Monday, April 30, 2012

Film Review: COBRA (1986, George P. Cosmatos & Sylvester Stallone)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 87 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen (RED SONJA, ROCKY IV) , Andy Robinson (DIRTY HARRY, HELLRAISER), Reni Santoni (DIRTY HARRY, RAIN MAN), Art LaFleur (THE BLOB '88, TRANCERS), Val Avery (HUD, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), David Rasche (BURN AFTER READING, HONKY TONK FREEWAY), Brian Thompson (THE TERMINATOR, FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2). Music by Sylvester Levay (SCARFACE, FLASHDANCE). Produced by Golan and Globus.  Tagline: "This is where the law stops... and I start."
Best one-liner: "Hey dirtbag, you're a lousy shot. I don't like lousy shots. You wasted a kid... for nothing. Now I think it's time to waste you!"

Ah, COBRA.  Shall I say, "Hisssssssssssssss?"  
COBRA is yet another one of those fantastic Golan-Globus actioner-shitstorms, full of jaw-dropping, spit-take inducing ludicrosities.  Originally written by Stallone to be the film BEVERLY HILLS COP, Stallone parted ways with that project, taking his script with him, and COBRA ended up as a Cannon film, directed by George P. Cosmatos, who was notorious for often allowing his stars to take hold of the directorial reins (Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE, Stallone in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II).  Adapted from the novel FAIR GAME (aka A RUNNING DUCK), by Paula Gosling, in terms of narrative coherence and general aesthetics,  it may as well be an adaptation of a can of King Cobra Malt Liquor.
It follows a New Order of axe-wielding maniacs as they declare war on humanity (or something), and the thin blue line between order and disorder (or should I say the thin red laser?) is Marion "Cobra" Cobretti, the battle-hardened defender of liberty whose only concrete character trait is a propensity for chewing on… matchsticks!  (Cigarettes, toothpicks, and lollipops had apparently been fully exhausted as hardass cop "mouth props.")   It's no DEATH WISH 3 or BLOODSPORT, but it is still pretty damned ridiculous, and as my friend HK Fanatic said in his excellent review, COBRA "is the point where DEATH WISH meets a Duran Duran music video."

I think we can all get behind that.  And as a quick aside, I often think of Golan-Globus films as dingy VHS classicks for the discerning B-movie lover, but in fact they were major motion pictures, in every sense of the word.  COBRA had a $15.6 million opening weekend (which was the largest of the year at that point in 1986), and played in 2,131 theaters nationwide, which was the all-time record up to that point.  Just think about that for a minute.  At that point, if I'm understanding this correctly, in all of motion picture history, from 1894 to 1986, from GONE WITH THE WIND to BEN-HUR to STAR WARS to E.T. to JAWS, COBRA was the most widely distributed new release.  COBRA was king.  All hail, King Cobra!

But above all, COBRA is instructional.  It's educational.  It's "edu-tainment."  Some have said that COBRA has no redeeming value.  I say it has many lessons to teach us, many, surprisingly, about money and how to spend it.  And how to save it, too.  I mean, Golan and Globus knew you had to spend in order to earn– that's why they paid Stallone an apparent $10 million to break with mainstream Hollywood and join the Cannon canon!  So in this time of financial uncertainty, I thought I'd share with all of you a few of the greatest lessons to be learned from within the twisty, ophidian confines of… COBRA.

#1.  Get yourself some vanity plates.  Don't worry about the cost.  Gotta let the world know that you– and the chosen few, other forty-nine guys– are "AWESOM."

#2.  So you've been called to a hostage-situation-in-progress at the local grocery store.  That's a good thing.  Didn't you see The 'Bos in STONE COLD?  Fred Williamson in BLACK COBRA 3?  Leo Fong in KILLPOINT?
Watch out for the shotgun-blasted, levitating grocery carts.  Those can be a real killer.  And what's a good grocery store hostage situation without some Ritz Crackers and 7-Up and Ding-Dongs getting blown to kingdom come?  That's what we signed up for.
And, you know, incidentally a great time to schnag yourself a free Coors is when you're in the midst of a grocery shoot-out.  Who's gonna miss it in the midst of all this pinwheeling skim milk, flyin' Tang, and gushin' Cheez Whiz?  Save a little cash for the next vanity plate, and such.  Gnawin' matches ain't free, either.
And nobody likes negotiatin' with terrorists, which is why when the villain inevitably promises to 'bring down the house,' so to speak, the best way to proceed is thusly:
How very 'Ayn-Randian' of you, Cobra!

#3.  Learnin' a lot already, right?  Here's another jewel in the crown.  So you're interested in philosophy.  Self-improvement.  The pursuit of wisdom.  You read SIDDARTHA and you want more.  Or, for some reason, you can't afford to buy books, and you've never heard of the library.  So go to a store that sells knick-knacks.  It doesn't cost anything to browse.  Grab a bobble-head doll.  Contemplate it.  Shake it, and shake your head in unison.  Look deeply into its bugged-out, painted-on eyes.  Look deeply until you see yourself.  Repeat for as long as you like, or until the proprietor tells you to buy something or leave.

#4.  COBRA will teach 'ya how to eat your pizza right. 
First off, you put on some schweet tunes.  The sort of music that might play in the background of CAPTAIN RON.  You've also got to be the kind of guy who would save just one slice of pizza; the kind of guy who'd rather punish himself with congealed leftovers than spend a dollar-fifty on somethin' fresher.  That kind of guy is Marion Cobretti.  Then you grab a carton of eggs, but you don't keep eggs in it, it's where you keep your gun cleaning supplies.  What, you think the kind of cheapskate who saves and rations his pizza crusts can afford a shoebox?  Those vanity plates aren't paying for themselves.  Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.  So then you grab some scissors, and cut a tiny triangle off the end of your pizza.  Hey– who wants to waste a whole slice of valuable pizza?
Again, the scissors are key.  Then you save the 5/6 of the pizza you didn't cut off and stick it back in the fridge for later.  That's another meal and a half, at least. 
Then you start eating the little piece.  Don't worry about heating it up.  Heating it up would use electricity, and electricity costs money.  Money– like vanity plates– doesn't grow on trees, and neither does cold pizza.  Then you turn on the TV– man's gotta have some entertainment with his cold pizza and his gun cleaning.  But you don't just turn it on– it's all in the purposeful wrist flick.  Gotta show the remote control who's the boss.  Go ahead, rewatch the YouTube video a couple of times.  Get the flick down right.  Now eat your pizza.  Sure, it's cold.  Sure, it's Christmastime.  Enjoy your pizza.  Treat yourself.  Live a little.
I wonder how much money the Cobra makes.  He's probably suspended without pay half the year for bein' such an action-luvin' hot-dog of a cop.  Damn those liberal judges, their love of criminals, and their hatred of awesome– I mean, AWESOM– defenders of the American way! 

#5.  Gang members messing with your wheels?
Go ahead, rip their t-shirts, with extreme prejudice.  They'll respectfully leave you alone after you do that.  A package of three new white undershirts is gonna set 'em back about $5.99.  That's hittin' 'em in the wallet, Cobra!  The man does know the value of money. 

#6.  Then there's the world of fashion.  A different, high-falutin' world than the Cobra usually encounters.  Now, this is no video mash-up– this is an actual, erratically edited montage sequence from the movie.  Feast your eyes and ears:
Brigitte Nielsen, a frightening Danish supermodel, was Stallone's real-life wife at the time, and this film allowed their relationship to be consummated as... movie magic!  

So, how d'ya like your sexy ladies?  With a large side of... ROBOT FUN TIME?
It's a good thing Cobra wasn't around for this photo shoot– God knows how much they spent on the costumes and setpieces!  And look at that lavish fur coat, being wasted on a robot as Nielsen undulates in the foreground, voguin' it up!
Wait a minute, that robot in the mink is reminding me of something....  what was it...  something involving monsters that were also robots, or robots who were also monsters... let me think, what was that...
Alright, so I'm guessing that's an unintentional homage to ROBOT MONSTER, but it may still be one of the finest coincidences to pop up in all of modern cinema.

So later, you're on an 'on-the-lam' date with the supermodel at this fine dining establishment, and–
–wait one segundo, Cobra!  You're out to eat with a model, and she's the only one eating?!  Good gawd, what a tightwad– was the 85 cent portion of curly fries too cost-prohibitive?  'Hey, I got a whole 5/6 of a piece of pizza back at home– why eat out?'  And don't forget to take some complimentary mustard and ketchup in your "to-go" Ziplock baggies!  Wait, what?  You left those at home, too?  Tough break, 'Cob.  Tough break.

#7.  And, oh yeah, back to this axe-clankin' gang of lunatics, led by this guy:
Brian Thompson, the Klaus Kinski of Cannon Films.  His cult is dedicated to hanging out in abandoned warehouses and clanking axes together amid dramatic lighting.  It's all about the symmetry.  Gotta look good.
Then there's this poor guy, off in the corner, clanking together his regular sized axe with a tiny hatchet. 
Look at 'im.  Ashamed.  Trying to hide in the shadows at the edge of the frame.  This is what the whole movie's really about.  This guy couldn't afford two big axes.  And you know why?  He tossed out a perfectly good piece of leftover pizza once.  He never took advantage of the little freebies that life sometimes offers up; whether it be Coors or condiments or whatever else.  He may have at one point assembled a budget on a spreadsheet, but by God, he didn't stick to it.  He didn't come up with a grocery plan, and then he ate takeout altogether too often.  He bought things he couldn't afford, and then his credit rating got all out-of-whack.  They'd cancelled his card before it was time to buy all the axes, and thus he got stuck with this wimpy little jobbie, pictured above.  Go ahead and cower in the corner, you fiscally irresponsible cultist!  Go ahead and wait for a bailout...    

#8.   So your buddy's all beat up after the final action setpiece.  He's been on this bizarro diet throughout, which has been a source of nearly-amusing, Cannon Films-style comic relief.  Anyway, he's getting loaded into the ambulance, and he says–
You'd kill for some... gummy bears?  "Yo, well who's gonna pay for them?  Me?"

I feel like I learned a lot, and I hope you did, too.  Now if you'll pardon me, I'm going to make sure that my finances are in order.  Four stars.

-Sean Gill

PS– I apologize for any formatting errors.  This new Blogger set-up is killing me and my ancient internet browser.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Film Review: STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997, Paul Verhoeven)

Stars: 4.2 of 5.
Running Time: 129 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Casper van Dien (SLEEPY HOLLOW, BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Denise Richards (TAMMY AND THE T-REX, MELROSE PLACE), Michael Ironside (TOTAL RECALL, EXTREME PREJUDICE), Neil Patrick Harris (PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, DOOGIE HOWSER M.D.), Dina Meyer (BATS, BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Clancy Brown (BLUE STEEL, HIGHLANDER), Jake Busey (THE FRIGHTENERS, IDENTITY), Rue McClanahan (THE GOLDEN GIRLS, MAUDE), Dean Norris (TOTAL RECALL, "Hank" from BREAKING BAD), Eric DaRe (CRITTERS 4, TWIN PEAKS). Music by Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER). Edited by Mark Goldblatt (ENTER THE NINJA, THE TERMINATOR, PREDATOR 2) and Caroline Ross (BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER). Second unit directed by Vic Armstrong (legendary stuntman, best known for his work on the INDIANA JONES series). Cinematography by Jost Vacano (TOTAL RECALL, DAS BOOT). Special and makeup effects by Phil Tippett's (ILM creature legend of STAR WARS, WILLOW, and JURASSIC PARK) and Kevin Yagher's (creator of the Cryptkeeper, Chucky, and several iterations of Freddy Krueger) respective studios. Screenplay by Edward Neumeier (ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS 2), based on the novel by Robert Heinlein (THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND).
Tagline: "They Came to Our Planet, they destroyed our cities, but on November 7th... they'll learn they messed with the wrong species."
Best one-liner: "Would you like to know more?"

Paul Verhoeven. From 1985's FLESH + BLOOD to 2000's HOLLOW MAN, he devoted his craft on this side of the Atlantic to making "the movies that America deserves." Even his slightly-less-than-successful efforts (SHOWGIRLS, HOLLOW MAN) are gleefully misanthropic and extraordinarily audacious, and his finest hours (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL) represent a kind of pure cinematic experience of the American id– filtered through television, ultra-violence, and historical memory– gone horrifyingly, entertainingly, and compellingly hog-wild. His American works are subversive, convention-shattering art films packaged as mainstream, brainless, beer can-crushin' barn-burners. And they function beautifully as both.

Anyway, this leads me to STARSHIP TROOPERS. I've read the Heinlein novel on which it's based, and it's a fine bit of military science-fiction, full of ideas– some sensible, some fascinating, and some repugnant. I say this as a Heinlein fan (THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS is one of my favorite science-fiction novels of all time), but STARSHIP TROOPERS occasionally veers into territory that's sanctimoniously reductive, almost past the point of Fascism. I prefer my science-fiction meditations on war to be a little more complex (try Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR or Vonnegut's SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE or THE SIRENS OF TITAN), but I can certainly admit that there is a time and a place for dopey, no-frills, jingoistic thrills (Mickey Spillane, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, et al.), and this is where Mr. Verhoeven comes in.

Now, a lot of people think that Verhoeven did a poor job because he A. Does not follow the novel to the letter, B. Didn't even finish reading the novel, C. Packed his film with hilarious quantities of 90210 and MELROSE PLACE alumni, and D. Actively mocks the material; but in a way it makes it even more perfect, like if Mike Judge were to do a 'serious' adaptation of Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED starring Beavis and Butthead. Verhoeven tackles the material with élan, pretending this film was financed by a future hybrid of Fox News, Josef Goebbles, and the Internet (a roaming mouse cursor continually taunts us with the Information Age-refrain, 'Would you like to know more?'), and the end result is the sort of film that would win ALL the Oscars in its futuristic, imaginary Pan-Fascist Earth.

Modeled almost exactly after World War II propaganda films (Axis and Allied alike) that were intended to strong-arm audiences into joining up and seeking glory in death, STARSHIP TROOPERS added yet another dimension to its commentary when large swaths of contemporary audiences bought Verhoeven's feature-length practical joke, hook, line, and sinker. I've even read evidence that Space Marine movies like ALIENS and STARSHIP TROOPERS generate short-lived spikes in actual American enlistment statistics! I mean, there's a reason that the novel is on the reading list of three out of five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

I personally remember having friends (I was in Middle School when this was released) who cheered the Space Nazis like mad apes and thirsted to turn 18 and spill theoretical bug-blood themselves, missing entirely the fact that

Verhoeven makes them look exactly like Nazis (note Gestapo-Doogie Howser above and Mengele-makeover ex-Golden Girl Rue McClanahan below),

he illustrates the distorting nature of propaganda to whip the weak-minded into a jingoistic frenzy,

Humans 1, Bugs 0!!! We did it! U.S.A! U.S.A.!

he makes a complete mockery of indoctrinating the impressionable,

and, (spoiler alert– but that's not really going to impact your appreciation of STARSHIP TROOPERS) he ends the whole goopy affair with the capture of a giant, quivering, vaginal insect brain,

whereupon Gestapo Doogie Howser delightedly announces that "it's afraid,"

which causes the surrounding legions of Astro-Fascist troops to erupt into a bloodthirsty roar of whooping and applause,

which leads directly to said quivering-afraid-giant-space-vagina being metaphorically and literally penetrated by enthusiastic, claw-wielding xenophobic maniacs.

Why yes, kiddies, you're right– the message to be taken away from all of this is... Where do I sign up? Sweet Lord in heaven, have we all lost our minds? Verhoeven's answer is, obviously: YES.
Decades from now, I believe that future film scholars will ask the question, "How in the hell was this allowed to be made?," and somewhere, Verhoeven will be smiling.

So now that I've tried to sort out some of the socio-political ramifications, let's move on to the important issues at hand. Issues like Michael Ironside.

Michael who?, you say. Sean, you haven't done a dad-blammed Ironside review for one entire year, to the day. And I am sorry about that. Truly. Only Ironside can forgive me. But somethin' tells me he might. For starters:








In short, Ironside is holding this movie together. Maybe I should take it all back– all this talk about Fascism and total war and the moral high ground and distortive propaganda... cause hell, I'd probably join this army if it meant being able to party with Michael Ironside. Also, the "Have fun– that's an order!" command combined with the "You don't do your job, I'll shoot you" line begs the question– would Ironside execute you for not having enough fun at his kegger? And what kind of beer is he serving? Could it be... LABATT MAXIMUM ICE?

Regardless, there's a reason Ironside gets typecast as "the ultimate hardass." See, Verhoeven perfectly casts his WB/CW/primetime soap opera beefcake/cheesecake all-stars as the newbies, but he needed to create an old guard of hardened men and women to make the universe believable. And, speaking of actors best known for testosterone-fests from the 80's, Ironside gets a little help from EXTREME PREJUDICE buddy and The Kurgan himself– Clancy Brown.

Brown plays Sergeant Zim, a steely, uncompromising drill instructor, who's perhaps the most colorful character from the original book. Brown does the role justice, with R. Lee Ermey-style panache.

Brown gets a little help from TOTAL RECALL alum Dean Norris as well, whom I've become quite the fan of since I began watching BREAKING BAD.

Also, I forgot to mention it earlier, but one of the new boot-cadets is played by Jake Busey, who's inherited not only his father's crazy streak and ginormous teeth

but also his propensity for impromptu fiddle-playing.

Also, he convinces everyone to get matching tattoos

while wearing Nazi Blackshirt-style suspenders, which is still only the 1,347th-most crazy thing a Busey has ever convinced a group of his peers to do.

In any event, STARSHIP TROOPERS has only improved with age. It's a platform for guys like Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown to do what they do best, while at the same time remaining jaw-droppingly and spit-takingly subversive. And even though it has a fair amount of shudder-worthy CGI (mostly in long-shot), it was still one of the last big-budget future epics to use loads of miniatures, matte-paintings, and plenty of gooey puppets– courtesy of the legendary studios of Kevin Yagher and Phil Tippett. I'll give it a little better than four stars.

-Sean Gill