Thursday, February 20, 2020

Stone Face vs. The Russians

This is my first entry in the So Bad Its Good Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room

(Note on the title of this entry) Sylvester Stallone has only one facial expression, a seriously blase', sometimes angry, look which I would call "stone face".  I have watched dozens of Stallone movies, and I don't recall him cracking a smile once.  Maybe because "cracking a smile" would cause his face to crack...?

It could be said that Sylvester Stallone made one good movie in his entire career (Rocky), and then either just cloned or parodied the character for the next 45 years.

At least, if you take the Razzies for what they are worth.  The Razzies, Or Golden Raspberry Awards,  in case you didn't know, are the wicked step-brother of the Oscars, an award given every year to the Worst Picture / Actor / Actress / Director (etc.) in a given year.  For Worst Actor alone, Stallone holds the record for most nominations, with 15 to his credit.

He also won the award for Worst Actor of the Decade, twice, for the 1980's and 1990's.  (The 1990's  award was for "99.5% of everything he's ever done".)  And pretty much every movie he was a part of in that time period also competed for an award (Worst Picture / Director).

An argument could probably be made for saying that John Wilson (the founder of the Razzies) and company just have it in for Stallone.  At the same time he was getting Razzies he was also ranked in the top of Best Action Movie stars.  Admittedly, Stallone will probably never be confused with Oscar material as an actor.  But for a certain segment of the population, mostly he-man wannabees like me, he is almost the equivalent of an action hero god.

Stallone's career as a Razzie nominee hit it's highlight, in my opinion, in 1985.  That year, both Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II hit the big screen.  Between the two, a total of 16 nominations were garnered for Razzies.  Stallone even got a nod from the Razzie committee as worst director (for Rocky IV).

To the two films credit, both were big money makers (and my $$ were a part of that tabulation).  Only Back to the Future made more money that year, but Rambo: First Blood Part II and  Rocky IV were #2 and #3 respectively in terms of overall bucks at the box office.  Proving that even if he was a bad actor, he did have the cachet to draw in the crowds.

Part of the attraction of these two movies, at least at the time, was the presence of Russians as the villains.  In order to understand the conflict within the movies, one must understand the historical context.  This was during a time, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of Russia as a dominant threat to the American way of life.  The Cold War was still in effect, when the United States (in particular the Ronald Reagan led years of the American government) danced toe to toe with the evil empire of the Soviet Union. Thus, the James Bond movies and most other action movies of the time that involved an international conflict would reflect a Russian influence on the other side. (see my review of the 80's movie  Red Dawn for more).

Rambo: First Blood Part II: (1985):

In terms of release Rambo: First Blood Part II was the first in the theater, a summer release.

At the end of the first First Blood, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is sent to the penitentiary to do hard labor.  (See the movie to find out why, if you don't already know.  Or just follow the link above and read my thoughts on it  if you don't want to invest 2 hours to watch it...)

But his former commanding officer, Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) has been keeping him on his mind.  So when a covert mission to go back in to Vietnam to see if they can verify the existence of P.O.W.s who were never repatriated at the end of the Vietnam war, Rambo is one of the few surviving Green Beret veterans from that war that is thought to have the capabilities to complete the mission.

So Rambo is taken to a headquarters where he meets Murdock (Charles Napier) who gives him his mission.  He is to infiltrate the Vietnamese jungle and locate a potential P.O.W. camp and take pictures to bring back proof that P.O.W.s are still being held by the Vietnamese. 

(A side note:  At the time it was widely believed that the Vietnam government had reneged on repatriating many P.O.W.s  from the Vietnam war.  Although there was no actual proof of such, the government at the time used the idea as muscle in its relationship with the Republic of Vietnam,  And the theme of a rescue operation to free them made its way into a few movies of the time, including the Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action and the Gene Hackman film Uncommon Valor.)

Rambo is rather incredulous at the idea that he is supposed to just "take pictures" but leave the P.O.W.s he might find there. But he agrees to the mission.  Dropped off in the jungle (with most of his equipment lost during the drop), Rambo meets up with Co (Julia Nickson), a covert Vietnamese girl who is fighting against the Communist regime.

Together they approach the potential site where, indeed, several prisoners are being held.  Against orders Rambo frees one of the prisoners and makes his way back to the pickup site.  The prisoner informs Rambo that it was lucky they came when they did because "they move us around a lot."  This revelation is the first clue in the fact that the mission might not have been all on the up and up.  Apparently the camp was supposed to be empty, which would have produced no results.

The true nature comes to the fore when, at the pick up site, the rescue team radios back to HQ that Rambo has a P.O.W. with them and Murdock orders them to abort the mission, leaving Rambo behind to be captured.

Enter the Russians.  Headed by Lt. Col. Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), the Russians try every which way to get Rambo to talk, and to radio back to his HQ that any further attempts to come in to Vietnam will be addressed with requisite retribution.

But Rambo tells them to go to Hell.  He does submit to the radio contact, but his only words are to tell Murdock that "I'm coming to get you!" And then proceeds to escape.

The final segment involves the typical Ramboesque escape and jungle battle as Rambo picks off both Russian and Vietnamese soldiers who are in pursuit, and eventually commandeers a helicopter which he uses to help the remaining P.O.W.s in the camp escape.

Of course, Stallone would go on to reprise Rambo in a few more movies, most recently Last Blood, (which I missed in the theater.  Just waiting for a chance to get it on DVD).  The Rambo series is proof positive that an attitude and a good knife will get you through any situation...

Rocky IV (1985):

Rocky IV by contrast, enjoyed a Thanksgiving release.  This was one of the handful of movies that my sister and I saw together over the years.

After Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) defeated Clubber Lang (Mr. T.), life has become sedate for Rocky.  He has his family to care for, and his friends to pal around with, especially his once nemesis, now good friend and sometimes trainer, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

But there is a new enemy on the horizon.  The Russians, who are always trying to denigrate their nemesis, the Americans, have begun a  campaign to claim that their amateur boxing hero, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is better than anything the Americans could pit against him. Of course, this will inspire even the most liberal of the population to experience a little twinge of resentment and American pride to come to the fore.

As a result, since the Boxing Commission is not quite ready to sanction an official fight between its champion and the, as yet, unknown contender, there is an agreement to have an exhibition bout in Las Vegas.  And who else but pro-America former heavyweight champion Apollo is better to step in to the ring and take this Russian whippersnapper down a peg or two?  So despite some misgivings, not only from Apollo's family but also from Rocky, the former champ agrees to a match.  Of course, Apollo is under the impression that even though he has aged a few years, he should still be able to hold his own against an amateur.  (You could be forgiven if this reminds you of George Foreman, who tried something similar in the early 90's, entering the ring in his mid 40's).

Apollo, unfortunately, is no match for Drago. And despite a pre-match performance of a somewhat patriotic song by James Brown,

the fight doesn't quite come out the way Apollo and Rocky and the American public quite intended.

Apollo is pulverized and eventually dies from the damage he suffers in the altogether too short match.  Making Apollo the second trainer/friend that Rocky has had to watch die.  (See Rocky III)  Disgraced not only by he fact that he wouldn't throw in the towel during the match to stop the fight and incensed by the pure chutzpah the Russians exhibit after their win, Rocky agrees to a match between himself and Drago, to be held in Moscow on Christmas Day.   (and if you don't see the slap in the face the Russians are giving America by having the fight on that day, you haven't been paying attention).

Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky's wife, pleads with him to not follow through on the fight, but if you know Rocky (or at least this kind of movie), you know those pleas have to fall on deaf ears.  Rocky travels to Russia where he knows he can train without the distraction of the American paparazzi, which he knows all too well won't give him the peace to train.  Don't miss the recreation of Rocky's famous climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which Rocky does virtually the same thing, only up a mountain.

The day of the battle comes.  The crowd is sufficiently hostile to the intruder from America while cheering for their national hero.  Which is to be expected.  What is not expected (and may just be wishful thinking on the scriptwriter's part that it would actually happen) is that as Rocky manages to go toe to toe with Drago, as each round passes, more and more of the crowd seem to switch their allegiance from Drago to Rocky.

If you don't know how this movie turns out, you don't watch enough of these kinds of films.  I must admit that Rocky still looks like he could take Drago (or at least that Stallone could take Lundgren) despite the fact that the Russian is a head taller.  Much more believable than in later years, in which Stallone is still trying to capture lightning in a bottle as an action hero, despite the fact that he looks like he would be more comfortable in a walker than an armored tank.

You've got to admit, though, that both John Rambo and Rocky Balboa can instill some patriotic idealism.  Both of these movies deserve at least one look, and even if you don't care for the jingoistic fervor, which quite frankly comes off as something like John Wayne saying "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do".  Whether you watch them or not, just remember, stand up for what you believe in no matter who stands in your way.

I actually prefer First Blood II over Rocky IV, but both are pretty cool if you like this type of movie.

Time to fire up the Plymouth and head home.  Drive safely folks.



  1. The Rambo movies are all uncharted territory to me. I have never had the slightest interest, but I really liked your appraisal of First Blood, Part II (which I didn't even know existed).

    As for Rocky IV, it's a guilty pleasure. Is there anything worthwhile in this film? I don't think so, but I still can't help it...

    1. I like Rambo much better than Rocky as a character. I also find his motivation a bit more like mine. Who doesn't want to be respected for the efforts he puts out? Thanks for reading.

  2. There should be an award for the worst sequel, and it should be called a "Stallony"

    1. "Stallony" Fantastic. Wish I'd come up with it... :-) Thanks for reading.

  3. I haven't seen either one of these, and I have a house full of guys, lol. Great reviews, though!

    1. You ought to get the guys to make a weekend of Rambo. Thanks for reading.

  4. Really good reviews, Quiggy! You did a great job highlighting the historical surroundings of each picture as well as the similarities and differences between each project! I also participated in this blogathon, where I reviewed a Hallmark production called 'The Cabin'. Here's the link if you want to check it out:

    1. I majored in history in college so I tend to add history to my reviews. (Never completed my degree, but I was specializing in cultural history of the Cold War) Thanks for reading.


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