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Posts Tagged ‘Dolph Lundgren’

Being an international figure is all very well, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re viewed the same way all over the world. My assumptions on this topic took a well-deserved whacking a few years ago when I was discussing politics with a bunch of NGO officials in the Kyrgyz Republic. Not surprisingly, recent Euro-Asian history came up and the way in which different politicians are viewed – and I mentioned in passing the positive opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev which still prevailed at that point. To my surprise, mention of his name was greeted, if not quite with bared teeth and snarls, certainly a real chilliness. Many citizens of the former USSR, especially those sections which have not prospered, viewed and still view Gorbachev as very nearly a traitor. Nevertheless, he was and remains an iconic figure in recent history and culture, and perhaps it is here we may discover a hint as to what it was that motivated and inspired him.

Very little about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (originally released in 1985, not long after Gorbachev had come to power) indicates that this was a big-budget prestige project, not least the way that it opens (after a daft moment where US and USSR-themed boxing gloves bang into each other and explode) with a lengthy reprise of the end of Rocky III, wherein Stallone puts the beatdown on Mr T and bonds sweatily with his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Various slightly bemusing scenes of the extended Balboa family at leisure ensue: sentimental not-quite-comedy, mostly focusing on Rocky’s grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young). The main hook for these moments is Rocky’s birthday present to Paulie: a wobbling, chrome-plated, mantis-headed domestic robot, like something out of a gimmicky sitcom. To say these scenes strike a very peculiar note is an understatement.

Luckily, the main plot is soon in session, with the arrival in the USA of enormous Soviet android Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, making his American movie debut). Drago’s backers in the Soviet government have sculpted him into an unstoppable pugilistic force and he is here to demonstrate his superiority over the bloated capitalist Americans. (Lundgren doesn’t actually get much dialogue beyond things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I must break you’; most of the exposition goes to Brigitte Nielsen, who’s playing his wife (but was actually married to Stallone at the time).)

First up into the ring is not Rocky himself, however, but Apollo Creed. I must confess that until very recently I’d never actually seen Rocky IV all the way through – but I had caught the second half on a couple of occasions. I had always dismissed the film as a load of Reaganite nonsense, based on that, but there are actually flickers of a potentially interesting movie at this point. Rocky questions why Apollo, who has long been retired, feels the need to take on Drago in this way, even if the Russian is the pushover Apollo has declared him to be.

Apollo’s answer is that he can’t accept the prospect of getting older and becoming less than the man he once was: he talks of the warrior’s code, and the need to keep fighting until you can no longer fight. It’s a strikingly resonant theme, and Weathers’ performance is great – in fact, Carl Weathers is probably the best reason for watching Rocky IV, giving Creed something of the presence and charisma of Muhammad Ali, the man he was based on. Of course, for this to follow the classic story structure that has just been set up, Apollo has to be punished for this flaw in his character, and so – following a tacky spectacle in Las Vegas – he is duly beaten to death in the ring by Drago, eventually dying in Rocky’s arms.

With the death of Apollo, all glimmers of intelligence and thoughtfulness are snuffed out of Rocky IV, and it proceeds to not be the film you’re expecting (in terms of a functioning drama about coming to terms with mortality) and simultaneously be exactly the film you’re expecting (in terms of Reaganite nonsense). For the scenes with Apollo to have any value – and I stress again they contain the best acting and dialogue in the movie – the rest of the film would have to be about Rocky slowly coming to the conclusion that there is another way to live, that he doesn’t have to keep doing what he does, and he is not compelled to go off to Russia and risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago.

The film is not nearly so brave or interesting, and instead concerns Rocky going off to Russia to risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago (Rocky V indicates that serious brain damage did indeed result, but this has kind of been forgotten about in the subsequent films featuring the character). This is strikingly cack-handed storytelling, and what makes it worse is that most of the rest of the film fails to engage with this story in any meaningful way – there’s the odd sentimental scene between Rocky and the people in his camp, but most of the rest of it is handled by a succession of montage sequences.

The rematch is arranged via a montage (Rocky has to give up his title to go and fight, which you would have thought might merit a scene or two, but no), then Rocky and his team arrive in Russia in another largely dialogue-free sequence. This is soundtracked by another Survivor song with almost exactly the same bassline as ‘Eye of the Tiger’, entitled ‘With a Burning Heart’. You get the impression that the soundtrack songs were bought as a job lot, as not long after there’s a very similar song called ‘Heart’s on Fire’ to accompany the next lengthy montage. Boxing arenas and sinister Soviet labs excepted, Russia is depicted exclusively as snow-covered wasteland in which Rocky must train for the fight (as the Soviets have neglected to provide him with a flight of steps to run up, he makes do by running up a mountain instead). There’s some predictably unsubtle coding going on in this scene: Rocky chopping wood and bench-pressing sleighs is intercut with Drago surrounded by high-tech equipment and a team of scientists, the implication being that Rocky is an authentic, self-made individual, while Drago is just a tool who has been artificially manufactured by the Soviet state (it’s heavily implied he’s on steroids).

And then we’re off for the grand finale, which is Stallone and Lundgren knocking seven bells out of each other at great length in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), before an audience of Soviet military officers, proles, and senior party officials – even Gorbachev himself is there (or someone cast for a strong resemblance to him, albeit without the birthmark which seems to have fascinated so many western onlookers). To be fair, the opening section of the final bout is rather excitingly staged – Rocky takes a beating, Drago complains to his handlers it’s like hitting a lump of iron, then our hero finally manages to land a significant punch and the match becomes more level – and then we’re off to Montageland again until the final round.

This is not the kind of film to wrong-foot its audience with a downer ending or anything especially unexpected. Suffice to say it concludes with Stallone draped in the Stars and Stripes, making one of the rambling, borderline unintelligible speeches which punctuate the Rocky series. After concluding that he and Lundgren giving each other blunt-force cranial trauma is at least preferable to nuclear war, he suggests that, ‘If I can change… and you can change… then perhaps everyone can change.’ There is massed applause at this point, with even faux-Gorbachev rising to his feet and clapping. There you go, folks: the seeds of glasnost and perestroika, sown by Sylvester Stallone beating Communism in a boxing match.

Except – it doesn’t hang together. The Russian audience may have changed – by the end of the match they are cheering for Balboa – but Rocky himself hasn’t appreciably changed at all. He’s still a big lunk who finds his fullest means of expression by punching people in the head. There’s nothing to suggest he has learned anything from what happened to Apollo Creed – the very fact he’s there fighting at all suggests exactly the opposite.

The jingoistic Cold War trappings are what make Rocky IV faintly risible to watch nowadays, but what makes it a really flawed and not very good movie are the fact that it fluffs its moral premise and subtext so very badly well before the end. Did Apollo Creed die for nothing? Nearly – but if nothing else his demise inspires Rocky to go and fight Drago. So is this then a movie about personal revenge, rather than standing up for the values of the American system? It really doesn’t work as a coherent, satisfying narrative – or as jingoistic flag-waving nonsense, for that matter.

Possibly this is why Stallone decided to re-edit Rocky IV a couple of years ago. No doubt this was done in the wake of the success of Creed II, a film which is essentially a sequel to this one. Apparently Paulie’s robot disappears entirely, along with most of Brigitte Nielsen’s performance (possibly she got to keep the footage in the divorce), and the focus is entirely on Rocky’s relationship with Apollo. I must confess to a genuine curiosity about the revised version of Rocky IV, quite simply because the really disappointing thing about the original version is not that it is bad, but that it showed signs that it really didn’t need to be.

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Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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Good God, did I really ask my rental company to send me The Expendables? I fear it must be so. Quite possibly a textbook example of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ (at least, I assume it did: I have no memory of actually requesting this film). I saw this at the cinema back in 2010 and was not particularly impressed, but it’s got two of my favourite performers in it – so I can only presume I decided to give it a second chance for their sake.

expendables

Sylvester Stallone’s movie concerns itself with the doings of a biker gang/mercenary team. On said team are Stallone himself as the grizzled leader, Mr Jason Statham as an ex-SAS knife thrower (no-one seems to have told J about the ex-SAS bit as he deploys his standard it’s-supposed-to-be-American accent regardless), Jet Li as (surprise, surprise) a martial arts expert, Dolph Lundgren as a giant crazy dude, and a couple of wrestlers I’d never heard of.

After cheerfully executing some Somali pirates at the top of the film, the Expendables head home to wait for their next mission. This comes courtesy of Bruce Willis, playing a shadowy intelligence operator, but to get the job Stallone has to fend off rival mercenary Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger). You would think that any scene with these three acting together would be memorable simply because it’s so iconic: but you would be wrong, mainly because they don’t seem to be acting together, just vaguely in the same vicinity. There is no chemistry between them, most of the jokes fall painfully flat, and you’re actually quite relieved when Arnie and Willis quickly bugger off.

In the end Stallone accepts the job of knocking over the president of a banana republic in Central America – he has teamed up with a renegade CIA agent to sell drugs, or something. Stallone and Statham pop over there to do a spot of reconnaissance, disguised as the world’s least plausible birdwatchers, not realising that their embittered former colleague Lundgren has got in touch with the opposition and is negotiating to sell them out…

Now, as action movies go, it’s pretty much inarguable that The Expendables has an all-star cast, even if some of those stars haven’t got quite the degree of fame they had a couple of decades ago. However, it seems pretty clear that a pre-existing action movie script has been savagely cobbled about to find roles for them all, because with the exceptions of Stallone and Statham hardly anyone gets the amount of screen time or action that you might expect. Okay, Arnie and Willis are just in one very short scene, and appear uncredited, but Jet Li’s hardly in the film either, and most of the wrestlers don’t get much to do outside of the third act.

One of the advantages that Expendables 2 had over the original was that the writers seemed much more aware of who was actually on the cast list and were able to tailor the script to suit them. Things seem much more hit and miss here, and the story barely seems to acknowledge the nature of the cast – for this film really to work as ‘action legends together at last’ you might expect the various lead cast members to reprise the various schticks they are best known for – in the course of the story, Li would fight twelve people at once, Statham would fight a giant in a garage, and so on. But there’s nothing really like this going on – the one point where the film shows signs of being what you’re hoping for is when Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren take each other on, and even this is so incoherently edited it loses most of its excitement.

And so we are left with a very ordinary, very unreconstructed, entirely subtext-free action movie full of big muscly men who can’t act (also Li and Statham, of course) running around shooting machine guns and slaughtering stuntmen by the dozen. It’s all so earnest and straightforward (not to mention hackneyed) that one almost wonders if it’s in fact a deadpan spoof of the genre. It can’t be a spoof; a spoof would have more charm and probably be a lot more fun.

This is the weird thing about The Expendables: for a film about red-blooded guys doing manly things (riding motorbikes, drinking beer, getting tattooed, shooting guns, hitting each other, deposing Central American dictators) the tone of the thing is actually rather mournful. Mickey Rourke pops up and delivers a monologue about failing to prevent a suicide, at the end of which he actually starts crying. Statham gets his own subplot in which it turns out his girl has been straying with one of the local basketball players – this at least means Statham gets an individual fight where he beats up the team and delivers the line ‘Next time I’ll deflate all your balls!’, but it doesn’t look like he and his young lady are likely to get back together any time soon.

In short, this film is not jolly or cheesy; it is – quite inappropriately – dark and brooding. (I never knew how to waterboard someone until I first watched The Expendables, because it happens to the leading lady at some length.) Possibly Stallone the director was aware of what a piece of ridiculous fluff this could have turned out to be, and the gloominess of the film is his way of ensuring that people will still take The Expendables seriously as a drama.

Except there’s no way that was ever going to happen, with a cast-list stuffed with ex-wrestlers, knowing in-jokey cameos from famous faces, and a ludicrous plot development at the end: a character who went bad and was apparently mortally wounded after trying to kill his former friends shows up, forgiven, back on the team and with only a dab of sticking plaster to show he was ever hurt in the first place.

It’s almost as if the creators of The Expendables intentionally set out to produce a film which avoided making the best use of its considerable assets. Instead of a knowingly cheesy action romp – a sort of testosterone-drizzled equivalent of Mamma Mia – stuffed with big names, what this film actually appears to want to be is a thoughtful drama about the existential crisis affecting modern masculinity. With explosions. Let’s be clear: neither The Expendables nor Expendables 2 is anything approaching a good movie (and heaven knows what Expendables 3 is going to turn out like), but at least the sequel is silly and fun. This one is just silly.

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