Stop! Or My Grandad Will Shoot

Following his creaking return to the ring for 2006’s geriatric Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone scours his dwindling back catalogue to bring us another preposterously violent Rambo, an unrequested follower-upper that arrives twenty years down the line from his trilogy of Cold War action movies, to a changed cinematic world.

The Soviets are gone now, even Castro has retired, and so, seeking a simple backdrop for his blood-lust, the sixty-odd Stallone pitches up in Northern Thailand, next door to Burma, where a civil war has raged for sixty years. John Rambo, the post-traumatic Green Beret, has a job snaring cobras for the local snake-handling show, and lives alone on a river boat were he spends his evenings perfecting his thousand yard stare while revisiting his past in a series of moody montages. Like Bogart in Casablanca, Rambo hides his righteous anger behind a set mask of cynical indifference, but when a troupe of gospel-quoting do-gooders arrive on the dock requesting he take them across the river to do their good works in Burma, the façade cracks.

Or at least I think it does. It’s hard to tell with Stallone. In any event, when the dangerous crossing goes wrong and the Christians are captured by the evil Military Junta, Rambo vows to rescue them. Mumbling wildly about right and wrong, Rambo hammers a machete out of scrap iron and straps his trademark bow and arrow across his now-flabby back before setting out. Over a thudding score of ominous kettle-drums, he transports a crack squad of grizzled ex-SAS mercenaries into the danger-zone, where he hangs around long enough to watch them make their first mistake and affect a rescue that proves his worth to the mission.

All this takes maybe twenty minutes and none of it is new or particularly interesting. But, from this point on, Stallone’s film degenerates into a red soup of eye-watering violence, more a training aid for military surgeons than any classification of entertainment. As a director, Stallone has only a basic grasp of storytelling and lacks any insight into character but he knows how to stage a massacre. Once he starts, he doesn’t stop. Rambo contains 236 separate depictions of death, more than two per minute and none from natural causes. We see children stabbed with bayonets, grenades turning people into an abstraction of limbs, lingering disembowelments, bombings, strangulations and coup de theatre flamethrower roasting. For the big finish, Rambo straps himself on to a machine gun and bisects the advancing hoards of soldiers that stand between him and his allies in twenty minute battle scene that redefines bombast.

Ignoring for a moment his film’s basic ugliness and passing over it’s indebtedness to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Stallone would have us believe that his intention in making another Rambo was to highlight the genocide of the Burmese people by the ruling military junta. In fact, he attempts to make the case against slaughter by shamelessly staging a slaughter, and a particularly senseless one. Although the mumbling Stallone might think he is being clever, using real-life news footage of last year’s protest by Buddhist monks as an overture and speechifying about the 60 year civil war, his base film is pornographically stupid; a dreary, chest-puffing exercise in jingoistic carnage hiding behind a unconvincing human-rights platform.

The Kindness of Weirdos

French director Michel Gondry’s heart-warming and very funny Be Kind, Rewind, the latest in his series of high-concept capers that come wrapped in distinctly low-fidelity packaging, is a story of creativity and self-actualisation buried in the to-and-fro of a mismatched buddy comedy.

In a run-down side-street in Passaic, New Jersey, Mike (Mos Def) works at the titular video library, owned by Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) and said to be the building that jazz legend Fats Waller was born in. Nevertheless, the Passaic town fathers want to tear the place down and build a nice row of apartments. While Mr Fletcher goes away for a week in an effort to modernise and save the business, Mike is warned not to let his accident-prone best pal Jerry (Jack Black) anywhere near the shop. Jerry, however, is unstoppable and soon has Mike recruited for his mission to sabotage a local power station which he thinks is infecting his mind with cosmic rays. The mission goes badly, Jerry is magnetized and inadvertently blanks all of the shop’s VHS cassettes.

Not wanting to put his kindly boss out of business, Mike convinces Jerry to help his shoot an improvised, hand-made remake of a wiped Ghostbusters tape, to keep regular customer Miss Falewicz off the scent. Their hilarious ten-minute epic proves popular with their customers, so the two enlist the help of Alma (Melonie Diaz) and Wilson (Irv Gooch) to make more “sweded” takes on classic video-library shelf-stock. Their guerrilla versions of Rush Hour II, Driving Miss Daisy and Robocop, made on a cheap video camera and produced with whatever they have lying around the shop, are a hit, the boys become local celebrities and the rental business is booming.

Although the story flirts with classic clichés (from Abbot & Costello to Blackbeard's Ghost) Gondry is too clever to allow his characters to fall into whimsy. His film, a swipe against globalisation and standardisation, soon settles into a comedy of old-fashioned community values and the eventual triumph of the little guy. It cannot last, of course, and reality bites when a snippy lawyer (Sigourney Weaver) arrives to shut the operation down, citing long reams of copyright law, the same legalese that features at the end of Be Kind's credits, incidentally.

Typically a film with a left-field conceptual base and built around an inherently wobbly structure will start out sturdy and slowly, inevitably, collapse. Here that noticeable second-act fizzling out is reignited by flashes of visual genius and hard-won emotional credibility. Gondry stages a series of uplifting, spirit-affirming moments that are smartly threaded through his themes of creativity, community and doing-it-for-yourself, and combine for a fine, fluent ending.

Monkey Puzzle

Shouty, wiggy Nicolas Cage reprises his patented ‘where-are-my-car-keys?’ furrow for National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, a daft quasi-historical adventure sequel that dispatches the treasure hunting Ben Gates to Yurp on a mission to clear his great-granddaddy’s name before returning him for a flag-waving conclusion underneath Mount Rushmore.

When we first meet Cage’s Gates, he is living with his historian father (Jon Voight), having been kicked out of the unfeasible mansion he shared with girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger). When slit-eyed Southern treasure hunter Wilkinson (Ed Harris) delivers seemingly incontrovertible proof that a Gates was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ben and Dad spring to defend their ancestral honour by assiduously following a trail of bewildering clues around the sight-seeing spots of Paris and London, before pitching up back in Washington, kidnapping the President (Bruce Greenwood) for his secret book and following more clues that lead to a Lost City of Gold beneath the carved monument.

Without a moment of genuine wit or a pause for breath, the film immediately descends to the level of a chase, or rather a gallop, through history and over intellect. Cage contains his inner ham adequately enough for the film’s few quiet moments, but eventually unleashes himself during a bug-eyed rant on a stairs inside Buckingham Palace, where a vital clue has been hidden in the furniture. He jigs his way through the rest of the story, flailing his arms and laughing maniacally, casually embracing self-parody. In comparison, Voight and Kruger are models of restraint, existing only to offer supporting moments of well-heralded a-ha! Justin Bartha returns with a mandate to deliver intentional comic relief in the form of pratfalls and come-uppances, while Helen Mirren pops up later as Gates’ estranged mother to offer assistance in her capacity as a handy expert on Incan carving. Pushed even further into the background is Harvey Keitel as FBI Agent Sadusky, who misses umpteen opportunities to put a deserving bullet through Cage and let us all go home.

Screenwriting team Cormac and Marianne Wibberley appear to have concocted their script by arranging a series of high-tempo chases, joining them with clunky scenes enabled by squinting at hieroglyphics or clicking on shiny technologies and then vaguely wafting a history book somewhere nearby. It doesn’t help that their inevitable sequel is essentially the same film as its predecessor but with new locations and extra helpings of hysterics. Returning director Jon Turteltaub executes a procession of by-the-numbers set-pieces with the same bare minimum of originality or style. With a running time that whistles past two hours and a storyline that defeats even the most careful attention, there is far too much of National Treasure, especially considering it runs completely flat in the last half hour. I stuck it out to the end but never discovered why the ancient Incans buried their loot under the very distant Mt Rushmore, an arduous hike when encumbered by tons of gold but a stroll on the beach in comparison to watching this.

Kooky Monster

Arriving on a wave of internet-derived hype, Alias and Lost creator JJ Abrams crosses Godzilla with The Blair Witch Project to bring us Cloverfield, a hugely entertaining post-9/11 monster movie that mostly lives up to it’s breathless chat-room billing.

Opening with an official-looking title card, stamped Department of Defence and making ominous reference to ‘the area formerly known as Central Park’, the story starts with a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is off to take a job in Japan. His pal Hud (TJ Miller) is videoing the revellers, including brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Lily (Jessica Lucas), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Beth (Odette Yustman). Suddenly, without warning, the lights flicker, the ground shakes and the crowd hear an enormous roar. They arrive on the street just in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty flying towards them. Something is causing chaos down town, and it’s time to start running.

Shot throughout from the hand-held point of view of Hud, the fleeing survivor, the frame is constantly in motion, a blur of jerks and shakes that is occasionally too much to watch. The restless camera isn’t the only thing that might make the viewer feel queasy, the constant visual references to 9/11 – collapsed skyscrapers, streets filled with bloodied people fleeing billowing clouds of dust – are indelicately evoked and clumsily subversive. Seven years on from the event, what looked like a disaster movie has become one, made even more effective by the unbroken illusion that we are witnessing events as they happen, in real time.

Director Matt Reeves and producer Abrams cleverly cast their film with virtual unknowns, adding another level of realism at the cost of any nuance in the performances themselves. None of the characters are particularly well developed, but there really isn’t time. A further inspired decision is to delay the introduction of the monster itself. We see the devastation the beast wreaks, hear its ultrasonic roar and catch tantalising glimpses between crumbling buildings until, late in the game, it fills the frame. Its origins remain unexplained, although the closing credits offer hints of a sequel that might fill out the backstory.

Barring documentary, all cinema requires some suspension of disbelief in order to be enjoyed, but Cloverfield demands a completely blank slate if the viewer is to get past the first twenty minutes. The geography of Manhattan, and the time it takes to get anywhere on foot, is ignored. Characters adopt a stoic philosophy towards pain and the death of loved ones, while ignoring the basic rules of bodily safety and successfully quietening the instinctive urge to flee from harm’s way. Everything technological, from video camera battery life to cell phone coverage to the physics of tons of falling steel, is better left unconsidered. The story demands such acquiescence, from its own frantic characters and from the jumping audience. In the race to a conclusion, Reeves and Abrams pile on the implausibilities but with such tremendous style and verve that logic succumbs to nerve endings; Cloverfield is loud and dumb, but it’s exhilarating fun.