Rambo: Last Blood and Play Misty for Me: Jim Hemphill’s Home Video Recommendations
Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series is one of the more durable franchises in American cinema, which is somewhat surprising given that it didn’t really find its voice until its fourth installment and began with a film that didn’t lend itself to sequels at all. First Blood, which Ted Kotcheff directed from a script by Stallone, Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim in 1982, is a stand-alone action classic, an elegant and austere survival film in which Vietnam vet John Rambo takes on the town that wronged him without killing a single person. Stallone made up for First Blood’s low body count with the wildly entertaining and gleefully excessive 1985 sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II and its follow-up, Rambo III (1988), films as broad and blunt as Kotcheff’s was nuanced and thoughtful. By the time Stallone stepped into the director’s chair for the first time in the series with 2008’s Rambo (he’s credited as a co-writer on all five Rambo pictures), he had clearly spent years thinking about the character and where his own ambitions for the franchise might intersect with his audience’s expectations; the result was a movie in which Stallone was able to have it both ways, digging deeper into the self-doubt and unremitting pessimism that always made John Rambo an unusually interesting mass appeal action hero while also delivering bloody set pieces that made Dawn of the Dead look like Driving Miss Daisy. The latest and theoretically final entry in the cycle, last year’s Rambo: Last Blood, continues along those lines with a tale that brings Stallone’s ongoing philosophical inquiry into the possibility of meaningful action in a meaningless world to its fullest fruition – and does so with a powerhouse climax expertly directed by Narcos second unit helmer Adrian Grünberg, whose work recalls the best of Peckinpah in its marriage of violence, theme, and character.
Last Blood was underestimated during its initial theatrical release, including by me – I didn’t fully grasp its greatness until revisiting the entire series this week via Lionsgate’s gorgeous new steelbook set that collects all five Rambo movies in new 4K and Blu-ray editions. Watching the films in order I was surprised to find that for all the stylistic disparities between the movies, they do have a common thread in Stallone’s depiction of Rambo as a hero who doesn’t really like himself or what he has become – the cumulative emotional impact is comparable to what might have happened had Clint Eastwood decided to make a whole series of movies about his William Munny character from Unforgiven. The authentic turmoil that Stallone conveys gives even the cartoonish second and third Rambo films more depth than they’re normally given credit for, and undercuts their reputations as simplistic expressions of rah-rah Reagan-era patriotism. (In championing the films, Reagan showed that he misunderstood them almost as badly as he misunderstood Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.) Stallone’s status as an eighties action icon alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris has, I think, overpowered his actual appeal and value as an actor in the films that made him a star; his specialty isn’t invulnerable supermen but haunted antiheroes plagued by regret, not only in the Rambo series but in other action films like Cliffhanger and Richard Donner’s underrated Assassins. James Mangold understood this about Stallone and used the actor’s traumatized quality to enormous advantage in Copland, a movie for which Stallone deservedly received his best reviews since the original Rocky. But his performances in the last two Rambo movies are right up there with his work in Mangold’s picture, and the steelbook set provides a valuable opportunity to trace not only the evolution of Stallone’s approach to the character but his visceral approach to filmmaking – among the many hours of extras on the discs are video production diaries from Rambo and Rambo: Last Blood that offer refreshingly candid and revealing looks at Stallone’s process.
Another actor turned director who made a career out of interrogating and deconstructing his own onscreen image is responsible for my other recommendation this week, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of Play Misty for Me. In his first film as director, Clint Eastwood plays a womanizing disc jockey whose narcissism leaves him unprepared for the repercussions of a one-night stand with an obsessive fan (Jessica Walter). Although the movie lays the groundwork for Eastwood’s later explorations of masculinity and heroism, at the time of its production Play Misty for Me seemed like a peculiar choice for the actor best known as the Man With No Name; he’s the protagonist here but not exactly the hero, given that he’s both a passive victim and a somewhat self-centered jerk – the petulant excuses he makes with his on-again, off-again girlfriend (Donna Mills) are hardly emblematic of strength and conventional notions of manhood. Eastwood’s risks paid off though, when Play Misty for Me opened in the fall of 1971 and tapped into the zeitgeist to become a box office hit and a cultural touchstone (in typical Eastwood fashion, the film’s politics can be read in multiple ways depending on one’s interpretation and personal inclinations). It plays even better today – the insights into the corrosive effects of self-absorption on relationships are as potent as ever, and Eastwood’s extraordinary use of landscape as metaphor is astonishing for a first-time director; the terrain of Carmel, California is made to look inviting, sensual, hostile and terrifying depending on the psychological demands of any given scene. Kino’s Blu-ray is taken from a new master that’s a vast improvement over every other home video release I’ve seen, and it’s generously loaded with supplements, including a scrupulously researched commentary track by film historian Tim Lucas. The disc is one of several new Eastwood releases from Kino; their editions of Breezy (his second film as director) and High Plains Drifter (his third) are equally gorgeous and well-appointed, as are two classics in which Eastwood acted for other directors (Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Sturges’ Joe Kidd). Taken together, the five Blu-rays offer a comprehensive crash course in a key transitional period for one of the most important Hollywood filmmakers of the 20th century.