Smile Politely

When Icons Go to Seed

I went to see Rambo over the weekend and I’m not embarrassed to say so. (My admitting that I’m a Barry Manilow fan will have to wait for another day…baby steps and all that…) There are a variety of reasons why I was eager to go, even though the folks at Lionsgate Entertainment refused to screen the film in advance for critics. The First Blood movies have always been guilty pleasures for me, though I would argue that the initial entry in the series is a moving social statement on the plight of Vietnam vets as well as a fine action film. There was also the nostalgia factor, as I simply had to find out how the years had treated John Rambo and see if he could still blow up stuff real good. (He can, and did, a lot!) But the overriding reason was the Stallone factor. I have a soft spot in my cinematic heart for the oft ridiculed actor and while he has made more than a few movie missteps, he’s a far better actor than most people give him credit for because of one simple reason: he’s sincere even when the material is not.

Rambo is not going to win Stallone any new fans. It’s as basic as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, direct as a kick to the groin, and violent as a throw-down between Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler. Obviously, this film is a crowd-pleaser as it gives its target audience exactly what it wants – a hero they can identify with killing some really, really bad guys in the most grisly way possible. Heads explode when pierced by arrows, bodies are ripped in two, and limbs are torn asunder again and again. And if that’s not enough, there’s a rape or two, an instance of pedophilia, and one poor soul gets eaten by a wild boar.

It’s not surprising at all that the crowd I saw the film with cheered when Rambo stepped up to right these obvious wrongs. When things are painted in such obvious tones of black and white as they are here, Old Testament ass-kicking is the order of the day. This sensibility is far too simplistic and dangerous to embrace so fully and immediately, yet the film’s $18 million weekend gross and its current ranking as the 188th favorite film of registered users at the Internet Movie Data Base suggests that movie-goers crave simple films from a simple time.

Rambo meets this need in spades as does Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, Bruce Willis’ Live Free and Die Hard, the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the proposed Beverly Hills Cop 4. These films are called “nostalgia sequels.” I call them desperate moves made by desperate actors. While these projects are obviously undertaken to jump start the careers of box office has-beens, the track record of these films, so far, has been surprisingly strong. Those that have been released have done well at the box office, gotten fairly strong reviews and are damn entertaining.

As ridiculous as Live Free is at times (gotta love the SUV down the elevator shaft sequence), it has one purpose and sticks to it until the credits roll. It does everything in its power to entertain and if that means giving the audience a scene in which a car kills a helicopter, then by god Bruce and company are more than willing to oblige. With a domestic box office gross of $134 million, it’s obvious that viewers were more than pleased to get another visit from John McClane. Let’s hope they feel the same once the latest Indiana Jones adventure is released in late May. Without question, the box office revenue will be huge, but will viewers walk away satisfied or wishing Indy had hung up his whip? If recently released stills are any indication, this film looks like a grand mistake. Without question, the production values seem very convincing but the one weak link appears to be Ford himself. While Indy’s costume has remained the same, the man who’s worn it has seemingly shrunk over the years, as in some shots Ford appears downright frail and lost in what has become an outsized wardrobe.

If Steven Spielberg and Ford are smart, they’ll pay attention to how Stallone has revisited his two iconic roles. The actor/director has approached both of these characters in an age-appropriate manner as the pain and suffering that the passing years has had on Rocky and Rambo is acknowledged with a certain poignancy and nobility. Stallone treats these two lions in winter with a degree of respect, as their physical antics, while still somewhat fantastic, are done at a slower pace and come with a rash of aches and pains that neither would acknowledge in earlier entries. But what truly makes Rocky Balboa and Rambo more than just quick attempts to mine those nostalgia dollars is Stallone’s insistence on giving these characters true closure. While other sequels could be made in these franchises, they seem unlikely as both of these characters are accorded a sense of peace that has eluded them in earlier films. Rocky finds love once more and has come to the realization that he has nothing more to prove to himself or others, in or out of the ring. Meanwhile, after purging himself on the battlefield one last time, literally baptizing himself in blood, Rambo musters the courage to do that which we thought he’d never do – give himself a chance to live out his days in peace.

Rocky Balboa and Rambo are not “make-a-fast-buck” sequels in Stallone’s eyes but, requiems for the characters that made him a household name and for which he’s been synonymous with, for good or bad, throughout his career. Like these two characters, Stallone seems to have to come to peace with himself and these two roles, no longer desperately fighting the typecasting limitations they shackled him with but embracing their voice which allowed him to express himself.

As long as nostalgia sequels continue to rack up big bucks at the box office, more will follow. While Clint Eastwood has resisted lucrative offers to resurrect Dirty Harry again and again over the years, the bet here is that Rush Hour 4 will be coming our way in 2016. Here’s hoping Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan will be able to find as graceful a way to walk into the sunset as Stallone has.

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