A Tale of Two Terribles

Recently I decided to revisit two different movies, both of which I think aren’t very good.

The inevitable question is, why did I waste my time with revisiting two movies I think aren’t very good? Well, that’s a great question! With the task of recording/producing three regular podcasts each week, it’s fair why you’d wonder why I would arguably waste my time.

First and foremost, don’t you dare judge me. It’s my life and I’ll live it how I wish.

The First Terrible

One of the titles was something that I wanted to revisit for a number of years, but it wasn’t available easily. The movie is Freejack, a 1992 sci-fi clunker starring Emilio Estevez, Rene Russo, Mick Jagger, and…Anthony Hopkins, who must have been contracted to this thing before Silence of the Lambs made him a household name.

I’m not even going to fact check that last statement. It’s the only way it makes sense that he’s in this.

It was covered some time ago by How Did This Get Made?, the podcast that’s something of a spiritual child to the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax. I was amazed that I could still picture scenes in my head as they discussed it. So I waited.

It took me this long to revisit because it had too high a price point for an out-of-print DVD, and wasn’t on any streaming services I use. I’d watched it in the movie theater when it was first released, and it remained ensconced in my brain as one of the least-enjoyable movies I’ve ever seen. I’m sure I must have seen it at least once more in the days of VHS, but I can’t be certain.

One day, I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime and I felt that I had to revisit it.

It’s truly, amazingly, incoherently terrible. There isn’t a single good decision in this film, with the exception of casting Anthony Hopkins because he’s good in anything. I mean, he’s not really all that good here, but he’s still fun to watch. Sorta.

Casting Mick Jagger as the bad guy pursuing Emilio Estevez was an interesting decision, at least. It certainly helped convince me and my friends to see it one night in 1992 after a Speech & Debate tournament.

Aside: It could have been a play, but I’m pretty sure it was one of those tournaments. I remember at one point we were hanging in the teacher’s lounge and the heavy wooden door with the spring-loaded hinge closed on my fingers and my high school ring kept my fingers from getting crushed. I had a weird “dent” on the bone of my ring finger for at least a year afterward. I forget what I had for breakfast, but I remember this moment. Memory is fickle and weird.

The point is, though, that Freejack is irredeemably bad. There’s nothing bright or fresh about it. Unlike Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, my love of which is well-documented, there is a spiritless malaise that oozes from the movie. It’s relentlessly boring and lacks any verve or flair.

It’s a movie where every person seems not to have communicated with anyone else what their specific intentions were, from the writers, to the director, to the crew, to the actors. That shows through very clearly.

It amazed me how well I remembered it despite not having seen it for many, many years. I even remembered certain lines and line deliveries!

Have I seen “worse” in the intervening years? Arguably, yes. But this is still a flaming piece of junk in that particular landfill.

“We’ve got a legendary rock star known for sex appeal, so let’s put him in a helmet that makes him look like Eli Manning on game day.”

The Second Terrible

The other movie I revisited, mainly because I needed to think about something and put it on as a distraction, was 1987’s Over The Top. After marveling that it came out the same year as Jaws: The Revenge and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, I started to ponder why I’m even willing to rewatch it.

Even as something that I had on as “mental noise” so I could think through an issue, Over The Top is terrible. But it’s a different kind of terrible from Freejack.

I’m not talking about the very tired line that something is “so bad it’s good.” That nonsense line just gives us permission to laugh at someone else.

I know that making fun of others’ failures is humanizing and cathartic. It’s why RiffTrax is so damn funny. We like to know we’re not alone in our missteps.

Aside: Of course, if someone makes fun of our mistakes and failures then hopefully we are as gracious as we expect them to be. That’s where the brotherhood forms. (Yes, yes, or sisterhood.)

But Over The Top is different. While bad, it’s earnestly trying to succeed. It’s at least displaying some level of competence, and professionalism.

It isn’t trying to be anything more than it is at the same time. It’s like a “play” written and performed by a grade schooler; you recognize they’re trying their best and have a clear idea of what they want to do.

They’re unloading all of their ideas without worrying about anything but unloading them. There’s a charm to that. It doesn’t make it good, but it does make it cute. The very premise is absurd – a truck driver who’s also a competitive arm wrestler has to win back the love of his estranged son after his mom dies, and also Robert Loggia is the Evil Rich Grandpa – and so it makes no apologies, it just goes for it.

Over The Top is, of course, aided by solid sounds. It features one of Sammy Hagar’s greatest tracks. (I said what I said!) In a way, it’s come to symbolize garbage cinema in the best possible way: Bad, but enthusiastically so.

That, I think, is the core distinction between these two kinds of terrible.

Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top which is a film movie called Over the Top with Sylvester Stallone playing Lincoln Hawk in a movie film called Over the Top.
I mean, it’s just absurd from the beginning, but at least it’s happily absurd.

The Core Distinction

Freejack is dour and cripplingly self-serious, which makes it feel even worse than it is. It’s incapable of existing except through inertia.

No one appears to be having any fun.

So, even though I thinkOver the Top is a bad movie, it’s one I’d revisit because it’s not malignantly bad. Over The Top is having enthusiastic fun with an absurd concept. It’s as if everyone involved knows it’s not good, but just gives it all they’ve got anyway. Because why not?

I guess those are the key factors that makes a bad movie rewatchable: Fun and Enthusiasm. If you’ve got those, it’s hard to hold a grudge about missing the mark.

But seriously, Freejack is the bad kind of terrible.

RAMBO III: kesseljunkie Revisits Stallone’s Afghanistan Adventure

I revisited Rambo III this week. I grant you that a child’s discernment is not the same as an adult’s, so I’m not trying to go back through the whole “own your tastes” thing. But it was the first time I’d seen it since the 1980s.

At least this time it wasn’t for a podcast!

This is more a long-form blog post combined with review, coming from a place where I marvel at how Rambo III is hypnotizingly ludicrous and a perfect time capsule of sensibilities.

There’s Some Legitimately Good Stuff

There are clear character motivations, interesting arcs, and a political message that is endlessly ironic in hindsight. Richard Crenna is always a great deal of fun to watch onscreen, especially as Rambo’s mentor Colonel Trautman.

There are some solid dialogue moments in the movie, too. Overall, the things that work are the personal moments that highlight the humanity of the people suffering Soviet oppression.

There’s some good humor that got real laughter from me. One of those dialogue gems:

Mousa: “God must love crazy people.”

Rambo: “Why?”

Mousa: “He makes so many of them!”

I have no idea if that line originated outside the movie. It’s a solid exchange and played well. There are a few others.

There are elements that we see resurrected in 2008’s Rambo, a simpler and more direct sequel that rings truer to the character we met in 1982’s First Blood. Our hero has retreated from society into a sedate life in a jungle land, seeking nothing more than to purge his demons and find peace.

Granted, in this iteration he also makes money through violent stick fighting. They got it better the second time, at least.

The most positive thing about the movie is how respectful it is of Afghan, and Muslim, culture. It certainly flies in the face of the narrative that action movies don’t do their research. It also flies in the face of certain other narratives, but I’ll let you all think on those.

This is tempered by the fact that, like much of the world at the time, it understands this culture through the narrowing lens of US/Soviet antagonism. This is understandable. I know I’m getting older, but I wonder how well people who didn’t live through it, understand how much it dictated everyone’s priorities.

So long as I’m mentioning the Cold War, the antagonist here is chewing scenery like it’s bubble gum. He knows why he’s there, and he knows the audience doesn’t want nuance and conflict. They want a Soviet Darth Vader, or at least a Tarkin. He delivers it, with a gloriously overproduced accent and appropriate glowering.

Spyros Fokas gives what I thinks is a great performance as one of the rebel leaders, and Sasson Gabai is tremendous fun as the overwhelmed sidekick to Rambo’s sinewy death machine.

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo in Rambo III a Rambo movie that's third in the Rambo series.
80’s workout video? Action movie about a Vietnam Vet fighting in Afghanistan? You decide!

There’s Also Some Stuff That’s Not So Good

It’s a mistake to include a kid in the action. It’s meant to underscore the tragedy of children becoming soldiers. Giving Rambo a child who idolizes him is a humanizing element on the longer arc of his rejoining society as a whole. It just doesn’t work. It’s not the kid’s fault, it just feels stitched into the plot.

The action scenes are something of a cacophonous mess. While they’re not hard to follow, they do a middling job with the rules of pace and place. Cuts are substituted for tension at key moments, which undercuts any rhythm they’re trying to establish.

While the cave battle is good fun, it occurs immediately after a ludicrous moment where Rambo ignites gunpowder in a gaping wound that blows flame through his abdomen and back. The spot is just south of the liver. He’s not even slowed down afterward.

I understand the rules of combat in action movies. I celebrate them. I also understand that suspension of disbelief can only take so much abuse before it breaks.

Later, Rambo’s shot in the leg from the gunship. Per action movie rules, I’ll allow the idea that his leg doesn’t blow off the rest of his body like a Ken doll with a firecracker. Having him acknowledge the hit, which doesn’t even pass through his leg, and then run around with a slight limp afterwards is more than a little much. I played along though.

There’s also a missed opportunity – as much as producers and audiences would have rejected this move on its face – to cut without the big battle scene. It could have created an unforgettable tableau.

Imagine a Butch & Sundance-style freeze frame into legend. They cock their weapons, smile, and launch into the end credits.

Instead two people manage to last longer than 15 seconds against a garrison, a tank, and a (facsimile of a) Russian helicopter gunship known as the “flying tank.”

While I won’t spoil it, the final confrontation between the tank and the gunship is where I started wishing again for an ending with Rambo and Trautman, student and mentor, side-by-side and charging into their fate with machismo. We could have a frozen moment in time where our heroes, defiant to the last, rush into a battle that never was.

Instead we get the battle that is. It’s an underwhelming note on which to end, which is surprising with how many explosives they used to try to create a grandiose final battle. It just feels flat.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo and Richard Crenna as Colonel Samuel Trautman in Rambo III
Deadliest Heavy Metal band ever.

The Final Verdict

It’s not the flaming mess that many have made it out to be. At the same time, I understand why it basically ended the series for 30 years.

While I have problems with the movie, it’s still aggressively working to please the audience. I respect that. I admire it. It kept me watching.

What’s my final star rating, that heralded paragon of true taste? You’ll have to go to letterboxd to find out!