‘The Hangover’ is Still a Blast to Watch

The Hangover movie poster

The best way for me to describe “The Hangover” is that it is wicked funny. Not once are the filmmakers ever afraid to break any particular taboos, and its setup is ingenious. While part of me wishes that I got to see it before the hype machine exploded and went into overdrive, this movie proved to be one of the best times I had at a theater back in 2009.

“The Hangover” stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha as a group of guys who are on their way to spend a fun filled weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. The groom, Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), is only a couple of days from becoming a married man, and his close friends and soon-to-be brother in law Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) take him out on the town to show him the time of his life while he is still a free man. They celebrate this moment together on the top of Caesar’s Palace where they are staying for the night with a couple shots of Jägermeister, toasting to an evening they will never forget. But it is no surprise that they do, and they have to retrace their steps in order to escape the craziness of their sudden situation.

Todd Phillips, who previously directed Will Ferrell to the Streakers Hall of Fame in “Old School,” uses “The Hangover” to continue his exploration of the lives of men who just cannot seem to grow up. Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper) is a schoolteacher, a married man and a father, and yet he seems the most eager of the four guys to live life to the max, free of all obligations. Stu Price (Ed Helms) treats this as an opportunity to escape his girlfriend of several years, who can never stand to have him kiss her I might add, and trick her into believing he is actually going to wine country in Napa County. For Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), this is just another place where he can be his usual socially maladjusted self as he is the man child character who easily creeps people out regardless of whether or not he realizes it.

By putting us in the vantage point of Phil, Stu and Alan, “The Hangover” turns into an unpredictable comedy as we go along with these three men and discover what shenanigans they ended up getting themselves Looking back, I am not sure how much these events would stand up to logical scrutiny, but this movie is so much fun, WHO CARES?! It is not like we are watching a “Saw” movie for crying out loud! What I love about “The Hangover” is how it keeps building up from one utterly bizarre situation to another, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

I refuse to spend this review ruining the best parts of the movie for you, so let us just get to the talent involved. Bradley Cooper got a great opportunity to shed his bully image which he perfected in such movies as “Wedding Crashers.” Well actually, he did not permanently shed it here as his character gets people to do things they would not otherwise do under normal circumstances. But his role here in “The Hangover” succeeded in breaking him out of his typecasting dilemma of being the snobbish bully as he gives this movie its coolest character.

Ed Helms has appeared on the American version of “The Office” and was a correspondent “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. As Stu Price, he gives us this movie its resident wimpy nerd character, a common stereotype in comedies. Indeed, any actor in this role could just get away with simply playing the character as a pussy-whipped bitch with the shy and awkward smiles, letting the glasses define them on the surface to where they are easily identifiable, and wearing tidy clothes in the most inappropriate of venues. The fact Helms never stoops to playing all these behaviors and appearances makes his performance come off really well. We have a good idea from the start of where Stu will end up by the movie’s end, but Helms takes him from being a wimp to a stronger man in a very believable way, and he makes Stu ever so endearing as a result.

Hey wait a second… Let’s talk about the sexiest character in “The Hangover.” She is an escort and exotic dancer named Jade, and she is played by irresistible Heather Graham. It has now been a many years since she burned herself into our collective consciousness as Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights,” and I was thrilled to see her here. No one should forget what a great actress she is, and many projects she has appeared in over the years have squandered her talent. The Hangover” shows she has not lost an ounce of her talent and never will. After all these years, she is still an actress who deserves your attention.

As Alan Garner, Zach Galifianakis gives us someone whose sanity seems to be quite questionable, and what he says about himself hints at just how screwed up he really is. You can only guess at what kind of character he really is, and the rub there is what you say about him could end up saying more about you. Alan Garner turns out to be one of the more unpredictable characters in movies to where you almost live in fear of what he might do next, and this is even if he has you laughing your ass off throughout. The way he bonds with these guys is anything but healthy.

In addition, “The Hangover” features some great cameos throughout. Seeing Mike Tyson rock out to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” is a comic highlight. I also loved Jeffrey Tambour who is always a deadpan delight in everything he does, and as Alan’s father, Sid Garner, he personifies the knowledge of how what goes on in Vegas really needs to stay there, seriously. And Ken Jeong, very memorable as a doctor in “Knocked Up,” is a gas as crime boss Mr. Chow.

“The Hangover” is not politically correct to put it mildly, but in the end, this is just a movie you should sit back and have fun watching. Years after its release, it is still a blast to take in.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Advertisements

Andy Serkis on Returning to Play Gollum in ‘The Hobbit’

Gollum in The Hobbit

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It is a thrill to see Andy Serkis return to the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While we marvel at the special effects which gave Gollum his unique if wretched look, it was Serkis who breathed life into the character in a way no one else could. His success in “The Lord of the Rings” got him cast in “King Kong” in which he portrayed the big ape, and audiences were begging to see him get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Seeing Serkis return to the role that made him a star brings everything around full circle for the actor, and we are constantly fascinated at how he approaches roles that surround him with a wealth of special effects.

Serkis first played Gollum over a decade ago, and the character was 600 years old back then. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place sixty years before the events in “The Lord of the Rings” so he looks a little better here, but that is not saying much. But what has really changed about how Serkis plays Gollum is the technology involved in filmmaking. While “The Lord of the Rings” movies were shot on film, “The Hobbit” was made digitally. Serkis talked with Fox News’ Ashley Dvorkin about the differences this time around.

“So I was acting with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin and we would all play out the scenes together, so that hasn’t changed,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “But the thing that’s changed is that I had to then go and shoot it again on the motion capture stage. So I had to repeat everything twice. So I shot everything twice in effect. Whereas 12 years later, now we have full performance capture on set so I can just play the scene once – I’ve got a head mounted camera which is capturing all my facial expressions. The suit is able to act in a live action set and we just played the scene like, two conventional actors playing the scene with each other. So it’s much, much better.”

Gollum, be it in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” has always resembled a heroin addict who is relentlessly eager for his next fix. In talking with Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine, Serkis said the character’s physicality was “borne out of his addiction to the ring.” The way he describes it, this really was the best way for him to fully inhabit the character, and he talked about the inspirations which played a part in his performance.

“His personality, the involuntary way in which his body spasms when the word Gollum comes out of his mouth, is connected to the guilt that he carries with him in his throat from murdering his cousin,” Serkis told Steinmetz. “He is described by Tolkien in many different ways, as a puppy with Frodo and a spider and a frog. I based him a lot on Francis Bacon’s paintings, the agony and torture, which are in turn based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The references for me were very layered.”

Seeing Gollum move all over, as if he is completely incapable of staying in one place for more than a couple of seconds at a time, makes this seem like one of the most physically demanding roles any actor could take on in their career. I am constantly interested in how Serkis can keep his energy up while playing a character like this as he must get worn out often while on set. He went into more detail with James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment about just how physical playing Gollum is for him.

“It’s very physical. Gollum is an incredibly physical role,” Serkis told Rocchi. “And it’s a combination of physicality and of course vocal. They’re so entwined with each other, so meshed with each other. It’s a pretty exhausting role, but I had such fun playing it with Martin (Freeman who plays Bilbo Baggins). It (the cave scene where they first meet) was the very first thing we shot on the movie as well. It was day one of 276 days of shooting, and there was I was face to face with Martin finding his way into playing Bilbo. And we shot the scene in its entirety every single time. And then Pete would move the camera between takes and let us roll it again. We would just play the whole scene out. And it was really, really exciting when we’re doing it.”

After playing Gollum in several movies, you might think Serkis would be sick to death of this role by now. However, this does not prove to be the case as the character has had a huge impact on his life. He even told Dvorkin he has a full-sized sculpture of Gollum made by WETA (the digital visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand) sitting in his office at his home. Even he is not blind as to the positive impact Gollum has had on his acting career as a whole.

“He’s been like a watershed character for me twice in my life now,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “First of all because not only because he is an amazing character to play the first time around but it was also the beginning of this journey into a performance capture which has enabled me to play so many other amazing roles. By virtue of the fact of him arriving that whole other list of characters has been what I’ve been working on the last decade. And then coming back full circle to playing him again in ‘The Hobbit’ also has brought me to directing. So both times, he’s not only been this amazing creature and great character to explore, but has shifted my life.”

It looks like we will be seeing more of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the future as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is now being expanded into three movies instead of just two. Many fans still have some issues with this as J.R.R. Tolkien novel is only 300 pages long, but Serkis is more than confident in Jackson’s ability to pull this particular trilogy off. Since the actor has already spent a number of years working with Jackson, his belief in the director seems more than justified.

SOURCES:

Ashley Dvorkin, “‘The Hobbit’s’ Andy Serkis has full-size Gollum sculpture in his house,” Fox News, December 14, 2012.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Hobbit’s Andy Serkis on Getting Inside Gollum’s Skin,” Time Magazine, December 11, 2012.

James Rocchi, “Interview: Andy Serkis of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,'” MSN Entertainment, December 17, 2012.

‘Gremlins’ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Review

Gremlins 4K Ultra HD cover

The following review is written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

Gremlins” came out a year before I was born, but the true test of any good to great movie is how it holds up, regardless of how old it is.  While watching this 1984 classic for the first time in what feels like ages, it does show its age in some respects.  However, there is something rather charming about the 80’s comedy/horror film that still holds true to this day.  The film is rated PG, although if it were released today, I would imagine it would get a PG-13 rating.  There is nothing overly graphic about it, but it’s partially a children’s horror/comedy and partially a young adult horror/comedy. Oddly enough, the PG-13 rating was put into place two months after this film, according to research.

Everything gets set into motion when a quirky and outside-the-box inventor named Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) wants to buy something special for his son on Christmas.   He happens to come across a very special creature known as a Mogwai.  The man in charge of the antique shop does not want to sell it, but his grandson does a side deal with Randall in order to get some much-needed money.   He tells the man to remember three things: Don’t get it wet, don’t expose it to the sun, and don’t feed it after midnight.  Randall thinks this sounds simple enough and proceeds to take the Mogwai home to give to his son Billy for Christmas.

All is fine and dandy with the Mogwai, which ends up being named Gizmo, until one night it gets wet.  They learn that this creates even more Mogwais in the process. Things turn even worse when Billy (Zach Galligan) feeds them accidentally after midnight. Now, Gizmo is one of the good ones.  He is adorable and harmless.  The rest of them, however, turn evil and create mayhem and mischief at every corner.  It is up to Billy and the girl he likes, Katie (Phoebe Cates) to stop these gremlins from destroying everything in their path.

Gremlins 4K scene clip

Considering all of the various films that came out in the 80’s that dealt with teenagers/young people in peril trying to figure things out, it’s easy to see why this film was such a success.  We are seeing a lot of that with “It” and “Stranger Things.”  What’s old is new again. People hold a certain affinity for the 80’s and the films that came out during that period.   They also like to see the young kids taking control of a situation.  That is what happens here.  It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand.

“Gremlins” is a very fast-paced film directed by Joe Dante, and he mixes the comedy and horror together just right. The screenplay by Chris Columbus is also very well-written, and this helps the proceedings.  It is not a scary film at all, but it is a film which knows what it is trying to accomplish for audiences. This is a film which is a lot of fun and over-the-top with its use of the various creatures inhabiting it.  While they garner a lot of screen time, it is impossible not to notice the cast which also includes Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman.  It is also great to see a horror film where the parents actually believe the children instead of doubting them, and they are fighting alongside the children against these hideous creatures.

In the end, thirty-five years later, “Gremlins” does show some signs of aging, but as mentioned earlier, considering how people are gravitating toward the horror comedies of the 1980’s with young teens in peril, it works quite well in today’s cinematic world.   With it being released on 4K, this is the perfect time to pick it up and add it to your collection.  The transfer is a solid upgrade, and it’s the perfect movie to watch with Halloween fast approaching.   While there is a lot going on here, it never feels overstuffed or overpopulated.  It feels just right in terms of the pacing, the acting, and the outcome.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

____________________________________________________________________________

Video Info: The 4K is released on 2160p Ultra High Definition 16×9 1.85:1, and the Blu-Ray is 1080p High Definition 16×9 1.85:1.  While the 4K transfer is a solid improvement over the Blu-Ray, it’s not a huge improvement.  The Blu-Ray is pretty basic and does not stand out all that much. It is still grainy in certain scenes, and they didn’t add anything new to the Blu-Ray.  With the 4K, it adds more color with the high dynamic range.  For those like myself who are really big into audio and video, you want to own the best version of this film. Again, it’s the same Blu-Ray that’s always been out there, but you are buying this for the 4K transfer.

Audio Info:  I did not notice a huge difference in the audio on the 4K disc as much as I do with the video quality. However, there is still a slightly noticeable difference here with the audio on 4K, and this is what makes it an especially worthy purchase.  The audio on the 4K is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish. For the Blu-Ray, you get Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 2.0, Dolby Digital: French 5.1, Dolby Digital: Spanish 5.1 (Both Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0).   The subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  There are no problems to report with the audio, and it is consistent throughout.

Special Features:

Filmmakers’ Commentary with Director Joe Dante, Producer Michael Finnell and Special Effects Artist Chris Walas:  If you are looking for the behind the scenes commentary track on the filmmaking process, this is the special feature for you.  They cover a lot of ground here, and it is especially interesting to hear from Chris Walas who would go on from here to win an Academy Award for Best Makeup on “The Fly.”

Commentary with Joe Dante, Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Howie Mandel:  If you are looking to hear from the actors and how they approached this project, this is the right commentary track to listen to as they tell some great stories.  These commentary tracks are on both the 4K and the Blu-Ray.  They are both worth listening to, as they offer something different.

Theatrical Trailers

Photo/Storyboard Gallery

Gremlins Behind-The-Scenes Featurette (06:21):  This was put together when “Gremlins” was being shot, so it is not a modern special feature.  It features interviews with Joe Dante, Hoyt Axton, Zach Galligan, Chris Walas, Phoebe Cates, and Steven Spielberg. Oddly enough, Spielberg did not consider it a horror film or a spoof when talking about it on this special feature from the 80’s.  I wonder what he thinks of the film today.  He said “Gremlins” was unlike anything he had read which was why he bought it and gave it to Dante to direct.  It would have been great to see a more modern special feature which looked back on the film thirty-five years later.

Additional footage which includes an extended opening, an extension of Judge Reinhold’s character, and more with commentary by Joe Dante (10:26): Joe Dante talks about the editing process and how the original rough cut was two hours and forty minutes. He talks about why these scenes were deleted as some were repetitive.  Other voices are heard on the commentary track, but they are not identified.  I believe some of them are from the actors like Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan. You can listen to this with or without commentary.

Should You Buy It?

While there are no new special features, “Gremlins” is a good addition to add to your collection if you own a 4K TV and 4K Blu-Ray player.  The 4K transfer is an improvement, and the price is only $24.99. That said, it would have been nice to see some new special features as well as an updated Blu-Ray release to go with the 4K disc. If they had just put a little more time and effort into that, this release would have been a home run.

Anne Hathaway on Becoming Catwoman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Anne Hathaway being cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises” raised a lot of eyebrows when it was announced. Some screamed she cannot act, but those naysayers forgot she earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in “Rachel Getting Married.” Hathaway has come a long way from her days of making Disney movies like “The Princess Diaries,” and she is more than ready to play tremendously complex characters. But above all else, the homework she put into transforming herself into Catwoman illustrates just how seriously Hathaway took this role.

While this famous comic book character has been given various interpretations over the years from actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, Julie Newmar and Halle Berry among others, Hathaway said she did not look at any of the previous Catwomen for inspiration.

“What’s come before doesn’t limit or even affect this new version. It doesn’t affect me because each Catwoman – and this is true in the comics as well – she is defined by the context of the Gotham City created around her. Catwoman is so influenced by Gotham and whoever is creating Gotham at the time. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was informed by Tim Burton’s Gotham and Eartha Kitt was informed by Adam West’s Gotham. You have to live in whatever the reality of the world is and whatever Gotham is.”

From the start, director Christopher Nolan made it clear to Hathaway that Catwoman would be doing a lot of fighting. Hathaway said she “went into the gym for 10 months and didn’t come out,” during which time she toned her body and learned the various martial arts her character uses. She said her training “wasn’t just about looking a certain way. I had to learn how to fight. I had to become strong.”

Hathaway’s other big challenge was being able to fit into the infinitely sexy leather suit Catwoman is famous for wearing. Eventually, she came to describe the suit as “a psychological terrorist” as the thought of it dominated her time in the gym. Once she put it on, however, her mood towards it changed significantly:

“I love the costume because everything has a purpose,” Hathaway said. “Nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.”

As for filming the fight scenes, Hathaway ended up having to do them while wearing spiked heel shoes. The way she saw it, wearing heels was “part of being a woman in this world.” She credited her role in “The Devil Wears Prada” as great preparation for this as she had to run up and down the streets of Manhattan in spiked heels for that movie. Now she gets to do the same thing in the streets of Gotham.

Former Catwoman Julie Newmar has given her blessing to Hathaway, and she believes the actress will be “marvelous” in the role. Judging from the early reviews “The Dark Knight Rises” has gotten so far, many critics are in agreement. Hathaway’s interpretation of Catwoman looks to be wonderfully unique and well thought out, and it should stand proudly alongside the other interpretations. But in the end, Hathaway is not here to outdo everyone else in this role, but to add her own take to a famous character which is bound to see another actress playing her again when Warner Brothers reboots the “Batman” franchise in the future.

SOURCES:

Geoff Boucher, “‘Dark Knight Rises’ star Anne Hathaway: ‘Gotham City is full of grace’,” Los Angeles Times, Hero Complex, December 29, 2011.

Molly McGonigle, “HOW ANNE HATHAWAY SLIMMED DOWN TO BECOME CATWOMAN,” Wonderwall, MSN.com.

Mary Margaret, “Anne Hathaway: Becoming Catwoman ‘Was a Complete Transformation’,” Parade.com, July 9, 2012.

Cindy Pearlman, “‘Dark Knight’ star Anne Hathaway adds heels to Catwoman’s arsenal,” Chicago Sun Times, suntimes.com, July 16, 2012.

Booth Moore, “Catwoman’s blessing: Julie Newmar says Anne Hathaway will be ‘marvelous’,” Los Angeles Times, Hero Complex, January 24, 2011.

Liam Neeson on Returning to Play Bryan Mills in ‘Taken 2’

TAKEN 2

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Actor Liam Neeson returns to his role as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in the Olivier Megaton directed sequel “Taken 2.” Neeson has long been considered a fantastic dramatic actor, but playing Mills in the original “Taken” helped to reestablish him as an action star. Despite his increasing age (which I am NOT going to mention here), he still appears to be excited as ever taking on an action-packed role like this.

In “Taken 2,” Mills and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped while in Istanbul, and their abductor is the Albanian Mafia Chief Murad Hoxha (Rade Šerbedžija), father of the man Mills killed in the first movie. Neeson was understandably hesitant about doing a sequel to “Taken” as he described it as being “complete in itself” and that the original storyline given to him for the follow up was “not terribly good.” But once producer Luc Besson and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen came back to Neeson with the scenario set in Istanbul, he found himself saying, “maybe this could work. Ok, let’s go for it.”

Like the stars of “The Expendables 2,” Neeson is getting older but he doesn’t look like he has aged as much as Stallone or Schwarzenegger (and I’m not just saying that to be nice). While Neeson revels in doing dramatic movies like “Michael Collins” or “Schindler’s List,” he is still very eager to action movies like “Taken” and “The Grey.”

“I like doing this stuff. It’s come to me later on in life, with the success of the first ‘Taken,’ Hollywood have thrown three or four different action movies my way,” Neeson said. “I feel like a kid in a candy store, I love doing that stuff. I love hanging out with these great stunt guys and fight choreographers. It’s a great catharsis, I love getting the chance to be physical and do this stuff.”

While on “Good Morning America,” Neeson talked extensively about the fight training he had to do for “Taken 2.” His stunt double Mark Vanselow, whom Neeson has worked with for almost 13 years, and fight choreographer Alain Figlarz worked on the action scenes. They started doing them in slow motion in order to get the moves down perfect, and then they eventually speeded things up to where they did the scenes blindfolded to make sure everyone was in sync.

“He (Alain Figlarz) introduced a style of fighting in the first ‘Bourne Identity,’ very close combat, which I found very difficult because I’m a big person and I like a bit of distance in fighting,” Neeson said. “So, I found it a bit strange to do this very close hand-to-hand combat stuff, but we got the fight choreographed, and then it’s a matter of rehearsing it and practicing it every day after we wrapped.”

When he was a kid in Ireland, Neeson said he did some boxing for a time and found the experience helped him with this role in regards to the “work ethic and the discipline to get off my fat ass and go to the gym.”

While these action movies may have come late into Liam Neeson’s life, I am glad they did. We look forward to seeing him kick butt in “Taken 2,” and even if there is not a third movie in this series (which he made clear he’s not interested in), we can still be sure he will play the action hero again in another movie very soon.

SOURCES:

Neeson talks Taken 2 with RTÉ TEN,” RTE, October 1, 2012.

Liam Neeson ‘Surprised’ at Success of ‘Taken,’” Good Morning America, October 1, 2012.

Tom Hardy on Becoming Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

With “The Dark Knight Rises,” we need to look at its actors more closely. In this chapter, all eyes are on Tom Hardy who is playing Bane, the mysterious and physically imposing revolutionary who was excommunicated from the League of Shadows but still intent on completing Ra’s al Ghul’s legacy by destroying Gotham. The question, however, is not whether Bane will be a more memorable villain than the Joker, but of how Hardy transformed himself into this brutal character and made him his own in the process. “Inception” and “This Means War” showed him as being physically average for his age, but his role as Bane has him portraying a massive tank of a human being who maims, if not outright kills, those who attempt to defy him and his ultimate plan.

Now Hardy is no stranger to transforming himself for a role as he did so for Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” in which he portrayed one of the world’s most dangerous criminals who spent almost his entire life in solitary confinement. But here, he is playing a character made famous in comic books for learning to be a brutal fighter. Bane ended up serving the life sentence meant for his father, and he became the one who defeated Batman in the worst way possible.

To prepare for the role, Hardy gained 30 pounds and learned various fighting styles to use in “The Dark Knight Rises.” The actor also described Bane as an “absolute terrorist,” and “brutal,” but also “incredibly clinical in the fact that he has a result-based and oriented fighting style. The style is heavy-handed, heavy-footed… it’s nasty. It’s not about fighting, it’s about carnage!”

Surprisingly though, when Hardy first learned about the origins of Bane, he thought he was the wrong actor to play him. It was through Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman universe, however, which convinced Hardy he could play this role effectively.

“Chris Nolan’s take on [Bane] was intrinsically lateral because he has a way of wanting and desiring to breathe a realism and a lateral thought into that which has already come through the comic book world. I think largely that’s going to upset some people, and there are some people that are going to really hang on to that. And I’m one of those people that really enjoys that actually, to be quite honest – carving a new way through something that’s already a set piece on the planet.”

As for Bane’s accent, Hardy found inspiration in Bartley Gorman who was the undefeated bare-knuckle boxing champion of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Hardy ended up describing him in more detail:

“The choice of the accent is actually a man called Bartley Gorman, who was a bare-knuckle fighter. A Romani gypsy. I wanted to underpin the Latin, but a Romani Latin opposed to Latino. His particular accent is very specific, which was a gypsy accent. So that’s why it was difficult to understand. But once you tune into it, you get it. I hope.”

Clearly a lot of thought went into preparing this role, so it should go without saying Nolan picked the right actor to portray Bane. While it is easy to say Hardy’s interpretation of this character easily bests Robert Swenson’s in “Batman & Robin,” it is also a testament to how great an actor he truly is. Whether or not his performance compares favorably to Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight,” his portrayal of Bane is will never be easily forgotten once you leave the movie theater.

SOURCES:

“The Dark Knight Rises” IMDB trivia page

Kevin P. Sullivan, “Dark Knight Rises Star Tom Hardy Worried He Was ‘Wrong’ For Bane,” MTV.com, July 18, 2012.

Josh Wilding, “TDKR: Tom Hardy Reveals That Bane’s Accent Is Based On ‘The King of the Gypsies,’” comicbookmovie.com, July 17, 2012.

 

‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ is a Disgrace to This Franchise

Rambo Last Blood theatrical poster

Okay, let us cut to the chase: “Rambo: Last Blood” is a disgrace to the long-running franchise. Sylvester Stallone is back as former Army Special Forces Officer and Vietnam veteran John Rambo, but I really do not recognize the character here. Whereas the previous installments observed Rambo as a soldier trying to deal with a violent past, this one instead treats him as just another guy out for bloody revenge. This does not even feel like a “Rambo” movie as it starts off like “Taken” and eventually turns into a mediocre “Death Wish” flick with a ridiculous amount of “Home Alone” thrown in for good measure. Heck, even if Stallone still had the mullet and a bandana or two on hand, my opinion of this godforsaken sequel would be no different.

Ten years have passed since the events of the fourth “Rambo” movie, and our hero has long since taken over his father’s ranch in Bowie, Arizona. While he still deals with PTSD which he combats with an endless supply of anti-anxiety medication, he has found a measure of peace with his adopted family of Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) who manages the ranch with him, and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) who has just graduated from high school. His close bond with them helps to keep his demons at bay, but as he goes through the underground tunnels which he built under his property, those Vietnam flashbacks keep haunting him to no end.

Soon after these characters are introduced, we are quickly reminded of what curiosity did to the cat. Gabriela gets word her biological father, Miguel (Marco de la O), is alive and living in Mexico, she becomes determined to seek him out and gets answers as to why he left her and her late mother behind. Both Rambo and Maria strongly encourage Gabriela not to seek him out as he is a cold man with no heart or conscience, but she defies them both and drives across the border on her own. Instead of a heartfelt reunion, she is drugged by enforcers of a Mexican drug cartel who turn her into a sex slave. As you can expect, Rambo finds out what has happened and heads out to Mexico to bring her home, and much ultraviolence ensues in the process.

Like I said, “Rambo: Last Blood” starts off as another “Taken” movie as our hero goes after a loved one abducted by those who have no respect for life, but while Liam Neeson’s character had a “unique set of skills,” we know Rambo’s will not be so refined. In the end, many of us come to the “Rambo” movies for the action as it is brutal and visceral to take in, and the red band trailer for “Last Blood” ensured its target audience there would plenty of carnage to take in and enjoy. However, this sequel is quickly weighed down by an overwhelming amount of exposition which slows down the proceedings to a sluggish pace, and this is regardless of the fact it has a running time of 89 minutes.

Stallone wrote the screenplay along with Matthew Cirulnick, and it is filled with clunky dialogue, stereotypical villains and a wealth of plot holes you could drive a Mack truck through. But what stuns me is how Stallone leaves us hanging way too long for the scenes where Rambo lays waste to his enemies with a blood vengeance. How long has this character been with us? That’s right, since the 1980’s. So, what is the point of having these cartel members beat the crap out of him early on when we know he can take them on single-handedly? Oh yes, so we can get introduced to an independent journalist named Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega, completely wasted here) to nurse him back to health, give him background information on his adversaries, and then later warn him how nothing will change regardless of what he does.

Seriously, “Rambo: Last Blood” is such a missed opportunity. Instead of dealing with foreign enemies, it would have been more interesting to see him fighting those of domestic origin. There should be no denying white supremacy is a bigger threat to America than anything outside of our borders, and the Stallone would have ended up with a far better sequel if he went in another direction. With Rambo back in America for the first time since “First Blood,” I would have loved to see how he would have dealt with how backwards this country has become. Soldiers who fought for America’s freedom are not the least bit happy about this, and I doubt Rambo would be either.

When we reach the movie’s last half, it descends into a “Death Wish” sequel which would have been better off going straight to video. Plus, as we watch Rambo go over diagrams of the family ranch, preparing traps and transforming weapons and bullets into something far more deadly, it started to feel like the third “Home Alone” movie we could have gotten with Macaulay Culkin had he played Kevin McCallister as a grown up. Seriously, I kept waiting endlessly for Stallone to say, “This is my house! I have to defend it!”

Heck, “Rambo: Last Blood” would have been more ridiculously entertaining had Stallone spent his time reciting dialogur from “Home Alone” as the stuff he comes up with here is simply pitiful. Just close your eyes and think of what Stallone would have looked and sounded like had he said the following:

“You guys give up? Or are you thirsty for more?

“This is extremely important. Will you please tell Santa that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back. No toys.”

“Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.”

“Is this toothbrush approved by the American Dental Association?”

Many have called this sequel “Trumpian” as it deals with Mexicans in a very negative way, and the level of xenophobia “Rambo: Last Blood” has to offer is impossible to ignore after a while. The villains of this piece do little to paint Mexicans in a flattering light, and they are presented as a bunch of one-dimensional schmucks who we should do nothing more than despise and hate. But by not making them a bit more complex to where we can see them as individuals instead of as stereotypes, this just blunts the joy we could possibly get when Rambo makes chop suey out of them.

There is even a scene where Rambo drives his truck straight through a fence placed on the U.S./Mexico border, and I cannot help but think Stallone is subversively saying Donald Trump should get his border wall. At the same time, it has already been established how Rambo can build underground tunnels which can go on for miles. If Trump is to get his needless border wall, there is no doubt in my mind Rambo could dig a tunnel right under it all by himself.

Directing “Rambo: Last Blood” is Adrian Grunberg who previously directed Mel Gibson in “Get the Gringo” and served as first assistant director on Gibson’s “Apocalypto.” Taking this account, I came into this sequel assuming Grunberg would provide us with dozens of action scenes riddled with blood, gore and carnage since he was under the tutelage of a filmmaker who holds nothing back when it comes to ultraviolence on the silver screen. But when we finally get to the climactic showdown, Grunberg ends up giving us a lot of rapid-fire editing which keeps us from fully experiencing the violence on display. Yes, there are moments where human heads are turned into grotesque works of art which would have had Jason Voorhees saying, “Wow! Even I didn’t think of that!” But the action moves so fast to where it is almost impossible to fully see everything going on, and this had me walking out of the theater deeply frustrated.

And there is Stallone himself, who comes in and goes out of this sequel looking like a barely animated zombie with a faint pulse. Watching him here, it became clear just how much he values the legacy of Rocky Balboa more than John Rambo’s. With “Rambo: Last Blood,” he basically sells this iconic character out and gives us something which is about as bad as the many direct-to-video movies he has been churning out whenever he is not involved in a major Hollywood production. If this is to be the last “Rambo” movie, it is a real shame as even a character as jingoistic as this one deserves a far more respectful curtain call. When all is said and done, this is as necessary a sequel as “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” was (which is to say, not at all).

At this point, I would much rather see Stallone make another “Rocky” movie instead of one with Rambo. Furthermore, I hear he is in talks with Robert Rodriguez to make a sequel to “Cobra.” Or maybe he would better off making a sequel to his arm-wrestling film “Over the Top” as Johnny Carson joked it would instead be about thumb wrestling. Even that sounds better than another “Rambo” movie.

Shame on everyone involved in the making of this sequel. Shame.

* out of * * * *

 

Jennifer Lopez on Playing Leslie Rodgers in ‘Parker’

Jennifer Lopez in Parker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Jennifer Lopez has been so deeply involved in the music business for the last few years to where it is easy to forget she is also an actress. Now that her stint on “American Idol” is over, she gets the opportunity to be an actress again in Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.” In it she plays Leslie Rogers, an unsuccessful real estate agent and recent divorcee who has been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is forced to live with her overbearing mother Ascension (Patti LuPone) almost against her will. While “Parker” itself is not a great movie, it allows Lopez to give her best performance since she acted opposite George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”

The part of Leslie Rogers came to Lopez while she was filming a season of “American Idol,” and it made her realize what was missing from her life at that point. In talking with Nina Terrero of NBC Latino, she explained how she was drawn to “Parker’s” screenplay, and being on the set of this movie made her realize how much she wanted to go back to doing this kind of work.

“To be honest, I had been doing music, releasing two albums,” Lopez said. “And when I got the chance to do this movie between two seasons of ‘Idol,’ I realized how much I really missed acting; I hadn’t done enough of it over the past few years.”

“When they offered me a third season of ‘Idol,’ I just had to say no,” Lopez continued. “I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years. It’s just the perfect time in my life with the things that I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced. I have so much to offer as an actor at this point in my life. I’m going to make music and I’m going to focus on my artistry.”

Filming “Parker” came also came around the time Lopez was divorcing from her husband of seven years, Marc Anthony. Now many have been quick to dismiss Lopez’s performance here as they have gotten so used to seeing her being so glamorous whenever she is in public. Regardless, she has been through a rough and tumble time, before and after she became famous, which people in general are not quick to acknowledge. She explained this in more detail during her interview with Terrero.

“We’re both human beings who’ve gone through hard and difficult times,” Lopez said of the similarities between herself and her character. “At this particular time, she’s recently divorced, a little desperate. When I was filming this role, I had similar feelings. I had recently decided to divorce and it was hard to get out of bed and go to the set every day. I knew what those feelings were, to feel your world was falling apart.”

Hackford himself had zero hesitation about casting Lopez in “Parker.” While it might seem rather odd to see this particular superstar playing a down on her luck character, Hackford had known her long enough to be aware of how she had to fight hard to get to where she is now. He made this clear to me during my one-on-one interview with him.

“I know who that person is, she’s for real,” Hackford said of Lopez. “You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work.”

“I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character,” Hackford continued. “You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think, my God she got it, she understood it. Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie.”

Still, Lopez did show some hesitation in her scene with Jason Statham, who plays Parker of the movie’s title, where she has to strip down to her underwear to show him she is not wearing a wire. Even though Lopez said she spent a lot of time eating right and working out before filming this sequence, she is no less nervous about doing stuff like that today than when she first started out in movies.

“Doing scenes like this one are so nerve-wracking,” Lopez said. “You have to get mentally ready because it’s a vulnerable state, being in front of a crew having to do a scene like that. My heart beats getting ready for it, but you know at the end of the day it’s part of the job.”

Now many may still not be willing to give Jennifer Lopez the credit she deserves for her performance in “Parker,” but this will end up saying more about her critics than it will about her. Lopez actually proves to be quite believable as a divorcee who is trying to put her life back together with varying degrees of success, and she proves to be one of the things in this movie which actually works. At this point, her career can go in many different directions, and she is excited about the opportunities which are ahead of her.

“I always want my fans to be happy with what I do,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to choose my projects based on what I think will please them. I choose projects that are I can excel in and that are real, not stuff that’s fake or forced. I don’t consider genre so much as having a great script, great director and great actors to play off of. Doing an intense drama scene can be as much fun as a romantic comedy. I enjoy all of it!”

SOURCES:

Nina Terrero, “Jennifer Lopez talks ‘Parker’ and her return to acting: ‘I have so much to offer,’” NBC Latino, January 22, 2013.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Taylor Hackford on Parker,” We Got This Covered, January 25, 2013.

‘Rambo’ (2008) Brings Back an 80’s Action Hero, and Leaves a Ton of Blood in its Wake

Rambo 2008 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008 back when this film was released.

With Sylvester Stallone having revived one of his most iconic characters with “Rocky Balboa,” it was only a matter of time before he brought back John Rambo. From “First Blood” to “Rambo III,” the ex-Green Beret was forced to deal with hostile elements which kept him from putting his violent past behind him, and now he is back after a two decade hiatus during which I am guessing this character finally found a way to silence his demons for longer than a couple of years. But when he starts wielding his knife or bow and arrow, the blood starts to flow like a river, and it’s a fast-moving river to be sure!

We catch up with Rambo in “Rambo” as he is living a life of solitude in Thailand where he catches poisonous snakes and sells them, and also drives his boat up and down the river. He has completely divorced himself from the world and its major concerns and, no surprise, he would rather not go back into combat again. To so will have him be reminded of who he really is and of what he cannot escape from. Then along comes a group of missionaries who try to hire Rambo to take them upriver where they can help those who are living in terror of the Burmese army which has no remorse for their suffering. Before you know it, the army descends on the village they are working in, and they wipe out just everybody including babies. Those who survive the onslaught are taken hostage by the army which is led by a vicious general who seems to be devoid of just about every emotion other than hate.

After all these years in development hell, I kept wondering who John Rambo was going to fight this time around. There were rumors he would take on the Taliban or some cult in America. Stallone’s inclusion of the Burmese army is an interesting choice as I am not sure how aware people are of the atrocities they have inflicted. “Rambo” starts off with some documentary footage of the army and the decaying corpses they leave in their wake. While it may seem exploitive to some that Stallone would use this footage here, it effectively sets up how dangerous and cold-hearted these villains are and will be throughout. It succeeds also in anchoring these antagonists in a believable way, and it makes them all the more threatening. Stallone is smart not give us a bunch of cartoonish 1980’s villains here as it would simply take away from the story and turn it into the kind of action flick which has not aged well.

Stallone directs here again as he did with “Rocky Balboa,” and this is the first Rambo movie which has him in front of and behind. It is hard to think of another individual who could have directed it as he knows the character so damn well and so much more than just about anyone else. It is also important to note that, along with “Rocky Balboa,” this is the first time Stallone has directed any movie in about 20 years. Some get rusty when they are away from the director’s chair for too long (we are looking at you George Lucas), but Stallone looks to have stepped back into this position without having missed a beat.

And speaking of action, “Rambo” is overwhelmed with it If you thought the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” was exceedingly violent, wait till you get a load of this film. Rambo does not just blow away his enemies, he eviscerates them in such gory detail to where Dario Argento would be in awe of what Stallone has pulled off here. The ex-Green Beret also slices and dices better than Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or even Michael Meyers ever could. He eviscerates, decapitates, disembowels, and hits his targets with absolute precision and without hesitation. Many have called this the most violent movie ever made, and this may very well be true.

My guess is since this is the first Rambo movie made in two decades, Rambo has been laying low and not causing any trouble. As a result, he has had all this tension building up inside of him for a long, long time. Now had this movie came out a few years after “Rambo III,” then maybe he would not have battled his enemies in such an immensely gory fashion. But since he has been out of action for so long, it somehow makes sense he is slightly angrier than usual when he gets stuck in situations like this. In other words, do not piss him off after a long stretch of time where he has not done any hunting.

Many of the characters we see here do come across as one-dimensional, and this quickly reminded of Stallone’s limitations as a writer. There is a group of mercenaries who are led by one loud mouth Australian who would happily be anywhere else had he not been paid so much for this one job. These characters, however, are redeemed by the end of the movie as they fight for something as opposed to just the dollar. Also, some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but thank goodness there is not too much of it here.

Among the actors teamed up with Stallone is Julie Benz who plays Sarah, the woman who wins over Rambo by meeting him at his level of morality. There is no sex here as Rambo looks to have become too much of a monk to where one wonders if he will ever be sexually active again (“no time for love Dr. Jones!”). But in the end, romance really has no place in a movie like this.

“Rambo” is also helped by a stupendous music score by Brian Tyler who more than honors the themes the late Jerry Goldsmith first brought to this franchise during its humble beginnings. It more than matches the furious pace of the action unleashed on us here, and gets at the deeper feelings of all the characters, especially Rambo himself. Tyler’s score here adds tremendously to the experience of watching this movie.

“Rambo” is not as good as “Rocky Balboa,” but it does deliver as an action movie. In fact, it has set the action bar so high in terms of onscreen deaths to where it will be a complete surprise if any other film in 2008 comes even close to topping its carnage. Anything is possible, but still.

* * * out of * * * *