Character-Driven Action, at Do Some Damage

I’m at Do Some Damage today, talking Rambo, defining characters by their actions, the Devil’s Brigade, and the true story of the most revered Japanese sword going missing in 1945, never to be seen again. All of which come together in Blade of Dishonor.
Part 1 is FREE for Kindle for the next few days. Get a taste.
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2008 Retrospective

Top ten lists suck. Movies can be so different, yet so enjoyable, that it can be difficult to compare them against one another. For example, one of my favorite cinema experiences this year was Role Models, but is it really one of the top 10 movies of 2008? Then again, who the hell am I to think that this blog post is a monument in history, and by leaving out Frost/Nixon I’m upsetting the balance of the universe?

Here are the movies I enjoyed most in 2008. This means they can be the pinnacle of their own genre. That’s why something twee like Son of Rambow or brutal like Rambo can beat out The Curious Case of Benji’s Mean Buttin’.

10. The Fall
Probably the most gorgeous visuals of 2008, other than Wall-E. A injured stuntman (Lee Pace) tells tall tales to a little girl in the hospital, but not just to befriend her. The fantasies he constructs reminded me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the story itself is engaging enough to make it more than eye candy. A sleeper of the year.

9. Milk
Sure, Sean Penn’s performance is incredible. But let’s not give James Franco, Emil Hirsch and Josh Brolin short shrift! Even Diego Luna is good as a drama queen. But beyondf the acting, this is one of Gus Van Sant’s best- he brings us to ’70s San Francisco as deftly as David Fincher did in Zodiac, he captures the feel of the era and makes an engaging biopic out of a political life. And he doesn’t make any pointers to Prop 8 like another hamfisted director might (cough, Oliver Stone).

8. Rambo
Best pure action picture of 2008, one of the most bloody and brutal of the genre, and a fitting end to the John Rambo story (if it’s over). A return to the roots of First Blood and Stallone doing what he does best- staring and killing.


7. Son of Rambow
This is listed as a 2007 film in IMDb but it only got theatrical release in the U.S. this year. So I’m counting it. It’s a delightful childhood fantasy about kids making their own sequel to First Blood, back in the early 80s, in small town England. Great characters, great story. If you liked Big Fish but don’t like Tim Burton’s mopey goth bullshit, this is infused with that childlike sense of wonder, some emotional dashes of reality and no smarm, and none of Timboy’s hangups.

6. In Bruges
The dark comedy sleeper of the year, this is an utterly fantastic hit-man thriller comedy from Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrel redeems himself as an actor after S.W.A.T., and his eyebrows deserve the Academy Award. I warn you, the comedy is fiercely gallows-esque, but everything happens as it must. It’s on DVD, rent it now.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh’s newest is a character study at heart, with Poppy’s indefatigable cheer, her roomie Zoe’s unfazeable calm and driving instructor Scott’s fierce armor of seething rage. But we see through the chinks of that armor, and see something nailed down and in torment (thanks to Gerald Kersh for that great line). Sally Hawkins won the Globe for best comedic actress and hopefully she’ll get a nom at the Oscars, or Eddie Marsan will get supporting, but I think this film will be sadly overlooked. Don’t make that mistake yourself.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
It’s as good as everyone says it is. Go see it. It’s an uplifting experience, and an eye-opening look into Mumbai. Solid acting, and few subtitles if you care about that. Different, exuberant, and an emotional thrill ride. Danny Boyle’s best in years.

3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan transcends the comic book genre with this excellent thriller that reminded me of the best of the Batman Animated Series remade for adults. Heath Ledger gave an incredible performance as we all know, but the secondary characters played by Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine fill in the cracks in reality that form when we watch an eccentric billionaire dress up to fight an insane terrorist in clown make-up. The film is built more like a labyrinthine criminal takedown procedural by Michael Mann, and gripping throughout. I missed it in IMAX, to my enduring shame.

2. The Wrestler
The best drama of the year, and Mickey Rourke’s return to fame. Even if you don’t like wrestling, and think it’s stupid, this is a great movie and deserves you give it a shot. Aronofsky is one of the best directors working today.

1. Wall-E
The best film of 2008. First, it looks stunning- you don’t even know it’s CG until the little cockroach shows up. Secondly Wall-E may be a robot, but he’s one of the best characters this year; and his simple love story, set against the backdrop of a hilarious satire on the future of human expansion (pun intended) hits us smack in the gut to play our heartstrings like a certain Marx Brother on a harp in the middle of a terrific comedy. If you haven’t seen it, this isn’t “just” a kid’s film, it’s Brazil done by Chaplin, and one of the most refreshing science fiction stories in a good while.

Yet to see: Doubt, Choke, Good, Synecdoche, New York, Towelhead, W., Miracle at St. Anna, Australia, Waltz with Bashir, Encounters at the Edge of the World, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Shotgun Stories; I was gonna wait until I saw them all, but the Oscar noms come out tomorrow so I want this here first. Then I can make my predictions, and what I think deserves it- which are almost always at odds.


Documentary:

Standard Operating Procedure – The most important documentary of the year, about Abu Ghraib; Frost/Nixon for real, he gets confessions you won’t believe. No one wants to hear about Iraq anymore, but if you care about this country’s name being dragged in the mud, you should see this film so this doesn’t happen again.

Man on Wire – Excellent doc about Phillippe Petit, who tightroped between the Twin Towers.

Foreign Films:
Let the Right One In – Coming of age movie and vampire tale that throws away Anne Rice’s horrible influence on the genre, and makes us frightened of them again. Incredible.

Tell No One – Excellent thriller based on Harlan Coben’s novel, moved to Paris. The Fugitive with more thrills and twists.

Honorable Mentions (worth seeing):

The Reader
– fine performances in a somewhat overlong and convoluted telling of a strong story about guilt, shame, and the eagerness to go along that makes those who stand up even more extraordinary.

The Visitor – Emotionally powerful indie by the director of The Station Agent, about a withdrawn, widowed professor who gets attached to a couple he finds squatting in his New York apartment. A touching and heartfelt film that shouldn’t be overlooked; if a big name played the prof, this would be huge.

Religulous – Bill Maher shows us the religious who border on crazy and makes fun of them.

Defiance – A fine WW2 story we’ve not heard before. Old-fashioned good movie.

RocknRolla – Guy Ritchie does his thing again, good fun but takes a long time to warm up.

Rachel Getting Married – Fine drama by Jonathan Demme, Anne Hathaway gives an excellent performance, but it is a bit indulgent in the overlong wedding scenes.

Role Models – Funniest comedy of the year.

Iron Man – Probably the most fun I had in a theater. Great action, and Robert Downey Jr. embodies the part and makes Tony Stark his own. Gwyneth Paltrow is delightful as Pepper Potts and isn’t just arm candy. Jon Favreau did a great job directing, and I’m sad Terence Howard won’t be returning as War Machine. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will live up to this.

Gran Torino– Clint Eastwood’s performance will be remembered as one of his best, and it’s a solid story that gives us insight into a culture not many people know about.

Revolutionary Road – great acting, but this is American Beauty: The ’50s.

Frost/Nixon – Great performances but a bit sketchy inbetween the interview parts.

Be Kind Rewind – Overlooked cute and quirky comedy by Michel Gondry with Jack Black and Mos Def.

Kung Fu Panda – One of Dreamworks best- a classic old kung fu movie done for kids with a great voice cast a funny script. Better than expected.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Very funny Apatow gang film with new guy to watch, Jason Segel.
The Bank Job – Solid British heist film.
Pineapple Express – Terence Malick makes a stoner action comedy.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno – Kevin Smith does Apatow; not his best but lots of laughs.
Tropic Thunder – Very funny, Robert Downey Jr.’s second hit of the year. Tom Cruise? yawn.
Quantum of Solace – Too short but a fine Bond film.
The Ruins – Survival horror in Yucatan; very effective.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Beautiful and strange; great comic book adaptation.
Get Smart – Solid movie version of the classic series.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – Funnier than the original? Maybe.
Doomsday – Modern homage to postapocalyptica with Rhona Mitra as the new action heroine.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden – Another good doc by Spurlock.
Young People Fucking – a very funny Canadian sex comedy about 3 couples and their sex lives.
The Wackness- Nice coming of age story about a pot dealer in 1994.
The Foot Fist Way – Danny McBride plays a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor trying to get his idol to perform at his school. If you liked him in Hot Rod you’ll love this. It’s all cruel, sick humor, so it’s not for everyone.

Abominable Mentions (view at your own risk):

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Aliens from Close Encounters – Need I say more?
The Crappening – I didn’t review this because so many had eviscerated it that I felt I couldn’t possibly add anything useful. It’s a heavy-handed ’50s sci-fi that isn’t very scary.
The Strangers – Dumb people get killed.
Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control – Cash in or TV pilot. Yawn.
Death Race – Paul W.S. Anderson continues to make forgettable crap.

A New Year’s Toast to Mediocrity:
Burn After Reading – Fargo in D.C.
Slacker Uprising – A Private History of a Voting Campaign That Failed
The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – Better than 2 not as good as 1
The Incredible Hulk – Everything but super-serum Blonsky is forgettable.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Forrest Gump 2
Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody coasting with a good cast.
Speed Racer – Longer than several seasons of the cartoon.

Son of Rambow

You know you’re getting old when childhood memories start yellowing around the edges like old photographs, when they begin to resemble fantastic nostalgia more than reality, and the colors fade like you’re watching an old home movie. Soon you’ll insist that things were much better back then, before we had vaccines for chicken pox, when the best game in town was Pong, seat belts were optional and tighty whities were the only option available. You’ll forget that good music was just as rare on the radio- ever hear Whitney Houston at an ’80s party? Well, let me tell you in the mid-80s, escaping her ear-shattering wails was as hard as Chinese algebra. The rear view mirror should come with its own warning- objects may not be as rosy as they appear.

Son of Rambow is a movie by Garth Jennings, whose other major feature was the underappreciated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation, which took an impossible book and made a pretty entertaining movie out of it. But defending that movie is for another time. In his latest, he kicks Tim Burton’s mopey goth-boy butt off the parapets and takes his crown, by making one of the best childhood fantasies of recent vintage, about two schoolmates and who become unlikely friends while making their own Rambo movie. He even manages to touch on the prickly subjects of bullies, religion, and authority without stooping to the booger-flinging childish attitudes so prevalent in Burton’s movies. It’s a little subtle and quirky, but I found it truly delightful.



Will Proudfoot is a quiet, imaginative boy whose family belongs to a religious sect which forbids such modern distractions as television, music and the movies. We meet him when he sits outside the classroom to avoid a filmstrip being shown. Wild boy Lee Carter is also in the hallway skipping class, and they don’t so much meet as collide; the strictly raised boy, and the boy who’s raising himself. Lee’s older brother minds him by using him as a house servant for himself and his preppy hooligan pals, leaving him to his own devices as long as he goes to school. He’s got a storeroom full of goodies to play with, and Lee has been sneakily borrowing his ’80s-era video camera- 50 pounds of shoulder-mounted camera and hip-mounted tape and battery pack, just like I remember them.

The only movie showing in town is First Blood, and when Will’s repressed imagination- thus far limited to picture stories illustrated on notepads and throughout his Bible- meets Lee’s Huckleberry Finn-like freedom and utter lack of regard for the law, they collaborate on their own sequel to the Sylvester Stallone blockbuster called Son of Rambo. The movie deftly weaves several plots involving school and home life; the boys prank their schoolmasters, and deal with French exchange students, including a young punk named Didier who introduces the sheltered kids to a walking, talking rockstar who looks like he walked off their Bau-Haus album covers. Will’s mother is a widow, and having trouble with the Brethren; one wants to become part of the household, and thinks Will needs even stricter parenting. It’s to Jennings’ credit that the religious family is not used for mockery, or turned into stereotypes; Will’s mother is devout and does want him to be, but she is never shown as domineering or cruel, and neither is the church.

The movie does have a subtle, fantastic aura, where the early ’80s are a magical, innocent place; little touches, like the shed they hang out in being off-kilter, almost like Dr. Seuss designed it. The music and the look is spot on, with Lee’s self-absorbed jerky older brother driving around in a Triumph TR7 and looking like he walked out of a Polo catalogue. How children were allowed to roam in nearby forests and abandoned factories because we didn’t assumed an adbuctor was hiding behind every bustling hedgerow. The two relatively new child actors are magnificent discoveries and never seem like they are acting; Lee is given to some near-breaks of the fourth wall, as he likes self-narrating, but he rides that razor’s edge perfectly.

The story does follow that “unlikely friends” formula, but their friendship seems founded on abuse- since Lee really doesn’t know how to treat friends, since he has none, and only his brother as a role model- so when they realize what good friends they actually are, it surprises us as well as them. The ending is a bit bittersweet and unlikely, reminiscent of Be Kind Rewind not only in how it centers on a low-budget, folksy recreation, but in the sentimental, caring neighborhood it creates (and longs for). While there’s a touch of Michel Gondry in its whimsy, it also reminded me of Tim Burton’s early (and best) work, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when he was less likely to insert dark little asides to avenge a childhood full of jock bullying. (Even in Big Fish, one of Burton’s best recent films, he had to stick a scene of a jock dying on the crapper which was completely unnecessary).

While set in the ’80s, and involving stunts no 9 year old should contemplate, I think it would be a great kid movie. It reminded me of my childhood. We make stupidly dangerous bike ramps for our Huffy Bandits and Mongooses; if we only had a videocamera! It’s inspirational to the imagination, and there are consequences to their reckless behavior, so it’s not like it espouses jumping off buildings (I did that too, and have a lifelong injury to remind me not to do it again). It’s good fun for adults too, especially for those of us who grew up in the time period- it doesn’t dwell on nostalgia, but captures the era so well that even though it’s set in Britain, I had to grin a lot in remembrance. It even uses some of the best clips from First Blood, like this one again:
And yes, they had to add the “w” for legal reasons, obviously. Just in case Sly gets too old to make Rambo 8, and needs to get rescued by his son.

A Tribute to Tony Maffatone

“Uncle” Tony Maffatone

I recently watched Son of Rambow, a cute kid’s film set in ’80s Britain, about two young kids who make their own sequel to First Blood with a video camera. The film is riddled with the best scenes from that ur-action film, which I saw in the theater at the tender age of 11, with my father. Why? Because my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone was involved in it. Tony was my father’s best friend- if men from that era had BFFs. Men born in the ’40s were more like predatory animals than humans, and would sometimes tolerate each other on their own territory; my Dad and Tony were both hard-asses, and had a deep mutual respect. Both had served as police officers; my father moved to construction, and Uncle Tony became an executive bodyguard, eventually for Sylvester Stallone, which led to small roles, such as a mugger in Nighthawks and one of the two KGB officers spying on Rocky in IV; he’s the one who slips on the ice, which was scripted. He didn’t want to do it, but he did it for Stallone. If you watch the “making of” documentaries for Rambo: First Blood Part II, you can see Tony showing Sly how to fight with a knife. My scary knife collection got its start when Uncle Tony showed me his numbered Jimmy Lile Rambo knives, and a Moran ST-24– one of the Holy Grails for knife collectors.

Skip to 2:42, where Tony chases him from the car; his partner drives

When he was in Thailand and the Middle East working as a weapons consultant for Rambo III, he brought me back a pair of Thai dha swords, a Khyber knife, a kindjal and some Nepalese kukris; thus began a lifelong obsession with dangerous pointy things. My father had made a habit of giving me pocket knives, and a razor-sharp Western M-49 Bowie that hung on my wall, terrifying my grandmother, who had nightmares that it would fall down and behead me. When I got older, I would of course graduate to firearms- especially after getting to handle Tony’s MAC-10, one of the signature weapons of the ’80s. He also showed me the scars where he’d been shot on the job, tempering the respect I had for guns, which were never shown as toys.


Jimmy Lile’s knife from First Blood

Uncle Tony had a small role in some of the most memorable action movies of the ’80s. First Blood is still the best of the Rambo series if you ask me. I love the latest one, but it follows the same formula as the other sequels, while the first story was about how shabbily Vietnam veterans were treated both by the government and the people upon their return. It doesn’t have any hippies spitting on him; it shows the callous disregard of a small town police chief, played by Brian Dennehy, for the burned-out vagrant John Rambo, who only wants to pass through town as he looks up one of his war buddies. That buddy has died of cancer, from Agent Orange, and his family is living in a dilapidated shack.

Don’t push it…

The original gets a bad rap because things would turn 180 with the first sequel, which created the “one arm tied behind our back” and “POWs are still in camps 20 years later, for no reason” memes that fueled the ’80s. It was one of James Cameron’s first films, and has that rollercoaster of relentless action that he would perfect later with Aliens and Terminator 2. Rambo III would try the same formula in Afghanistan, to tepid results; the fight culminates with another duel against a Russian attack chopper, this time with Rambo in a tank, ramming it head-on in a rather unlikely scenario that probably sounded better on paper. The film starts with a great muay thai style stick fight between Rambo and a guy who looks like Al Jorgenson from Ministry, before settling in to a familiar story, where he has to rescue Colonel Trautman with the help of the mujaheddin and a cute Afghan kid, sort of a freedom fighter Short Round. The movie has been sneered at as “Rambo helps the Taliban,” but these guys would be more like Northern Alliance.

It gets a lot of flack as being utterly ridiculous, but it’s not really over the top- hell, it’s not even Over the Top! It’s just mediocre, except for a frighteningly expensive final battle involving tanks, helicopters, mujaheddin on horseback, and truck-mounted heavy machine-guns. There are a lot of explosions, but there’s no real urgency; the director would go on to stuff like The Neverending Story III and would never be allowed near an action movie again. It was the most expensive movie made at the time, but it doesn’t feel like it.


Moran’s ST-24 fighter

The fourth movie brings Rambo back to his bloody guerrilla roots and gives us a believable scene with Rambo manning a .50-cal and mowing down troops- at least he has a shield in the new one. Uncle Tony would be proud. Rambo forges his own knife similar to the Kachin rebel’s head-hunting dha chopper, and goes to town with it. Rambo III, the last movie Tony worked with Stallone on, is probably the last good Sly flick until Cop Land reminded people that he can act when forced. He’s never gone back to the crying emotional rage at the end of First Blood again, but that scene’s always worked for me. This third entry is also the last movie before Stallone started eating steroids by the handful- he looks trim and cut here, before ballooning in size for stuff like The Specialist, where his veiny swollen pecs in shower scene are so horrifying that are distracted from a naked Sharon Stone.

Roid boy

My father said that Tony had stopped working for Sly after this, because Stallone wanted to be part of his own security detail. The action movies had gone to his head; he thought he really was Rambo. Uncle Tony would go on to work for less showy clients, where Hollywood egos and extravagance wouldn’t interfere with the job. He concentrated on his hobby of diving, where he even developed his own equipment. A few years later he tragically died in a diving accident, around the wreck of the USS San Diego, in 2000. One of his close diving friends wrote a fitting epitaph for him here.
His ashes were cast into the sea, and I only learned years later while trying to get back in touch. The last time I saw him was at my own father’s funeral, and he was still in great shape into his late 50’s- regularly running marathons. The next time I dip my toes in the waters of the Jersey shore I’ll think of him. Unfortunately Google also brought up a hit on VeriSEAL, because his obituary article in the NY Daily News had a Hollywood producer named Marty Richards, one of Tony’s clients, claim that he was a “decorated Navy SEAL,” and “Rambo was based on him.” Uncle Tony never made any such claims to me. He was a police officer in Passaic, who trained in security measures and martial arts, and a hero to his friends, family and those clients he protected; there is no need to claim he was a SEAL to boost him up. And “Rambo” was based on the book First Blood by David Morrell; maybe basing the sequel on a “Back to ‘Nam” story was Tony’s idea, but I never heard about it. It’s sad that the boasting of a Hollywood asshole has to tarnish the memory of a good man who can’t defend himself.

update:

I had the honor of meeting David Morrell several times at Thrillerfest and Bouchercon. Rambo’s Daddy is a gracious and talented writer, and he was kind enough to give me a business card where he sits with Stallone, and my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone stands in the background, on the set of Rambo III:

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Rest in Peace, Uncle Tony. I’ll remember reading The Old Man and the Sea when our families vacationed together on Long Beach Island, and we sat on the porch watching the stormy waves hammer the shoreline; I’ll remember lifting weights on the bench in your back yard with you, and sharing dinner with your family. And whenever I see Stallone hold that survival knife to Brian Dennehy’s throat, warning him “Don’t push it- I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” I’ll remember that you were on set giving the iconic action star cues on how to handle himself with a weapon.

R.I.P.

Rambo vs. Pathfinder

I had the pleasure of watching the new Rambo movie, conveniently titled Rambo, in the theater recently. Stallone directed it, and after Rocky Balboa I expected it to be a nice closer for his other profitable franchise. I was not disappointed. I also had the misfortune to watch Pathfinder on cable, to avoid listening to Alicia Keys mangle a Sinatra tune on the Grammys.

If you live under a rock, here is the Rambo trailer, without the crappy soundtrack.

Given the track record of the Rambo movies, you’d think that something new would have an advantage. We know John Rambo, we know what he does, and we’ve seen it 3 times now. Surely a new movie about Vikings encountering Native Americans for battle might be refreshing and good plain fun if not taken too seriously. In this case, you’d be wrong. It has long been understood since the birth of the action movie in the early 80’s that you need a dash of levity to keep the proper tone. For example, the first Rambo movie, First Blood, had Colonel Trautman to wisecrack with Brian Dennehy. warning of the ensuing rampage. The new Rambo movie is somewhat less effective, with its ragtag band of mercenaries and their near-intolerable Aussie leader, but it gives us a break. Aliens had Hudson, Die Hard had almost too many jokes, and Arnold movies always have his terrible one-liners.

Pathfinder has none of this. It begins with an interesting premise, that the Vikings encountered American Indians during their explorations past Greenland, and they did battle. It nearly goes wrong immediately from there, beginning with a young Viking child being abandoned by his warrior father on an early raid because he refuses to murder a baby. Maybe they could have delineated the good and bad guys in this movie by having them eat puppies, to be even more extreme. This also lets us cheer on the Indian tribes while still having a white lead role, very important to Hollywood producers. If only they picked one with some personality, the movie might have been saved. Karl Urban makes Stallone look like Jim Carrey in his array of facial expressions. The man is as interesting as a crash test dummy.

I didn’t go into this expecting realism or historical accuracy, so it doesn’t bother me that the Vikings here migrated from a Molly Hatchet album cover instead of Denmark or Iceland. When they return to slaughter, since they don’t raid for anything here, not even slaves, Viking-Indian boy Karl Urban is the only one who can fight them, because he knows how to use a sword. It must be in his blood. At this point I felt robbed. I wanted to see Indians fight Vikings! There are a few scenes here and there, but it’s mostly Karl Urban in a loincloth jumping from offscreen, some CGI blood, and lots of grunting. By the one hour mark everyone is captured and kept alive for the idiotic reason of leading the Vikings to the next village.

Apparently the raiders do not want to get back into their boat and find it. It’s a secret village. It is invisible. Whatever. These Vikings soon forget that they shouldn’t walk on ice, when he leads them across an icy lake and half of them drown. They don’t learn from this, and next he gets them to walk a narrow mountain path, and tie themselves all together… see where this is going? When they don’t all fall off the ledge, he causes an avalanche that only kills Vikings. The last half hour dragged on forever, and someone should have told the director that the big battle goes at the end in an action film.

I can take a movie where a guy uses his shield as a boogie board and fights Vikings chasing him on sleds. It’s stupid, but at least exciting. Most of this movie was boring, which is unforgivable when you start out with “hey, what if some Vikings got in a fight with some Indian braves?” Two 12 year olds with action figures could have made a better story, and in sandboxes across the world, have probably done so.

Now back to Rambo. It’s not a great movie, not even a great action movie, but it does everything a good action movie should. It also establishes early on who the bad guys are, and how terrible they are. These bad guys also slaughter an entire village, but we are told why, in quick news clips showing the conflict in Burma. It gets the exposition out of the way early and deftly. From there we see where Rambo has been, living in the jungles of Thailand catching dangerous snakes and ferrying people up the river. He is a burnt-out shell of a man, and when he is approached by some happy-go-lucky missionaries who want to bring medical relief to the Burmese tribes undergoing ethnic cleansing, he tells them to go home.

He does this three times because we know he has to relent, and eventually the gal who plays Dexter‘s girlfriend gets through to him. She must have a way with killers. She touches something inside this murder machine, and he brings them to their certain doom to die for a good cause. Of course they are captured about five minutes later, and Rambo’s next job is to ferry mercenaries who are hired to rescue them. He comes to terms with his nature as a hunter of men, and forges a new knife to symbolize this revelation, and also to symbolize a cool thing to lop peoples heads off with.

Before the infamous big battle, Stallone teases us with short scenes where the bad guys blow up villagers with mortars and land mines. The rescue is a night snatch and grab mission, and full of tension. It’s to his credit that even though we know they will succeed, we’re riveted to the screen. When Rambo comes behind a would-be rapist and rips his throat out, it is not shown with slow-motion or quick jump cuts. The camera sits there and we watch him do it. Rambo also looks like someone who is tearing someone’s throat out. In Pathfinder, a Viking slices the fingers off of an unarmed brave who puts his hand up to defend himself. In slow-motion. And the guy’s facial expression doesn’t even change as we see his CGI fingers fly off like Vienna sausages.

By the time the final bloody battle comes, with .5o caliber machine-gun duels, bodies exploding into lakes of blood, beheadings and amputations and disembowelings, seeing through gunshot wounds, arrows through skulls, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, mortars and hippies bashing people’s heads in with rocks, we know we are in a god damn action movie and when the last body hits the ground we are reaching for our asthma inhalers whether we use them or not. The battle is at the end of the movie, which like Pathfinder, is a mere 90 minutes long. At the end of Rambo, every red-blooded male has had his manhood affirmed so deeply that could walk out of the theater, meet his girlfriend in the lobby and giggle, “Wasn’t 27 Dresses fabulous!?! Eeeeee!!!” and skip with her to the parking lot.

If you saw Pathfinder, you’d be looking for the nearest steakhouse slash sports bar to go eat some raw meat and start a bar fight in, because you just watched 90 minutes of Karl Urban jumping around in a loincloth, and may have caught the g-a-y.

It may be considered unfair that I did not include the Pathfinder trailer as well, but if you want to watch Karl Urban in a loincloth, I suggest searching on youtube. I’m afraid if I watch it again, I’ll start to like it.