Review- First Blood (1982)

Review- First Blood (1982)

First Blood is another film I remember from the golden age of home video, an era that holds so many great memories for me. I didn’t actually see First Blood from start to finish in the early 80’s even though my brothers had rented the film on many occasions. I think I possibly thought of the film as merely a testosterone-fuelled grunt fest. I remember the trailers on the video though, one of which was for Halloween 2 as this was also released through Thorn EMI Video.

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Watching First Blood now and I’m left dazed by the experience. First Blood is one of the most savage film experiences I think I’ve ever experienced.

Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is now a drifter and goes to the town of Hope to meet up with an old army buddy who he then finds has actually died of cancer the year before. He then crosses paths with the town’s sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who is far from friendly. He takes Rambo into his police station whereby he and his staff humiliate and brutalise him. Rambo snaps wastes most of the police there (one of whom is David Caruso who would go on to star in NYPD Blue) and escapes into the wilderness where the police pursue him.

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First Blood was photographed by the ever fantastic Andrew Laszlo who was the Director of Photography on masterpiece The Warriors and his work here is just as good. He fully takes advantage of the gorgeous mountain landscapes that act as a backdrop to the horrific events unfurling before our eyes on the screen. Ted Kotchoff’s direction is surprisingly beautiful with perfect framing and an ever-kinetic and moving style that lifts it far above what could have easily been a dirt-level exploitation flick.

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Something else that lifts First Blood from being typical exploitation fare is Stallone’s performance which is devoid of any Hollywood one-liners and is mostly action. In fact, there are huge periods that are just action and no dialogue. I can now see why people for whom English wasn’t their first language would frequent the 42nd Street cinemas to see the films being shown there. There was little plot to many of these films and they were more visceral instead.

Is First Blood an allegory for how America treated those returning from war? Is it a cinematic case study in PTSD? One things for sure- it’s a gruelling experience but a worthy one.

3.5 stars out of 5

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Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Commando (1985)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Commando (1985)

One of the videos I rented the most during the golden years of home video was Commando, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick. I watched it again recently to see if it still stands up. My God, it really does! Re-watching it felt like meeting up with an old friend.

This was the golden period of Arnie’s career for me. He was fresh from The Terminator (which is in my humble opinion, one of the best sci-fi/horror movies ever made. I was so inspired by it that I wrote about the film as part of my university Film Studies dissertation) and Red Sonja (criminally underrated) and really was on top form.

Commando is brilliant in every way. Arnie’s deadpan delivery is perfect for his character Matrix especially when he is delivering some witty line regarding the dispatch of one of his enemies. Another interesting facet of his performance is that he looks like he’s scanning his surroundings just like the camera is scanning and recording him. It makes you realise that there was a lot of Arnie in his characterisation of The Terminator and that he wasn’t just some malleable piece of muscle for James Cameron to tell what to do.

I also love that his character seems to have more acute senses than others. He hears the helicopter approaching his mountainside home before his daughter or we do. He also mentions that at one point he could *smell* when an enemy was nearby. That’s awesome. Half man, half bloodhound but with a lot more muscle.

The screenplay for Commando is also amazing. There’s so much great dialogue within the film that makes you literally laugh out loud. Almost every line that leading lady Rae Dawn Chong utters is some witty putdown which she delivers brilliantly. And that’s something else I love about Commando. Chong’s character isn’t some vapid female appendage who was just cast to merely look pretty. She has plenty to say, is shown to be intelligent and gets stuck in trying to help Matrix get his daughter back. She’s also very funny. The scene with the rocket launcher is still hilarious after all these years.

It’s also nice to see the full film at last. In the ’80s the film was cut by the BBFC with most of the garden shed scene being censored. That meant that we didn’t get to see the glorious moment when Arnie throws a circular garden blade at someone’s head or when he uses a machete to cut someone’s arm off. This sequence feels like something from a slasher movie so it’s no surprise that the BBFC got its knickers in a twist. It was worth the wait.

The soundtrack rocks too. Who knew that steel drums and pan pipes would work so well with drum machines and saxophones? James Horner did. It really is one of the great soundtracks of the 80s.

Is Commando the greatest action movie of the 1980s? I actually think it might be.

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No Homo: John McTiernan’s Predator (1987)

No Homo: <em>John McTiernan’s Predator</em> (1987)

I had the honour and privilege to be able to see Predator (1987) in 4K and on the big screen the other day. It felt like visiting an old friend.

Predator belongs in Arnie’s Imperial Phase which for my money runs from the Conan films up until Red Heat. At this time he was making action movies that defined the genre, pushed its boundaries but fully exploited their future status on the medium of video- in other words they were violent and gory as hell.

Predator works on so many different levels.

The film is the perfect example of a comic book come to life on celluloid. The film possesses the kind of exaggeration and imagination that normally couldn’t satisfactorily be translated to film. Predator shows that these forays into the surreal and its larger than life action sequences can be successfully conveyed. All of the characters could equally be seen in comic book panels as much as they could be on film. The film is so gung-ho that it feels like a war comic crossed with a shoot em up video game at times.

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The Predator’s thermal vision that the audience is privy to is also a comic book device.

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Another sequence that is reminiscent of a comic book is when Dillon’s arm is cut off but continues to fire a gun.

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Also, just as action and horror movies were massively successful on video in its infancy  and its growth as a medium, Predator combines elements of both genres and turns them up to 11. The sequence involving Dillon’s arm is a great example of a sequence that appeals to both action and horror fans.

In fact the film is extremely subversive as it starts as a jungle commando action vehicle but then suddenly changes direction. This could have failed to work and come across as forced and completely contrived if handled in the wrong way. But instead it works brilliantly.

The horror and more specifically the slasher conventions within Predator show that the film wasn’t just appealing to the fans of action movies. The Predator’s handiwork is shown as the jungle crew discover the skinned bodies of others hanging upside down. The crew soon find themselves to be the quarry rather than the hunters in the same way that a group of teenagers would be in a stalk n slash movie. They are easy meat.

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The film also contains the same kind of kills found in a slasher movie with skulls, intestines and exploding heads all featuring.

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Another slasher staple that features in Predator is the unmasking of the killer which of course prompts Dutch to exclaim ‘You are one ugly motherfucker!’ The unmasking sequence is especially a staple of the Friday 13th films in which Jason Voorhees is regularly unmasked to reveal his true face.

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A mug you wouldn’t chug- the unmasking of the predator

Predator also goes the extra mile when it comes to its action genre ingredients. There are guns and muscles aplenty. But where Predator tries to excel when it deals with these components, in doing so it instantly becomes very very homoerotic.

There must have been something distinctly gay in the air in some Hollywood quarters in 1986/7 as two other unintentionally/intentionally homoerotic films were also made around the same time- Top Gun and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

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The homoeroticism of Top Gun (1986) and
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A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1986)

In fact, Predator is so proudly masculine, homoerotic and therefore camp that to take any of these variants further would topple the film headlong into the genre of gay pornography.

It doesn’t take a lot for the ultra masculine to turn ultra homoerotic and camp. Let me illustrate- think of a clockface as representing all of the different variants of masculinity- 1 represents the camp, effete and effeminate (two examples are Quentin Crisp and Julian Clary) and 12 represents the ultra masculine, musclebound and testosterone soaked (Arnie, your average MMA fighter, the larger WWE wrestlers). There isn’t that much of a distance from 1 to 12 on the clockface is there? Also, just because a man might be camp or effeminate doesn’t mean that he isn’t without balls of steel. Do you think it was easy for Julian Clary and Quentin Crisp to be openly gay and effeminate when they first came to light in the public gaze? No- it took guts and moral fortitude. They are far from being submissive sissies. There are paradoxes at the more extreme positions on the clock.

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Whilst number 12 on the clockface is seen as the most masculine its also, paradoxically very camp and homoerotic also. The male who wishes to assert his masculinity more potently will build up his physique and muscles. To display this ‘uber masculinity’ he will expose his body more thus paradoxically instantly appeal to the some members of the same sex. He wants to accentuate his masculinity and has at the same time become more camp, desirable and homoerotic because of this.

This heady brew of the masculine and homoerotic is first seen in the film when Dutch comes across his old friend Dillon again. A handshake turns into an epic display of biceps and a very manly (and very camp) arm-wrestle. You could be forgiven that this is in fact some kind of 1980’s gay porno movie.

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The camera seems to relish and luxuriate upon the male cast in the film. There are many shots of gleaming muscles, sometimes clutching huge guns. Predator is a glistening, sweaty jerk-off fest for the gay gaze.

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The bead of sweat rolling down the ample chest of the character of Billy is one such example of this. The same character later on in the film decides to ‘take it like a man’ by slitting open his well built chest to prompt the predator out of hiding so that they can go one on one. Its a startling display of machismo that is instantly appealing to the action fan and those who are sexually aroused by such testosterone fuelled exhibitionism. ‘Taking it like a man’ means something very different in gay circles. The pitcher becomes receiver. He decides to ‘receive’ the alien.

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Within the film there is also the spectacle of the slow striptease of Dutch. Throughout the course of the film Arnold appears in varying degrees of undress and displays more flesh and more muscle. There is also an unbelievable shot when the crew arrive in the jungle. Dutch crawls through undergrowth with the camera just above his body as he does this, resplendent with an amazing shot of his arse. Ever wanted to know what it would be like to be on top of the film’s lead character? The camera realises this for the spectator.

Arnold’s striptease cumulates with his character covered in mud (!) with a lit torch in one hand and giving a manly bellow to the heavens to alert the alien that he is ready for battle. Man vs alien- and no ugly extra-terrestrial is going to kick Arnie’s alpha-male butt. Whilst this scene is intended not only to signify the potency of the masculinity on display its also the ultimate in homoeroticism and camp iconography- a distillation of the whole film in one sequence.

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Theres also the bromance/relationship between Mac and Blain. After Blain is killed there is a palpable longing on the part of Mac which suggests that he misses him for being more than just a fellow soldier. This pining between two male characters is reminiscent of Peter being distraught by the passing of Roger in George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Or the ending of Brokeback Mountain. Yes, nothing gay here.

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Male longing- Brokeback Mountain

In fact Blain recalls the ‘macho man’ archetype in the same way that The Village People’s leather-clad biker does- moustache, sexually potent (Blaine describes himself as a ‘sexual tyrannosaurus’), whilst looking down on others who aren’t as masculine. Blaine refers to those people as ‘slack jawed faggots’ the way a leather fan might look down on the camper constituents of his community. Also, notice the use of the word ‘faggots’- Blaine doth protest too much. Or hes just trying to deflect from the obvious conclusions.

With the character of Blaine there also the issue of guns, the size of those guns and the ‘gun as phallus/symbol of manhood’ baggage that is imbued with such imagery. Just as Blaine has stated that he is a ‘sexual tyrannosaurus’ he qualifies this with the gun he carries- a huge gun that can fire countless bullets at once and has a barrel that rotates as its doing this. Blaine calls the gun ‘Old Painless’ and at one point says that its time to bring it out of its bag. This recalls the way a man might say its time to ‘unleash the beast’. Never has a gun represented a penis so obviously.

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Blain and his impressive weapon

Also within the film there seems to be a celebration of gun size as an extension of manhood for each character. There are many shots of gleaming muscles and equally huge guns held proudly by each character. Theres also the incredible scene in which the muscled components of the crew fire their guns into the jungle when they happen to see the alien. The scene goes on for way too long, prompting the audience to question why this is. A joyous piece of action genre abandon? A display of unabashed masculinity? Or the film’s equivalent of a circle jerk? This scene is as close as the film can come to each character having his cock out to show who really is King Dong.

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The Predator circle jerk

In fact the film early on introduces a female character into the proceedings to seemingly try to stop the film being a solely male musclefest. Shes also introduced to make the film homosocial- a female distraction from the otherwise all male action and to show that, ”y’know, we’re not actually faggots or nuthin’ ”.

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Predator’s all male cast. Nothing gay here.

Anna Gonsalves however isn’t the kind of weak and spineless female character who requires a man to save her from any encroaching danger. She is resourceful and an equal. She spends her formative scenes trying to escape from the crew but then is seen as someone more than willing to pitch in to save herself and the lives of the others in the crew from the predator. She is self-sufficent and with this all male crew, thats pretty much for the best. Saving women would take away from their self-love and exhibitionism.

Ultimately what was Predator’s demographic and who it was made for- the laydeez? Of course not. It was made for male action and horror fans. This vehicle of muscles and macho posturing with the odd splatter scene was made for men. It makes the film even gayer/homoerotic.

Even the behind the scenes stills from Predator were homoerotic. Hers a picture of Arnie holding a huge snake.

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But whilst most of society was a homophobic cesspit when Predator was released the world seems to have changed since. Homophobia is thankfully being seen as unjust, outdated and as never being valid in the first place. Arnie is now a successful Republican politician. Whilst everyone was celebrating the amendment that allowed Gay Marriage in America people on Facebook were changing their profile pictures so that they had a rainbow flag filter. Arnie did the same. Most welcomed this. However some old school action fans did not. Arnie’s comeback was epic.

Things really were changing. Just as Arnie was finally embracing gay marriage and equality, was it possible that he knew that Predator was in fact a homoerotic musclefest all along? It would be great if someone from the Predator crew came forward to say that that this was actually the intention. Just imagine the uproar!