Double Feature Mayhem: RAMBO and CLOVERFIELD

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In my left coat pocket there was a Ziploc baggie full of low-fat pretzels and a protein bar, in my right coat pocket was a 20 oz. bottle of Dr. Pepper, and etched in my mind was the steely resolution to do something I hadn’t done in nearly ten years—sneak into the movies. For years I was notorious for buying a ticket to see one movie, and then sneaking in to see at least one more film (although in some cases I would sneak into two more). Sneaking into the movies requires, among other things, crackerjack timing, pockets full of smuggled-in snacks, and a flagrant disregard for the staid conventions that govern this society (and being a cheap-ass motherfucker also helps)—all of which helped in my coming out of retirement as a “theater hopper.” So, it was over the past weekend that I set out to dust off my stealth hopping skills and watch two movies for the price of one—Rambo and Cloverfield.

Sylvester Stallone was finally able to successfully break free of the Rocky Balboa role that was defining his career when he starred as Vietnam vet John Rambo in the 1982 adaptation of David Morell’s novel, First Blood. A film that had long been in development with several of other notable actors attached over the years—including Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman—First Blood seemed to be tailor-made for Stallone. But the truth is that First Blood wasn’t really tailor-made for Stallone so much as it was the film that set his career down the path it has pretty much remained on for three decades. And while First Blood may have been the beast that helped turn Stallone into a joke, the movie itself was great, and along with Rocky and Copland, remains his finest work. But the same can’t be said about the subsequent sequels, Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Rambo III, which amounted to little more than Stallone/Rambo jumping the shark.

rambo-poster.jpgRambo, Stallone’s return as the troubled ‘Nam vet, finds the sixty-something former green beret living in Thailand in relative seclusion. When a group of well-meaning, sanctimonious Christian missionaries look to hire him to take them up river to Burma, Rambo reluctantly agrees. But when the missionaries are abducted by evil soldiers, Rambo finds himself teamed with a group of mercenaries sent into rescue the missionaries who should have been minding their own business in the first place.

Going in, my expectations for Rambo were exceptionally low. I was not disappointed by the contrived script that uses overly simplified politics as a thin veneer to justify the mindless violence that you know you’ll get when Stallone straps on his Rambo headband and goes into his thousand-yard stare. It is especially great seeing a sixty-something year old man, his body pumped full of steroids, running around kicking ass. (I can only hope when I’m that age that I’ll be able to move with the jungle cat-like grace and raging bull power of Rambo—without the use of human growth hormones, of course.) In terms of what you expect from a Rambo movie, this one delivers the goods. But that does not change the fact that while I was watching the film, something happened to me that has never happened before while watching a film—I actually thought to myself, “Wow, this shit is kinda violent.”

Violence in movies has never bothered me, but there was something about Rambo that got under my skin. Sure, the special effects were pretty gruesome, with machine guns and land mines tearing CGI human flesh to shreds in ways seldom witnessed in films before; but that was not what bothered me. During an early sequence, when the nefarious Burmese soldiers lay waste to an entire village, letting loose with an unrelenting barrage of sadistic carnage, I found myself disturbed. First, it was the brutality of what was unfolding on screen that got to me—knowing that shit like this was probably going on for real at the exact same moment somewhere else on the planet. But then, as the violence continued, what got to me was the knowledge that this was Stallone the filmmaker, setting up the audience to understand that these evil Burmese soldiers were the bad guys, and that the violence they were dishing out was merely being done as a cinematic ploy to justify the undoubtedly more violent retribution Rambo would be unleashing in the second act. I sat there knowing that I was being manipulated into wanting to see these bad guys butchered in ways far worse than what they had been doing. And so it wasn’t the violence that was getting to me so much as it was the remedial and rudimentary cinematic psychology that was being plied on me and the other people watching the film. And then it bothered me that it actually worked, because when Rambo and the other mercenaries begin to dispatch the villains, I found myself caught up in the visceral display of exploding bodies that were substituting for exposition and dialog. And then I felt conflicted about being entertained by a film that was as clearly “not that good” as Rambo was, which only added to the frustrating notion that I must be getting older to be thinking about such things, instead of just shutting the fuck up and enjoying myself.

The final credits on Rambo had started to roll, and because I had planned my theater hop with uncanny precision, I had time to check my voicemails, return a phone call, and shake hands with the devil in the restroom, with about five minutes before Cloverfield started. Honestly, it was a good feeling, knowing that I had not lost my sneaker skills. I even walked past the same concession person three times, boldly challenging her to notice that I had walked out of one auditorium, and was headed for another. I didn’t even bother to employ some of my old sneaker tricks, like using disguises to make myself less obvious when pulling a hop, or hiding out in the bathroom. To put it simply, I didn’t give a shit.

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Cloverfield, which has now been out for almost two weeks, and therefore discussed to death, was pretty much what I expected. There was absolutely nothing in the film that has not been done a million times before in every single giant-monster-on-the-loose film, with the exception of the point of view from which the story is told. Telling the story from the point of view of a group of those anonymous nobodies we usually see simply fleeing the city in a Godzilla film (or getting smashed), and then shooting the thing as if it were some sort-of home movie shot on a camcorder gives Cloverfield a sense of originality, especially within the context of this genre. The inevitable comparisons to Blair Witch Project are obvious, as well as some lesser known films like The Last Broadcast, Interview with the Assassin and The Wicksboro Incident, which employ similar stylings. And of course, Cloverfield and all these other films owe a huge debt to Ruggero Deodato’s profoundly disturbing 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. But Cloverfiled does manage to up the stakes in this off-shoot genre of “found footage filmmaking” by employing some impressive special effects. If the film proves to have any lasting staying power and is able to hold up years from now, it will be because of the way the deadly creatures are integrated into the film. But at the same time, I don’t see the film as being some type of modern classic that will be viewed and analyzed years down the road. Although I could be wrong, because I thought Can’t Stop the Music starring Bruce Jenner and the Village People would be a modern classic, and somehow it isn’t.

For what it was—a film that I snuck in to see on a cold Sunday afternoon and didn’t pay a dime to see—Cloverfield was an entertaining film. But what I found interesting were the similarities between Cloverfield and Rambo. Cloverfield is not so much about a deadly monster attacking New York City, as it is about Rob (Michael Stahl-David) racing across Manhattan to rescue the love of his life, Beth (Odette Yustman), from certain death. The backstory of Cloverfield is the monster attack, which becomes a metaphor for pretty much anything you want it to be, as the main story of Rob and his friends trying to save Beth unfolds at the forefront, providing the film’s theme of personal sacrifice for something more important than yourself. Everyone in Cloverfield is sacrificing themselves out of love and friendship, driving home the point that it is better to run into the face of certain doom to help someone you love, than to run to safety and leave them behind. Ultimately, Rambo is about pretty much the same thing, and even though love isn’t the key ingredient, the basic theme of the film—drenched in blood and spilled guts though it may be—is that there are some things worth risking your life for. Rambo even spells out the guiding theme and principal in the film that bears his name as he mumbles, “Live for nothing, or die for something.” And that seems to be what both Cloverfield and Rambo are trying to say, despite the fact that both films couch that message amidst an unending barrage of death and destruction.

What is interesting is that after watching Cloverfield, I found myself wondering, “Who would I go back for?” The obvious answer is certain family and friends that I would die trying to save. But I wondered if there was ever a woman that I felt so much love for that I would be willing to risk death by way of some hideous creature that shits other little hideous creatures. The burning question of what are you willing to do to protect the ones you love is ultimately what drives Cloverfield in much the same way it drove The Mist (a film with many similarities that is superior). And I suspect that is part of what resonates with audiences that are connecting with Cloverfield, and able to see past the shaky camera work that turns some people off. (And for the record, there was a woman I would have gone back for, but that was then, and now I would most likely get by with hoping to find someone in the aftermath of the alien attack I had fled like a crying little bitch-boy.)

Neither Rambo nor Cloverfield are great films. Both have flaws to be certain. But at the same time, both are entertaining in their own ways, and as a pair of films seen for the price of one, on a Sunday afternoon that would otherwise be spent doing laundry, I don’t think I could have asked for more.

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