All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD

Producer: Avi Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, Yariv Lerner and Les Weldon
Director: Adrian Grunberg
Writer: Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Pereis-Mencheta, Oscar Jaenada, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Fenessa Pineda, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio and Marco de la O
Studio: Lionsgate

D

When Ryan Coogler revived the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed” in 2015 after a hiatus of nearly twenty years, he succeeded by injecting it with new blood—namely, the title character played by Michael B. Jordan, with the original punch-drunk pugilist relegated to a supporting role. As the subtitle of Sylvester Stallone’s latest “Rambo” movie, the first in that franchise since 2008, suggests, “Last Blood” does not attempt a similar transfusion: it merely replicates the template of the earlier installments, with minor modifications, and as a result it’s simply redundant—and as absurdly simple-minded and violent as its predecessors. Despite the action-packed last half-hour, “Tired Blood” might be a more appropriate description of the result.

As the movie opens, Rambo is ensconced at the remote family horse ranch he repaired to after all the mayhem of the 2008 movie in Southeast Asia, though he continues to suffer from PTSD resulting from his Vietnam service—as evidenced by his regular consumption of prescribed medication and the labyrinth of tunnels, stocked with arms, that he’s constructed under the homestead to ward off prospective attackers. (The set-up makes the defenses that Nick Nolte’s reclusive geezer surrounded his cabin with in “Angel Has Fallen” look meager by comparison.) He lives there with what’s effectively his adoptive family—housekeeper Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her college-bound granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), for whom he’s her doting Uncle John.

But Gabrielle feels the pangs of separation from her father Miguel (Marco de la O)), who left her and her mother years before, and has received word about his whereabouts in Mexico from Jezel (Fenessa Pineda), an old friend. Despite admonitions from both Maria and John, she goes across the border to find him. The reunion does not go well, and Gabrielle is kidnapped, with Jezel’s connivance, by a gang headed by the sleazy Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada), who force her into their prostitution ring and get her addicted to drugs.

Rambo naturally comes to her rescue, but when, with help from the reluctant Jezel, he scouts out the Martinez headquarters, he’s spotted and brutally beaten. (It’s part of the Rambo narrative that he must suffer before unleashing his full wrath. Rocky’s victories always follow severe beatings, too. There’s a strong strain of masochism in Stallone’s mythic world.) Luckily, he’s rescued by Carmen (Paz Vega), a reporter who lost her sister to the Martinez gang and is now investigating them. She nurses him back to health and gives him the information he needs to locate the brothel where Gabrielle is being kept and free her, eliminating her captors in the process.

Nonetheless events require a more definitive form of revenge, and to achieve it Rambo returns to Mexico and, by eliminating Victor Martinez in a particularly grotesque fashion, lures Hugo to cross the border with his army and assault the ranch. Naturally, Rambo has booby-trapped the place with an incredible assortment of blades, bombs and firepower, and he systematically eliminates the seemingly endless supply of hostiles before confronting Hugo one-on-one and exacting the supreme retribution, savoring every instant before taking to the rocking chair on his porch, satiated. The credits crawl is given against a montage of clips from all five of the Rambo movies, from 1982 to the present.

One has to admire to seventy-three-year-old Stallone’s ability to handle the physical demands of the Rambo role, even if the stiffness shows even apart from the action scenes. As an actor he’s as inexpressive as ever, and his mumbled delivery of dialogue remains a problem. But his world-weariness certainly fits the character at this stage. No one else in the cast can bring any subtlety to parts that are written in the broadest strokes. That’s especially true of the actors playing members of the Martinez gang, all of whom are portrayed in the most stereotypical, single-note terms.

But then the whole movie is nothing more than a grim, ultra-violent fantasy of retribution in which any hint of moral nuance or ambiguity is ignored. It offers easy satisfaction of a viewer’s bloodlust without bothering with any niceties about law or justice—after all, it’s assumed, such concepts are meaningless in Mexico. No wonder that the movie, even if one finds it satisfying in a purely visceral sense, leaves a very sour taste.

It has, however, been competently made from a purely technical standpoint. Adrian Grunberg’s direction is uninspired but adequate, and though the cinematography by Brendan Galvin and editing by Carsten Kurpanek and Todd E. Miller naturally descend into something of a muddle in the climactic assault sequence—it’s impossible to understand how many attackers there are, or what even the approximate topography of the tunnel system is—they’re generally competent, and one can always rely on Brian Tyler’s score to pump things up as required.

Could a new “Rambo” movie have rejuvenated the franchise the way “Creed” managed with the “Rocky” one? Perhaps. But this one is just a retread twenty years on, with the hero older, grayer but otherwise the same avenger-in-chief.

RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL

Producer: Jim Steele and Michael Mendelsohn
Director: Jason Cabell
Writer: Jason Cabell
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Leslie Bibb, Clifton Collins Jr., Peter Facinelli, Natalia Reyes, Christian Tappan, J.T. Holmes and Cole Hauser
Studio: Quiver Distribution

C-

The latest in Nicolas Cage’s apparently inexhaustible supply of B-movie potboilers is a slow-moving account of the transport of cocaine from Colombian fields across the Mexican border into the United States and the efforts of U.S. agents to disrupt the pipeline. But this time around he’s not the only show in town, as he often is, since Laurence Fishburne and Barry Pepper, among other recognizable actors, are along for the ride.

Writer-director Jason Cabell apparently believes that withholding character names will give the movie some sort of iconic tone, so Cage is identified merely as The Cook (though in the closing crawls, it must be noted, the actor’s first name is erroneously spelled as “Nicholas”). By day he’s a family man running the kitchen in a Seattle pizzeria, but he’s also a specialist in determining the quality of cocaine. That explains why, when a profitable supply line bringing the drugs to Canada hits a quality snag, Vancouver-based The Boss (Pepper) details The Cook and a colleague, a lustful, dope-snorting dude simply called The Man (Fishburne) to handle a shipment personally to isolate the problem.

Simultaneously, the Agent in Charge (Leslie Bibb), who has very personal reasons to want to upend the gang, has identified a cog in the operation, The Snitch (Adam Goldberg), who can be compelled to cough up some details about how it’s run. Together with her Number One (Peter Facinelli), she’s hot on the trail of the bad guys—though given the way things turn out, “hot” would seem to be an exaggeration.

After a prologue that—as so often in such movies nowadays—telegraphs the end by showing a man being tortured, “Running With the Devil” basically juxtaposes the Agent’s efforts with the movement of the drugs. Their journey begins with the work of The Farmer (Clifton Collins, Jr.), whose crop is transported to a drug lord who has no tolerance for mules who try to skim a bit of the produce off the top. The trip continues overland in backpacks and trucks until the shipment is flown into the U.S., where it reaches The Cook at his campsite in a national park. There he’ll be joined by The Man, and after taking care of a human problem the two are off on a hike through the wilderness, which does not go well. At each stage of the itinerary—shown on maps—the escalating value of the shipment is indicated via “breaking news”-style captions. The trip concludes in Canada, where The Boss awaits his goods along with his Executioner (Cole Hauser) and loose ends are tied up. The Agent watches, as it turns out, quite helplessly as the transaction finishes, but she’s not willing to let the matter drop, willing as she is to resort to unconventional tactics to see that justice is served.

There’s surprisingly little excitement to all this rather tedious movement of drug dealers and law enforcement types, especially since Cage offers virtually none of his customary wildness, instead playing The Cook as an owlish, bespectacled guy just doing his job. In a switcheroo, it’s Fishburne who goes gaga this time around, chewing the scenery as he gives in to The Man’s voracious appetite for sex and drugs and his determination to one-up his rivals. The other actors pretty much just go grimly through the motions dictated by the plot, but one has to have special sympathy for Goldberg, who spends much of his screen time in his undies, strung up in torture mode. One supposes that a paycheck, any paycheck, goes far to overcome any indignity.

Cabell’s script doesn’t amount to much—the multiple twists at the end, intended to be surprising, fall flat—and his direction is pedestrian. Cory Goryak’s widescreen cinematography is, however, professional, and from a purely technical standpoint the movie is adequately done, though, as too frequently nowadays, Reinhold Heil’s score consists of dreary pulsating music periodically interrupted by those dull menacing synthesizer groans that are meant to add a note of foreboding to the mix.

Nameless people move around a lot in “Running With the Devil,” but the end result is drearily aimless.