Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Two Jakes and the Fifth Mason

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

Barb and I send our deepest condolences to our friend and partner, Jane Spillane, whose grandson Justin died over the weekend. He was a victim of the Coronavirus and only 33.

If you wish to send your positive thoughts to Jane, I suggest you do so here, in the comments section, where she will see them. Fans of Mickey and Mike Hammer owe everything to Jane for her dedication in seeing her late husband’s work celebrated and completed.

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The Two Jakes Blu-Ray Cover

In these dark days, being pleasantly surprised is a rarity. But my eyes – and my day – lit up when I learned that the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, would soon be released on Blu-ray disc on September 15. And it’s only $9.99…right here.

That only leaves the 1953 3-D I, the Jury to find a home on Blu-ray to mean all my video white whales have been harpooned.

So this week, rather than remind you how important it is for you to review my novels at Amazon, I am selflessly hawking someone else’s product. Because I am at heart a fan. No. A shameless fan. I particularly like loving movies I’m not supposed to. I love Shock Treatment, for example, the sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think Start the Revolution Without Me is the funniest film ever made, and most of you haven’t even heard of it. I think both I, the Jury films are terrific, and I don’t even care that Mickey Spillane himself didn’t agree with me. And I hate E.T., Grease and Saturday Night Fever, so sue me.

So I am here today to try to talk sense into you and convince you that – after you pre-order Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher – you also pre-order the Blu-ray of The Two Jakes.

These are my 2012 thoughts on The Two Jakes:

Whether you disliked The Two Jakes or avoided seeing it out of misguided respect to Chinatown, you need to give it a serious look. It works extremely well when your mind is fresh with the first Gittes film, as it’s a coda of sorts that is intertwined with Chinatown both on the plot and thematic level. On its own terms, it’s an intelligent private eye film, directed by Nicholson with restraint and sense of style and mood. As a ten years later continuation of Chinatown, the second film has resonance and substance.

Of course, The Two Jakes is not on the level of Chinatown. Nicholson studiously avoided any melodrama and even left some plot elements (including a killing and a great post-courtroom comeuppance for a Noah Cross-style villain) on the cutting room floor, after his initial cut was deemed too lengthy. Apparently Towne was unhappy with those cuts, but that doesn’t keep The Two Jakes from being a worthy, rewarding coda to the greatest private eye film of all time (yes, even better than Kiss Me Deadly).

For a film to be great, the gods must smile – everything must fall into place, all creative talents must be perfect for their roles (whether actor or otherwise) and at the top of their game. Luck and magic must happen. Chinatown originally had what is said to be a lousy score, and Jerry Goldsmith was brought in at the last minute to write (in a little over a week) what is now considered one of most memorable film scores of all time. The Two Jakes suffers from what is at best a serviceable score (by Van Dyke Parks), and at worst an intrusive one.

(2020 note: Phillip Lambro’s original Chinatown score – under the title Los Angeles, 1937is available on CD at Amazon and perhaps a few other venues. It’s interesting but not a patch on Goldsmith. A combo of both the Chinatown and The Two Jakes scores is available on Amazon as well, pricey; but listening to it has warmed me somewhat to the Parks score.)

Nonetheless, The Two Jakes deserves its own Blu-ray. On my sound system, the unmemorable music swamps the dialogue; perhaps the Blu-ray format, with its excellent sound, would remedy that. But it took Paramount this long to release Chinatown, so….

And I suppose it’s too late to hope that Nicholson and Towne might get together one last time for Gittes Vs. Gittes, the third film in the trilogy, derailed by the lack of commercial success for The Two Jakes (not intended as a coda, but a pastoral fugue of a second act). The trilogy was to be water (Chinatown), fire (The Two Jakes) and air (Gittes Vs. Gittes). The third film would have been set in 1968 and deal with the end of no fault divorce, a reclusive Howard Hughes-type villain, and the LA freeway system. Call that one the greatest private eye film never made.

Meanwhile, back in 2020….

Check out Kevin Burton Smith’s thoughts on The Two Jakes (at his great Thrilling Detective Web Site), which includes defenses from Roger Ebert, Terrill Lankford, and Frederick Zackel.

My opinion of The Two Jakes has, if anything risen over the years. Every time I watch it – and I’ve seen it perhaps eight times – I find deeper resonance. I still wish a longer cut existed, including a more satisfying, complete resolution of the various mysteries, including the Noah Cross-like character. But that unfinished aspect of the narrative only makes it fit more snugly into the Chinatown theme that Gittes, for all his mastery of the muddy waters he swims in, is again in over his head.

I cannot think of a private eye film since Chinatown that is better than The Two Jakes, and I cannot think of a private eye movie better than The Two Jakes that has appeared since.

People often assume that Chinatown had a good deal to do with my creation of Nate Heller in True Detective (the original title of which was meant to be Tower Town). And I suppose that’s true, although I had already created Heller as a proposed comic strip character in a Depression-era setting, and come to the realization that the private eye had been around long enough to exist in an historical context.

What Chinatown inspired me to try to accomplish was to bring an emotional resonance to the private eye story – and to other crime stories with a tough everyman protagonist, whether private eye or not. To accomplish between the covers of a book the power of Chinatown or Vertigo, to be surprising and moving and touch something deep. I like to think that Nate Heller, over the course of what has become a saga, has done (and continues to do) that. Maybe Quarry, too, but at more of a distance.

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I am still watching Perry Mason on HBO. Why do I continue the suffering? It’s a combination of professional curiosity – they are working my side of the street, after all – and I am a longtime Perry Mason/Raymond Burr/Erle Stanley Gardner fan and just can’t help myself.

The fifth episode finally showed some promise, but the series remains its own worst enemy. Beautifully shot, generally well-acted – though its score is a lazy embarrassment (I described it elsewhere as random piano chords and a trumpet player trying to remember the Chinatown theme and failing) – it insists on portraying a dour world with a dour protagonist. Additionally, it stubbornly swamps the good will its famous name brings by wallowing in political correctness – Della Street is a lesbian, of course. God help us if they reboot I Love Lucy.

A major problem remains a jarring insistence on using the “f” word with the casualness of today in a visually accurate rendition of yesterday. Among the anachronisms in the dialogue of episode five are “throwing shade on” and “enablers.” Yeah, sounds just like The Front Page, doesn’t it?

But at least (and if you haven’t seen episode five, consider yourself Spoiler Alerted) they moved Mason himself closer to the Gardner premise, i.e., he is on the threshold of becoming a defense lawyer. They do it cleverly, by having Mason pass the Bar Exam after being schooled privately and secretly (albeit in public) by an assistant D.A. on the make – a guy named Hamilton Burger. Now I guessed this the moment the new actor walked into the diner where the schooling begins, and I smiled. Finally. Something resonant and clever.

And then Burger starts giving Perry one example of the kind of legal problem typical of the exam and we fade out, and suddenly Mason – at last clean-shaven and not in his rumpled leather jacket – is being sworn in as an attorney. But this comes after Burger hasn’t even finished asking Mason that one question!

Yet the same episode spent much more time showing Paul Drake – you remember, Paul, the African-American uniformed cop? – and his pregnant wife and friends lounging on a Santa Monica beach, causing no trouble, only to be rousted off by another (not African-American) cop…cut to Paul crying in bed and his wife comforting him. I’m guessing this obvious, plot-free sequence lasts three or four times as long as the one in which Perry Mason is…trained to become a lawyer!

Maybe, maybe, maybe if they can get the gloom out of their system, and get this guy into a suit and a tie and a courtroom, Matthew Rhys can become Perry Mason – his acting improves when he has more to do than feel sorry for himself, as when he gets tough with a shyster. For now, the good is drowning in the bad, and even the gifted Orphan Black star, Tatiana Maslany, seems lost in her role as an Aimee Semple Mcpherson-style evangelist. Am I phony? she seems to be wondering. Or a real visionary? Or maybe a money-grubbing charlatan always in on the scam? Who knows? Clearly not this talented actress.

M.A.C.

Mommy Streams, Backlist Bubbles, We Binge

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

Both Mommy and Mommy’s Day are now streaming on Amazon Prime. (Links: Mommy; Mommy’s Day) How long they will be there I can’t say (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life has disappeared, though some other streaming services have it). If you’re a Prime member, it’s included.

[Note from Nate: Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is currently on Tubi, free (with ads?)]

So if you haven’t seen both or either of these films, now’s your chance. If you have the earlier full-screen versions, this is an opportunity to see the widescreen versions that Phil Dingeldein and I recently labored to create. I do warn everyone not to expect HD quality (despite being streamed as HD) – the picture (particularly on Mommy) is rather soft. But it’s probably the best either one is going to look.

As I’ve said, compromises were made to be able to afford the wonderful casts.

remain proud of these films, and the Blu-ray double-feature release has received mostly good to great notices. People seem to understand where these little movies were coming from – which is to say blackly humorous melodrama, and a tribute to The Bad Seed and to Patty McCormack herself.

Mommy and Mommy’s Day are streaming on Fandango, too, for a couple of bucks. It may show up elsewhere (I am not kept terribly well in the loop by the distributor). (Links: Mommy; Mommy’s Day)

The novel versions will be coming out again one of these days, part of a package I am negotiating with a major e-book publisher for the seven remaining novels on my backlist (Amazon has most of the rest, Dover has the first two Jack and Maggie Starr novels).

We are also discussing a group of collections of my short fiction (and Barb’s), reprinting Blue Christmas, Too Many Tomcats, and Murder – His and Hers, plus a follow-up to that last title, a collection of my horror stories, and two collections of the stories Matt Clemens and I have done together.

Pulling these stories together has been a big job. They go back to the nineties in many cases, and were written using the word-processing program (wait for it) WordStar, and then converted to now nearly obsolete versions of WordPerfect maybe twenty years ago, and finally to Word. So while I have most of the files in some form, the dizzying array of conversion glitches causes twitches.

For the horror collection I decided to include the radio scripts of “Mercy” and “House of Blood,” written for the Fangoria radio show, Dreadtime Stories. I had adapted a number of my short stories for producer Carl Amari, but had two indie movie ideas I wanted to get up on their feet, and that’s how the two scripts above came to be written. The scripts were in a format (basically a very narrow strip of copy, maybe four inches wide, that required hours of work transforming them into more standard pages of text that wouldn’t bewilder or annoy readers. Fortunately, I have a staff to do such scut work. No, wait – I don’t!

Ultimately, though, it will mean the vast majority of my work will be available in e-book (and real books), with only a handful of things lost to the mists of time.

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What have Barb and I been watching lately? Now that we don’t go to the movies anymore?

We finally got around to Ozark, which had been recommended to me by smart people, who were right. It’s a terrific show, very well-acted and full of twists and turns. Several people had told me that somebody (or somebodies) at the series seemed to be fans of mine or were influenced by me, and I think that might be the case. If so, it’s flattering. If not, it’s not the first time I’ve been deluded.

But there’s a hillbilly family reminiscent of the Comforts from the Nolan novels, a character called Boyd (Quarry’s partner in those novels), and a major villain in the first of the three seasons so far is played by the actor (Peter Mullen) who was the Broker in the Quarry TV series. And the good man doing bad things to keep his family afloat is Road to Perdition 101. Maybe half a dozen times I turned to Barb and said, “At least somebody’s reading me.”

The series itself is obviously something that wouldn’t exist without Breaking Bad, and it challenges you (in a Quarry-like way) to root for and identify with people who are making really poor choices. I don’t mean to overstate any debt anybody owes me, because (a) I owe plenty of debts myself, and (b) I may be full of shit about this.

The Guardian describes Ozark thusly: “Ozark follows the misadventures of Marty Byrde (the perpetually clenched Jason Bateman), a financial adviser forced to relocate from Chicago to Osage Beach, Missouri, where he launders money on a scale that would give Al Capone a cluster migraine.”

Bateman uses his standard glib, slightly put-upon persona to nice comic effect initially, and you are slightly amazed at first by how well that persona works in a dark melodrama. But as that melodrama grows darker, and the consequences ever more dire, Bateman’s performance deepens. Other mesmerizing performances come from Laura Linney, as Bateman’s even more glib wife, whose sunny smile delivers manipulative self-interest in such a “helpful” way; and Julia Garner’s Ruth, the most original and unique character in Ozark, a hillbilly girl with a good heart and a crushed soul, capable of kindness and murder, when either is called for.

I like the series and I think you will, too.

We also have recently enjoyed the surprise gift of a second season of Rick Gervais’ After Life, the touching drama/comedy (you don’t think I could ever type the vile word “dramedy,” do you?) that explores the road back for a husband consumed by grief over the loss of a wonderful wife.

The very special thing about After Life is its signature combination of mean humor and genuine sentiment. It’s a show about a man so depressed that suicide is an understandable option, and it’s often frequently hilarious.

I am a Gervais fan and have been for a long, long time. This little series isn’t much talked about, but it may represent his best work.

On the film front, we have watched a lot of British comedies of the late ‘40s and 1950s – such Alastair Sim gems as our perennial favorite, The Belles of St. Trinian’s, but also Laughter in Paradise and School for Scoundrels; and Alec Guinness in All at Sea, The Captain’s Paradise and Last Holiday.

And the most current season of Midsomer Murders, a favorite comfort food of ours, seemed particularly strong after a few missteps the season before.

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Bookgasm, which is a book review site you should be regularly visiting, has posted a wonderful review of Girl Can’t Help It that’s been picked up all over the place, and I provided a link last week. But in case you haven’t seen it, I’m going to share it here, right now:

Notoriously prolific author Max Allan Collins has added a second entry to his Krista Larson series, GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. It’s also a stretch back to Collins’ past (and present) as a rock and roll musician. True! I didn’t know this either but Collins apparently wrote the song “Psychedelic Siren” recorded by The Daybreakers in 1968 (here, watch it on YouTube). In the author’s note, he states this is the first time he has mined his rock and roll experience for a book. Well dang it, more of this please. Mr. Collins.

The first book in the series, Girl Most Likely, features Krista Larson as the Chief of Police in Galena, Illinois. She is assisted by her able staff but also by her father, a retired cop from the Dubuque Police Department who does invaluable detective work. In this second work, Girl Can’t Help It, the Larson duo is back on the job.

The book title refers to a song title recorded by local Galena band Hot Rod & The Pistons. They scored a huge hit with the song in the 80s when retro rockabilly hit big (think Stray Cats). They managed two albums and then faded away. But after their election into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they’re set for a reunion gig and maybe even a little tour. The town of Galena is excited and creates a special musical festival to kick off the whole thing. All well and good.

Until one of the members is found dead of a heart attack in a bathtub. Oh well, old guys do die. But then a second band member commits suicide and his apartment has been ransacked. This hits the Larsons as fishy, and they’re fairly convinced that both deaths are murders.

Of course, we the readers know these are murders because we have chapters written from the point of view of the murderer. The crimes continue to escalate and it’s a battle between the murderer and the police department to see who will come out on top and if the entire lineup of Hot Rod & The Pistons will be killed off one by one.

Everybody knows Max Allan Collins by now. He has multiple series in place, writes another successful series with his wife (the duo goes by Barbara Allan) and is one of the solid bricks in the pyramid of genre writers over the past 40+ years. A lovely, smooth and polished style coupled with a brisk pace makes for quick reading short chapters, believable characters, behaviors and dialogue. If you like any of Collins’ works, you’ll like GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. I think this series has real promise. Recommended. —Mark Rose

Get it at Amazon.

A fun podcast about books, The Inside Flap, was kind enough to give Do No Harm and Nate Heller some attention. The Do No Harm stuff happens a bit after the hour mark. You’ll hear one of the participants wish that I would have Heller solve the JFK assassination (guess what books I sent along to them).

The great blog Paperback Warrior is posting their all-time ten favorite posts, and the one focusing on The First Quarry is #4.

Here’s a great interview with my buddy Charles Ardai, touching on our projects together.

The fantastic Stiletto Gumshoe site talks about Mike Hammer and Masquerade for Murder, and provides some links to things you may have missed.

This nice review of Antiques Fire Sale is a little quirky – doesn’t like all the talking to the reader, and thinks referring to Vivian as “Mother” is disrespectful – but some nice insights are on hand, as well. Loving us is preferred, but liking us is just fine, too.

Finally, check out this terrific Mystery Tribute piece about Mike Hammer and Masquerade for Murder.

M.A.C.

Killing Quarry and an Unlikely Movie Trilogy

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon Google Play Nook Kobo iTunes
Audible: Audible

Killing Quarry from Hard Case Crime is available now, both at brick-and-mortar venues (you remember them – “stores”) and online from the usual suspects.

I’m happy to say that the reviews have been very good so far, and I’ll share links to some at the end of this update. Nothing from the trades yet – Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal – and we may not get any, either, as entries in long-running series are often overlooked.

Also available now is the audio of Killing Quarry, read by the masterful Stefan Rudnicki, who has been narrating Mike Hammer of late, too, and who did a multiple-award-winning job on Scarface and the Untouchable. Barb and I haven’t listened to Killing Quarry yet, as we’re saving it for a next car trip. But I’m sure Stefan did his usual great job.

For those wondering where this fits into the chronology, Killing Quarry is the final “list” book, though I may do that theme again, earlier in the chronology. I jump around a lot. As I prepare to write the follow-up to Spree in what will be the first Nolan novel in decades, I intend to keep it in period much as I have the Quarry books written after The Last Quarry.

If you think you’re confused, imagine how I feel.

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Barb and I went to two movies recently, Midway and Ford V Ferrari, which with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood to form a kind of trilogy in my mind. I will explain after a few words about those first two.

Midway is a first-rate look at the famous battle and everything that led up to it (Pearl Harbor, Doolittle’s raid on Toyko); all of the characters are based on real people. It’s a film worth seeing on a big screen, and to these eyes – supposedly 20/20 with my glasses on – the CGI is impressive, the scope and the nastiness of the action spelled out, sometimes chillingly. The cast is fine, with Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart and Dennis Quaid standouts, and boy band star Nick Jonas doing well, too – of course, you must factor in that I think Rick Nelson is wonderful in Rio Bravo.

Despite what some of the reviews (particularly the bad ones) say, this Midway is not a remake of the 1976 film of that name, which had an incredibly stellar cast (Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford and on and on) in a cut-and-paste affair marked by combat photography, stock footage, and rear-projection.

The critical hostility toward Midway almost certainly has to do with its director, Roland Emmerich, who is known for big-budget, visually impressive, but hokey if entertaining fare like Independence Day and White House Down. This film seems solid on its history and does not indulge in the soap opera tactics that torpedoed Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.

It’s worth seeing.

Ford V Ferrari, on the other hand, is essential viewing. The leads, Christian Bale as driving legend Ken Miles and Matt Damon as sports car designer Carroll Shelby, dominate the screen at least as thoroughly as the racing action that makes seeing this in a theatrical setting a must. The friendship of Bale and Damon is the heart of the film, and despite all the speed and thrills, it’s a character study of both Miles and Shelby. Bale is so winningly over-the-top that it’s hard not to love his character, and to be impressed by his performance. Damon, in his quiet way, is just as good.

The plot hangs on a rivalry between the men who ran Ford and Ferrari respectively, and how Henry Ford the Second’s desire to show up Enzo Ferrari had the American auto manufacturer putting together a racing team to do it. Simple as that premise is, director James Mangold and writers Jex Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller create conflicts and humor enough for half a dozen good films. The depiction of Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his staff, including a hilariously sycophantic Josh Lucas (“Have a good dinner, sir!”) and a budding automotive giant named Lee Iacocca, well-played by Jon Bernthal, is painfully familiar to any of us who have ever had to deal with “suits” to realize our dreams.

So what makes a trilogy out of Midway, Ford V Ferrari and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood? Well, Ferrari is almost a companion piece to Hollywood, in its spot on depiction of the ‘60s (albeit slightly earlier) with music and cars and billboards, among much else, putting it over. And Midway similarly takes us on a time machine ride (although, in fairness, Tarantino does the most thorough job of it and, of course, the most stylish).

Taken together, these three films make a point, perhaps intentionally or maybe not. But in the current political climate, they remind us that the only way we can feel good about America right now is to look in the rearview mirror.

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Here are the Killing Quarry reviews, as promised.

First up, this short but sweet (and illustrated!) one from Jessicamap reviews.

Here’s a great one from the UK’s Shots by Mike Stotter.

Geek Hard delivers this beauty.

Here’s a solid one from the Warrendale Detroit Blog.

Finally, here’s a fantastic one from Bookreporter.com.

M.A.C.

Killing Quarry Book Giveaway and…Rambo!!!

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

I have a whopping 15 advance copies of Killing Quarry (the book will be on the stands in November).

A number of you were nice enough to volunteer to review pretty much anything of mine, when I went on a recent self-pity binge. I am going to ask you a favor, because it will help me get these books out to you. Go ahead and enter this giveaway, even though not long ago you sent me info; it will make things move quicker. Here are the rules.

Write me at macphilms@hotmail.com. You agree to write a review for Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your own blog or review site (if you hate the book, you are released from this commitment, but can review it anyway if you wish). USA addresses only. It’s important that you send your snail-mail address. Also, if you’re one of the kind people who volunteered to review my stuff recently, remind me of that.

These are ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) but they are identical to the coming trade edition – I had made my corrections and revisions beforehand. I would be glad to sign and personalize your copy if you request it.

Thank you for your interest and support. A Girl Can’t Help It giveaway will follow in January or February.

* * *

Rambo: Last Blood has a 27% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. That was almost enough to scare me off, until I noticed the audience score was 82%. Somewhere there’s a disconnect.

I decided to check out the negative reviews, and here’s a typical excerpt: “…less an escapist action movie and more a dramatized manifestation of the most notorious sentences from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announcement speech (Matthew Rozsa).” This political, politically correct tone infected most of the negative reviews on view at Rotten Tomatoes.

Also, I read that the author of First Blood, David Morrell, had given his thumbs down to the film. More about that later.

I hardly ever talk politics here. Most people familiar with me and my work know that I am a left-of-center individual. But I have friends and business associates who have different views, and having damaged some friendships over this nonsense, I now try to keep my opinions to myself. I mention this only because I liked Rambo: Last Blood very much, as did my equally (maybe more) liberal wife.

Before I get into that film itself, let’s revisit the first four Rambo films, briefly (my wife and I watched them, one a night, after seeing the new one).

First Blood (1982) is the best film, a fairly faithful rendering of Morrell’s fine first novel (again, more about this later). It is set stateside and deals with both PTSD and smalltown prejudice against long-haired apparent hippies (a brilliant mix) and is a rousing action film that builds and builds to an emotional outburst from the taciturn Rambo about the rage in him and what fueled it.

Rambo: Second Blood (1985) is a fun action film, fast-paced and impressive in what it pulls off without CGI. This is where Rambo becomes iconic in the way Mike Hammer and Tarzan are iconic. A structure that would follow all of the coming films to at least some degree has (act one) Rambo reluctantly getting involved in a mission, (act two) Rambo playing cat-and-mouse games with his pursuers in a jungle setting, and (act three) Rambo kicking ass in a large-scale battle sequence. This really is the Morrell structure moved from America to Vietnam, with Afghanistan, Burma and Mexico substituting in subsequent entries.

Rambo III (1988) is pretty much the same movie as the second one, but bigger and with a few variables – Rambo is captured and tortured in the previous film, but this time his commander – played by the always dependable Richard Crenna – gets the torture routine. The difference is the stoic Rambo, when he does speak, utters quips right out of the Schwarzenegger playbook – this, for instance, is the one where Rambo tells the bad guy, “I’m your worst nightmare.”

All of these movies benefit from rousing Jerry Goldsmith scores that invoke John Barry’s Bond themes.

Rambo (2008), which is also known as John Rambo and was at one point actually called First Blood, comes about twenty years later and manages to be anti-war even as it bathes the screen in blood. It’s fast, entertaining and gritty, and the CGI ups the ante (although I am not a fan of computer-generated blood).

Now let’s talk the current movie, the fifth Rambo, called simply that. I am going to do a plot summary, so skip the next three paragraphs if you’re spoiler sensitive.

John Rambo is on his Arizona ranch where he rides horses when he isn’t obsessively digging tunnels and almost subconsciously preparing for a battle that may never come. His Hispanic housekeeper, with whom he has a warm mother/son relationship, has a teenaged daughter to whom Rambo has been something of a surrogate father. The girl is obsessed with facing her actual father, who deserted her and her mother, years ago; he’s in Mexico and it’s made clear that Rambo cleaned this abusive a-hole’s clock but good, once upon a time.

The girl winds up in Mexico, rejected by Daddy, then roofied and dragged into forced prostitution. Rambo goes looking for her and gets his expected torture scene – this is roughly act one of the usual structure, as earlier Rambo tried hard to talk the girl into not going looking for her despicable old man. After being rescued by an undercover female reporter, who gives him first aid and information, Rambo then goes back to rescue the girl.

This leads to mayhem (act two, minus the cat-and-mouse stuff) as he makes the rescue. But the brutalized and now dope-addicted girl dies on the way home. Rambo, having killed the number two bad guy, goes home and sends his housekeeper away and preps for war with bad guy number one and his minions. Act three is the big battle scene as the bad guys attack, like Apaches on a fort manned by a single brave soldier; and here an underground cat-and-mouse game finds its home within the larger battle.

Throughout this fifth film, Rambo is shown to still be suffering from PTSD, for which he takes (and eventually abandons) medication. A smaller film than the preceding Burma chapter, number five is a solid entry and employs some of the most startling deaths this side of an Evil Dead movie.

And that similarity made me reflect on why the Rambo films entertain – it’s, in part, because they invoke several genres all at once. Rambo is Tarzan, master of the jungle and jungle tactics. Rambo is Mike Hammer, taking vengeance (the main bad guy always gets it good). Rambo is John Wayne – in the current film, he’s specifically the surrogate father of The Searchers– with horseback action heavy in numbers three and five.

But this new film makes it clear, too, that every Rambo is an inverted horror film of the slasher variety – he is Jason or Michael Myers as the hero, stalking and killing and sometimes in a shockingly amusing fashion. Stallone is a master at talking to all our worst but also best instincts – family is important in these films, loyalty and friendship (another Hammer quality), even compassion.

If Rambo (2019) is a smaller film than the preceding entry, and perhaps not quite as epic as what would appear to be the final chapter might be, it’s a terrific action movie, well-executed with a legendary, charismatic star at its center.

What has made many of my fellow liberals, particularly those farther left than yours truly, go apoplectic, is that the bad guys are Mexicans. They ignore an obvious fact: so are most of the good guys – the Hispanic daughter, her grandmother, a doctor who tends to Rambo, the female journalist who helps him and whose own sister went down the same horrifying path as Rambo’s surrogate daughter. Idiots who see the shot of the Trump border fence (actually erected under Obama) see proof that this film is one big red MAGA hat. They don’t notice that the next shot shows Mexican bad guys coming out of a tunnel under that “big beautiful wall,” delivering them in the good ol’ USA.

The reviewers, whose gentle sensibilities have been ruffled by a straight-forward revenge melodrama, seem convinced this film was designed to pander to Trump lovers. I just watched the special features on the previous Rambo movie – the one that came out in 2007 – where in the “making of” documentary, Stallone tells the story of the film to come – Rambo back in Arizona, with the surrogate daughter who goes to Mexico and gets kidnapped into prostitution. This would have been conceived around 2005 – uh, Trump wasn’t president then, was he? I forget. Yet I do recall the review I quoted that insisted the film was inspired by Trump’s campaign announcement speech.

Why does Dave Morrell hate the new film? He has said it left him feeling “degraded and dehumanized.” I understand the complicated feelings writers have about their work being adapted to the screen. I also understand how frustrating it is to be left out of the creative process (Rambo’s creator had some early talks with Stallone about the story, but they stopped in 2016). When my Quarry was adapted for Cinemax, the most distinctive aspect of the character – his dark sense of humor – was largely gone. But I got over it. Well, I cashed the check.

I’m not a close friend of Dave’s, but we’re friendly acquaintances who shared a mentor in Don Westlake. Dave taught at Iowa City and I used to run into him now and then; we would talk, mostly about Westlake.

One memorable encounter between us in Iowa City, at a bookstore – Prairie Lights, I believe – we have both written about. He had been offered the novelization job for Rambo II and was uneasy about accepting it. Here’s his version from his website:

I killed Rambo (in the novel First Blood), and now in the novelizations he would be alive. The logic really bothered me. One day, I crossed paths with my writer friend, Max Allan Collins (among other things, he wrote the wonderful graphic novel, Road to Perdition), who said that the problem was easily solved. “Just add an author’s note,” he told me, “in which you say something like, ‘In my novel First Blood, Rambo died. In the films, he lives.’” So that’s what I did.

Two other ironies or at least odd resonances occur to me. First, I had not written any novelizations yet when I suggested Dave ought to take that gig. Second, the next time I ran into him, he was doing a book signing at B. Dalton in an Iowa City mall, and Barb and I were on our way to see Rambo II in that mall’s theater. I believe he was signing the novelization, and I think he signed one to me, but I’ll be damned if I know what became of it.

Dave and I have a bond. We created (as best we can tell) the first two Vietnam vet PTSD anti-heroes in Rambo and Quarry. And we both based those heroes, at least in part, on Audie Murphy.

Here’s what I know about David Morrell: he is a great guy and a great writer. I respect his opinion on the latest Rambo film, and hope he will tolerate mine.

* * *

Check out this amazing podcast largely about Quarry, and specifically about Quarry’s Choice. The reviewer (there are two, both of whom like the Quarry character, one a huge fan) puts Quarry and me in a pantheon of three, the others being Richard Stark and Parker, and Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm. I admit to be blown away by being compared to these greats.

Here’s a fun You Tube review of Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother.

The excellent True West magazine gives me a nice boost for Last Stage to Hell Junction in their current issues and on their website.

Finally, here’s a terrific review of Scarface and the Untouchable…from a gun enthusiast!

M.A.C.