Monday, 30 August 2010

My Favourite Film Series - #1 - THE ROCKY ANTHOLOGY (76-06) ****

This special edition of my film blog features reviews for all the six Rocky films put together and each earns their typically respected support from myself though Rocky V is not so lucky, so enjoy reading this review on the franchise!

"His whole life was a million-to-one shot"

In the midst of the the 1970s, America was on its knees as global and political events had put it under strain in the past fifteen years with the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War which had claimed millions of lives and the Watergate scandal which left the nation in jeopardy about trusting politics again. However in 1976, then-unknown actor Sylvester Stallone made a significant breakthrough into film by becoming involved with director John G. Avildsen and creating one of cinema's most iconic heroes in the shape of lovable boxing rogue Rocky Balboa and his journey from being a down and out bum to going the distance in the ring and by doing so brought America back from its depression to cheer for a new hero. For the next sixteen years, four sequels followed which saw Rocky's amazing journey continue through forming a family with his loyal wife Adrian as well as being supported by dopey friend Paulie and fiery veteran manager Mickey, taking on some of the most fierce opponents in boxing and eventually from a sixteen year gap after the disappointment of Rocky V (1990) would finish the franchise satisfactory with ROCKY BALBOA (2006). These characters and situations became loved by audiences with the intense boxing sequences, the booming music and emotional backdrops which were to be the set-up for being celebrated by its fans through wanting to be like Rocky.

ROCKY (1976) *****

"A Philadelphia fighter who never made the big time...He showed he could take on a challenge...and won something bigger than a championship bout"

'Rocky' is about a man. It is the story of a man who exceeds past all expectations and makes the most out of what he is doing. What is he doing? Boxing. Why? As Rocky says in the film, "You have to be a moron to want to box." Upcoming actor Sylvester Stallone wrote the script centering on a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia man whose name needs no introduction. He is your average tough-guy you see walking down the street, but this film takes a closer look into this guy and shows him not as an intimidating person but a kind and streetwise human being who struggles to cope with his normal existence in a society which is struggling through a depression. He lives in a beat-up, old apartment, and he barely makes enough money to support himself. His job? Rocky retrieves money for loan sharks. His real job, however, is to break the loaners' thumbs if they don't pay up. He's a muscle man. After he returns from his "job" every day, he takes time to do what he has been doing for the past six years, which is boxing. From the very start of the film, we are introduced to Rocky's love of fighting in the ring in which we see him against a local bum in a rundown gym, this being the start of a potentially successful franchise but showing just how low down Rocky is. Then, after that, he takes a trip to the local pet store to see the love of his life, Adrian (Talia Shire), who works there. He constantly tries to impress her and talk to her, but she is shy and doesn't talk much. However her paranoiac and alcoholic brother Paulie (Burt Young), who is good friends with 'Rocko', persists in his sister dating him believing that she'll live to be a spinster. She and Rocky go on their date to the ice-skating ring, and talk more to each other before ending the evening with a night of passion as Rocky manages to change her ways and signify the start of their committed bond. Things are starting to look up for Rocky......

But things change for him even greater after heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides that he wants to make a big performance on the 4th of July. He wants to appear nice by letting a regular bum fight him in the ring. As he is looking through a book of local boxers, he finds Rocky's name and discovering that his nickname is The Italian Stallion, Creed comes up with the important way of having the fight promoted by suggesting that Rocky is taking his chance of America being the land of opportunity and fulfilling a dream.
But Rocky doesn't realize this is all for show. He is however determined to prove to everyone that he is willing to go the distance with fighting Creed and to try and ensure that he doesn't embarrass himself, he seeks the help of passionate boxing manager Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who initially turned his back on Rocky years ago, but upon his hyped match with Creed, offers to eventually help him to try and make him forget the painful memories of himself never making it to the top. The pair go through a major training exercise which includes THAT training montage as Rocky jogs around Philadelphia, gaining popularity with the crowd and eventually hiking up the Museum stairs for the famous celebratory moment. With the backing of Adrian and his friends, Rocky finds himself taking on the heavyweight champion of the world Creed in front of a mass crowd leading to one of cinema's greatest battles as the pair engage in a sweating and edge-of-your-seat face-off with Rocky determined to last the match and prove that he went the distance, win or lose.

Perhaps one of America's most important films, Rocky really did change a generation of film goers with its engaging story and complex characters, but was also key to the popularity of the underdog as showcased in many other sports films of recent years e.g. HOOSIERS (1986), CINDERELLA MAN (2005). This film though proved significant with inspiring audiences to feel for Rocky Balboa especially with how down and out he was in the film's beginning but the satisfactory ending of Rocky calling out for Adrian and the pair hugging each other following the fight adds to the subtlety and that he really has gone the distance. The tough town setting for Philadelphia really adds to the harsh background for which Rocky came from, the job he works for and his apartment lend to that factor. Stallone however creates and plays a character so similar to him as he has the personality, and the little things that make Rocky so real and so incredibly likable. He is the most unlikely hero and yet at the same time one the greatest heroes. Many do believe that Stallone's talent with his writing and acting struggled after this film with some ridiculing his style of mumbling his dialogue but his role in this film was so crucial in making us feel for the character throughout the story from his way of wanting to prove a point to the world. That is further examined by his relationship with the shy Adrian who undergoes a major change during the film such as ditching her glasses and allowing herself to support and love Rocky in the only way she can. Talia Shire plays her in the most sublime manner as she helps Adrian's early life crisis transform to make her one of cinema's most loved wives particularly in a major franchise.
The rest of the supporting cast also deliver very strong roles in what is a award-worthy support cast, Burt Young plays his selfish but meaningful role as Adrian's brother Paulie to the extent of him suffering like Rocky but actually turning to drink as support. The scene of him confronting Rocky and Adrian in his living room on Christmas Day is a terrifically acted scene showing us his torture as well as Rocko's. Burgess Meredith, famous for his role as The Penguin in the Batman series, gives a lot of strength and depth to his role as Rocky's committed trainer who wants to see him go the distance for his own sanity with wanting to succeed in boxing but in a different format. And Carl Weathers plays his boxing character Apollo Creed as loud, and flamboyant and fast and on top of his game as a boxing champ. Weathers looks like a true pro in the ring and makes it all look like a real fight and makes Creed unlikeable with his cockiness towards Rocky only to be proved wrong by his opening round with the Italian Stallion. Iconic and flawless in many ways, the film is supported well by the stirring music from Bill Conti who uses the 'Gonna Fly Now' score to show Rocky's ambition with training hard and is one of the most famous scenes of film legacy. The boxing fights themselves are shot well adding to how realistic it would have been back then though one flaw to the film is the fakeness of the punches between Balboa and Creed. That does not take away the emotion that goes through watching such an exhilarating match-up between two men seeking their own gain with life. It is also symbolic in a crass sort of way with white vs black adding the racial feeling that was still going on in Hollywood even after the Civil Rights movement. However the emotional and courageous point of the story proved enough for Oscar to take note and the film clinched three awards to cap off an amazing experience for Stallone and Avildsen. Overall the legend of this film when it was first released in the mid-70's was: `His whole life was a-million-to-one shot', but what Stallone did was prove to the world that `Rocky' would become one-in-a-million as a Cinderella story.

ROCKY II (1979) ***(1/2)

"They've come a long way together...a boxer and a dreamer. But there is still one fight left"

Sylvester Stallone's decision to make a sequel to his Oscar-winning triumph ROCKY (1976) was questionable on most people's minds about whether it really did need one. However Stallone again was to prove his critic's wrong by making a worthy sequel with a similar tone to the first film in the shape of ROCKY II (1979) which follows on from the end of the first film where Rocky (Stallone) is recovering in hospital from his multiple blows after his heroic match with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Though Creed had told Rocky towards the end of their fight that he didn't want a rematch, all guns come blazing when Creed demands another fight as he believes that he wasn't worthy of the match and suggests that Rocky was lucky to last it. However Rocky insists that he has retired and now wants to settle down with his committed partner Adrian (Talia Shire), and after leaving hospital he takes advantage of his new found fame by marrying her, buying a new house and a flash car and celebrating becoming parents at the same time. However fame and fortune isn't all it's cracked up to be for Rocky as he struggles to earn more money through advertising (he is ridiculed for his slow talking and struggle to read) and eventually scrapes the barrel by working at the meat factory with his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), the desperation coming from his money problems which sees a pregnant Adrian also working at her old pet-shop.

Meanwhile Creed is getting hate mail by his so-called fans who believe he deliberately fixed the fight in order to allow Rocky to earn respect from them and for also for failing to properly defeat a nobody. However he is determined to get the rematch set up knowingrematch set up knowing that Rocky is struggling to cope with his problems, and goes as far as taunting him on the television labeling him a chicken which leads to Rocky getting stick from the locals about his reluctance towards the rematch. His fiery manager Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) insists that Rocky 'knock his block off' and urges him to start training again much to Adrian's disappointment as she wants Rocky to settle down with her, but he doesn't want their unborn son to be ridiculed for his father's failure. Rocky trains hard under Mickey again but because of Adrian's insistence, he struggles to concentrate as much and things are made worse for him when Adrian goes into early labour and although their child is born (prematurely), she is left in a coma. The long wait proves clinical for Rocky knowing that she is the most important person in his life and he would be devastated if she died. Fortunately for him, Adrian recovers and gives Rocky one word of advice; win. This again leads to a hefty training session for Rocky as he and Mickey plot the rematch of the century with Apollo Creed, as Rocky becomes determined to reach the top.

Stallone's involvement with the sequel to his more superior version of Rocky, saw him try to capture the spirit of the first film by setting the story to an almost similarly shrouded environment for Rocky Balboa apart from the fact that his character is now respected by the people of Philadelphia. Creed's demands for a rematch are the clear emphasis for the sequel which is flawed considering he and Rocky towards the end of their first fight said no rematch. Nonetheless it is perhaps the greatest rematch in film history that adds more drama and thrills to the match particularly the defying moment of not just the film, but the franchise as both men find themselves in a matter of life or death for either one of them but leads to a very satisfactory conclusion. The dramatic side of the film, does drag it especially Rocky and Adrian's struggles for money as well as the coma scene which is finely acted by Stallone but slows the film down until her recovery which is followed by a repeat of the Gonna Fly Now sequence (major difference being Rocky having company with 800 kids running up the Philadelphia museum stairs with him). Weathers continues to play Creed as arrogant yet determined to prove people wrong while Young and Meredith just play their performances similarly to the first one but Shire surprisingly lacks as much charisma and reluctance as she did in the first one (this perhaps being her weakest performance in the franchise). Eager fans of Rocky were clearly mixed about a sequel but those who were disappointed about him losing the bout in it will enjoy this one even more as Rocky completes his Cinderella story in a sequel that lacks the heart of the first film but is still enjoyable altogether.

ROCKY III (1982) ***(1/2)

"His life is happy, his fights have seemed easy. Now a young upstart is going to make him prove just how far he can still go"

One clever aspect for the Rocky franchise was the use of the fight scenes from the end of previous films and using them for the beginning of their sequels. This suits best for the third film of the Rocky saga ROCKY III (1982) in which the opening scene shows Rocky and Apollo in the midst of their epic fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the world which ends with both men struggling to get up off the ground until Rocky gains enough strength to get up and be crowned champion. After we see the film ending with Rocky booming "Yo Adrian I did it!" as he lifts the belt we are soon thrown straight into this latest sequel which produces one of the most popular film songs of all time with Survivor's catchy 'Eye of the Tiger' playing to another classic Rocky montage. It shows Rocky at the top of his game as he, Adrian (Talia Shire) and their son start enjoying the high life such as buying a mansion and a motorbike as well as Rocky appearing on the covers of magazines and even making a cameo appearance on The Muppets Show. At the same time he is defending his title against random challengers who are easily swept away but an even deadlier challenger awaits him in the form of obnoxious but powerful fighter Clubber Lang (Mr T in his film debut). After taking part in a thrilling charity fight with wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan also making his film debut), Rocky is then dedicated with a statue of himself outside the Philadelphia museum. But when he announces his plans to retire to the crowd, Lang ridicules him for his failure to face a proper fighter, turning out that Rocko was fighting novice challengers, and the pair agree to a match much to Adrian and Mickey's (Burgess Meredith) annoyance.

Mickey's insistence of Rocky not fighting is not just to keep him safe from losing the title but also because health problems are affecting himself. However Rocky convinces him that this will definitely be their last bout and the pair agree to train together. But as seen in the film's montage at the start, Lang is no pushover and it is clear he means business as he trains ferociously whereas Rocky makes his training sessions for public viewing attracting television coverage and making it a spectacle despite Mickey's warnings. Unfortunately on the evening of the fight, Rocky and Lang have a run-in before the start which leads to Mickey suffering a heart attack and Rocky's mood for the fight changes drastically as he tries to help his manager. However Mickey insists on him fighting on despite his illness, but when the fight occurs it is clear that Rocky hasn't taken it seriously and is overpowered by Lang's brutal force. Tragically for Rocky, when he returns to the dressing room defeated, Mickey has died and he is left devastated that his competitive manager is dead and realizes that any chance of fighting again without him is all but over. Surprisingly though, an unlikely source in the shape of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky's former opponent, offers to help train Rocky back to his best leading to an arranged rematch with Lang. The two men travel to California along with Adrian and her brother Paulie (Burt Young) to help Rocky with training under a new environment, but clearly Mickey's death has affected him to a point where he can't get into the groove of running or practising. Eventually on the beach, Adrian rallies him around suggesting that Mickey would have got him off his feet and get into the best shape possible and soon Rocky is inspired to train properly through Apollo's help. The two former rivals go through an extreme training session with Rocky eventually believing he has what it takes to reclaim his title from Lang.

In terms of why this film appeals to audiences the most out of all six in the series, the many excuses could suggest the popular theme song from Survivor or the decision to kill off Mickey to give Rocky more emotional power for when he plots his rematch with Clubber Lang. For me of course, the casting of Mr T gave his career a huge boost but also made him a cult favourite with his infamous line 'I pity the fool', though his role is cheesy, he does make Lang a complete toad and is one of the cool opponents in film. The importance of the story is that Rocky knows that despite reaching the top, the price of fame can become a distractment as proven with the build-up to his first fight with Lang, this adds to the key decision to focus more on Rocky's rise to the top rather than place him in his grim background in Philly. Stallone does his role justice again with his emotional scene with Mickey being one of the best acted scenes in his career but clearly the focus of making Rocky more vulnerable to cheesy and cliched acts of wanting to be a winner start to show. Getting Apollo Creed to work with Rocky is a masterstroke demonstrating that Apollo was just as human as Rocky was with wanting to succeed at the top whether it be as a champion or a manager and Weathers keeps getting better as the franchise goes. Shire does an effective job as Adrian again though her one acting masterclass is her rousing speech to Rocky on the beach but other than that doesn't add too much, Young plays Paulie as a slob but makes him a bit more dis likable with racial tones while Burgess Meredith leaves the franchise with great warmth for a men heading towards his end. The boxing sequences are enjoyable again although as mentioned before very cliched of Rocky doing the damage, then Lang doing it back, then Rocky again etc although the cheerful ending does the job for Stallone's franchise and keeps the champ going strong, but with a new ally! One again "It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight!"

ROCKY IV (1985) ***(1/2)

"Get ready for the next world war"

There are many who believe that back in 1985, Rocky Balboa saved the world. That was the case for many who came out of what the fourth installment of the Rocky series ROCKY IV (1985), which despite not being as acclaimed or appreciated by audiences and critics was key in the importance of being political and that set up the catalyst for world peace through the battle between East and West. Once again directed by then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the shape of Sylvester Stallone, this latest film in the ever successful franchise became the biggest box-office hit of the series and was hugely popular with audiences for not only more cultural yet cheesy set-pieces e.g. irritating quotes, loud thumping theme tunes; but also for the onscreen battle between Rocky and his foreign opponent that rightly earned the tag line "Get ready for the next world war". The themes of politics, vengeance and defiance proved clinical for this film's favoritism with its audiences as it continued to use the same cast and set-up but in a new serious situation.

Having reclaimed his heavyweight championship belt against Clubber Lang in the previous film Rocky (Stallone) is continuing to settle down with his family including devoted wife Adrian (Talia Shire) and their son, obnoxious brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) and new friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who was influential in Rocky claiming back his title. However with both men being older, the eagerness to fight is divided between them both but that changes when a rule alteration allows overseas fighters to compete for the title which sees a group of Russian promoters led by Brigitte Nielsen showing off their tall and muscular looking competitor Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). They boast about Drago's strength with his fists and soon he leaves the American media stunned by his mighty power both with his body and with his hands during a training session in which the Russian promoters demand a match against Rocky. However Rocky's reluctance to fight proves to be Apollo's gain as he pleads with Rocko to help him train as he volunteers to compete against Drago. Rocky is unsure believing that Drago may prove to be too much a match for Apollo but eventually he agrees to help him as part of the favour that was requested in the previous film. However the night of the fight is publicized in typical fashion by Apollo who wears his home country costume for the fight as Drago arrives in the ring presented to an all American spectacular event with James Brown lashing out 'Livin In America' to prove a point to the Russians.

But when the fight does happen, Apollo struggles to cope with Drago's sheer strength as the taunts and smug comments have clearly got the Russian determined to prove a point. Rocky's failure to throw in the towel when Apollo is being massacred proves fatal as a deadly punch from Drago finishes off the former World Champion killing him in the ring. Distraught and guilty that his former rival turned friend has died, Rocky vows to prove a point to the Russians who enjoy teasing the American media for being fools with believing that Drago stood no chance against a former champion. By doing this, he agrees to fight Drago in Russia at Christmas without being payed as a token of good wills but also to seek vengeance against this machine of a human being. Adrian however fears that Rocky won't win and fails to support him as he, Paulie and Apollo's former trainer Duke (Tony Burton) travel to Russia and end up training under intense cold weather in the midst of the countryside. This proves a crucial strategy by Rocky with wanting to train quietly without any media attention despite Russian guards being hired to watch his training. The new conditions prove tougher for Rocky as the absence of the Philadelphia steps or a Californian beach, in favour of snowy fields and cold huts give him a new dimension for training against his toughest opponent yet. However the arrival of Adrian who decides to back Rocky again helps his confidence as his rapid training strengthens him up for the challenge of Drago and the night of the fight becomes key in not only facing the hostility of the Russian crowd but also fighting to inspire the hopes of every man, woman and child from the free world!

Heroism is an key factor with this film and although the saga gets more flawed with cringe worthy situations, this was surprisingly one of the most important films of the 1980s with its direct message for world peace, demonstrated by Rocky's speech in the film's climax to the Russian crowd signaling them to join together in self harmony. Yes it's a cheesy speech but it certainly made its address clear for the worldwide audiences despite Stallone almost starting World War III himself by making the Russian promoter characters as well as future wife Brigitte Nielsen's character out to being selfish and uncaring particularly with Apollo's death as well as the Russian crowd failing to gain sympathy from mainstream audiences throughout the film. The propaganda story of having Rocky take his revenge on Drago is a little extreme but it adds to the thrilling spectacle of the climatic fight which is probably the fan's favorite fight of the saga with heavy punches and clever camera work proving that point. The Rocky version of the Ewoks in notable in this film with the house robot which is a silly addition but is surprisingly key with associating itself with the rise of the computer age further backed up by how robotic Drago is. Drago is played with stillness and brutal agitation by Dolph Lundgren though he sounds wooden when uttering lines like "I must break you". Nielsen fails to gain much from her accent despite her sex-symbol status back then though her Razzie win for this film was harsh, as was her husband Stallone who gives Rocky another good performance though it is clear the fights start to gain the attention ahead of his role. Shire and Young give their usual supporting roles which is a long way from when they were both Oscar nominated for the first film. One major bonus with this film is the music which gains momentum with the booming rhythm of Survivor contributing their political lyrical song 'Burning Heart' as well as Robert Tepper's 'No Easy Way Out' that both add coolness to the film's music although the absence of Gonna Fly Now is a minor disappointment with Stallone clearly trying to modernize the franchise. This is a real flag-waving film with Rocky draping the Stars and Stripes around his shoulders. It's a totally unrealistic story but, all of these in the series were similar, credibility-wise, so just go along with it and enjoy the story.

ROCKY V (1990) **(1/2)

"Go For It!"

Five years is a bit of a gap for doing a sequel and since the box-office success of ROCKY VI (1985), the wait for this edition of the Rocky series was deemed a film too far for both critics and audiences who believed that Rocky was past it. ROCKY V (1990) seemed to confirm that theory with the unnecessary decision by Stallone to make a fifth film after the previous film had ended well for him and the rest of the world, although he did make the decision to bring back the director of Rocky's first Oscar winning triumph; John G. Avildsen. The film begins in Rocky's (Stallone) dressing room after the Drago fight where during his shower, he starts suffering pains in his head clearly sustained by the many brutal punches he received by the Russian. He and wife Adrian (Talia Shire) along with brutish brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) return to America where they are welcomed home by a rapturous crowd of fans and media, as well as the Balboa's son Rocky Jr (Sage Stallone, whose character has aged by at least four years in the film's time line of only a couple of weeks from Rocky IV). However Rocky's mental state has clearly affected his personal confidence with talking to people but when quizzed by media, Adrian insists that Rocky has retired indefinitely but cocky and greedy boxing promoter Duke George Washington (Richard Gant) tries to tempt Rocky to defend his title against newcomer Union Cane but the topic of fighting for Rocky is all but over because of his health. Things are confirmed more for him when the doctors tell him that he can't fight anymore because he has brain damage which he refuses to believe but it's a sad moment for him. Then things then go from bad to worse for Rocky when a mistake involving Paulie and his accountant sees the family lose their money and home and despite his willingness to fight again to get the money back, Adrian assures him that they can cope. Along with Rocky Jr, they move into Paulie's house back in the Philadelphia neighborhood (a clear testament to the first film) as the family try to start afresh.

This sees Rocky trying to restore pride by taking over Mickey's old gym and attempting to train new fighters so he can replicate Mickey and prove that he can still work in the boxing business but in a different position. Washington however continues to pester Rocky about fighting Cane but Adrian continues to insist that he is retired. In the meantime a young rundown boxer named Tommy Gunn (played by real life fighter Tommy Morrison) seeks to be trained by Rocky and despite his hotheadedness he proves to be a strong fighter and the former champ agrees to train him and even let him stay at the Balboa's. As they both work with each other, Rocky Jr is getting bullied in school by two boys and tries to get his dad's advice about getting back at them, but Rocky's attention towards Tommy leaves his son feeling unloved. However he gets trained up with the help of Paulie and manages to get vengeance on the boys beating one of them up until they apologise to him, Rocky however fails to notice that his son has proved a point and the father-son relationship is clearly in trouble. Rocky's attention to Tommy sees him becoming a skilled fighter defeating local opponents and gaining attention from Washington who comes up with a new alternative to get to Rocky, by offering Tommy fame and fortune in order to pressure his trainer to give him a title shot. Rocky's reluctance to rush him into a proper title shot sees him lose his pupil and greed gets to Tommy as he leaves Rocky on Christmas Day with a family crisis as he and Rocky Jr fall out over their lack of closeness with Jr accusing his dad of giving Tommy more attention than to him. Adrian convinces Rocky to sort things out as he is losing his family's respect although he eventually does make amends with his son. However he still chooses to see if Tommy can win the title against Union Cane despite not working with him and although Tommy does win it, he fails to thank Rocky in his speech instead thanking Washington much to the crowd and media's disapproval. In the news conference afterwards, the media tear into Tommy accusing him of being Rocky's robot leaving him determined to prove to everybody that he can beat his former trainer which leads to a brutal showdown between the pair on the street.......

There was no denying that Stallone and Avildsen wanted to replicate the glory of the first film but sadly a weakened script and many flaws led to its unpopularity with audiences and critics alike. Having Rocky and his family return to Philadelphia because of their money woes would never had happened because Rocky's popularity would have allowed him the chance to earn money through commercial success but the audience does end up feeling cheated in the end for following his rise to the top only for it all to be taken away from him by a moment of stupidity from Paulie. There is also the factor of taking away the key boxing match at the end of the previous Rocky films and instead resorting to having Rocky fight Tommy is a bruising if silly fist fight on the street feature shaky camera work and annoying lines not helped by the poor script e.g. "My ring's outside" or "Get him dad, he took my room!". Continuity also lets the film's time line down with regards to Rocky Jr aging by four years despite the time between Rocky IV and Rocky V being only a couple of weeks, another let down on Stallone's part although his son Sage does do an okay job despite the whining. As well as that we have the soap opera style fallout between Rocky Jr and his dad which is typical of a father-son relationship in these family films but becomes predictable. Sly himself tries to give Rocky a new dimension by making him a brain damaged idiot who struggles to talk properly, a far cry from the heroic Rocky we all came to love, and clearly the dullness of Stallone's acting was starting to take control of him, a waste considering he was nominated for the same role fourteen years earlier. Talia Shire exists the franchise with a whimper as she's only given the job of trying to make Rocky see sense but it's all been seen before in the previous films while Burt Young is not given much to do again apart from playing a slouch again. Newcomers Tommy Morrison and Richard Gant both play their roles differently with Morrison showing initial potential until his character becomes a complete fool in the film's final half hour whereas Gant plays Duke Washington as an absolute git clearly satirizing Don King but adds seediness to his role. One slight surprise for this film was bringing back Burgess Meredith for a flashback scene between his character Mickey and Rocky which is nice and subtle but also a little unneeded though at least we remember his last contribution to the franchise being to tell Rocky to get up when he is down during the street fight. Like I mentioned with Rocky IV, the absence of catchy music like 'Gonna Fly Now' is crucial again with this film, hip hop music is used during the training montages which clearly isn't special compared to the classic training sessions we've come to love although Elton John's strong ballad 'Measure Of A Man' is used well with a montage of the previous films in the franchise during the end credits. Significantly this edition of the series proves to be a film too far with its lack of a major plot as well as average acting which left many audiences back in 1990 distraught that such a popular franchise had ended on an all time low but while there are some okay highlights is a forgettable adventure for the Italian Stallion.

ROCKY BALBOA (2006) ****
"It ain't over 'til it's over"

Sixteen years had passed since the disappointment of Sylvester Stallone's final film of the Rocky franchise ROCKY V (1990), which had flopped at the box-office and made an embarrassment of the traditions of how Rocky Balboa had gone the distance in the first few films only to be reduced in that film to blundering through his speeches and having a scrappy street fight, let down by a poor script. Stallone himself hated the film deeming it a poor way to end the saga. But then after all them years, he finally talked of making a new film and it was soon laughed about by critics and audiences who not only thought that Rocky was past it being in his 60s but that Stallone's career had plummeted in the past decade and a half. However when ROCKY BALBOA (2006) eventually came about, Stallone succeeded in pleasing those who'd doubted him including myself by making a satisfactory and well made final film in the ever popular franchise, which was bolstered by a powerful tone to the story, no cheesy acting and some great references to the previous films. Rocky was back with a bang!

Years have passed since Rocky was celebrating his street fight win over former pupil Tommy Gunn with his wife Adrian and son Rocky Jr, but now times have changed in Philadelphia with it being the 21st century while Rocky himself has gone through other personal changes. He is now living alone in an apartment similar to the one he lived in from the first film after his loyal and devoted wife Adrian (Talia Shire) died a few years earlier, but is now running a restaurant in her name to keep himself busy.  Brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) is still slobbing about but has been helping Rocko out with going through a trip down memory lane revisiting locations from the first film where he and Adrian hung around e.g. the Ice Rink. Her death has clearly affected Rocky who seems to have gone backwards with wanting to remember his past though he enjoys telling stories of his boxing bouts to customers who come to the restaurant. On the other hand though, his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes fame) is working in a top job but is resentful of his dad because despite having not been fighting for a long time, Rocky is still hugely popular around Philly, leaving Robert unhappy about the fact his surname has been the factor that's got him places. This has left Rocky distraught about the situation though things become easier for him when he meets former neighborhood kid Lil Marie (Geraldine Hughes) who has done okay with her life after the advice she got off him in the first film and even has a son of Jamaican descent named Steps. Rocky decides to be kind to her and Steps by offering work for the pair as a way of charity though initially Marie is reluctant for the help but accepts it. However another life-changing moment occurs for Rocky which signifies possibly the greatest sports comeback in film.....

Current heavyweight champion of the world Mason 'The Line' Dixon (real life boxer Antonio Tarver) is struggling to be popular with fans of the game who believe it has lost its magic since the greats like Rocky retired. A computer generated fight between the pair is set-up by sports experts and witnessed by both men in their working environments with Rocky winning the fight. This leads to Rocky contemplating the opportunity to start fighting again but locally, a decision that is backed by Paulie but not by Robert who again is concerned that his father is making a fool of himself. However Dixon's manager meets with Rocky confirming his client's intentions to fight him in an exhibition fight to prove to the world who the greatest out of the pair is, with Dixon's reputation on the line if he fails to beat an 'old man'. When the fight is promoted to the media they label Rocky a Balboasaurus for the fact he is 60 and yet fighting against a younger more physical boxer. Nevertheless Rocky gets himself back into the routine of training after getting his license confirmed and is assisted by Paulie, Marie, Steps and former trainer Duke (Tony Burton) with his aching exercises. Robert ends up joining as well, after he and Rocky have a heart-to-heart about their current status in life with the former champion again determined to end his demons and go the distance even if it means being knocked out on the big stage.

This edition of Rocky is true to the previous ones as again he is the underdog, a former champ who is encouraged to come out of obscurity and take on the current champ despite having been retired for 20 years. All those years of people taunting what Rocky Balboa would be like if he was fighting at 60 was presented to them here, but yet he and his creator Sylvester Stallone managed to pull it off with Rocky showing the same heart and determination he had from the first film in attempting to do the distance one last time. The Rocky here is a man out of his time who can hardly be blamed for his desire to seek out past glories. Stallone produces his best performance in the acting game since the early Rocky films (and with a better written script) giving us the chance to respect him again with wanting to finish his career off on a high no matter what and certainly the last few years have helped resurrect his filmography after some disappointments in the 90s/00s. This is further enlightened by the tough decision to kill off Adrian who had served her purpose in the previous five films which gives Rocky a more emotional ambition with his life but has gone through pain since her death. Burt Young gives a strong supporting role as Paulie who has suffered like Rocky in losing Adrian and he himself suffers other traumas such as losing his job at the meat factory, Hughes is a delight as Marie who gives Rocky new female support with his plan to fight and is payed back for it with Rocky's kindness, Ventimiglia gives Robert a sense of frustration and we in a way can understand his annoyance of being associated with a famous surname but soon he gains dignity in eventually supporting his dad while Tarver doesn't really add much to his role though he certainly proves to be more likable as a boxer compared to Apollo, Lang, Drago or Gunn yet he is on a mission to prove to the world that he is a respected fighter.

Going down memory lane is the key factor for this film's success with many references to the previous films including the booming 'Gonna Fly Now' which plays loudly as Rocky again replicates his infamous training session finishing off on the Philly Museum stairs, him punching the meat in Paulie's factory and the other places in his neighborhood that served a purpose for him over the years. Further praise goes to the way the boxing match between Rocky and Dixon is filmed with the box-office style mechanism being enforced and the realism of the fight looking gorgeously made. The odd few flaws to the film that fail its highest mark is that is would be unbelievable for Rocky, a sixty year old fighter, facing a younger and more physical fighter but yet going the distance with him like he did with Creed, but it still proves to be genuine if a little unlikely to happen. It's also disappointing not to see footage of Apollo Creed (Carl Weather) in the film with Weathers greedily wanting more money but he is at least mentioned. Tying up the Rocky franchise was a big ask for Stallone who knew the fifth film was a disappointment but making this final installment allowed us to say goodbye to Rocky Balboa and embrace the way it all ended, yes the fight may have been unbelievable but at least the audience could enjoy seeing Rocky go the distance one more time before his big farewell which is made well in the final shot of him leaving the arena. The end credits provide the basis for how Rocky has inspired generations of people to love the films and reenact them, it has captured the hearts of a nation who have battled alongside Rocky in depression-hit 1976, title winning glory, reclaiming glory, saving the world against a rival nation, teaching us sentimental values and making it big for one last round. The franchise has indeed been one hell of a knockout!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


"Heroes today. Legends forever"

It took over twenty years to finally happen but the big Hollywood trio of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis have been grouped together alongside many other popular action movie stars to appear in this rollicking action thriller THE EXPENDABLES (2010). Directed by Stallone himself, he has managed to set-up a classic lads movie in the shape of The Expendables which is perhaps the most explosive film of the year and even from more recent years. With the help of Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, this electrifying thriller adds to the classic cliches of all action movies with its awesome ensemble, as well as the typical violence and thrills of previous Hollywood blockbusters, and while flawed as per most Stallone films of recent years is still an entertaining roller coaster ride that leaves many fans wanting more. This as well keeps up Stallone's recent comeback in which his revival of franchises ROCKY BALBOA (2006) and RAMBO (2008) have proved successful and keeps his popularity as an ultimate action star/director going.

Stallone plays the role of Barney Ross, the leader of a group of hard-hitting assassins known as The Expendables whose aim is to stop terrorists and crime lords from causing harm and their intention of protecting people is to let their brutal ways do the talking as shown in the opening scene where Ross and his men blast their way through a group of Solemnise pirates (the first death in the film being the perfect, gory way to show THIS is classic violence) in order to rescue the crew of a ship. Assisting Ross in the group is cocky mercenary Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Asian maestro Ying Yang (Jet Li), weapon expert Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and bald headed brute Toll Road (UFC fighter Randy Couture). Also part of the group is brutish warrior Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), whose obsession with execution proves too much to handle for Ross who reluctantly lets him go (a mistake that comes back to haunt him). Their hideout is in a tattoo parlour run by former mercenary Tool (Mickey Rourke) and clearly this is a group of mighty men who mean business. However Ross is given an objective by C.I.A agent Mr Church (Bruce Willis) during a meeting which also sees Arnold Schwarzenegger make his first film appearance in six years, to take out a corrupt South American dictator who is causing havoc for his people on an island through the help of sadistic agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his main henchman Paine (Stone Cold Steve Austin).

When Ross and Christmas arrive at the location, they are assisted by the dictator's daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie) who wants to help the men with their mission and stop her father from becoming more swayed by Munroe's offer of more money. However after they avoid an ambush involving several soldiers, they escape via their airplane before unleashing a barricade of missiles and exploding bombs to wipe out a group of soldiers on a port. Unfortunately they fail to kill Munroe and Paine, who decide to exact their own vengeance by kidnapping Sandra (who chooses to stay on the island) and interrogating her about what the expendables plans were, whilst her father is unable to do anything about the situation. Back in the states, after he and Yang are confronted by Munroe's henchmen in a thrilling car chase, Ross decides to return to the island to rescue Sandra but ends up being joined by his crew who prepare themselves for a hefty challenge of trying to save the girl but also overcome the army of men who are protecting the castle leading to a classic action blockbuster ending of pure thrills, adrenaline and plenty of blood and guts. There is no denying that this is an awesome movie especially with all the action and violence going on and that clearly was Stallone's intention with it. The story is nothing major and is cliched to a certain extent; group of mercenaries show their metal by overpowering bad guys but find themselves rescuing the damsel in distress in an explosive climax. This would be considered a little disappointing for sentimental critics but audiences won't really care as they enjoy watching thrills and spills going on with the cast and weapons. Sure it is a bit too gory and over-the-top in some places (especially if you see Stallone run or Li fighting like a maniac) but that does add to the classic hints from the action films of the 80s e.g. THE TERMINATOR (1984), DIE HARD (1988).

Stallone also did well to unite a terrific cast of action stars together and he works well especially alongside Statham and Li as part of the various trio. The acting is nothing special aside from Rourke who is clearly playing himself in his first scene, entering it with a swagger about him and accompanied by a young, attractive lady, but his scene with Stallone in which he regrets his failure to save a woman is very subtle for an action film but aside from that, it doesn't take away the excitement of the film's main set-pieces. Statham plays his role as typical as you get with him as brutish but humane as shown by his scenes with his love interest (Charisma Carpenter) although the sub-plot is seemingly pointless apart from his revenge on her controlling boyfriend. Li's character is seen as the butt of jokes which adds to the cliche of how Asian actors are treated in Hollywood films though his role is fun nonetheless, Itie plays her role charmingly but just seems to play your typical damsel in distress whilst Lundgren, Couture and Crews are not given much to do apart from use their weapons to perfection, although Roberts plays his villainous role in very sneering fashion. Some hardcore action movie fans may be disappointed about the most talked about scene of the film where Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger are together but not in action mode but the jokes aimed between Stallone and Arnie are fun to listen to and it is clear the chemistry between the three men in real life is effective in the film. The Expendables though is a mad, action thriller spectacle that will earn its critics because of its cliched story and characters but it at least brings back the homage to the great action films of the past thirty years and the film signs off the intended statement of that with its use of Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town in the end credits, proving that these guys may be old and samey but they're not finished yet!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


"This is the story of two men who run...not to run...but to prove something to the world. They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals...Except their honor"

Triumphant sports films have become a popular genre of mine over the years and CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) is another example of just how people go the distance to try and claim their glory on the sporting field, and adds to the uplifting aim that is set towards its audiences. When we first hear the glorious yet haunting music of Vangelis playing as the athletes are training on the soggy wet beach, we straight away know how this true-life sports drama would inspire real-life athletes to gain the determination of achieving their goal but having to go through bigotry and prejudice as the two main runners in this film have to induce. Hugh Hudson created a well orchestrated film that although surprising many at the Oscars in 1982 (leading to the infamous British are coming speech by writer Colin Welland), it still proved a point with helping British films revive themselves after the 70s failed to produce many successes that did well on both sides of the Atlantic. The film based itself on the story of the 1924 Olympics in Paris which saw Britain produce success through its two main runners Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) but both men would have to go through their religious faith in order to ensure they could become champions but without being flawed because of their backgrounds. They stand up for what they believe in and refuse to sacrifice their principles because it is the easy way out.

After we are introduced to a funeral scene from 1978 where Abrahams has died, the famous beach scene builds up to find both Abrahams and Liddell prepared their participation in the Olympics over five years showing how they got involved along with their fellow racers. We are firstly presented with Abrahams' story in 1919 arriving at Cambridge University, which has been mourning the death of many men from the First World War, but wanting to put faith in their new recruits to try and lift them up from the tragedy of the previous four years. Abrahams' who is of Jewish heritage gets to know fellow student Aubrey Montague (Nicolas Farrell) and straight away the ambition of both men with their sport is apparent as they have five years to get into the Olympics as competitors. Abrahams' gains his definite bid by breaking a 700 year old record of racing around the Cambridge University courtyard in under twelve seconds, alongside fellow athlete Lord Andrew Lindsey (Nigel Havers) who despite his title tries to compete like everyone else. Up north in Scotland, churchgoer Liddell is a local celebrity around his country (even treated as the David Beckham of his time) and a successful athlete but his commitment to God stops him from being hugely involved in major competitions although he is backed by others to do his duty for His sake. However sister Jenny (Cheryl Campbell) tries to make Eric understand that he could lose his faith in God if he takes part in the races though eventually Eric makes her aware that he was made for a purpose and that is to compete and win.

Eventually both Abrahams and Liddell are intertwined into a British rivalry with Abrahams determined to prove he is the fastest person out of the two. However Abrahams' pursuit of singer Sybil (Alice Krige) helps him with his emotional push but after losing a race to Liddell, he feels down and out but seeks the help of experienced Italian trainer Sam Mussambini (Ian Holm) to try and get him back on his feet while being supported by Sybil as well. However he isn't backed by his Cambridge superiors (Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) who aren't happy with the hiring of Mussambini but also because they fear that Abrahams' Jewish tradition may lead to him being an outcast, but he is determined to prove them wrong. Along with Liddell, both men are signed up for the Olympics along with Lindsey and Montague and prepare themselves for their head-to-heads with their American counterparts (Dennis Christopher and Brad Davis), the fastest men in the world at that time. Once in France, Liddell's participation in the tournament is already under threat when he discovers that he will have to race on a Sunday which leads to outrage about choosing God over country. However through a moment of dignity from Lindsey, Liddell gets his chance to race on a different day. The course of the film then makes us support the British athletes as the trials and tribulations are placed for whether they can triumph and earn national pride, before the climax itself gives a haunting reminder of the glory years with a beautiful choir rendition of Jerusalem.

Though some may call it one of the overrated films of recent times, Chariots of Fire remains a beautifully made film about triumph, sorrow, sacrifice and defiance. Director Hugh Hudson struggled for much success after this film but he at least earned the respect of making a crucial film that showed us just how great things were back in the early 20th Century with how no matter who you were or whether you won or lost, you'd always be welcomed as true British heroes in that era. Colin Welland's simple but loyal screenplay gives the film the cutting edge of what Abrahams and Liddell went through their prejudices and their bid to triumph at the Olympics. Lead actors Ben Cross and the late Ian Charleson both gave compassionate performances as the two athletes determined to prove a point, Abrahams' tortured personality is played well by Cross though Charleson gave a more emotionally-charged edge to Liddell who is torn between racing and religion and knows that he can't do both without complications. Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell both give dignified roles as the two other athletes eager to do their country proud while Ian Holm as the Italian trainer adds the experienced and committed side to his role particularly his joyous reaction to Abrahams winning his race. The rest of the supporting cast including Alice Krigem, Nigel Davenport and Sir John Gielgud all give stern back-up to the film's ensemble and making it such a British set of fine actors.

Vangelis' musical score carries the film through its core adding to the beauty of it, as well as the slow-motion effects which help the film especially the opening beach scene and the race sequences which are filmed brilliantly to catch the edginess of the character's fate in these races. One particular reason for the film's popularity especially with those like myself from the Merseyside sector, is that the Olympic event in it was filmed in the Bebington Oval which does question the decision of filming a major sports event set in France, on the backdrop of the Wirral? Nevertheless that doesn't deter how well filmed it is although some have questioned the inaccuracies of the film's story with regards to certain aspects of the film such as Liddell's sister showing her displeasure about her brother competing. This was untrue according to Jenny Liddell in real life but has probably been done to add emotional confrontation between the two siblings while other records of both main racer's participation in the events again is flawed to create dramatic effect such as the day Liddell was supposed to race in. Overall though this is a truly exhilarating movie about a different era, about competition and what may serve as motivation to compete, and perhaps about what kinds of motivation are healthy and what kinds are not


"Some guys just can't handle Vegas"

My reluctance to become involved with alcohol even during my more adult years has been questioned by many people who I know and socialize with, asking why I never drink? One reason is because of taste and the other is headaches. The latter excuse provides the perfect set-up to Todd Phillips' night-out comedy THE HANGOVER (2009), which lists all the right reasons about why hectic nights out are not good for the head and this becomes the basis of one of last year's biggest surprise hits which features an escaped tiger, a baby in a closet, a naked Asian locked in a car boot and Mike Tyson singing "In The Air Tonight". Surprise winner of the Golden Globe for Comedy/Musical, this foul-mouthed, disastrous and laugh-out-loud success has earned itself the recognition as one of the best comedy films of recent years with its rude but cleverly written moments that place its characters in unlikely positions with the most random situations that add to their woes. This being the formula of director Phillips' way of telling audiences who mostly have been involved with nights out gone wrong, just how mad a night out can really be....

Potential bachelor Doug (Justin Bartha) is preparing to marry his lover Tracy (Sasha Barrese) in a lavishing wedding ceremony to be held within a couple of days. He has organized his stag-night with two of his friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) as well as Tracy's bizarre brother Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to travel to Las Vegas, stay at an expensive but neat hotel and to make the most of their time in Vegas by partying hard. Phil is an English teacher who has his womanizing ways despite being married and having kids. On the other hand Stu finds himself being placed on the spot by his bitchy wife Melissa (Rachael Harris), who was unfaithful to him whilst on a business trip, yet Stu chooses not to be confrontational with her when she questions what he is up to. As the four men are acquainted with each other during their car journey, they travel to Vegas booking into their hotel before making a toast on the roof about the night that lies ahead. It is for the simple reason that we know that the night is going to go wrong for the facts of what will happen the next morning........

That morning, Phil, Stu and Alan wake up to find their hotel room badly trashed with a tiger, a chicken and a baby all finding their way in there but the question is, where is Doug? Over the course of the film, the three men have to recollect the events of that night in which they were so drunk that they can't remember what happened to the groom-to-be. There is answers to seek about that night as well such as how did the guys end up in the hospital or how did Stu lose one of his teeth or how did the tiger and baby especially get into their hotel room. Twists and turns beckon for the men with Stu earning the biggest shock by discovering that he has married a prostitute named Jade (Heather Graham) who turns out to be the mother of the baby, and is also wearing Stu's grandmother's Holocaust ring (leading to Alan's legendary response "I didn't know they gave out rings at the Holocaust!"). The randomness of the situations that the guys find themselves in and trying to remember from that night only adds to the humour even more such as stealing a police car which leads to a showdown with officers at the police station, a naked Asian Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) jumping out of Doug's car and plotting to get revenge on the guys and ex-boxing champion Mike Tyson turning up at the guy's hotel room to give Alan a knockout punch! But the question of if they'll find Doug in time before getting him to his wedding only adds to the nick of their time desperation with finding him so to avoid an embarrassing situation for all of them.

The bromantic aspect of The Hangover adds to the reasoning of why it was so popular but it also appealed to many male audiences who could see themselves in these male characters. The three major characters are played hilariously well by Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis respectively while Bartha, though not in the film as much, still manages to make us enjoy him for the fact that though he misses out on the guy's antics he is as pretty much the benefit of the story. Cooper whilst a good looking actor manages to play Phil as a decent guy with the calmly taken one-liners compared to a similar type character he played in WEDDING CRASHERS (2005) though he was playing a git in that film. Ed Helms also shines as the luckless dentist who gains sympathy from the audience for suffering from his nasty girlfriend (though he at least gets his chance to humiliate her in the film's ending) but his subtle relationship with Jade adds to the nicer side of the film. Graham herself who was one of Hollywood's underrated sex symbols of the last fifteen years with BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and KILLING ME SOFTLY (2001) enjoys a good comeback with her role that makes her likeable compared to Stu's partner Melissa who is played with such venom by Rachael Harris. And yes even Mike Tyson gives himself a lot of popularity especially with his rendition of 'In the Air Tonight'. However it is Galifianakis who steals the film as idiot Andy who has a fair share of the film's funniest dialogue; as far as fat funny guys go, many of them (such as Chris Farley) made the ill-fated mistake of playing dumb in a sharp fashion: hurtful jokes and silly one-liners. However he plays his character straight and the laughs are given more heart e.g. when he embraces Doug while nude, the act seems innocently awkward rather than deliberately awkward, and that's what makes it so funny.

Standout scenes in the film are few and far between as well as quotes but obviously the 'baby masturbating' scene with Andy messing around with baby 'Carlos' is too rude to not laugh at, Stu's song about Doug is quality lyric writing while the credits scene showing the photos of what happened that night add to the satisfaction of whoever predicted what the guys may have done, they could expect it properly with that sequence. The negative points are few and far between but certainly some 'random' parts in the film are either too over-the-top or stupid e.g. Mr Chow naked in the car or getting the tiger into the car. Chow himself is played very madly by Ken Jeong who does his character justice but is made too stereotypical for an Asian villain compared to the villain in OLDBOY (2003). Nevertheless a fabulous script ensures that this film becomes a classic amongst many and while we may live in an era saturated with unnecessary sequels, I actually watched The Hangover hoping to see these guys again hence the idea of The Hangover 2 being a go-go. And looking forward to a sequel is a rare feeling these days.

Monday, 16 August 2010


"Five Criminals . One Line Up . No Coincidence"

The experience of watching a mind-boggling film can place you in the mind of the writers and directors who make these types of films and how they plan them especially when one like this is an original story. That is what director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie achieved with THE USUAL SUSPECTS, which some may treat as your typical heist thriller but with a strong ensemble cast including Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro and an Oscar winning performance from Kevin Spacey. This plus clever writing as well as one of THE greatest twists in film history it leaves you feeling confused but eager to watch the film over and over again. Highly praised by many film critics and fans over the last fifteen years, it has gained a major following through the well written story (which won McQuarrie the Oscar for its screenplay) and the twist that is part of film folklore alongside other famous film twists including OLDBOY (2003) and THE DEPARTED (2006).

The film traces between two different time-scales firstly introducing us to the modern phase where a ship has been blown up on a harbor killing 27 people. Only two people have survived the scene, one being a Hungarian worker who has suffered severe burns and the other being a man suffering from a gimpy leg and arms named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) who has witnessed the incident. Verbal becomes the emphasis of the film as he sets the story up, whilst being questioned by Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), through telling flashbacks in the past phase about how he and four other men were connected and the how the build-up to the ship being destroyed took shape over the previous six weeks. These four men have all committed robbery and other minor crimes but after they are arrested for one particular crime, it would seem that no matter how much they will be interrogated by police, they will still be performing more jobs. However one of the men, Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) insists on no more jobs because he wants to stay clean and live a quiet life with his lawyer girlfriend (Susy Amis). Unfortunately fellow thieves McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Hockney (Kevin Pollack) are determined to get involved in one of Verbal's missions and after they pull if off, the ambition to carry out more jobs becomes a fascination for the team with Keaton deciding that he'll never shake it off. The web of intrigue from Kujan in the present tense adds to his frustrations of trying to connect the men with the boat explosion and he finds it compromising to get anything out of Verbal who throughout the film is seen as the innocent member of the group.

As he continues his story, he reveals that the group were approached by a mysterious lawyer named Mr Kobayashi (Pete Postlewaithe) who informs them that his client named Keyser Soze wants them to do a job for him. Soze is a strange and mysterious person who a couple of men are familiar with, but Verbal refers to him being a bloodthirsty psychopath who always proves that he may not exist like the devil (hence the film's famous line), but in the modern tense, Kujan and the police are unaware of his true identity and for the second half of the film, it becomes the set-up for Soze's objective that he wants the team to undertake. The group's reluctance to do the job for him though leads to one of them being dead, and soon they are all forced to take part in the mission which leads to how the film opens with the men getting on board the vessel containing drugs and trying to remove it while having to fend off Hungarian guards. It is this that sees the men's fate being decided and when we do think that Agent Kujan's original theory of who Keyser Soze is, could be true, it is an almost disappointing and predictable conclusion, that would almost warrant a similar finish to a poor 1970's/80s cop show. However that is until he Kujan reads into something that leaves him and us absolutely shell shocked....

'The Usual Suspects' leaves such a long-lasting impression on the viewer that it takes advantage of the gullibility of the audience and for the first 100 minutes we are delivered an intriguing and complex story to which there seems no easy answer. When the final piece of the puzzle seems to be in place the entire film is turned on its head by the amazing twist. This final revelation initially leaves you speechless and then shortly after we then realize that we've fallen for a brilliantly inspired trick. The second great trick that this film plays on its audience is making us think that by watching it again we'll be able to understand slightly better what was really going on. The truth is that the more you try to make sense of it, the more confusing it becomes. It's probably best not to try to look for any concrete answers and just accept that we fell for the filmmakers tricks, hence why Bryan Singer's reputation as a director has been successful even if has been doing superhero films over the last few years. The cast themselves adds complacency to the film's story, Spacey deservedly claimed his Supporting Actor Oscar for his honest but suspected role as the gimpy criminal who tries to recollect his own side to the story. Byrne also plays his role very well as the subtle reluctant leader who wants to give up his past despite his relationship but can't walk away. One problem is that Spacey and Byrne overshadow the other actors in the team with Del Toro, Baldwin and Pollack being given the simple task of shouting and cursing about their predicaments, not really adding much to the acting stakes. Palminteri is effective as the determined agent trying to uncover the truth about Keyser Soze but finding it hard to get through Verbal's story, another underrated actor in such an intelligent film.

Adding to the genius of the film in general is the technical aspect which is balanced by clever editing and rivetting musical score from young composer/editor John Ottman who clearly had a lot to do for the film at his age but pulled it off brilliantly. The scenery for the film also gives the condensed atmosphere of it with the boat and the police office lending the imagery a clear focus on how crucial these settings are for the key scenes of the film. Upon second viewing the film is much better to embrace though a couple of negative points would be the lack of any major background with Keaton's relationship with his girlfriend which doesn't really add much sympathy from the audience, while experienced British actor Pete Postlewaithe uses a strange accent which nobody can really tell what it is, but he still gives decent support for the film's cast. Summing it up, the success of the film is mainly thanks to the sense of satisfaction the audience is left with at the end of the film that the idea of a story when you're not sure who you can really trust, becomes part of the realization that the film's most shady characters are the filmmakers themselves. And just like that, it disappears......

Thursday, 12 August 2010

SCARFACE (1983)- 4 1/2 STARS

"He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance"

Through my emergence into film, the gangster genre really excited me with its strong use of volatile language and rip-roaring violence. Having watched The Godfather trilogy a few years back, a sudden urge to watch these types of films got me in the mood, and so Scarface (1983) was next on my list having been recommended it by others. What differs it to The Godfather trilogy and other gangster films is that it's a culturally phenomenal film which has become quoted by so many and features memorable scenes and bloated up action that have helped it achieve a big following after it struggled for great acclaim back in 1983. It is a tale of ferocious greed, corruption, and power. The darker side of the fabled "American Dream" which becomes the consensus of the film from the very start. Director Brian De Palma stirs the film into action with its various characters led by a raw, energetic performance from Al Pacino as the Cuban immigrant Tony Montana who entertains and captivates the audience to great heights with his fiery mannerisms making him less subtle and more maniacal than other Pacino characters like Michael Corleone. The film allows us to follow Montana in his rise towards his height at the top from arriving in America as a refugee to becoming a hard-hitting drug lord but faces many tough obstacles along the way. He will do ANYTHING to achieve it through being violent, lying, stealing and thieving glory.

It is the early 1980's and the rules regarding political changes are brought through when dictator Fidel Castro made an agreement to send Cuban civilians who had family in America over there to be reunited with them. However he also arranged for criminals of the Cuban nation to also be deported leading to mass controversy regarding America having to put up with the low-life criminals now trying to settle into their country. Miami, Florida is the place where the Cubans are believed to be trying to settle in. When we first see Cuban Tony Montana being interrogated in a customs office, his cocky responses to the officers present us a man determined to make a name for himself in America, knowing that he'll do anything to remain there. With the help of his loyal friend Manny (Steven Bauer), the pair arrange to have a political figure killed during a refugee camp riot, so that they can gain a green card to settle into the country properly. They soon get involved with a couple of Colombian drug dealers (one of them played by Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham) who seek some help in making a deal with a rival dealer about money and drugs. Unfortunately the deal goes wrong with Tony being held hostage in the dealer's apartment and having to watch a friend of his suffer brutally at the hands of a powering chainsaw although Manny soon saves the day allowing Tony to gain vengeance in his own manner. The pair are then hired by drug lord Frank Lopez (played with suave tenacity by Robert Loggia) to undertake various objectives which includes Tony travelling to Bolivia to meet fellow drug lord Alejandro Sousa (Paul Shenar) and arrange Frank's business deals.

However during this whole process, Tony's more endearing side gets to him, firstly setting his eyes on Frank's wife Elvira (a sizzling but suffer able performance from Michelle Pfeiffer) who clearly is frustrated at being a gangster's mole but takes pleasure in being involved with cocaine and less exciting stuff. Tony though is determined to eventually win her over no matter how much it will take. His second more personal aim is reuniting with his family being his mother (Miriam Colom) who is ashamed of having him for a son because of his criminal life and younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrotonio) who is delighted to see her brother again and clearly a father-daughter between her and Tony is notable for siblings but in a more 'wired' view that is brought up again later in the film. Clearly Tony has his issues with love compared to Manny who believes that he is a sex goddess with the ladies and has flirtatious feelings about Gina but also has his duties to Tony. As the film starts to progress to the half-way stage, Tony is severely tested when he decides to prove his metal for being a major figure in the drug industry by making deals with Sousa without Frank's consent and soon he is ousted by his boss and tries to make it alone. That soon leads to one of many memorable scenes in the whole film in the nightclub where Tony has a nightmare evening, such as being ignored by Elvira and confronting his sister when he sees her getting frisky with a guy. Tony is then almost assassinated at the place and soon seeks vengeance with Frank the main target. Upon gaining revenge, Tony with the help of Elvira and Manny attempts to build his empire in Miami leading to the well-orchestrated montage (with a booming tune of Push It to the Limit) of how Tony becomes powerful through moving into a majestic mansion, recruiting new men and earning a lot of money through his partnership with Sousa.

Ultimately of course the price of fame e.g. 'The World Is Yours'; proves too much a factor for Tony as he is corrupted by his own powers such as becoming disrespectful to Elvira and then eventually being threatened with jail after being caught money-laundering. His bid to rehabilitate himself from the problem is to help Sousa and his fellow drug lords with killing a political speaker in New York but his more humane side complicates the objective. Things are even more complicated by what his sidekick Manny has been getting up to with Gina in one of the main twists of the film as Tony's paranoia gets to him while Sousa decides to plot revenge leading to one of the great endings of film, involving guns, drugs and loud one-liners that have made Scarface become a part of rap group culture over the last 25-30 years. So many scenes in the film have been copied and become part of satirical situations that are surprising considering the film's raw and dangerous story. What Brian De Palma got right was making the film as explosive and foul-mouthed as possible while casting several brilliant actors in their roles as well as appointing future Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone as writer for the film. A lot was mentioned about Pacino in the film and some consider this his most famous role but certainly it was a surprise that he never earned much awards recognition for the performance which whilst slightly over-the-top still allows us to understand the rise and fall of his character. There is nothing really positive about the film besides the characters positive expectations of themselves especially Tony. Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio both give stirring roles as the two women in his life with Pfeiffer especially benefiting from the film and becoming one of the biggest stars of the 80s/90s. Steven Bauer as Manny is not just a pretty face but adds subtlety to his role and is wanting to obey Tony at all times but ends up making a bad move that proves crucial in the film's climax, whilst Robert Loggia's role as desperate boss Frank is warranted by his character's demise for which all he wanted was the money. Greed killed him, as it has killed so many people.

There are many several scenes that have become legendary in many viewer's minds whether it be the chainsaw sequence or helicopter hanging scene or of course the film's thrilling climax of Tony fending off Bolivian hitmen in his mansion. Though set in Miami but actually shot in Los Angeles, the film is marvelously filmed with bright colours and adds to the setting well, hence the film's mass popularity especially in Florida which was evident from my holiday there in 2005. It is well edited too especially through the 'rise to the top' montage plus the many weapon scenes presented especially in the film's climax. Giorgio Moroder's music though a little dated is still dynamic with the way the film's cultural side is explored as well as the many songs used including a couple from then 21 year old Elizabeth Daily as well as Deborah Harry. Some criticism of the film would have to include the length of it which would probably annoy impatient viewers and Tony's paranoia makes him yet another character who we struggle to sometimes understand through his motives. Nevertheless to conclude this exhilarating gem, the aim of Tony's mission in the film is to become big in America whether it be through crime and that is summed up well in his car discussion with Manny in which he "wants the world, and everything in it". The world of course is his, if only for a short while.