*/**** Image C+ Sound C Extras D
starring Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Andrew Robinson
screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, based on the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling
directed by George P. Cosmatos
THE SPECIALIST (1994)
*/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Eric Roberts
screenplay by Alexandra Seros
directed by Luis Llosa
*½/**** Image A- Sound B
starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore, Anatoly Davydov
screenplay by Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski and Brian Helgeland
directed by Richard Donner
by Walter Chaw As easy as it is to dismiss Sylvester Stallone as your everyday, run-of-the-mill swinging dick, another in the pantheon of Eighties-into-Nineties box-office meatsticks assembled anew by Sly in his Expendables franchise, it becomes clear in retrospect that Stallone has his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist in his most personal projects, if not always in his contract jobs. Although an obvious and atrocious failure whose Stallone-authored screenplay, the end-product of a series of rewrites Stallone took it upon himself to inflict on Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra manages still to deliver a few smart genre mash-up moments, a few topical reflections of late-'80s crime-wave paranoia. Sandwiched in there right between his second and third Rambo films and fourth and fifth Rockys, Cobra is the kind of vanity piece that appears now and again in Stallone's repertoire to distract attention away from all the other stuff that only looks like a vanity project. Stallone is sneaky in a very particular way. As a sociologist, intentional or not, he is absolutely brilliant, and just on the strength of his Rocky and Rambo pictures, he's managed as good a diary of the fears and hopes of the last twenty years as any other body of work from any other single artist. He's the Bruce Springsteen of popular cinema. Bruce produced a lot of crap, too.
Cobra is an unbelievably bad film that owes a tremendous amount to pictures like Visiting Hours, the original Halloween II, and William Lustig's Maniac, all the while gratifying Sly's stoic, mush-mouth, muscle-bound, lone-wolf archetype. You can tell by the sunglasses that he's serious as LAPD Lt. Marion "Cobra" Cobretti, a sub-vocal loose cannon who is sick and tired of laws that protect the rights of citizens. An opening hostage situation demonstrates Sly's smarts when a hostage-taker at a supermarket declares, "It's a new world!" and, "Hey, get those TV cameras in here"--a canny explication of Neal Gabler's Life: The Movie thesis that we're all players seeking celebrity. Not for nothing was the number-one reaction to James Holmes, the guy who shot up a movie theatre in my backyard, something along the lines of, We thought he was part of the show. Not for nothing that whenever an abomination occurs that's incomprehensible to sense and scale, the general reaction is something along the lines of how it was just like a movie. It was only a matter of time before the theatre itself became a shooting gallery--films themselves have been predicting it for decades. Honestly, Cobra sort of predicts it in the grocery-store holdup that opens the movie. The bad guy takes a shotgun to produce and Pepsi, an act motivated not by any kind of personal beef, but by some Jared Loughner ideology or maybe, maybe, a real bad itch to get on television.
Cobretti strides in--a lot like the deleted scene from Lethal Weapon (due the following year) where Riggs takes down a schoolyard sniper, a lot like Kilgore on a Vietnamese beach--and mumbles a catchphrase, declares that he doesn't negotiate with psychos (presaging the U.S. government's policy of not negotiating with terrorists), and then exercises his second-amendment-aided right to shoot someone a lot with a sophisticated firearm. Duelling ideologies, am I right? Played out on aisle six, no less--"wet cleanup" joke lamentably missed. The Sly enigma is that he doesn't seem to have a sense of humour (exhibit A would be his comedies, especially Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot): If this were an Arnie flick, it'd be a cheesy joke instead of a declaration about what a pity it is that crime has gotten out of control.
Cobra uncovers a cult of "new world order" people led by Night Slasher (Brian Thompson), who meet in an abandoned swimming pool to clank their axes together in time with unlistenable bullshit like Robert Tepper's "Angel of the City." Apparently Night and his cohorts are going around L.A. killing women with a special knife (designed by Stallone--weird, right?), meaning the police are confused that the same murder weapon is used in murders with nothing else in common except that they're all outtakes from grindhouse schlock of the period. The only witness is Danish model Ingrid (Danish model Brigitte Nielsen, married to Stallone at the time), who is good at posing with robots (which is a joke at Stallone's expense as well as an expository bit informing you, the reader, that she's introduced in the film during a photo shoot wherein she poses with robots). Cobra's job? Protect Ingrid. This leads to a scene in a backwater diner where Cobra seduces Ingrid by asking if she has a life preserver because her French fries are drowning in ketchup.
Cobra is essentially about a heroic cop who doesn't like that sometimes criminals go free and really wants a Danish girlfriend. It's directed by George P. Cosmatos, post-Rambo: First Blood Part II and pre-Leviathan, as a series of practical effects and stunts that a vintage documentary on the film describes as the gamut of practical effects and stunts. People are set on fire, crash in cars, crash on bikes, get shot, fall from high places, get stabbed, get blown up, get gored on cranes, get defenestrated, jump and roll, roll and slide, dodge and slip, run super-fast, and creep. There's a throwaway scene with a nurse and a clipboard that is inexplicably sordid and sexy in a way I can't begin to quantify; and Ron Jeremy has a tiny cameo, representing the only time Ron Jeremy could be described as having a tiny anything. There's a big showdown in a smelting factory, during which Cobra is threatened with getting dunked in molten metal, and then there's the moment where Cobra and Night tussle around, trying not to get stabbed. I don't want to think about what that might be a euphemism for. Also the dad from Hellraiser (perhaps more relevantly, Scorpio from Dirty Harry), Andrew Robinson, plays a limp-wristed detective who lectures Cobra about his vigilantism and earns a handshake and a sucker-punch in an unfunny film's unfunny punchline. It's a scary movie, finally, not because it's shot and framed liked an exploitation horror flick, but because it espouses a bellicose, terrified view of the world most popular in the mid-Eighties, right in the middle of our Morning in America. It's awful, let's agree--but let's also agree that Stallone is keyed into something raging in 1986 and, having undertaken Cobra at something like the height of his popularity, he probably wasn't much motivated by money. To Sly, this was an Important Movie.
Eight years later, he's probably doing it for the money, agreeing to be Sylvester Stallone in Luis Llosa's The Specialist opposite hot-for-the-moment Sharon Stone (still reaping the dwindling rewards of flashing her holiest of holies in Basic Instinct) and, um, James Woods, who...um...uh... Hey, it's James Woods! This one's mostly remembered if it's remembered at all as the one without Antonio Banderas (that's next) and for a shower-sex sequence that's not only grotesquely extended, but almost surreal for the perfection of Stone and Stallone's boy/girl physiques. It's not sexy, it's weird like an art installation, or that thing where the muscles of corpses are plasticized and posed kicking soccer balls and stuff. Sly is titular specialist Ray Quick, whose specialty appears to be blowing people up with bombs hidden in telephones and stuff. His arch enemy is Ned (Woods), who used to be Ray's partner or buddy or commanding officer or something back in Bogata, where they blew up a drug lord who, unfortunately at the moment of exploding, had his little girl in the car with him. It's surely only interesting to me and even then not very interesting that they place Woods in South America after Oliver Stone's Salvador--which is not set in South America, of course, but being American that doesn't make any difference to me. Ray, a man of principle and what have you, is mad that they blew up a little girl along with a drug lord no doubt responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people--some innocent, I bet. And then we bounce to current-day 1994, where he's hired by May (Stone) to assassinate the people responsible for her father's murder when she was a child.
This leads to Rod Steiger doing Tony Montana and to Eric Roberts playing a variation of his skeezy criminal while Stone whispers her breathy Kathleen Turner voice into Sly's impassive earhole. Woods is savagely miscast in this picture, it bears mentioning. It occurs to me also that Stallone positions himself as a sextant in an ocean of moral decay. He is paladin, avenging angel ("Angel of the City," right?), the last good man, the one who, Spock in Star Trek IV-like, makes room for the lady on the bus and beats the crap out of the boombox-toting ruffians. I wonder if Sly always imagined himself the hero of a hard-boiled detective noir: the hero returned from war, damaged, reduced, reductive, elemental. There's a slick emptiness to The Specialist that's sort of pleasing, I suppose, but it's neither about anything nor is it, unlike the much rougher Cobra, risible in either its violence or its outcome. There's nothing ambiguous about the bad guys, nothing horrific about Ray's methodology or odious about his worldview. He doesn't like to blow up little girls. Hard to argue with that one. What's weirder is that if Ray is out to avenge the death of a little girl and May (a kid when her dad was murdered) is out to avenge the death of her father, then Ray has taken up the role of May's father and May has taken up the role of Ray's anonymous daughter of a drug lord. Does it strain the quality of Ray's mercy that he shower-bangs the object of his grace? I think it does, a little. The Specialist also has this Sly thing where cats like and are drawn to him. It's the turtle in Rocky, a bit of character business Stallone believes is unobtrusive, but that establishes his outer brute as an inner softy. "Hey, yo, is it my cologne?" he asks. No, it's his giant heart.
It bears mentioning that Stone in this film fulfills the same basic function as every woman in Sly's films...until Julianne Moore in Assassins. Moore in Assassins plays a character named "Electra," which is, let's face it, what Stone's character should have been named, given her daddy issues. Did I mention that The Specialist seems to be an homage to Notorious, complete with woman of low virtue whored to the enemy and an extreme close-up of a porcelain cup at a moment of crisis? No? Oh well, too late now. In Assassins, king douchebag Richard Donner takes the helm and proceeds to steal the dislocating-joint gag and neck-breaking of his own Lethal Weapon saga. I will tell you right now that I've never been more relieved that a film doesn't come with a director's commentary than this one, though there's signature enough of Donner's presence in a cheap throwaway gag in a café where a patron stands up wearing a giant "Pro-Choice" T-shirt and lingers there in medium shot long enough for Donner to make a point. That Donner continues to lather on all this liberal proselytizing in the middle of films that are nasty, racist ("booty twaps!"), and unapologetically violent is an absolute wonder of venal hypocrisy.
Sly in this one is Robert Rath (get it? Wrath? Me neither), an assassin with morals who has retired, but not before one last job that, unfortunately, has been hijacked by jittery young-gun Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas). Bain wants to be the best assassin in the world but can't because Rath is the number-one assassin. Then they both show up to fetch Electra (she's a hacker who has a 3.5" floppy that a lot of other people want) and she becomes the girl Rath pulls around by her hand while Bain tries to kill them both.
Lots of explosions in this one, which liberally rips off its opening scene from the forest hit on Bernie from Miller's Crossing and a car escape from Romeo is Bleeding. Irritating? Sure. It does have a moment, however, when Donner has the good humour to put Sly back in a cab after Rhinestone, but not the sense to pay it off beyond a smug in-joke for assholes like me who will catch it. It's a Sly enigma thing again, knowing that Sly must have been in on that joke but is smart enough not to betray any hint that he's in on the joke--and in that way paying off the joke for the handful of people who remember Rhinestone well enough to call it up in the proper context when it's referenced in Assassins. There's also a fascinating voyeur moment when it's clear that Electra has no personal life and has installed spycams in her downstairs neighbours' apartment, thus allowing her a real, 24-hour reality show that ends in the subjects' deaths, inadvertently by her own hand. It's pretty cool, actually--a moment where Assassins becomes post-modern in a meaningful way. By itself it makes this film, along with Superman, possibly the best thing Richard Donner has ever done. It still sucks, don't get me wrong, but it's got this.
It also has a charismatic villain in Banderas, whose interplay with Sly will be played out to much more satisfying effect by John Cusack and Dan Aykroyd in Grosse Pointe Blank. There are a few nice gunfights, plus a climax in a bell tower that's ludicrous but has the seeds of a good idea. Like with all of Donner's films, though, he opts for rabble-rousing rather than interesting, meaning the right people die, and the right people don't; meaning that who gives a crap about Assassins? I do want to point out, in addition to another cat moment and a scene where Electra spray paints a giant anti-fur slogan on the back of a woman's coat simply because she is a misanthropic bitch with the same knee-jerk ethics as Donner, that this is a film with extended moments of gunplay Donner has slowed down in the style of a John Woo flick. Nothing shocking about that, of course, given that Woo has had perhaps the most influence on the American action genre of anyone in the past couple decades, but it bears mentioning because Donner, in his commentary track for the later Lethal Weapon 4, talks about how great his film is because it doesn't do all that stuff Woo does in his movies. I bring this up because I want to be very clear that I believe Donner is a douchebag not because of his politics, but because of the vacuousness with which he espouses them. Let it also be known that I hate Donner because he consistently demeans Asians and women in his films and because he's an opportunist, a fake, and a total fucking hypocrite. Small wonder that Joe Eszterhas identified him as the only person Mel Gibson respects. They deserve each other.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Cobra is utterly true to itself in a 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that's every bit as ugly and murky as that VHS I rented back in the day in the hopes of getting more Red Sonja nudity (no luck there), but with better-resolved, if quite dense, grain. Dynamic range is decent but the colours are moldy, yet for the most part the film looking like complete shit at times has to be laid at the feet of DP Ric "King of the '80s" Waite (The Great Outdoors, Out for Justice) and a Cannon budget. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA reconfiguration of the picture's Ultra-Stereo soundtrack is surprisingly discrete and expansive, at least, although it sounds a bit flaccid during the shootouts, leaving an opening here for me to make a joke about Cobra not being amused. Meh, you take this one. A vintage "Behind the Scenes" (8 mins., SD) featurette focuses on the stuntwork, mostly, but does have Sly commenting that he doesn't like to narrate themes and issues to his audiences, followed immediately by a clip from the film where he and Nielsen recite some hammer-handed dialogue about how judges just like to let the bad guys back out on the streets. Someone has a sense of humour. The late Cosmatos provides a feature-length commentary that is more or less a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot narration of the film done in a Henry Kissinger voice. He occasionally will say something that isn't a recitation of the action as it unfolds, but as it's of the "Yes, it was abandoned so we used it" and "Oh, we had to shoot that in a parking lot and take out the concrete things" variety, it's hard to decide which is preferable. This guy made Tombstone. Cobra's memorable trailer (2 mins., SD) caps off the first platter of Warner's three-disc Stallone bundle from 2012.
The Specialist was clearly spared a little more attention in the telecine suite, though it and Assassins are of course more recent, comparatively big-budget titles. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer sports impressively tactile definition, verdant greens, and excellent shadow detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track represents a nice upgrade from the DVD, the film's multiple explosions and mayhem making full use of lossless audio to boost the bass to rattling levels. Curious, by the by, that Blown Away was released the same year in a bit of parallel symmetry as forgotten as the movies themselves. Lucky for me, there's only a trailer (2 mins., SD) serving as supplementary material. Warner does the same yeoman's work on Assassins with another 1.78:1, 1080p video presentation boasting rich, cinematic (albeit suspiciously teal-flavoured) colours and textures. Easily the best transfer of the lot, it facilitates an insane level of scrutiny of Julianne Moore's freckled features. Another 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track reveals wisdom and depth in the mixing. Soundwise Assassins is not as impactful as The Specialist, but then there are fewer pyrotechnics. Again thank the maker that only a trailer (2 mins., SD) and no Donner commentary decorates the disc. If I never hear another one of his yakkers, I'll be a happy guy.
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