Synthwave Criminals Driven To Extremes

One of the strangest things about nostalgia is the way it distorts and tweaks the eras it pines for. This isn’t always obvious when you are younger, because naturally you don’t have a basis for comparison when it comes to nostalgia for eras you didn’t live through, but once you get old enough that the decade of your birth becomes the nostalgia target du jour it becomes more obvious. Some things get heightened to the point of parody, other things are neglected by the collective memory, eventually the nostalgia material is on the verge of being its own genre that is almost distinct from the material it’s inspired by.

For this article, I’m going to take a look at Michael Mann’s Thief and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the former an iconic 1980s crime movie which established genre tropes for the decade to come, the latter a synthwave pastiche of Thief and the material it inspired.

Thief

Thief opens with rain, dark urban landscapes, and synthesiser music – it’s Blade Runner without the science fiction. The first full-length feature from Michael Mann, it’s inspired by The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by professional jewel thief John Seybold, AKA Frank Hohimer.

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Birds of a Feather

Goth subculture might be mostly recognised for its music and fashion sense, but let it never be forgotten that there is a geekier side of the subculture too. Vampire: the Masquerade got a bunch of goths into gaming and lots of gamers into goth stuff, and was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon to the extent of having an actual (kind of bad) TV show based on it in an era when the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon was long-since cancelled and the odds of a D&D TV show were practically nil.

Similarly, there was the crossover with comics. The most successful superhero movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s in terms of commercial performance and critical acclaim were the Tim Burton Batman adaptations, and Sandman was practically required reading for goths.

And then there was The Crow.

The Crow has been a blessing and a curse to the goth scene. On the one hand, for a window in the 1990s The Crow was absolutely huge, and the subculture that influenced it, embraced it, and was influenced in it was naturally buoyed up by that. On the other hand, the cliche of the guy who’s seen The Crow once and decides to make that their look is a cliche for a reason.

It’s worth revisiting both the comic which originated The Crow and the movie adaptation which will live forever in infamy thanks to the negligence which killed Brandon Lee to take another look at them, now that around a quarter of a century has passed since their peak of popularity. Is there anything of value to find here, or are we talking something which only made sense in a very particular zeitgeist which no longer applies?

The Comic

Give O’Barr credit: when it comes to a gothic-horror superhero origin story, The Crow has this beautiful archetypal simplicity to it that puts it in the same “OK, I instantly get what the deal is here” that all the really good superhero origin stories do. Superman is the last survivor of a dead world who is trying to be accepted in American society and use his powers for the benefit of his adoptive people. Batman was confronted in his youth by an act of violence which the wealth and privilege of his parents could not shield them against; he takes to the streets for revenge and to make perpetrators of violence feel the same fear he felt as a child. Spiderman was a cocky teen who got bit by a radioactive spider, developed a bunch of powers that he just sort of fucked around with, and then realised that if his power isn’t used for a beneficial purpose then it’s just selfish jerking-off.

And the Crow?

The Crow was once Eric Draven, just your average goth boy with your average goth girlfriend Shelly. Once upon a time, Eric and Shelly were attacked by street criminals; both would die, as Eric bled out he saw Shelly being raped by the attackers.

Then, astonishingly, a year later Eric comes back – raised from the dead by the intervention of a crow which might be more than your average corvid. Painting his face with theatrical makeup, and traumatised by the recollection of his own death and his bereavement from Shelly, he embarks on a campaign of revenge; in between his brutal attacks on the murderers, he prowls around the dilapidated house he and Shelly used to live in and reminisces about better times. The crow – the bird, not the dude – discourages him from concentrating on anything other than his rampage of reprisals, but something persistently human remains within him and makes him want to be something more than an engine of destruction. Is this even an option any more, or is it too late for him to arrive at a different view on his ruined life?

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Sopkiw: After “After the Fall of New York”

Michael Sopkiw had a brief acting career, appearing as the lead in a number of Italian genre movies in the mid-1980s before retiring from cinema to become a plant scientist. Though he didn’t appear in any films you’d call objectively good, he usually added a little something to the cheesy schlock that was his stock in trade, usually due to his knack for giving the impression of buying into the situation much more convincingly than his often rather lackadaisical co-stars.

I’ve previously covered his debut, 2019: After the Fall of New York. Another movie of his, Devil Fish, was the subject of a memorable Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode which kind of covered all you need to know about it. His other two, I’m going to review below, starting… now!

Blastfighter

Ex-cop Jake “Tiger” Sharp (Sopkiw) is released from prison and is immediately picked up by his buddy Jerry (uncredited) – who gives him a car, a brand new sci-fi super-shotgun (basically a SPAS-12 with a futuristic scope on it and the ability to shoot a bewildering array of different types of ammo) and the opportunity to assassinate the corrupt lawyer who put him behind bars in the first place. Deciding getting revenge isn’t worth going straight back to jail, Tiger decides to take the car off to his Appalachian mountain cabin to get some peace and quiet to come to terms with the memories that haunt him – of the killings of his partner on the force and of his wife, and the jail term he served after taking down his wife’s killer (having killed the guy without finding evidence that he was actually responsible).

Unfortunately, the outside world won’t leave Tiger alone, and when a group of poachers encroaches on Tiger’s turf, it kicks off a feud which eventually escalates to murderous violence…

Apparently this was originally going to be another SF number, but they decided to ditch all the SF stuff except the special gun for budget reasons. The recent release of First Blood may have also had an influence here; the super-shotgun spends most of the movie stashed under the floorboards of Tiger’s cabin, so a good chunk of the movie consists of similar “manhunt in some American woodland”, with the twist that this time it’s an ex-cop chased by rednecks rather than an ex-soldier chased by cops.

An attempt is made to reinforce the southern-fried feel of the movie by way of the soundtrack by Fabio Frizzi – a mixture of generic disco-ish synthesiser tracks and bluegrass ranges from the generically inoffensive to the obnoxious. (Frizzi was credited here as Andrew Barrymore, so either he wanted to give this the Alan Smithee treatment or they wanted to limit the number of Italian names in the credits.)

The super-gun is only retrieved 10 minutes before the end of the movie, so buyer beware: this contains little in the way of actual blastfighting, but that doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely absent of action – this is literally one of those movies where a truck rolls a brief way down an incline, hits a tree, and explodes immediately.

Some of this action is outright inexplicable. Tiger’s strategy for avoiding being shot seems to be to do a lot of jumping forward rolls, like he’s Sonic the Hedgehog or something. There’s also the bit where a random woman (played by Valentina Forte) shows up at the cabin and sleeps over and Tiger wants nothing to do with her because she’s a random weird stranger so he decides to drive her into town, only someone’s cut his brakes and he’s going downhill down this steep mountain road – all very exciting, slightly spoiled by the sound of him very obviously using the accelerator on the soundtrack (which is extra crazy because the Italian movie industry has no qualms about dubbing), and why would you ever accelerate in such a situation?

Oh, and it turns out the woman is Tiger’s daughter Connie, but she was really weird about waiting around to say who she was.

That said, other parts of the movie are more effective. The segment where the poachers roll flaming barrels of oil downhill to attack the location where Connie (Valentina Forte), her boyfriend Pete (Michele Soavi), and Jerry have set up camp is genuinely terrifying, all darkness and flames and screaming. Likewise, Tiger and Connie’s desperate bid to escape from the poachers after Jerry and Pete have been killed is incredibly tense, especially the part where the two of them tentatively make their way across a raging waterfall on foot.

There’s also a George Eastman appearance – often the saving grace of what would otherwise have been utterly forgettable Italian genre movies. Eastman plays Tom, the local sawmill owner and therefore the big man in town, and a former childhood friend of Tiger’s. The only problem is that Tom is also the older brother of Wally (Stefano Mingando), the leader of the poachers, and regards the poaching as a nice little earner for the town, given the prices some of the animal parts are able to find in, say, the Traditional Chinese Medicine market.

Eastman and Sopkiw’s interactions were a highlight of After the Fall of New York, and they do a good job of conveying a somewhat more nuanced and realistic chemistry here. The characters clearly like each other, even though they disagree on some stuff, and in a rare instance in an action movie Tiger even at one point decides to cut a deal with Tom to just leave the area (which he has no major stake in anyway) for the sake of a quiet life in return for being left alone… unfortunately, this coincides with the poachers ambushing Tiger’s friends, with the result that the peace reached can’t last.

For his part, Eastman does a great job of playing Tom as a somewhat conflicted villain. On the one hand, he’s clearly exasperated with Wally’s boneheaded aggression and regrets the feud it’s caused; on the other hand, like many big brothers he feels protective of his younger sibling, and Tiger is trying to fuck up the local gravy train. Between them, Eastman and Sopkiw manage to carve out something interesting in the midst of all this nonsense.

And believe me, this is mostly nonsense, replete the sort of clumsiness that director Lamberto Bava would also bring to his other 1984 collaboration with Sopkiw, Devil Fish. In particular, the whole “corrupt lawyer” thing – which was made out to be a crucial motivator at the start of the movie – literally never comes up again after the opening scenes except in flashbacks, of which there are a bunch. It’s like they started to make a completely different movie with a different plot, changed their minds, and used what they’d shot so far for the flashbacks.

Massacre In Dinosaur Valley

In a sleepy backwater Brazilian town a quirky selection of characters take a charter plane flown by Josè (Joffre Soares). Professor Pedro Ibañez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Suzane Carvalho) arranged the flight, and maverick archaeological bone-hunter Kevin Hall (Sopkiw) managed to get a spot by flattering the Professor’s academic credentials. Also along for the ride is washed-up retired Green Beret Captain John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his wife Betty (Marta Anderson) who constantly belittles him, and “fashion” (maybe porn) photographer Robbie (Roberto Roney, looking astonishingly like Freddie Mercury) and his two models Monica (Maria Reis) and Belinda (Susan Hahn).

Enroute to their final destination, they plan on making a stopover at the Valley of the Dinosaurs – the Professor having persuaded Josè to make this mild diversion in order to seek fossils. Unfortunately, the plane crashes in the vicinity of the valley, killing Josè and Monica on impact and mortally wounding the Professor, who bleeds out within minutes. Worse yet, the valley is very remote, being in the middle of a reservation for the Amazonian tribes – the local one having a particularly fearsome reputation. There’s no local help to be expected, the radio is broken, and because they are not strictly meant to be here, they didn’t tell the authorities about their planned diversion – meaning that even when the authorities realise the plane is missing, they won’t search in the right place.

There is nothing for it: to survive, the remaining passengers must journey through the rainforest on foot. At first Captain Heinz takes charge, though it soon becomes apparent that Kevin is no slouch when it comes to jungle survival either. And that’s good, because they’ll not only have to tangle with the local cannibals and natural hazards, but the tyrannical China (Carlos Imperial), the brutal boss of a gemstone mining operation; China’s mine makes extensive use of slave labour (perhaps contributing to the indigenous locals’ hostility), and he sees the party as yet more free labour…

This was Sopkiw’s career swansong. He did a small cameo role decades later, but he gave up on making a go of acting after this. I can see why; this is not something anyone can be particularly proud of being in. This is evident from early on, in the comedy bar brawl scene at the beginning after Hall tries to help out the models when a drunk local bothers them.

In a general movie of this type, the harassment would involve nasty talk and possibly a bit of grabbing; here director Michele Massimo Tarantini has no qualms about having a random dude just yank down Monica’s top to get a good look at her boobs. Then later, we have a bit where Hall leers at Eva without her knowledge when she’s in the bath. Then we have a bit where Captain Heinz isn’t shy about leching on Eva and Belinda after they get their tops wet in a river and their boobs are highly visible.

Yes, of all the movies associated with the Italian “cannibal movie” cycle, this is the Porky‘s of the bunch, replete with an utterly juvenile sense of sexuality which a horny 13 year old might find transgressive but which just seems tawdry and empty. It keeps resorting to cheap titillation bordering on softcore porn, right down to Belinda letting China’s aggressive lesbian assistant Myara (Gloria Cristal) bang her in return for a chance at escape. China’s rape of Eva late in the movie is particularly violent and nasty.

When it isn’t being unnecessarily and incongruously horny, Massacre In Dinosaur Valley is ripping off other jungle adventure material; for instance, there’s a scene where they literally just do the “chopping the heel off the shoe” bit from Romancing the Stone. As the Amazonians kill Captain Heinz he yells about “gooks”, which I think happens because lots of Vietnam movies have characters using that slurt a lot. Sopkiw’s character is basically a sort of Indiana Jones/Jack Colton type, with a slight emphasis on the latter because Romancing the Stone came out the previous year and, if you hadn’t guessed from the shoe thing, this movie is not shy about ripping it off.

What it doesn’t rip off, despite the title, is any movie featuring dinosaurs. Yes, to avoid anyone being disappointed, let the record show that there are no dinosaur attacks in this movie, making it an utter waste of a title. The most you get is a shaman in a triceratops skull who uses a glove with dinosaur claws on it to rake the flesh of Belinda. Perhaps we are meant to believe that the tribe encountered dinosaurs back in the day and are doing these rites in recollection of that, but the idea isn’t developed at all before Kevin just starts tossing grenades into the ritual and blasting tribespeople with a shotgun.

This is kind of indicative of the movie’s problem: occasionally it will step on an interesting concept, like a culture who has an oral tradition of long-ago encounters with dinosaurs or a slave labour-driven mining operation that the survivors of a plane crash have to contend with, but none of them have the space to be properly explored because it’s trying to cram in more stuff than they are really capable of doing justice to.

Then again, the cast and crew don’t seem to be good when it comes to thinking through the details, because when they do they make some utterly wild mistakes. Robbie gets his leg nommed down to the bone by piranhas; Kevin just stands about in the exact same body of water watching what is going on, and then Kevin and Captain Heinz fall in the water as they have a fight about it (Heinz killed Robbie to stop his screams attracting trouble, Kevin thinks, not unreasonably, it is a bit harsh). The piranhas don’t bite again. This is astonishingly weird; even if we were to assume that the piranhas were sated with just a little leg meat and weren’t interested in the others, the fact that Kevin just dawdles around in the water when he knows there’s piranhas in it is absurd. Wouldn’t you immediately get good and clear of the water as soon as you saw that happened?

The depiction of the Amazonian tribe is a mashup of crappy colonial adventure fiction tropes and stuff which might be a bit more authentic but, frankly, I don’t trust Italian genre movies in general to get this right. The “cannibal” sequence involves a lot of undressing of the female leads and many boob shots and not much in the way of actual cannibalism, which didn’t stop the movie being marketed by some as Cannibal Ferox II, but in general the indigenous folk are a red herring – despite being talked up a lot in the earlier parts of the movie, they’re largely a secondary threat, a roadbump on the way to the main antagonists – China and his cronies. Rather than tossing their spears in a manner which would actually be dangerous, the Amazonians just sort of chuck them sideways uselessly. The group would be in real trouble if they ever ran into a tribe that actually wanted to kill them.

The mining camp sequence is perhaps the most frustrating bit, because it combines some of the sleaziest and nastiest material in the movie (Belinda getting raped by Myara, Eva getting raped by China) with some actually interesting stuff arising from the fact that the people running the camp are actual characters rather than utter ciphers.

I particularly liked the wonderfully melodramatic villain-sidekick moment where Myara pretends to be giving Belinda her promised chance to escape – but in fact just set her up to get shot in the back by China, and it’s pretty evident that this is a form of fun for them. With so many Megatron-Starscream type pairings in villain organisations in genre fiction, where the big boss can’t trust their sidekick, there’s a certain fun in seeing an abusive organisation where it’s like that not just because the main person in charge likes it that way, but because the leadership in general are assholes and the sidekick supports the boss because the boss lets the sidekick get what they want.

Then again, even the mining camp bit falls apart under the weight of a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make sense. “China”‘s name is pronounced “Cheena” but on the soundtrack it keeps sounding like he’s being called “Cheetah” or, at some points, “Cheeto”. Kevin frees all the slaves, only for them to run into China’s supervisors, who then kill them all. It’s in aid of setting a trap for the supervisors, but it feels like it’d have come out better if Kevin had let Eva and the slaves in on his plan.

Eva forgets she’s been raped by China, and then fired at by shotguns by China’s goons due to Kevin leaving her in the cage in the mining camp, awfully easily. In the end of the movie she and Kevin are all smiles and quips because they got away with a bunch of emeralds – apparently forgetting that a) this wasn’t Romancing the Stone, emerald acquisition wasn’t the point of this exercise and b) they have just been through astonishing trauma and Eva’s had her dad die in her arms, watched several other people get killed, and been violently raped.

Then there’s the animal stuff. Kevin escapes from the pig pen because one of the friendly piggies decides to gnaw at the rope on his wrists enough to break it, but doesn’t gnaw on him, despite these being the sort of piggies human beings get fed to when murderers want to get rid of evidence. Thank you, piggy!  Kevin beats China by throwing a bag with a rattlesnake in at him, forcing China to waste his last shot not shooting Kevin, but the rattlesnake… which… which China could just walk away from. Seriously, the rattler isn’t aggressively coming at him, it’s just sat on a rock going “hss hss I just got hella thrown around in a bag and I’m mad about it hss”.

Massacre In Dinosaur Valley will disappoint everyone. I got my copy because I got in on the 88 Films Indiegogo campaign to restore a clutch of Italian genre movies of the era, including Aenigma and Absurd. This means my name is in the credits of the restoration, because they tacked on a continuation of the credits to thank the contributors. I’m sorry, folks – I didn’t know this movie existed before the campaign, I wish I didn’t know now, and I backed the campaign with the intent of getting access to some rare Fulci rather than looking into Massacre itself. It’s my fault, gang. This one’s on me.

B-Grade Schwarzeneggers of the 1980s

It’s interesting how if you want to do a parody version of a typical 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in something (like The Simpsons does with Ranier Wolfcastle’s McBain movies), you make it a fairly lowbrow straight-ahead 1980s action movie – no offbeat counterfactual genre stuff like horror/SF/fantasy movies might include, nothing fancy, just a badass cop or special forces guy blowing away bad guys and delivering quips.

The thing is, Schwarzenegger’s filmography doesn’t actually reflect that. The 1980s movies which made his reputation for the most part consisted of fantasy schlock (Conan the Barbarian and its sequels), unexpectedly thoughtful science fiction (The TerminatorPredatorThe Running Man), and the oddity which was Twins (a comedy playing off his image). This pattern largely persisted into the early 1990s, where a strand of movies like Kindergarten CopLast Action Hero, and True Lies emerged playing off his reputation as this archetypal hero for straight-ahead pure-action movies when, in fact, he’d hardly done anything in that vein.

The major exceptions to this are CommandoRaw Deal, and mmmmmaybe Red Heat, though that’s enough of a comedy that I’d consider it borderline. It’s certainly strange that Schwarzenegger’s cinematic reputation should be based essentially on two or three movies that rank among his less successful and of the decade. Let’s take a look at them and see how they come across these days.

Commando

Colonel John Matrix (Arnie) is a retired special forces commando who lives in a happy little mountain cabin with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). Their domestic peace is shattered when Matrix’s former boss descends on them in an Army helicopter to bring bad news and a couple of bodyguards for the family. You see, it turns out that someone has been killing off former members of John’s unit, and the assumption is that their civilian cover identities have been blown and John is next on the list.

Literally as soon as the Army brass have departed in the chopper it all goes to shit; within minutes the soldiers left behind to guard the house are dead, Jenny’s been kidnapped, and Matrix is in the hands of the mercenaries – led by Bennett (Vernon Wells), a former member of Matrix’s unit that Matrix had kicked out for getting a bit too war crimesy with their operations. Bennett and his team are working for Arius (Dan Hedaya), the former dictator of the South American nation of Val Verde who Matrix and crew ousted in a US-backed coup. Arius wants Matrix to use his status as a hero of Val Verde to assassinate the new president, with the intent of using the killing as the opening strike in a counter-revolution.

Naturally, Matrix isn’t having it; a few death-defying stunts later, and he’s on the loose, with only 11 hours to go until the plane he’s discovered. When coup conspirator Sully (David Patrick Kelly of Twin Peaks fame) makes the mistake of trying his pickup artist bullshit on flight attendant Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), Matrix spots an opportunity to start unravelling the plot, and after some initial reluctance Cindy finds herself swept up in Matrix’s adventure.

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Aptly-Titled Shark Game

Maneater is a game in which you play a shark – strictly speaking, two sharks. First, you play a mommy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) as you play through the tutorial, then you get caught and killed by a shark hunter – but you were carrying live young, the surviving baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) biting off the shark hunter’s hand and escaping into the sea after being cut out of the mummy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo).

Over the process of this, the game’s rather fun conceit becomes apparent: it’s framed like it’s a basic cable reality show (called Maneater, natrually) about shark hunters operating in the waters off Port Clovis – a sort of mashup of Miami and New Orleans, in a state which is a sort of mashup of Florida and Louisiana. The shark hunter who killed your mommy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) and left you an orphan shark (boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo) is Scaly Pete, the show’s breakout start, his every Cajun quip treated as the producers as potential hashtag inspiration.

Over the course of the game, then, you guide your baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) as she survives and grows, eventually becoming a mega shark (DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO), and seek bloody revenge against Scaly Pete and all his fellow air-breathing assholes. Every so often, you get a cut scene checking in on what Pete’s doing, and your gameplay is narrated by the show-within-a-game’s narrator – Chris Parnell, AKA Cyril Figgis from Archer, whose wry commentary is probably the high point of the game.

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Four Sides of the 1980s

As my backlog clearance continues, I am resorting to this: giving you a clutch of reviews of movies from the 1980s held together by the tenuous common theme of “all these movies represent a particular type of person you would have met in the 1980s”. Here goes.

The 80s Cokehead: Scarface

The movie opens against the backdrop of the Mariel boatlift – Fidel Castro’s surprise decision to allow thousands of emigrants to leave Cuba – resulting in a refugee crisis in Florida. The movie plays on the fact that Castro took the opportunity to send numerous prisoners and mental hospital patients to Florida, divesting the Cuban government of the cost of handling them, by including among the emigrants Tony Montana (Al Pacino), along with a number of his buddies – who, by the evidence of their prison tattoos, are apparently hardened criminals.

Montana and company end up in a makeshift refugee detention centre underneath a motorway flyover. Through the fence, they receive an offer suited to their skills: Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a well-connected Cuban-American drug baron, will pull the right strings to allow them to get released and get their green cards in return for assassinating Emilia Rebenga (Roberto Contreras), who’d tortured Frank’s brother to death back in Cuba. This is accomplished in chilling fashion during a riot in the detention centre.

It’s not directly stated whether or not Tony engineered the riot, but it’d be entirely in keeping with his tendency for massive overescalation of violence, which we see plenty of as the movie progresses. As Tony moves his way up the ranks in Frank’s empire, eventually ousting him, a whirlwind of cocaine addiction, Tony’s infatuations with Frank’s ex-girlfriend Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his own sister Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and his entanglements with even more ruthless figures like cocaine manufacturer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) all contribute to his downfall, which is ultimately spurred by his machismo-driven refusal to compromise with anyone or to back down in any situation.

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Rambo: From Dissent To Propaganda

The Rambo movies have become regarded as quintessential 1980s action pieces to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that David Morrell’s First Blood – the novel that introduced the character and then killed him off, before the first movie decided it was more interesting to keep him alive to squeeze sequels out of – came out in 1972, when the Vietnam War was still ongoing and its subject of a generation traumatised by the war was a hot topic.

The original novel also puts equal emphasis on two protagonists, not just one: Rambo, a drifter who’s dropped out of society after coming home from Vietnam, is naturally one and the other is Police Chief William Teasle, who in the first movie is given a title change to “Sheriff” and is very much an antagonist, rather than a co-protagonist. The conflict is essentially intergenerational, with Rambo representing the Vietnam generation and Teasle the Korean War generation, and in that way it captures the rift in American society at the time.

In the 1980s, however, mainstream American society didn’t seem to want to hear about division – or at any rate, Hollywood didn’t want to talk about it. This led to a shift in the emphasis for the movie adaptation of First Blood, but that movie still retained something to say about how the traumas of war shapes people and how American society too easily treated people as disposable and abuse of police power and so on.

Increasingly, however, the sequels shifted gear and the tone of the movies became less critical and more propagandistic, until finally they were cheerleading war and bloodshed when they’d started out from a point depicting the dehumanising nature of war. Let’s see how that happened.

First Blood

First Blood‘s story is nice and straightforward: Sylvester Stallone introduces us to John Rambo as a soft-spoken, basically harmless-seeming sort who’s hiked his way to the small town of Hope in Washington, where he was hoping to visit an old friend from his Vietnam days. Alas, he gets the grim news that his buddy died last year of cancer due to Agent Orange exposure. Before he can really process that grief, he’s hassled by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), an abrasive asshole who just wants Rambo to fuck off out of his town.

When Rambo decides to walk straight back into town after Teasle drops him off at the edge, he’s promptly arrested and taken in. But as Teasle’s shithead deputies work him over in the cells, Rambo suffers a PTSD flashback to his time as a Viet Cong POW. Soon he’s escaped and fighting a guerilla war in the hills around town against the Sheriff’s Department, and Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), his old commanding officer, has come down to town to try and urge Teasle to de-escalate the situation and let him try to talk Rambo down.

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The Evil Ends Its Residence

After writing and directing the first Resident Evil movie, Paul W.S. Anderson restricted himself to writing the first two sequels whilst allowing other hands to direct; for the last half of the six-movie sequence, Anderson would handle the direction himself as well as doing the writing. By this point, he and series lead Milla Jovovich had married, making it a sort of horror-action power couple franchise like Underworld ended up being. (In fact, by the end it was a family affair: due to the passage of time aging previous child actresses out of the role of the Red Queen AI, their daughter Ever got the Red Queen role in The Final Chapter.)

Over the course of the first three movies, the story had covered most of the ground of the first three games – with the original movie doing the “bad shit in a lab under a lonely mansion” angle of the first game and Apocalypse incorporating the “zombie apocalypse in a city with a big bad zombie stomping around” of 2 and 3. With Extinction, the plot of the movies pushed on into original material, which the next three films would also follow. Would The Final Chapter find this zombie saga shambling to a halt, or go out with one final headshot?

Resident Evil: Afterlife

At the end of Extinction, it seemed like Anderson had written himself into a corner – with Milla Jovovich’s character Alice not only having absurd superpowers, but also an army of clones of herself who all also had the same T-virus-invoked superpowers. It’s only natural that he starts the next movie by neutralising most of these advantages – but nicely, rather than simply retconning them away he instead allows Alice to play the hand she’s dealt and make use of these resources in a devastating attack on the Umbrella Corporation headquarters. (There’s a nice shot of a security map indicating the spread of Alice-clone incursions into the base that subtly parallels an earlier shot showing the progress of the T-virus plague around the world.)

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Opposite Poles of the Martial Arts Universe

The overlapping genres of wuxia and martial arts has broad scope, and like any sufficiently well-developed cinematic genre it has its fair share of representatives of high art and B-movie absurdity. I’ve had reviews for an example of each in the hopper for a while, and as I burn through my backlog now’s as good a time as any to unleash them.

Dragon Inn

It is 1456 by the Western calendar – the eighth year of the Jingtai Emperor’s reign. The chief eunuch, Zhao (Pai Ying), has managed to politically outmanoeuvre General Yu Qian, who is duly executed, his children sentenced to banishment in the far West of the Empire. Tsao, however, knows better than to leave them alive, and sends his agents to intercept them at Dragon Inn and assassinate them. The assassins duly head to the inn at speed, eliminate most of the staff, and take over the place.

What they don’t count on is the appearance of Xiao Shao Zi (Shih Chun), a wandering martial artist and friend of the innkeeper Wu Ning (Cho Kin) – or, for that matter, for Wu Ning, no slouch himself when it comes to combat, to come back from his business trip unexpectedly. And they really don’t expect the fiery brother-and-sister team of Chu Huei (Polly Kuan) and Chu Chi (Sit Hon), children of one of the General’s best lieutenants, to come looking for the Yu family either! Evading the assassin’s various attempts to poison, shoot, or otherwise eliminate them, Xiao, Wu, and the Chus soon end up working together to rescue the Yu family and foil Tsao’s plans.

Continue reading “Opposite Poles of the Martial Arts Universe”

The Reverse Ninja Rule In Action

One of the tropes of martial arts movies is that there is essentially no such thing as “strength in numbers”; it’s an important aspect in which movies which follow this sort of concept depart from any sort of realistic combat situation, in which being outnumbered in a fight is, all else being equal, something of a disadvantage.

It comes down to the purpose of the fight in question. If the point is to establish a character as a badass without depicting them defeating an actually important character (because it isn’t the appropriate time in the story for them to do that), then having the character mow down a swathe of nameless mooks serves that purpose. If you want a showdown between a protagonist and an antagonist, you want it to be a one-on-one fight so that the spotlight is entirely on the main characters. Sometimes a movie is artful enough to set this up plausibly, sometimes it requires a bunch of trained fighters (who as part of that training presumably have been encouraged to overcome the instinct to flinch back and not take part) to stand around doing nothing whilst the hero kicks their boss’s head off.

The cheaper sort of ninja B-movie that was all the rage in the 1980s is an example of precisely this sort of thing – especially the sort of material made on the cheap by Western filmmakers who didn’t really understand the genre but wanted to ride the bandwagon. One studio which had no qualms about doing that sort of thing was the Cannon Group, particularly under the Golan-Globus era – in fact, their loosely-connected Ninja Trilogy (which, despite the name, essentially consists of three entirely disconnected movies) is often credited with starting the 1980s fad for American ninja movies, though it was predated by the Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon.

Now, we know that the more ninjas participate in a fight, the less effective they are. Is that also true of film quality? Do movie franchises get worse the more ninjas you stuff into them? Let’s find out…

Continue reading “The Reverse Ninja Rule In Action”