the challenge before speaking to Adonis, then later offers a hollow apology for the theatrical tactic: ‘That’s just what the sport has become.’
* Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) – Adonis’s stepmother, in effect – is pleased to see him and Bianca when they arrive in LA. She even correctly guesses that Bianca is pregnant. But she’s furious that Adonis has decided to fight Drago. She fears he’ll end up like his father.
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen) is Viktor’s mother. She appears at a posh dinner Ivan and Viktor attend, but the latter is angry with her because she abandoned him and his father years previously. It’s a rather pointless cameo.

Key scene: When they arrive in America, Ivan and Viktor visit the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a key location that has featured in several Rocky movies. It’s always been a symbol of Rocky Balboa’s success: he ran up the steps while training for title fights in the 1970s, then a statue was put there to commemorate him winning the championship. Now, however, these two outsiders have come to scope the place out: they’re ready to invade Rocky’s world, to knock him and his protégé off their perch.

Review: One of the successes of Creed II is the way the backstory (ie, the events of Rocky IV) feels like backstory rather than fan-pleasing continuity. We only glimpse occasional clips of the 1985 footage, so the events are mostly talked about, and in that context they’re always meaningful for the characters. For example, the fact Rocky could have – indeed, should have – thrown in the towel during Apollo Creed’s fight with Ivan Drago creates conflict 33 years later between Adonis and Rocky. There’s a weight to what’s going on and that makes the film engaging. It’s generally well directed, in fact: drama scenes sock home; there’s a good central cast; it’s occasionally funny and often tender. All this helps distract us from how stunningly predictable the storyline is and how the middle third grows so slow it begins to test your patience.

Seven broken ribs out of 10

Next: Rambo: Last Blood

 

Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyBalboa

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now a widower in his late 50s, Rocky is tempted to get back into the ring for an exhibition bout with the current world champion…

What does Stallone do? After 16 years away, Rocky Balboa returned – and Sylvester Stallone returned to play him, write the script and direct the film. The actor hadn’t been happy with Rocky V, so wanted to tie the series off in a more appropriate way… When we check back in with Rocky, he’s a lonely, grieving widower (Adrian has died of ‘woman cancer’). After a day commemorating his wife’s passing in which he trawls round his old haunts and remembers events from previous Rocky films, he bumps into a woman he knew when she was a child 30 years earlier. Marie is now a single mother and works in a bar; they strike up a touching friendship of mutual support, and Rocky also acts as a mentor to her wayward son. Meanwhile, a TV show debates whether Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current world champ, Mason Dixon, and this gets Rocky thinking. When Mason’s agent suggests a non-title fight – from which everyone would earn a boatload – Rocky agrees and gets to training seriously. (He’s seemingly got over the debilitating brain damage he was diagnosed with in Rocky V.) When the two get into the ring at a glitzy, showbiz event at a Las Vegas hotel, Rocky knows he can’t win on speed or skill, so his tactic is to try brut force. Mason floors him a couple of times, but Rocky holds in there. He loses a split decision (the judges are 2-1), but walks away with his head held high… Across six films, Stallone has progressed from a kind of cut-price Robert De Niro to a middle-aged Joey Tribbiani. But here he’s recaptured the knockabout charm that typified the early movies.

Other main characters:
* Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, but is unpopular with public and press alike because it’s believed he’s won his belts by defeating no-hopers. Then an ESPN-style panel show discusses whether he could beat a 1980s Rocky Balboa, and a computer simulation reckons Rocky would win. Mason is angered by these slights, but his people just see dollar signs and plot to tempt Rocky out of his long retirement for a money-spinning exhibition fight… While still a bit cocky, Mason isn’t an arrogant, unfeeling thug like Rocky III’s Clubber Lang – before the fight, he assures Rocky that he won’t be trying to hurt him unnecessarily.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) now works at a packing plant. He gets laid off just as Rocky is gearing up to fight Mason, so conveniently has lots of spare time to join his support team.
* Rocky’s son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), is now a grown-up with the kind of big-business job that means he hangs out with yuppies. He’s a bit embarrassed by his father (‘You throw a big shadow,’ he says) and is far from encouraging when Rocky says he’s going to fight again – he fears his dad will be humiliated and this will lead to endless teasing from his pals. Rocky, not unreasonably and not unkindly, tells him he’s being an arse; he needs to stop caring what morons think and just live his life. Robert eventually comes round to the idea so much that he joins Rocky’s support team.
* Marie (Geraldine Hughes) appeared in the first Rocky movie as a local teenage girl who Rocky protectively walked home one night and told to quit smoking and get her act together. Now she’s a bar-worker in her 40s with a son called Steps (short for Stephenson). When the manager at the restaurant Rocky owns takes maternity leave, he offers the job to Marie. She lacks confidence but Rock talks her round (the pair really are two downtrodden peas in a pod). She repays her pal’s belief in her when she gives him a pep-talk and encourages him to fight Mason… Hughes plays the role really well, treating the film like a low-budget drama rather than a Hollywood franchise film. Rocky and Marie’s poignant relationship – no sex, refreshingly; just a quiet understanding – is the highlight of the movie. (In 1976’s Rocky, Marie was played by Jodi Letizia.)
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) appears in flashback clips from previous films when Rocky remembers his late wife.

Key scene: This half-decent film has a serious blight. It’s really ugly to look at. It offends a cineaste’s sensibilities. Dialogue scenes are shot harshly and coldly – they look cheap, to be honest – while the bizarre decision has been made to present Rocky and Dixon’s fight as if it were coverage on a pay-TV channel. (At least to begin with: it then goes all hyper-edited and tricksy.) The video look, too-fluid camerawork and chintzy lighting do nothing for the story or for the film as a whole. A shame.

Review: We’re back to the earthy tone of the original Rocky, and genuinely so this time. Rocky Balboa feels authentic and confident in a way that the ersatz and artificial Rocky V never managed. (That film felt like what it was: millionaires playing at being poor.) Rocky may get stopped by the public wanting selfies, but he’s a faded star, past his prime. At his restaurant, he acts as host and trots out practised anecdotes about his glory days to customers who hardly seem enthralled. So it’s a plausible storyline when the carrot of a big-time bout with Mason Dixon is dangled in front of him. It’s not, it must be said, the most gripping drama. Mason is a vastly underdeveloped character and his sections of the film lack any real tension or interest. (He and Rocky barely meet outside the ring, let alone develop the kind of connection Rocky had with previous opponents Apollo, Lang and Drago.) But there’s an undeniable sweetness, especially when concerned with Marie and Rocky’s relationship.

Seven heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors out of 10

Next: Rambo

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

ForeignCorrespondent

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A reporter is sent to Europe to get a scoop on the upcoming war but soon becomes embroiled with a sinister plot

Alfred Hitchcock made several films with action set pieces, scenes of tension, suspense, double-crosses, and moments of both tragedy and absurdity. So Foreign Correspondent is going up against some hefty competition, movies such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest. While no disaster, Foreign Correspondent is not in that class.

It’s August 1939. Europe is on what is almost always called in these cases the brink of war. Over in the US, the editor of the New York Globe newspaper is tired of the flat, drab coverage he’s been receiving from his reporters in the field so seeks out an employee who can bring a fresh perspective to the situation. A louche, carefree hack called Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is plucked from the newsroom, given the grand-sounding pen name Huntley Haverstock, and sent off across the Atlantic. Editor Powers (Harry Davenport) specifically wants an exclusive chat with an influential Dutch diplomat called Van Meer.

Having never been a foreign correspondent before, Jones shows both naivety – he moots trying to get an interview with Adolf Hitler – and hutzpah. When he arrives in a London full of bowler-hatted men, he meets a colleague who cynically tells him that all he needs do is forward on press releases and sign them ‘our foreign correspondent’. But Jones is wilier than that, and soon thinks he’s got a scoop when he bumps into Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) outside his hotel. However, soon after a polite but substance-light chat, Jones learns that the man was actually an imposter…

Meanwhile, our hero gains a love interest. Van Meer is supposed to be talking at a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, a multi-national anti-war movement. At the posh shindig, Jones meets a woman called Carol (Laraine Day) and accidentally offends her by ridiculing the party’s leader – who happens to be her father. As the story throws them together in the classic thriller style, they become a mismatched Hitchcock couple a la The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent: they bicker but are clearly attracted to each other.

After the London shindig, the action then moves to a political conference in Amsterdam. Jones sees the fake Van Meer outside the venue so confronts him, but then the man is shot on the street by an assassin. This audacious and cinematic sequence is the highlight of the whole film: we’re outdoors, it’s raining, the gunman poses as a photographer to get close to his prey, there are high-angle shots of umbrellas twitching as the assassin flees through the nearby crowd; and the scene then evolves into a car chase. Hitchcock shows a brilliant choreography of action, actors and background extras. It’s terrific stuff.

Just generally, the breakneck story plough ahead; the film has a real pace to it. The script also contains the kind of rat-a-tat dialogue you’d expect from a 1930s screwball comedy. However, the back-and-forth patter is not always played as fluently as you’d hope and, as the plot goes through some not-terribly-interesting twists, everything unfortunately starts to feel a bit samey and inconsequential. It doesn’t have the ante-raising moments you need in this kind of film.

There are still exciting episodes and individual images, however. The film begins with a cute model shot of the New York newspaper office building, complete with huge globe logo spinning atop. In the middle of the film, Jones is shadowed by a seemingly friendly man (played by Edmund Gwenn) who lures him to the heights of Westminster Cathedral’s tower intent on pushing him off. The plot climaxes with an enormously impressive action sequence as a flying boat stocked with passengers crashes into the Atlantic.

But this is a lesser Hitchcock film, lacking the magic that powers the best of his thrillers. It was only his second movie made in America (after Rebecca), which may explain the lack of punch. As Hitchcock later said, in 1940 thrillers were ‘looked on as second-rate’ in Hollywood. In the UK, however, they were ‘part of the literature’ – thanks in part to the successful capers Hitchcock himself had directed. With Foreign Correspondent, the required tone – serious but playful – doesn’t quite hit home. It’s a film about serious subject matters such as war, assassination and betrayal, but the script is going for the kind of breezy action-and-suspense later used in, say, the James Bond series. Style and substance don’t mesh.

Seven men reading a newspaper out of 10