Sylvester Stallone has had his share of up and down films over the years. After suffering a bit of a career letdown in the 90’s, he started the new millennium by tacking on wonderful codas for two of his most iconic characters. Both Rocky and Rambo benefited from superior sequels that brought some class and closure to the franchises. He’s followed that feat with his love letter to action fans, The Expendables, and the second film in that franchise is hitting now. It’s really no surprise that Lionsgate wants to get in on some of that comet ride and they’ve done it with a Blu-ray package of three Stallone films. The most obvious choice was First Blood, the film that launched the Rambo character. Not so obvious are Lock Up and Cop Land. Neither set fire to the box office but both really do deserve a second look. If you don’t have any of these films in your collection, this is a pretty good deal.
First Blood (1982)
Strangely enough, we refer to the franchise as Rambo. This collection bears that very title. But the first three films are actually entitled First Blood. The first film appeared to be a cursed project from the beginning. While plenty of people in the industry saw the film’s powerful potential, they also saw controversy that no one really wanted to touch. It was 1982, and the end of the Vietnam War was still less than a decade ago. So the property went through about eight studios through options and turnarounds. Almost double that in directors and actors had turned the film down. Kirk Douglas was on board to play Col. Troutman. He did bail right before filming started. Crenna came in last minute and made three films out of that deal. Even after Sly agreed to the project, he was already looking for ways to back out. The night before filming started, he considered breaking his hand to get him out of the production. He’ll admit that it was only the lure of ridiculous money that kept him from bailing. Obviously, he’s glad that he did.
John Rambo (Stallone) is a Vietnam vet who was part of an elite team of special forces. He was taught to kill instinctively. To live off of the land. To ignore petty nuisances like pain. And John Rambo was one of the best. Back in The United States, he is drifting throughout the Pacific Northwest in search of some of his combat buddies, but they’re gone. He’s the last of his kind. When he finds himself in one of these small Northwest towns, he just wants to stop and eat and maybe rest for a short time. But the local sheriff (Dennehy) takes exception to his army jacket and drifter appearance. When Rambo won’t be persuaded to leave town peacefully, Sheriff Teasle arrests him and takes him to jail where he is mistreated. The treatment brings with it flashbacks to his torture at the hands of the Viet Cong. Instinct and training take over, and Rambo escapes to the mountains where he is relentlessly tracked by the police. When the hunt brings national headlines, the story attracts the attention of Col. Troutman (Crenna) who has come to the rescue. He’s not there to rescue Rambo from the cops. He’s there to rescue the cops from Rambo. Rambo’s survivalist skills allow him to pick off his pursuers one by one. He just wants to be left alone, but we know that’s just not going to happen.
The film ended up being something other than the raging controversy everyone feared. It appeared that just enough time had passed to dull some of the hostility. America was finally in a place where she was willing to look at the plight of the returning soldiers that had been so badly mistreated when they got home. First Blood was likely the first sign that the nation had begun to finally heal. The film pulled in an impressive 1982 total of about $125 million. And while John Rambo is killed in Morrell’s novel as well as the first cut of the film, a last minute decision to spare the life of the hero turned into over a billion dollar move.
Lock Up (1989)
“This is Hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.”
There have been a lot of great prison and prison break films over the years. Who can forget Dustin Hoffman in Papillon or Clint Eastwood in Escape From Alcatraz? Of course, more recently we had The Shawshank Redemption. Lock Up won’t ever taste the rare air of those classic films. In fact, it’s not really a prison break film at all. There is an attempted break, but it’s not quite the focus of the film. I almost felt like I was watching the sequel to a break film. That’s because Lock Up deals with the aftermath of a prison break and shows us the consequences on both the escapee and the warden who was responsible for preventing said break. And that’s where I think this movie creates its own niche in the popular genre. It’s a unique film that might have left its most exciting moments in a past that we never got a chance to see.
Frank (Stallone) is a convict at a minimum-security prison in New Jersey. He had killed a man who was beating to death a helpless old man whom Frank admired. He is on good terms with both the prison guards and staff. He’s also friendly with his fellow inmates. He gets to leave on work release where he is preparing a garage he intends to open when he gets out in three weeks. He has a supportive fiancée. Everything appears to be going well for the man. That is, until he is shaken from his prison bed in the middle of the night by a team of gruff guards lead by Captain Meissner (Amos). With no explanation he is shackled and hurried onto a transport vehicle where he is taken to Gateway Prison. This isn’t the country-club atmosphere Frank’s spent the last few years serving his time in. This is a maximum security facility. It’s dirty and it’s violent. Frank can’t figure out what he did to deserve the transfer until he lays eyes on Warden Drumgoole (Sutherland). Drumgoole was the warden of a prison Frank first found himself in years before. The warden’s brutality caused Frank to plan and execute an escape. It was the first and only escape under Drumgoole’s watch. But it was enough to kill his budding career. He ended up at Gateway, or as he describes it, Hell. It is his intention to break Frank and provoke another escape attempt in order to keep him there for the rest of his life. Frank tries to keep his head down and get through the three weeks. It won’t be easy with Drumgoole on his back and another prisoner, Chink (Landham), who wants to kill him.
The best thing that Lock Up has going for it is an incredibly powerful cast. Stallone does what Stallone does best. He plays the mild tough guy who gets pushed into showing his angry side. Sly’s become a modern day Incredible Hulk. If you think about it, you’ll find the same pattern in both Rambo and Rocky. It’s the same here. Stallone has always been smart enough to make sure he was surrounded by great talent. Here that means Donald Sutherland as the ruthless and brutal Drumgoole. Where in the heck do they come up with these names? The first time we see Drumgoole in the dingy light of the prison entrance, we know he’s going to be trouble. Sutherland wears that hardened look as if it were his natural pose. This is a guy who was always cruel. Now he’s been embittered, and his cruelty has gone beyond anything short of psychopathic. He has prisoners killed without blinking an eye. He lets Frank and his friends toil over restoring a car in the prison garage, only to have it smashed while they are forced to watch when one of them gets carried away and takes it for a spin in the yard.
After Sutherland, you have to mention John Amos. This is not James Evans from Good Times. Yet he’s the most nuanced character in the film. When we first encounter Meissner, he’s dragging Frank out of his cell and getting in his face. This is a guard who is not afraid to give a beat down just on general principles. But it’s Meissner who begins to flinch at the level of brutality Drumgoole is willing to dispatch. It’s a great dynamic to see the warden’s evil reflected in the face of a man who isn’t afraid to get dirty himself. It’s when Meissner begins to have doubts that you truly see how bad Drumgoole is. It’s a clever device.
Finally, you have Frank’s fellow cons. Sonny Landham, who doesn’t need any help looking like a mean SOB, plays Chink, who has it in for Frank. Then there are Frank’s friends. Tom Sizemore plays Dallas, a bit of a slimy character who tries to be friends with Frank. He’s the insecure nervous type. Hey, talk about method acting. Sizemore liked playing an inmate so much that he decided to give the real thing a go for a while. Then there’s Frank McRae as Eclipse, the gentle big guy who has been there forever and runs the prison garage.
The final element to provide the film’s rather stark realism is the fact that it was filmed at a real East Jersey prison with over 2000 inmates housed where they filmed. Usually, a film like this finds an out-of-use prison. Give director John Flynn some credit for an exceptional location and a good job of pacing the film. It moves at a good steady clip.
Cop Land (1997)
“Back in the 70’s every cop wanted out of the city. But the only cops allowed to live outside New York were Transit Authority cops because The Transit Authority was also run by Jersey and Connecticut. So these cops I knew of at the 37, they started pulling overtime at subway stations and got the city to declare them auxiliary transit cops. They bought land in Jersey. Got some cheap loans from people they knew. They made themselves a place … Cop Land.”
Cop Land is actually a modern day Western feature. Stallone stars as Freddy Heflin, the Sheriff of the small town of Garrison, New Jersey. It’s the city the prologue tells us about. It’s a place almost entirely populated by cops from New York City. The idea is that the crap they have to deal with in the big city doesn’t follow them home and taint their family lives. Freddy lost his hearing in one ear as a teen rescuing a young girl from a car that went into the river. The disability kept him off the NYPD force, and he’s got a pretty easy job here. When it comes to the many cop citizens, his job is primarily to look the other way. But the city problems come crashing down on Garrison when a mistake made by a hero cop dubbed Super Boy (Rapaport) threatens the political aspirations of his police officer Uncle Ray Donlin (Keitel). They fake the kid’s death to change the story, but there are some who think the whole think is fishy. One of those is Internal Affairs Detective Moe Tilden (DeNiro) who tries to get Freddy to come clean with what he knows. Freddy has to decide if he can continue to look the other way or finally make a stand against Ray and the corrupt cops in his circle along with the mob connections that protect them.
Cop Land does suffer from a bit of a complicated story. Under some circumstances I would also say that it suffers from too large of an ensemble cast. I would except that this is a dream cast in almost every aspect. Freddy’s friend is Figgsy, played by Ray Liotta. He’s not clean by any means. He’s a coke fiend, and he’s spent years playing by the corrupt rules. With an adversary like Harvey Keitel and a badgering investigator like Robert DeNiro, you’d think that would be enough. Throw in Robert Patrick, John Spencer, and half of the cast of The Sopranos as Keitel’s buddies and you’ve got one heck of a gang to deal with. I’m not kidding about that Sopranos cast either. We have Arthur J. Nascarella (Carlo Gervasi), Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo), Edie Falco (Carmella), Tony Sirico (Paulie), Annabella Sciorra (Gloria Trillo), John Ventimiglia (Artie) and of course even Robert Patrick spent a season on the show as Tony’s sporting goods store friend David. You have to wonder if The Sopranos’ casting director just pulled a cast sheet from Cop Land to fill out their cast.
Stallone carries his own with all of this acting power as a character who is sleepwalking through his life until the crap hits the fan and he makes his stand. The Western elements really come together in the final minutes as Freddy takes that stand. It’s quite a bit of Hollywood history here, if nothing else.
Sly finally got to bring both of his iconic characters to some kind of conclusion in recent years. Both Rocky and John Rambo have ridden off into the sunset. It’s been nice to have a collection like this one on Blu-ray. If you already have any of these already on Blu-ray, there’s nothing extra here to warrant such soon replacements. If you haven’t yet upgraded, this is likely your best opportunity, your chance to “remember them all”.