Breeze Reviews: Rambo Last Blood

While watching “Rambo: Last Blood,” it’s helpful to remember that the character John Rambo, ex-green beret and American legend, committed suicide onscreen in 1982. In the original ending of “First Blood,” the franchise’s first movie, after destroying a small mountain town and killing police numerous officers, Rambo shot himself in front of his former commanding officer, Trautman. It was a moment of profundity in a film that often lacked it. Naturally, test audiences despised the original ending enough that it was eventually changed, which is why there’s now a fifth installment in the franchise: “Rambo: Last Blood.”

“Rambo: Last Blood” is Rambo’s story as he retires to a quiet life on a ranch, riding horses, digging secret tunnels in his compound and, occasionally, blacksmithing. Also on the ranch are Rambo’s friend, Maria Beltran, and his niece, Gabrielle. The movie’s heart is clearly Rambo’s relationship with Gabrielle, which bodes poorly for Gabrielle’s chance of survival given the difficult track record for anyone Rambo cares about.

Gabrielle, against Rambo’s wishes, runs away to Mexico with the hope of finding her estranged father. Upon arriving, she’s promptly kidnapped, kicking off an increasingly gruesome, borderline-racist and entirely xenophobic war between Mexican human traffickers and Rambo. The film has the exact same plot as “Taken” until the final act when it becomes a hard R version of “Home Alone.” Gruesome is a complete understatement. “Last Blood” uses gore more extensively than any film in recent memory. At least 15 characters are either decapitated or have their heads blown up. At one point Rambo slices open an enemy’s chest and pulls his heart out. 

When thinking about a Rambo movie, the movie’s quality is somewhat beside the point. These films have an established formula: Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist wants to lead a normal life, but when Americans are threatened by non-American entities — Soviets, Vietnamese soldiers, a Burmese dictator or, in this case, Mexican human traffickers — Rambo comes out of his retirement to brutally murder everyone in his path.

That’s not to say the movie is bad; it simply doesn’t make any attempt to be good. What it hopes to be is a showcase for Stallone. After being sidelined to a mature, mentor role in the past two “Creed” films, he lets loose, shooting arrows at nameless Latino cartel members and throwing knives at his enemies faces. The movie’s end credit sequence is a series of slow-motion highlights of Stallone in previous Rambo movies, including scenes from “Last Blood.”

Stallone is listed as both a cowriter and a producer on the film, not to mention the fact that his company, Balboa Productions, is the main financier for “Last Blood.” Stallone’s penchant for self-mythology has never been a secret, and in this film, he makes absolutely no attempt to hide it, particularly in a voiceover monologue where he draws a comparison between himself and American national security while sitting in a rocking chair.

As far as the alleged racism and xenophobia, while it’s hard to dismiss those claims, most of the issue is the pure futility of the script. While the script’s inability to communicate anything profound certainly applies to the film’s Latino villains, it also remains present in scenes between Rambo and Gabriella. In an early scene between the two that establishes their relationship and Rambo’s modern-day bliss, the dialogue feels almost alien as Stallone slurs through lines of praise and mentions incomprehensible facts about his love of tunnels.

The poor acting doesn’t help the script by any means, but ultimately, a Rambo film isn’t about characters, plot or dialogue. Rambo films are about John Rambo killing America’s supposed enemies in the name of his country. While audiences may not respond to that idea now, there certainly was a time in the mid-’80s when they did. Given that the mid-’80s was also a time when Stallone was the biggest movie star on the planet, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to go back.

Breeze Reviews: Hustlers

At the beginning of “Hustlers,” the opening lines to Janet Jackson’s song “Control” sets the stage: “This is a story about control — my control.”

“Hustlers” is never exactly subtle in its storytelling, but given the nature of the film’s setting and the pure energy of its protagonists, nuance isn’t necessary.

The film, based on a 2015 New York Magazine profile, follows veteran stripper Romana Vega (Jennifer Lopez) and relative newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu) as they react to the 2008 financial crisis by taking matters into their own hands using less than legal methods.

The autonomy that director Lorene Scafaria uses is a mixture of both visually evident financial anxiety and a deeper, more familial connection. Destiny constantly searches for her place in the world, and with it, a maternal figure who may fill the void her own parents created when they abandoned her. She finds herself an idol in Romana — a former model turned stripper — who, in their first interaction, takes Destiny under her wing, granting her space under an oversized fur coat.

As the two form their eventually illegal alliance and add members Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the family metaphors only grow stronger, culminating with an energetically performed Christmas scene, that firmly cements their bond. The film would make an interesting double feature with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” another film about characters on the outskirts of society who search for a new, selected family in an underground environment. 

Looking at performances, the true star of “Hustlers” is Jennifer Lopez. In her best film performance since 1998’s “Out of Sight,” Lopez’s Romana steals the movie, owning every frame. While “Out of Sight” played on Lopez’s ability to control situations despite her smaller stature, this film does the exact opposite. Romana towers over Destiny and her customers, constantly emanating a sense of power. As Destiny says at one point in the film, “Romana has never been out of control,” and the audience can sense it in each scene. Lopez appears to be reckoning with her pop stardom, treating every location as a stage and creating the illusion of constant performance. Lopez has made a living off being the most charismatic person in every room for the past 25 years, and in this film, she weaponizes that energy with tremendous results. Wu also manages a good performance despite a slightly more difficult role.

While Lopez can steal every scene she’s in, Wu must maintain a wide-eyed inexperience while playing straight against Lopez’s hyperactive dynamo. Wu has made a career off thankless roles in quality material, but in the film’s more dramatic moments, she lends the weight needed to ground Romana’s antics.

That isn’t to say the film is perfect. At times overzealous in its reach, “Hustlers” isn’t always thematically consistent in its message. The audience is asked to grapple with the criminal nature of the protagonists, yet never without a sense of glorification. While the film does introduces the idea of stakes in the criminal enterprise in the third act, the audience never truly has to reckon with the damage these actions cause. At times, this leads to storytelling that feels oversimplified without any shade of gray for the nameless Wall Street antagonists.

Even with these potential flaws, the film pushes through them with clear-eyed intensity. Whenever there’s a turn toward melodrama or an incorrect tone, the performances reign “Hustlers” back in, grounding its audience in their delightful, Robin Hood-esque reality of excess and American graft. In constant communication with the 2008 financial crisis, Romana and Destiny are often confronting the fact that their clients are the cause of the hardship. 

Even though the film’s analysis of American life lacks nuance, the audience sees credibility through the vantage point of these troubled protagonists. As Romana says, “America is a strip club. Everyone has a hustle.” In a film so concerned with wrestling back independence from the Wall Street power brokers who wield it, it’s hard to argue with her.

Nobody Knows Anything

            When I was a kid I was going through the channels and found The Departed, on HBO. I had no idea what the movie was, and actually mixed it up with another Matt Damon movie called The Hereafterin which he plays some kind of reluctant medium. I’ve never seen The Hereafter, but that day I did click on HBO and start watching The Departed.

I started the movie with the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio is sitting alone at a bar and Jack Nicholson comes and sits next to him. That probably should have meant something to me, but at that time I didn’t know who either of those people were or what in the hell they were talking about, but I kept watching.

Nicholson’s character gets up and makes Leo follow him to a separate room, so a character named Mr. French can search him for “contra-fucking-band”. My 10-year-old eyes were glued to the screen, as Nicholson and DiCaprio carried on a very strange back and forth about DiCaprio’s father and honesty, none of which I could really understand at the time. Then Nicholson looks to Mr. French and says “Arm,” and at that moment I realized DiCaprio was wearing a cast. Even as a 10-year-old I knew this could only end badly. Nicholson didn’t seem very agreeable. But I couldn’t even think about turning off the TV or changing the channel.

Mr. French walks DiCaprio over to a nearby pool table and gives his arm a quick look, and then… BANG! He slammed Leo’s arm right on the table. And then he did it again and again, until the cast was off the arm, shattered. After a few seconds I started to breathe again. Nicholson begins talking and I kept watching because, how couldn’t I? But Nicholson is still looming, and DiCaprio’s arm is still stretched across the table. Finally, out of nowhere, Mick Jagger screams on the soundtrack at the top of his lungs and BANG! Nicholson starts hitting the arm with a Timberland boot. The whole time DiCaprio is squirming and shouting as Nicholson screams things at him. “Are you still a cop?” “SWEAR ON YOUR MOTHER’S GRAVE, YOU’RE STILL NOT A COP?”

After all of that, Nicholson finally decides he’s had enough and drops the boot. Nicholson takes out his wallet and apologizes, tossing a few dollar bills on the pool table before walking away. And as a 10-year-old, I had only one thought: that’s the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.

Now, given distance, that’s probably a little embarrassing (even if I do stand by it), but I can always remember that as the moment I realized that I loved movies. In the intervening years, I’ve spent most of my time watching movies, talking about movies, thinking about movies. As I reach this transitional point in my life and begin searching for a job or a future, movies are the one thing I have always come back to, and after years harboring my thoughts to myself only to bore my family or drunkenly ramble to my friends, I’ve decided that my thoughts might have enough value to share.

Throughout my life, I’ve always written, and throughout my life, I’ve always thought being a writer was arrogant. Writing was a way of expressing to other people that you think your opinion is more important than there’s. That changed when I decided to start writing about movies. Whether it was screenplays or reviews for my college paper or papers I’d written for class, I always had a sense of calm whenever I was in those confines. I couldn’t figure out any reason for that. I’ve never held a camera. I’ve been on a set once. I don’t know anyone in the movie industry. I haven’t seen every movie that I’m supposed to. I don’t really know anything.

I was reading William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, a few years ago when I finally figured it out. “Nobody knows anything.” Goldman might be the greatest screenwriter who ever lived, and the book was a history of the first half of his career. And here he admits that no one in his industry knows anything about why a movie succeeds or fails. Nobody knows what is going to work. The best we can hope for is a guess.

That is what this website is: a collection of my best guesses. A collection of my opinions, my rants, my thoughts, my successes, and my failures. Every time I sit down to watch a movie, I want to have that same feeling I had seeing The Departedway too young, and this space is where I can log those moments. Sure, I don’t really know enough about film to be an expert on Hollywood. But no one else does either, and they all write and host fucking podcasts. Why can’t I?