RAMBO III (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Peter MacDonald

Written by: Sheldon Lettich & Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Kurtwood Smith, Marc de Jonge, Sasson Gabai & Doudi Shoua

In 1982, FIRST BLOOD surprised audiences by being an action movie with more on its mind than mere explosions and violence. In 1985, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II cemented itself as one of the most entertainingly bombastic action extravaganzas of the 80’s. The sequel was so over-the-top, ridiculous and enjoyable that it instantly cemented the character of Rambo as a staple in the action genre. The character’s popularity grew to a point where an animated series was made, comic books were published and plenty of cheap rip-offs followed. By the summer of 1988, RAMBO III had a lot to live up to and though it banked at the box office, this third installment falls far below the previous two films.

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After fighting a corrupt small town sheriff and rescuing POWs from the jungles of Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has taken a breather in Thailand. He helps Buddhist monks repair their temple with money earned through underground fight clubs. Rambo’s past comes knocking when former friend Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) attempts to recruit the hardened veteran for a top-secret mission to stop Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Rambo refuses and the mission goes horribly wrong. Driven by guilt and a desire to rescue the now captive Trautman, Rambo journeys to the Middle East to band together with Afghani freedom fighters against a heavily armed, vicious Soviet force. Bullets fly. Rambo yells. Things go boom.

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RAMBO III’s problems emerge in the opening minutes in which we see a softened, reclusive Rambo receiving a clichéd as hell speech from Colonel Trautman. This more humanized version of the titular action hero might have been well done if it were directed by someone with more experience. Instead, first-timer Peter MacDonald (who served as a second unit in the second film) can’t seem to pull it off. Rambo’s Thailand Buddhist scenes are a combination of silly and stupid, being rightfully parodied to no end by plenty of comedies (HOT SHOTS 2, ACE VENTURA 2, MACGRUBER, etc.). MacDonald stated in later interviews that he attempted to turn Rambo into a funny and vulnerable character, but that he “failed miserably.” At least the director can own up to his short-comings, because the non-action sequences of RAMBO III are an endurance testing chore to sit through.

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The first 40 minutes of the 101-minute running time needlessly pad the film with filler, including: extra characters, sentimental moments of Rambo indulging in local customs (like playing a horseback game), and an annoying little kid who compromises a would-be suspenseful moment by becoming a gun-toting sidekick. Stallone seems slightly bored as Rambo and is going through the motions of his stone-faced, gruffy-voiced action hero. Meanwhile, Richard Crenna is given slightly more to do as Colonel Trautman and actually saves Rambo’s ass a few times. Crenna’s smaller moments were a nice change of pace from a series that frequently shoved Rambo into the spotlight.

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The supporting characters in RAMBO III aren’t given much to do at all. Kurtwood Smith (a regular face in cheesy action flicks) only shows up to tell Rambo that Trautman has been captured. Sasson Gabai plays a charismatic freedom fighter, but doesn’t receive too many moments to shine. His character mainly exists to cover Rambo, shoot off-screen bad guys, and make wise-cracks about Rambo being a “tourist.” Though there’s one scene near the end that I’m sure received applause when this movie originally played in theaters, Gabai’s charming sidekick is sadly wasted for a majority of the film.

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Still, Gabai’s underused freedom fighter is more interesting than boring Soviet villain Zaysen (played by a dull-as-dirt Marc de Jonge). Though his eventual demise is a show-stopping set piece and one of the film’s biggest highlights, Zaysen is a boring antagonist. At least, his Russian companions receive hilariously bad subtitled dialogue before they bite the big one. A moment in which someone yells “To the motherland!” while charging down a hallway made me laugh hysterically. These Soviet baddies contribute to the film’s whopping body count of 108 kills. If Rambo was waging a war in the second installment, then this third film is all-out genocide. It should also be noted that RAMBO III actually broke the Guinness World Record for “the most violent film ever made,” though it was eventually surpassed by 2008’s RAMBO.

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Seeing that director Peter MacDonald helped create the second film’s explosive action, it would be safe to assume that RAMBO III’s combat scenes more than deliver. These long fiery chaos-filled sequences are easily the best part of the film and mostly balance out all of the bad acting and boring patches to make for a middle-of-the-road experience. There are great fight scenes, creative bad guy deaths, a “Ra! Ra! We can do it!” attitude, and plenty of explosions. Still, the action only makes up half of this movie and the rest is dedicated to a flimsy story, Stallone trudging through the dull motions and shadows of better films in the series’ past. RAMBO III is made especially disappointing by how entertaining its two predecessors are, but remains a watchable, okay-at-best action flick.

Grade: C

FORTRESS (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language, and for Sexuality

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Directed by: Stuart Gordon

Written by: Troy Neighbors, Steven Feinberg, David Venable & Terry Curtis Fox

Starring: Christopher Lambert, Kurtwood Smith, Loryn Locklin, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles & Clifton Collins Jr.

FORTRESS is a futuristic prison thriller from Stuart Gordon. If you know who Stuart Gordon is, then that statement should pretty much tell you all that you need to know about this film. If you aren’t aware of this cult filmmaker’s existence, I should tell you that Gordon has directed a number of B-flicks that range from delightful (RE-ANIMATOR) to pretty bad (CASTLE FREAK). FORTRESS finds someone giving Gordon a slightly bigger budget (8 million) than he was probably used to and him using it to craft a crazy B-flick that’s best enjoyed with beer and pizza. It should be noted that this film was a big success at the box office upon its initial release in 1993 (even inspiring a direct-to-video sequel), but it has since faded into obscurity. That’s both kind of a shame and wholly understandable. This is borders on so-bad-it’s-good territory throughout, but there’s something hugely watchable about it in a really stupid way.

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In the dystopian world of 2017 (dun dun dunnn), America has turned into a Totalitarianist state with a strict population control law. This futuristic law rules that there is to be only one child per woman and that’s it. When former black beret John Brennick and his wife try to buck the system and head for Canada, they’re caught and sentenced to 31 years in a maximum security prison. This computerized penitentiary is owned by the corrupt MenTel Coporation, run by the evil computer system Zed, and ruled over by the tyrannical warden Poe. John Brennick soon becomes fed up with this harsh prison life and puts together a plan, with the help of his cellmates, to rescue his still-pregnant wife from warden Poe and escape the confines of the heavily guarded underground prison.

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You should kind of know what you’re in for when Christopher Lambert is headlining a film. Though I only know him as Rayden from MORTAL KOMBAT (a childhood favorite of mine that has not aged well), Lambert was a raspy-voiced B-movie star of his time. In this film, he’s devouring the scenery and kicking ass like it’s going out of style. Loryn Locklin (who has a grand total of five titles in her filmography) stars as Lambert’s character’s wife and pretty much plays a damsel in distress who uses her feminine charm to aid the rescue mission. Lambert’s cellmates are comprised of a young Clifton Collins Jr., a Tom Towles who basically looks exactly the same as he does now, and Jeffrey Combs as a geeky hacker wearing ultra-thick glasses. Kurtwood Smith is delightfully over-the-top as Poe who milks the insane villain clichés for everything that they’re worth. The dialogue these performers are spewing out show that this was very much a 90’s sci-fi action flick. Two of my favorite lines are Jeffrey Combs saying “Right on, man!” when discovering a crucial point of the escape plan and Poe yelling at Zed that “you’ll be lucky if you end up as a speak and spell after this!” This film is kind of hilarious, whether or not it was intended to be that way from the start.

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Aside from bad acting, a silly script, and cheap effects that have not aged well, FORTRESS is as ambitious a film as much as it is a cheesy one. There are lots of ideas at play including: monitoring dreams, over surveillance, futuristic computer run buildings, half-men half-machines, and population control. It’s almost like 1984 had three-way with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and HANDMAID’S TALE and this is what they pumped out. What’s really entertaining (albeit unintentionally so) is when FORTRESS tries to be very futuristic…but on a budget. It should also be noted that this film will please horror fans looking for an over-the-top gory flick, because the prisoners are all outfitted with devices called “Intestinators” that can explode at the slightest nod of the computer. As you can probably imagine, this leads to plenty of exploding people and giant gaping wholes in certain prisoners.

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FORTRESS is a big dumb B-flick that’s loaded with clichés, corny effects, over-acting, and high concepts that happen to be executed in very silly ways. You know what, it’s damn entertaining…even if it’s for the “wrong” reasons. I very much enjoyed kicking back and watching this silly, silly movie. It’s not great or particularly good, but I’d imagine this flick would go over well in a room of drunk friends with lots of pizza. It’s that kind of movie. If you’re up for that sort of thing, then by all means, give it a watch.

Grade: C+

TO DIE FOR (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, and for Language

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Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Written by: Buck Henry

(based on the novel TO DIE FOR by Joyce Maynard)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya & Wayne Knight

TO DIE FOR, inspired by the insane true story of Pamela Smart, is a weird movie to say the least. Gus Van Sant takes the basis of a wicked crime and manipulative villainess, then adds a mockumentary approach that doesn’t quite mesh well with the story being told. A blending of darkly comedic elements, quirky stylistic choices, and a sinister edge make for an oddball little film that just happens to be inspired by a real-life sociopath. TO DIE FOR is unique, weird, and one-of-a-kind…but also a tonal mess.

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Since her childhood, Suzanne Stone has always wanted to be the center of attention on TV. This goal-oriented, go-getter with delusions of grandeur won’t let anything get in the way of her career…and that includes her bartender husband who just wants to live a simple life as a restaurant owner with Suzanne by his side. Stone’s career as a small town weather girl and media consultant at a high school are not enough as she dreams of being a national news anchor for CNN. This leads her to recruit three teenagers to kill her husband which has unpredictable consequences for everyone involved.

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Gus Van Sant’s mockumentary approach hinders TO DIE FOR’s tension in a lot of ways. We are told upfront through newspaper articles in the opening credits what Suzanne Stone has done and therefore nothing is left to be much of a surprise. The film too often focuses on unneeded “interviews” with the characters in which they talk about a scene and then we see that exact moment play out. It diffuses any ounce of good suspense that could have been built. I can’t help but imagine that TO DIE FOR might have played much better as a traditional narrative, but there’s also a scathing satirical view (about how the media sensationalizes crime and killers) that’s hard to ignore as well. Danny Elfman’s whimsical score works perfectly during key moments, but can also be very distracting. There are fantastic stylistic choices throughout in framing, colors, and a climactic scene that works flawlessly in spite of all the problems surrounding the rest of the film.

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For every negative that can be said about TO DIE FOR, I don’t think anybody can fault Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance as the deluded narcissistic Suzanne Stone. If there’s one reason to watch this movie, it’s definitely Kidman’s portrayal of this sociopath woman with no identifiable moral compass and no problems in hurting other people to get her way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone else in this film feels like they’re from a totally different movie. Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland all play stereotypical dumb teenagers and that’s about it. Matt Dillon doesn’t do much to sell his nice guy husband, who comes off as an annoying idiot…which is probably not the direction that Van Sant originally hoped for. It helps if the viewer feels sympathy towards the victim in a murder case, even if that person wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. TO DIE FOR is populated by a whole lot of irritating characters with the exception of Kidman’s charismatic psycho-bitch.

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TO DIE FOR left me with a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, the story here is really interesting. On the other, suspense is compromised multiple times by the mockumentary approach that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by the end of the film (there are a couple of plot holes). There’s a Danny Elfman score that works in some scenes, but ruins others. Nicole Kidman gives a stellar performance as a well-fleshed out femme fatale, but everyone else feels wooden or clichéd. Overall, TO DIE FOR is a severely mixed bag that’s worth watching once if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: C+

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