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Commentary : When Heart Is Replaced By Muscle, The Fans Lose

June 15, 1986|PAT H. BROESKE

It's almost the classic case. Burt Reynolds, as likable a leading man as we have, virtually trashed his own career. His early car-stunt pics took audiences on a careening good time. But after what seemed like an endless rally (with all the usual crashes and all the usual co-stars, with "Smokey" or "Cannonball" in the title), audiences were hard pressed to tell one movie from another. What they must have figured, finally, was that Reynolds and his chums were the only ones having a good time.

Audiences took to looking the other way. And the reason was probably more than bad movies. If Reynolds wasn't going to take himself seriously, audiences couldn't take him very seriously either.

The malady of easy films (made, one presumes, for easy money) seems to have struck another charismatic leading man. With an important difference: Sylvester Stallone takes himself and his image mighty seriously. Winning is what he does--whether in the ring, the jungles of 'Nam or mean streets of some big city. What's unfortunate is that he doesn't mind taking cheap shots to do it.

The case in point--and this is a fairly new, rather than a persistent problem for Stallone--is "Cobra."

You may have heard about (a) the violence, (b) the body count, (c) the movie's mean spirit and (d) the rather lax R rating. Watching this one, it's impossible not to think about (e) at least one/all of the above.

For those of us who acknowledge being fans of Stallone ("admit" might be a better word), another kind of feeling persists--the feeling of being easy prey. And it has to do with a star who seems to be selling himself short.

I winced at the slashings and ripping bullets and exploding grenades and (just in case I missed the film's dark point) the scene in which cop Marion Cobretti (a.k.a. Cobra a.k.a. Stallone) flicks a lighted match at an adversary who's been doused in gasoline. And I wondered if Stallone is making some very bad miscalculations, like Burt Reynolds.

Stallone's become so comfortable with what seems to be his winning formula--playing inarticulate action men with two-syllable names--that he appears to have forgotten just what it was that drew audiences to him in the first place. It had nothing to do with weaponry. And it wasn't about winning at all costs.

It was the sense of humanity that we embraced in Rocky Balboa's struggle to go the distance this one time.

Was "Rocky" a fluke? An accident of warmth, humor, romance and, above all, heart? Those elements, after all, gradually drained out of "II" and "III." By "IV," the film was all muscle.

(Note that John Rambo, a rather sad and lonely case when we first encountered him in "First Blood," was also toughened up for his sequel.)

This time out, Stallone, who also scripted, cut right to the bone. If there should be "Cobra" sequels, we won't be able to complain about Marion's metamorphosis. He can't get any leaner and meaner.

A loner who extracts his own justice without the slightest concern for The Law, Cobra walks a tricky tightrope--not always successfully--because his tactics are nearly as despicable as his psycho killers. Making these tactics all the more grim is the fact that none of the characters--good guys, bad guys or those in-between (like Cobra)--is developed. And there's virtually no motivation for what they do--other than taking moviegoers for a quick six bucks.

(And it's no secret that Stallone had the film cut to a tidy 90 minutes so that theaters could get in an extra "Cobra" screening per day.)

Adding insult to injury (on and off the screen), the film is delivered with all the finesse of a slasher spree. It savors its awesome weaponry--and an equally awesome body count. And movies of this nature inevitably find themselves in an arms race--they have to outshoot and outhack each other.

It's virtually a cottage industry in Hollywood to snicker at Stallone. But on the flip side are the fans.

And this is where it gets tricky (and embarrassing), because many of us don't like to acknowledge out loud in mixed company that we're Stallone fans. We allege that we have to see his films because, well, because we have to. (Reporters can get away with that excuse.) Or maybe it's because we've already seen everything else in town. Or because the kids in our lives make us take them.

Hey--if not for my 12-year-old nephew, I probably wouldn't have seen "Rocky IV" a second time. I sure wouldn't have rented those "Rocky" tapes. And I didn't really want to see "First Blood" again. We watched it because he wanted to. The same goes for the tape of "Rambo" that I've promised him I'll rent. (The things I do for that kid.) Honest.

The truth? Well (and this is still embarrassing), I happen to enjoy Stallone's screen presence, which is undeniably larger-than-life, decidedly masculine, the kind reminiscent of those "Late Show" stars who had that certain, well, star quality. Stallone is a movie star. A sexy movie star--especially when he keeps his shirt on .

Adding to all this is the Stallone Saga that sort of parallels the Rocky story--except that it also includes some whopping blunders (and I'm not just talking about "Rhinestone"). Because he hasn't always dealt graciously with his stardom.

In that respect, he's almost like any klutz who suddenly hits the Big Time. There's something appealing there.

And he knows a thing or two about movie making--at least how to wrench involvement from his audiences. It's an uncanny talent for fingering the public's pulse.

But he's violated his public with "Cobra." It lacks the reasons for seeing a Stallone movie. OK, they may be corny reasons, having to do with Right winning out over Wrong or the expression of certain moral values or even the star himself.

So this time I won't catch "Cobra" twice. My nephew will have to wait until it hits cable and he can sneak his own look.

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