Rambo III (1988) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Despite being almost universally considered the worst film in the Rambo series, Rambo III is actually my favorite of the franchise. Packed to the brim with incessant action, this one has Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) traveling to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to rescue his former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was captured by the communists there. As edge-of-your-seat thrilling as the whole original Rambo trilogy is, this romance-free installment takes the cake.

Rambo III‘s action sequences are beyond incredible, tossing countless explosions, fired blanks, blood squibs, collapsing extras, and totaled vehicles at the viewer. The choreography and editing is exquisite. It’s all completely over-the-top, yet just barely (I repeat: barely) plausible enough for the audience to accept. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is a scene-stealer that greatly heightens the action.

This picture sees Rambo assume the role of Wilsonian action hero, fighting for human rights in a far-off land. It’s a welcome twist for the Rambo character that gives the flick some unrecognized depth. Sylvester Stallone’s role is a bit different here from the rest of the series, being less internally-tortured and more of a one-liner machine, but I think the transformation is okay. Many people claim Rambo III‘s politics have aged poorly, with the Soviet-Afghan War-era Mujaheddin being shown in a positive light, with some viewers saying that Rambo helped found the Taliban. This is a bit of an exaggeration, as the anti-Soviet fighter Masoud (Spyros Fokas) in the film is actually based on Ahmad Shah Massoud, an actual person who fought against both the Soviet Union and the Taliban (as a leader of the Northern Alliance when battling against the latter).

Yes, this is probably the kitschiest of the Rambo franchise, but that doesn’t bother me at all. It has the best (and perhaps most) action of the series, and its story is an inspiration to freedom fighters across the globe. A lot of people can’t handle kitsch, but, if you can and you love action, Rambo III is a must-watch. It’s got the massive explosions, the heart, the pacing, and the heroism that makes for great cinema.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Review

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

As masterful as First Blood (1982) is, it wasn’t really until its sequel that the Rambo that most people recognize appeared on movie theater screens. In this film, Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is sent back to Vietnam by the American government to investigate the possibility of U.S. P.O.W.s left behind after the end of the war. Yes, this is the one where the iconic main character really starts to go to town on his enemies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II wastes no time getting started, and almost constantly bludgeons the audience over the head with awesome action scenes. The high point just may be a helicopter rampage sequence that’s truly one for the ages. Another highlight is Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. The pacing is generally speedy, and the whole picture has a palpable sense of righteous rage. It’s kitschier than the first one, but this has an appeal of its own.

On the down side, there is some pointless romance involving Rambo that probably could’ve been written out of the screenplay. As much as I love this flick, it’s probably my least favorite of the original Rambo trilogy. It seems a bit torn between the angsty, tormented world of First Blood and the wild, shoot-’em-up-heavy universe of Rambo III (1988). Those two films come close to perfection in doing their own things, while Rambo: First Blood Part II feels like a stepping stone from one to the other.

While John Rambo was largely a tragic figure in First Blood (and he still is to an extent throughout the entire series), the first sequel transforms him into a sweaty, shirtless, M60-slinging Captain America who makes Uncle Sam cry tears of pride. Still, there’s enough pathos to the main character to make the flick still feel like it’s from the same franchise as First Blood. The bottom line is that this is a tremendous action film full of explosions and dead bodies. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you’ll want to check it out.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

First Blood (1982) Review

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Genre(s): Action, Drama

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

First Blood is the first entry into the Rambo series, and, if you’re not a fan of run-and-gun movies, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Why am I even reading this review?” Well, First Blood isn’t your typical Rambo film, and, even if you don’t think you’d enjoy the other flicks in the franchise, this one might be worth checking out. Compared to the other members of the series, this one’s plot is somewhat low-key, being about Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) being harassed by small-town cops in the American Pacific Northwest and having to take to the neighboring, forested hills to survive.

One thing that sets First Blood apart from the rest of the 1980s shoot-’em-up pack is its microscopic body count. Rambo isn’t piling up the corpses like he does in the sequels. Despite this, the violence feels more graphic and painful than it does in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). The action scenes are fantastic, despite generally being devoid of lethal carnage. This picture is far more realistic than its sequels, and it makes more grounded acts of physicality outrageously exciting. Something as simple as a guy jumping on top of a moving truck is a blast to watch here.

Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is excellent (the film wouldn’t be the same without it), and the theme song, “It’s a Long Road,” sung by Dan Hill, is mighty effective. It’s a morally complex movie, with few clear heroes and villains (Rambo here sometimes resembles a more anti-heroic version of a slasher film bad guy). Sylvester Stallone is the picture’s backbone, providing an able performance that keeps it from straying into kitsch territory. His character, Rambo, is ridden with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), giving him a lot more depth than he’s often given credit for.

Like Death Wish (1974), First Blood is actually a remarkably well-crafted drama that sometimes gets dismissed due to its connection to its Crazy Town sequels. It works best as a rugged action-drama that moves the audience as it excites them with violent fireworks. It’s not as fist-pumpingly heroic as the other installments in the series, but it’s certainly a wild ride.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

War and Peace (1956) Review

Director: King Vidor

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 208 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

This three-and-a-half-hour melodrama set against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars is an endurance test. This opulent epic is one of those films where you wish everybody would die so the picture can end. It even appears the critics were cool to this one, if the 43% score on Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed, which is a bit of a surprise, considering that they love boring movies that go on forever.

I’ve never read the book that War and Peace is based on (and I never will), but this flick feels like a Russian nationalist version of Gone with the Wind (1939) or something (Moscow? Atlanta? What difference does it make?). Much of it is all about rich people doing rich people stuff, and the audience is supposed to sympathize. Fortunately for the viewer, a war breaks out, giving him or her some carnage to gawk at. The war-related scenes are the best ones in the movie, but the battles are generally of low quality (despite their massive size) and sometimes the antics on the frontlines feel like a completely different film from the aristocratic bullshit the audience is otherwise subjected to.

The 1956 version of War and Peace features endless, weepy-eyed romance scenes that might cause a viewer to almost nod off. The long-winded dialogue usually attempts to be philosophical, with characters talking in ways that few normal humans would. With all the politics related to the war and all the romances and whatnot, this picture has a lot to juggle…and it drops every ball.

War and Peace is a trainwreck that the overwhelming majority of casual moviegoers will find little-to-no redeeming value in. It’s a torturously tedious hunk of junk with a big budget that only results in big-time boredom. If you’re looking for a good historical epic set during the Napoleonic Wars, I plead with you to watch Waterloo (1970) instead. War and Peace is for insomniacs only.

My rating is 3 outta 10.

City Heat (1984) Review

Director: Richard Benjamin

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person on the planet who likes City Heat. Is it as good as a team-up of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds should’ve been? No, but it’s a serviceable action-comedy about a police detective (Clint Eastwood) and a private eye (Burt Reynolds) in Prohibition-era Kansas City who form a reluctant partnership to investigate a murder…or something. Yeah, the murky plot is probably the film’s weak link, but at least the movie’s relatively short runtime keeps things under control.

Set in some of the seediest locations in Kansas City of the interwar years, City Heat feels like a gangster-oriented neo-noir at times, but, ultimately, it’s probably not hard-boiled enough to be considered one. It’s a comedy, and the humor is the kind that you chuckle at despite it being somewhat lame. This isn’t a laugh riot, but neither is it a cringe-inducing flop. That being said, it can be tonally awkward…but just a little bit.

On the action front, there are some solid fist fights and shootouts, but nothing really to write home about. The physical mayhem comes at regular intervals, enough to prevent the flick, with its convoluted plot, from being boring. In the end, the comedy is just funny enough and the action just exciting enough to make City Heat work properly.

Despite almost being sunk by a story lacking immediacy, this is a picture I’d recommend to fans of the two stars. Just remember to keep your expectations low. The closest it comes to brushing with greatness is when the audience briefly sees an advertisement for the James Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy (1931) in the background. Yeah, a masterpiece it ain’t, but I still like it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gangs of New York (2002) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, War

Runtime: 167 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Gangs of New York is a sprawling crime epic set among the feuding rival gangs of New York City (a shocker, I know) during the time of the American Civil War. A bit more specifically, it’s about Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempts to kill knife-slinging, nativist mob boss Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Due to the different, colorful criminal groups, it almost resembles a mega-budget, nineteenth-century version of The Warriors (1979) at times. This film is certainly entertaining and has top-notch production values, but it feels oddly hollow.

First of all, the movie’s most famous aspect, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher is justly celebrated. It’s a powerhouse role that keeps the picture moving along smoothly. That being said, I wish I felt more of the burning desire for revenge felt by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. With the exception of some mandatory romance, it’s a pretty quickly paced flick that feels shorter than its two-and-three-quarters-of-an-hour runtime. The musical score from Howard Shore also deserves to be mentioned in a positive light.

Martin Scorsese’s direction is sometimes hyperactive here, especially during action or action-related sequences. It almost feels like the directing equivalent of ham-acting, but I don’t really have a problem with that. The massive action scenes that bookend the film, a huge gangland turf brawl at the beginning and a big-budget depiction of the 1863 New York City draft riots towards the end, are sights to see. At first, I thought the large scale of opening fight was done in an expressionistic, non-literal manner to reinforce how big it must have seen through the eyes of the children watching, but, as the movie went on, it seemed like there was probably nothing figurative about its scale at all. The picture’s body count is near-apocalyptic, one of the highest for any gangster picture that doesn’t double as an action movie.

Despite all of the terrific spectacle, I’m not really quite sure what Gangs of New York is trying to say. Its borderline nihilistic tone and world of depraved crooks and corruption gets in the way of being invested too fully in the characters. Still, it’s hard not to recommend it, because when things go right (Day-Lewis’ performance, the action sequences and the build-up to them, etc.), they go very right. It’s a mobster movie with a historical twist that’s good enough to watch at least once.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

To Hell and Back (1955) Review

Director: Jesse Hibbs

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The main draw of To Hell and Back is to see Audie Murphy play himself, an American hero of World War II who fought in several campaigns of the European theater. The picture starts with its star as a poor, rural Texan, who joins the U.S. army as a way of helping support his family. Other than the Murphy-as-Murphy factor, this film plays out like a fairly typical grunts’-eye-view war movie.

Most viewers will probably choose to watch To Hell and Back for Murphy and the recreation of his heroics. On this level, the flick works pretty well. There’s a reasonable amount of battle scenes, but their realism is mixed. They’re explosion-heavy and oft-muddy, capturing what small-unit combat must feel like to a fair degree. On the other hand, the violence often seems sanitized, although small amounts of blood show up once in a while.

Other cons related to To Hell and Back are the pointless romance scenes, which add nothing, and the fact that the family sequences towards the beginning feel a bit schmaltzy, but they’re over soon enough. Most of the supporting characters are pretty interchangeable, which hampers the drama. Understandably, the horrible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that Murphy suffered from post-war is left out, as the movie concludes with the end of World War II.

To Hell and Back sometimes feels like an advertisement for the American military, considering the lack of PTSD-related content and other factors, but it would be a mistake to let that deter one from watching it. I listed quite a few negatives for the film, yet the “gimmick,” if you want to call it that, at the center of the flick, Murphy playing himself, is strong enough to make it worth a watch. The humble heroism on display here keeps it afloat.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) Review

Director: Roger Corman

Genre(s): Crime

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre takes a docudrama-like approach to the escalating Chicago gang war between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and George Clarence “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker) in the late 1920s, which would climax with a notorious massacre on Valentine’s Day. Historical accuracy trumps concern for the audience’s ability to follow every single character and deed here.

One of the most notable aspects of this mob movie is its pervasive narration. Almost every semi-important character is given an introduction…one that sometimes spoils whether they will die during the film’s runtime or not. Still, the narration keeps the motion picture from being too difficult to follow, helping the viewer keep track of the plentiful characters (most of whom don’t really make much of an impression, unfortunately).

The film probably could’ve used a stronger overarching plot, as it sometimes feels like a series of scenes depicting underworld activities or action/violence that could’ve been arranged in just about any order. However, the movie is anchored by a wonderfully hammy performance from Jason Robards as mob boss Al Capone, and there are some nice period details. Bullets fly relatively regularly to prevent the audience from nodding off.

This certainly isn’t the strongest movie about organized crime ever made, but it’s better than being merely watchable. There are bland characters here (although Robards’ Capone isn’t one of them), yet it’s overall entertaining enough to be worth recommending. Released the same year as fellow gangster saga Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre isn’t quite as boundary-pushing as that classic, but it still might’ve played a minor role in blowing the lid off of the Hollywood Production Code. Mob movie fanatics will probably enjoy it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Beast of the City (1932) Review

Director: Charles Brabin

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Beast of the City is an underrated police drama that gets a big boost from an attention-grabbing tough guy performance from Walter Huston (as police detective Jim Fitzpatrick). He looks quite a bit like Liam Neeson here, and he plays one of the definitive man’s men of 1930s cinema. The plot of the picture is about Huston’s character’s frustrated attempts at taking down the crime empire of gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) and his dealings with his morally-wayward brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford), who’s also on the police force. Mickey Rooney shows up in an early role as Mickey Fitzpatrick, the Huston’s character’s son.

It’s a tough-talking and tough-acting film, with a main character who resembles a proto-Dirty Harry. It’s short, too, and benefits from the frequently zippy pacing. The Beast of the City was released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era in the early 1930s (prior to the Production Code being enforced), so it occasionally has a more modern feel than the movies released during the time of the Code. Some of the cops here are willing to bend to law to catch the bad guys.

The characters in the flick are reasonably well-defined, but the individual movie-defining moment is probably the electric, take-no-prisoners finale. There are some bits of action prior to it, but most of the film’s bullets are saved for the ending. It’s a cathartic scene that manipulates the audience successfully. Crime-fighting rarely felt so satisfying.

The Beast of the City could be seen as a reaction to the gangster films that were popular at the time of its release. Here’s a picture for those who worried about the potentially corrupting influence of organized crime flicks on youth. It, too, is a mob movie, albeit one told from the perspective of law enforcement. If you ever come across it, give it a watch. It’s a good one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

O.S.S. (1946) Review

Director: Irving Pichel

Genre(s): Thriller, War

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being produced and written by Richard Maibaum, who also wrote a bunch of the earlier James Bond films (a series I’m not crazy about to begin with), the World War II spy film O.S.S. is a dud, more or less. The picture’s title refers to the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA during the aforementioned conflict. Alan Ladd stars as John Martin, an American secret agent sent to Nazi-occupied France to mess with the Germans. Of course, he’s accompanied by a female spy, Elaine Duprez (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to give the movie some romance.

One of the major problems here is that the picture covers the entire experience an OSS agent might face behind enemy lines, rather than focusing on one particular mission. The way the film is, the heroes tackle two or three assignments during the flick’s runtime, resulting in two or three mini-climaxes, and stuffing the film with some padding. Part of the movie seems to follow our protagonists in between objectives, when they’re not really doing anything, other than simply surviving.

There’s also the matter of the film not building up to a satisfactory climax. It’s a realistic one, and I suppose that’s commendable, but it’s less exciting (well, “exciting” is a stretch) than one of the scenes that preceded it. The action’s clunky, although there’s barely any of it at all (the big explosions and whatnot are provided by stock footage). Rather than fully entertaining an audience, O.S.S. sets its sights on educating the viewer on the importance of the titular organization’s role in World War II and honoring the memory of its fallen. That has its time and place, and probably should’ve been included in the flick, but some changes should’ve been made to tighten the movie up.

A thriller largely devoid of thrills, O.S.S. is not terrible, but it doesn’t come recommended either. The plot’s unfocused and the action is almost non-existent. The romantic angle successfully creates some tension later on in the runtime, but, overall, I can’t help but think of it as a misfire. There are better espionage flicks out there.

My rating is 5 outta 10.