What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
You. Not. Expendable. Will revisit some of the classic (and not so classic) films starring the various and sundry cast members of The Expendables 2 in order to open up a conversation about action cinema in general and to prepare us all for the carnage that Expendables 2 will (hopefully) reap upon us all.
As we approach the August 17th theatrical release date of The Expendables 2, You. Not. Expendable will highlight different cast members, singling out a few of their feature film endeavors. The jury is still out on whether you, too, will want to revisit each of these films.
Sylvester Stallone is, for my money, the greatest action film star of all time. I’m perfectly comfortable if you disagree with that statement. But Sly kind of embodies the great American action hero in my mind and I think he’s shown incredible drive and resilience in keeping his career going in spite of massive ups and downs in the quality of his projects and in the popularity of the action genre. Stallone is a supremely intelligent and dedicated entertainer and possibly the greatest “life imitates art” action hero around as well. It is almost comical how “Rocky” Stallone’s career really is. He’s had periods of excess where he got too cocky. He’s had critical and commercial hits come at times when he was at his lowest. And he got his start with an underdog story as dramatic as the film itself.
In the 2000s, Stallone has been very candid and upfront about his career and his life. He loves his fans, and has listened to them. THE EXPENDABLES franchise, regardless of your thoughts on the two films, are totally the product of incredible effort on Stallone’s part to bring the titans of action cinema together on the big screen. The existence of these movies is a minor miracle, and I appreciate the effort he put in!
In revisiting a few of Stallone’s films, I once again steered clear of the big franchises. This column works best, I hope, in reminding folks about some of the under appreciated films in our action heroes’ repertoires. So, let’s get to it.
- A story about a man, the woman he loved, and the men he fought for.
F.I.S.T. (henceforth typed out without the periods because they are annoying) was Stallone’s ROCKY follow up. An epic story with an A-list crew. Written by Joe Eszterhas, directed by Norman Jewison, and furiously acted by Stallone. FIST had A-list written all over it. And then it flopped, and a fascinating trend in Stallone’s career began. Time and time again, Stallone has cycled through a few hits, only to be followed by as many misses.
Before I get in to some of my thoughts on the film, what is it all about? With a title like FIST, it could really be just about anything. FIST is essentially a biopic about Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, but without his name being used. Spanning several decades, FIST follows Stallone’s Johnny Kovak from a blue-collar palooka, trying to earn a decent living and a fair shake, to a powerful leader of a national truckers union. As a young man, Kovak is noble and affable. He looks out for his friends and seeks justice for the everyman. He is just one of the guys who happens to take umbridge at being treated unfairly. He’s a smarter Rocky Balboa with the gift of persuasion.
After some heroic struggles and small victories, Kovak sees a friend killed while picketing against a brutal factory owner. This death sends Kovak off to find some “push” and he brings mafia muscle into his organization. For the men, he insists. And with that fatal move, Kovak guarantees his nationwide rise to success, as well as his downfall. FIST is the story of an everyman who rises against the powers that be, only to himself become a corrupted and tragic figure.
Sounds pretty good, right? Well, yeah, it kind of is. There is a massive scope at play here, with huge riot sequences and street battles set in an urban, 1930s period environment. And any time you tell a long, decades-spanning gangster tale, you are reaching for a high bar. I think Stallone does great and endearing work here. And I can’t help but love union movies since my all time favorite is ON THE WATERFRONT. In my opinion, FIST is an underseen gem in Stallone’s filmography and I’m glad I revisited this epic feature for this column.
So why IS it so underseen, and why is it considered a flop? My sense is that FIST had all the markings of a prestige picture. Stallone was hot off of ROCKY and this movie was probably his shot at a legitimate A-list, dramatic career. But FIST is not on par with a GODFATHER or a GOODFELLAS. The reason? Well, FIST is pretty much devoid of subtext. It is a thinly veiled Jimmy Hoffa story that wears its heart on its sleeve. Where ROCKY told one of the greatest sports underdog stories of its time, FIST just puts it all out there on the screen. There isn’t a whole lot to meditate on or sink your teeth into. Power corrupts. Done.
FIST would most likely have faired much better in the view of film history if it hadn’t felt like such a failed prestige project. As it is, I think it is an awesome and charismatic film. Stallone makes you love Johnny Kovak and hate the mistakes he makes. FIST is a solid crime drama that deserves a watch, though not an Oscar.
It doesn’t look like FIST has been given the Blu-ray treatment just yet. I’m guessing it is because the film was considered a failure, which is a bummer. But you can support this column by picking up the DVD from Amazon HERE.
- The Height Of Adventure
- Hang On!
[Wow, those are the taglines? Really?]
The opening sequence of CLIFFHANGER is the stuff of ‘90s legend. We meet Stallone this time as Gabe Walker, mountain rescue ranger. High atop “the chimney” Gabe is rescuing a fellow ranger and his girlfriend after they got stranded at the top. Something goes terribly wrong, and then Ace Ventura lets a raccoon fall to its death. Okay, that isn’t exactly what happens, but you get the idea.
CLIFFHANGER is a rollicking good time at the movies and is one of Stallone’s most thrilling and successful films outside of his major franchises. His Gabe Walker is a hero, but he is a bit more of an everyman than some of Stallone’s more pumped up projects. I guess you could sum up CLIFFHANGER as “DIE HARD on a Mountain”, but I like to think of it as more than that. (Even if the film itself never quite reaches the primal fears it milks in the opening sequence.)
After Gabe’s introduction and subsequent life changing failure, we get into the DIE HARD stuff. In a heist worthy of Tom Hardy’s Bane, John Lithgow and his team of crooks actually rob a US Treasury plane in mid-air. The robbery is interrupted by some kind of unplanned FBI guy flying on the plane that day, and eventually the radar-trackable cases of money get dropped into Gabe’s mountain range and the crooks survive a plane crash too. So what you get are a team of highly motivated and cruel worldclass thieves traipsing around the mountains, looking for their cases. All this goes down JUST as Gabe happens to be back in town trying to rekindle things with Janine Turner (bonus!)
I think there is a TON of stuff that really works in CLIFFHANGER and I’m happy to own the Blu-ray. For one thing, the movie has the feel of an A-list, big budget, action movie. It came before the fall of the tentpole, hard-R action film craze. The cast is wonderful, with John Lithgow in evil villain mode and Michael Rooker playing Gabe’s best friend. The score by Trevor Jones is triumphant and very hummable. I’d even go so far as to say that the photography and filmmaking going on here is top notch. I can’t imagine the challenges faced when filming a movie on the side of a mountain. And that gimmick is explored very well, complete with ropes snapping, brides collapsing, free climbing, and a stalactite kill! It also really feels like Stallone is giving this one his all, like he knows this movie is a special one.
The premise I just laid out is so far fetched that one has to keep the movie’s title in mind and enjoy CLIFFHANGER as action pulp. This movie’s goal is to thrill you and keep you on the edge of your seat and I’d say it does that better even than SPEED (if we are comparing high concept action thrillers.)
I doubt a film like CLIFFHANGER could be made today. It isn’t a sequel or based on an existing property (to my knowledge.) And it is a pretty hard R. And on top of all that, it is set on a freezing mountain! I don’t know how CLIFFHANGER’S budget compared to others of that same era, but it seems studios just don’t greenlight difficult pictures like this and allow them to be R-rated action films. We can only dream that someday this trend will change and action cinema will once again be given the keys to the kingdom.
I happened to actually pick up the Blu-ray for CLIFFHANGER in time to cover it for this column. And while the bonus features on my Blu-ray look straight out of 1993’s home video release, I felt the picture quality was pretty nice on the feature itself! And there are multiple commentary tracks, so I think this is a worthy purchase if you are a fan. You can pick it up HERE.
JUDGE DREDD (1995)
- One man is Judge, Jury, AND Executioner.
- In the future, one man is the law.
With a new DREDD film just around the corner, and a slight buzz around the interwebs of a resurgent love for Stallone’s film, I just had to take this opportunity to revisit JUDGE DREDD. Seeing the movie unearthed a long forgotten memory in me, which is that I had a poster for this film hanging from my ceiling as a teenager! I think even then I was disappointed by the film overall but was happy to have the poster for reasons I’ll delve into momentarily.
Is this the worst movie of the three I’ve covered today? Absolutely. Does it deserve all the critical bile that was thrown its way upon release? I’d say yeah. It does. But can a geek find a lot to love in JUDGE DREDD? Hell yes.
Look, JUDGE DREDD is Stallone in one of his ROCKY III states. His performance in JUDGE DREDD feels a little strained, or maybe phoned in. And there is a disconnect between what could have been and what ended up being. What really doesn’t work? Well, I could end the discussion right here with two words: Rob Schneider. But I want to dig a little deeper. Stallone’s DREDD is one of those films that clips along at an extremely rapid rate, introducing us to an unfamiliar future and bouncing from set piece to set piece without any time to breath. We follow DREDD as he does his thing, and then see him get framed, banished, imprisoned, escape, return, and defeat evil and regain his good name; all in a brisk 96 minutes. The plot feels rushed, and since Dredd’s world is the most fascinating part of the movie, you want to see more of it and revel in it. But instead we get a neatly resolved, fairly boring character arch that also shoehorns in a love interest (the lovely Diane Lane, which is a plus), a comic sidekick (Schneider), and an overacting villain (Armand Assante.)
I guess the story just feels too bloated and jam-packed to breathe. I would have loved to see more of a character study of what it means to be judge, jury, and executioner in a ravaged, futuristic mega-city. Instead we get a familiar hero’s journey with some cool set pieces thrown in. Here’s to hoping Karl Urban and Pete Travis’ DREDD gives us a darker and more focused study of this cool character.
But man, there is a lot of cool stuff to love in Stallone’s version, even if the movie isn’t ultimately a success. And this is why I loved my poster in my bedroom as a teen. THE PRODUCTION DESIGN! JUDGE DREDD is a practical effects kind of movie. There is a robot in this movie that Assante finds and utilizes as a sidekick. I guess it is called an ABC Warrior in the film. But that thing is simply amazing looking, and was featured prominently on my poster. It’s design reminds me a little bit of Megatron in the TRANSFORMERS cartoon from the ‘80s, and it damn sure looks cooler than any single robot in the entirety of the TRANSFORMERS film franchise.
Another character design that totally rules is a mutant cannibal cyborg that Dredd stumbles across in his exile to the wasteland. This whole sequence feels like a distraction and I would’ve been fine with the whole movie remaining INSIDE Mega City One. But I digress, this mutant hillbilly is a stunningly realized practical make up effect/character. It is impossible to see where actor ends and make-up begins.
I also really love the look and feel of Mega City One and the costume design on the judges and on the various troopers and symbols of the fragile authority stucture. It feels like the script and casting were off base on JUDGE DREDD, but no one told the artists and craftsmen who made the movie look incredible. While costumers and set designers and visual effects engineers can’t necessarily elevate a terrible film into genius territory, they can very much provide the film with watchability. And I think they do that here. I recommend giving JUDGE DREDD another go before seeing the new film. If you hate it, then maybe you’ll dig the new version all the more. And if you love Stallone’s JUDGE DREDD, it’ll be a treat for you to check out the old school magic that was still being practically created on the verge of the digital revolution.
I actually had to rent this movie and ended up watching it on VHS. But a blu-ray exists and I’m linking you to it HERE. How does it look, for those of you that own it? I’d really like to see the set designs and creatures in HD sometime.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis