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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I somehow managed to catch two Sylvester Stallone films I had never seen in the same week. It’s almost a guarantee that this won’t ever happen again, as I’ve basically now caught up on all things Stallone outside of 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which I can’t believe I still haven’t seen. I’ve always been a huge Stallone fan. I’m even a professed fan of schlock like Judge Dredd (which I still contend is much better than its reputation), Daylight (a gripping, claustrophobic disaster thriller), and even Driven, a movie so bad that even Stallone calls it one of his worst films (and yet I somehow still enjoyed it). When the inevitable day of Stallone’s retirement does come, I’m going to miss the guy a ton. I also think he may get a bit more of a critical reevaluation in the future, and I feel he greatly deserves that.
Stallone has gotten a ton of shit from critics throughout his prolific career, and it is true that he’s been in some real stinkers. But he’s also game for most anything, and his career has been a lot more diverse and creative than people might think. Having said that, the Stallone films I caught this week fall squarely into the over-the-top action extravaganzas the man is primarily known for. The success of Rocky Balboa essentially allowed Stallone the opportunity to spend 50 million dollars of other people’s money on a Rambo sequel, aptly titled Rambo (2008). Though the film didn’t gross as much as its predecessors, Rambo did decent box office numbers worldwide and seemed to be well-received by fans. 2012’s Bullet to the Head, another 1980s throwback for Stallone, opened miserably last weekend, and will probably end its domestic run with less than ten million dollars against a hefty 55 million dollar price tag. Though at the opposite ends of the spectrum financially, these two films share a similar spirit. With this article, I intend to explore that spiritual connection – the connection being some of the most awesome violence put to film in quite some time.
Bullet to the Head opened with less than five million in box office receipts, which was the lowest opening for Stallone in over 30 years. The film, which received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics, was actually shot and completed before Stallone’s hit The Expendables 2 released late last summer. Directed by Walter Hill, who replaced original director Wayne Kramer over creative differences, Bullet to the Head feels like a throwback to the days of Cobra, Tango and Cash, and really any other needlessly violent, somewhat nihilistic 1980s Stallone movie. In fact, take away cell phones and give the film a grainier look for its stock, and Bullet to the Head might actually be confused for an old Stallone vehicle. I say this with absolute praise for the film. Bullet to the Head is a throwback to days of awesomely violent films that just don’t give a fuck.
In a similar vein, 2008’s Rambo sequel also feels like it comes from a different era in filmmaking. Directing from a script he wrote himself, Stallone’s 50 million dollar paean to violence is an exercise in gun-play, machismo, and straight-up murder. Shot during the spring of 2007 in Southeast Asia (specifically Thailand and areas near Burma), Stallone famously referred to the location as a “hellhole.” The production was caught at times between real-life rebel cross-fire, where cast and crew no doubt wondered why the hell they were risking their lives making a sequel to a 30 year old film series in one of the most dangerous spots in all of Asia. Rambo had the unintended effect, however, of rallying the Burmese rebels. Inspired by the film’s tagline of “Live for nothing, or die for something,” the freedom fighters continue their very real-world battle from oppression utilizing the movie as a kind of rallying cry. Stallone called this one of his proudest moments in film.
The plots for each movie are largely ridiculous affairs, serving as nothing more than springboards to copious displays of murder and violence, and in the best way possible. Here is the basic plot to Bullet to the Head: When his partner is slain in cold blood after a hit-gone-wrong, it is up to Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) and Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang of Fast Five) to form a loose alliance, track down and stop a rampaging murderer (Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones), and save the city of New Orleans from the evil machinations of a corrupt real estate developer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of LOST) and his buffoonish lawyer (a criminally wasted Christian Slater). Here is the basic plot to Rambo: After a charitable group of Christian missionaries (featuring, among others, Julie Benz) head to a poor and isolated village in Burma and are subsequently kidnapped and tortured by vicious soldiers (after exactly one day of helping out the natives), aging ex-military man John Rambo (Stallone) must lead a group of mercenaries (including Scottish actor Graham McTavish) into the belly of the beast in order to save the villagers, the missionaries, and somehow redeem his long-lost soul in the process.
The plots for both Rambo and Bullet to the Head are largely just excuses for violent set-pieces strung together throughout each film, and the levels of violence doesn’t disappoint in either movie. The best moments of Bullet include a showdown in a Turkish bath, an intense and funny interrogation scene, an exploding safehouse (I’m always up for the inclusion of C4), and what has to be the greatest axe fight this side of Drunken Master 2. Stallone racks up quite the body count, and his excellent physique belies his age. It’s almost hard to believe that Stallone is in his mid-60s with this body in this kind of shape. He has to be the buffest senior citizen in history. The fight choreography in the film is done particularly well as well, with the axe fight again being a highlight. Jason Momoa serves as an intense and unpredictable villain, and the inclusion of Sung Kang is welcomed too. The final showdown of Bullet to the Head takes place, appropriately enough for a film of this variety, in an abandoned factory/power plant of some kind, and the finale is an excellent display of balletic violence.
Rambo is an even more violent film than Bullet, and includes scenes like Stallone blowing away four of the angriest Asian extras I’ve ever seen in a movie, numerous up-close-and-personal sniper head shots, and one of the bloodiest final showdowns ever committed to celluloid. The level of violence in Rambo is downright staggering; the film is indeed so excessive in its bloody debauchery that I began to feel uncomfortable and almost sick to my stomach. At one point, I even considered turning it off completely! A film hasn’t had that kind of effect on me in quite some time. There are two absolutely gruesome scenes of awesome violence in Rambo, including the initial assault on the villagers (in which no one, not man, woman, or child is spared) and the finale, in which Rambo himself is personally responsible for the deaths of at least 150 faceless Burmese soldiers. Additionally, it must be noted that both films feature excellent knife deaths, which to me are the best kind of film deaths. Leave it to Stallone to carry a torch for the simple knife fight (The Expendables 2 also features a nice knife scene).
Though Bullet to the Head will go down in the history books as a flop film and a step backwards in Stallone’s now multi-year film comeback (which started with the unexpected success of that previously mentioned Rocky sequel), I really feel like it was a better than expected violent extravaganza. The plot is wafer-thin and the film itself is gloriously dumb. Of course it is just about as generic as an action film could be, but so what? The film has some of the most excellent deaths in a movie I’ve seen in a long time. By contrast, Rambo is more violent and bloody, and also a good time and a roller coaster ride of a movie, but it doesn’t have the potential re-watchability that Bullet to the Head brings to the table. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the bloody good spectacle of Rambo, however. I liked both of these projects just fine; each has its specific strength and those strengths largely over-lap. Bullet to the Head and Rambo are two Stallone projects worth checking out, bloody good over-the-top violence and all.