The legend of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday is inexhaustible, having given birth to numerous cinematic incantations, which have all in their own way brought something distinctive to the Western narrative. Frank Perry’s Doc, made in 1971 just as the term revisionist was about to take hold of the genre and begin in earnest the process of demythologisation, refuses to adhere to the Hollywood legend. Perry’s Doc is an austere vision of the West, and sets about validating Doc Holiday as the infinite star of this tale, not Earp and his brothers. Director Frank Perry’s work seems to be all but forgotten in the story of 1970s New American cinema, yet his career seemed to peak just as the idea of auteur cinema in Hollywood was ruled artistic bankruptcy at the end of the 1970s. Like many of his contemporaries Perry seemed to do most of his best work in the period of transition, the long sixties. When put up against the Hollywood Earp and Holiday legend, Doc opts for a deconstruction of sorts, presenting an oppositional counter narrative in which Earp is a cowardly, shrewd and greedy capitalist while Doc is a man who longs to be a father, and to leave behind a positivist vestige. Even the supposedly epic gunfight in the OK corral is reduced to a fleeting pitiless ritual that re-situates Doc as a disturbed, brutal killer. When Doc shoots the kid, Perry magnifies this transgression, shattering the doubling trope to suggest a provincial and monolithic archetype of masculinity remains unbroken. Stacy Keach was born to inhabit the Western landscape and his take on Doc Holiday is significantly understated and in some respects on par with Victor Mature’s sad laconicism in Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The luminous Faye Dunaway provides support as a reformed prostitute in what should have been a more substantial role. Doc is indeed an underrated Western but then so is the work of Keach and Perry.
Class devours itself. And the politics of class creates an indescribable antagonism that often spills over into violence, and in the case of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, class is explicated through the prism of satire in which modernism is a debauched, sulking creature. Intrinsic to Wheatley’s treatment of Ballard’s writing is an abandonment of logical narrative contrivances in which a spasmodic flurry of visual and tonal meta-cinema explications rise up from a corpus of anarchic British iconoclasts, of which Wheatley now holds company with, notably Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey (an American exile who made his best films in England). High-Rise as dystopian science fiction is an equitable genre reading to make. But Wheatley’s deliberately modernist cinematographic voice is augmented by a meaty political tract, featuring the Utopianism of Old Labour with a contemporary sagacity of Yuppie, white privilege. And beneath the deplorable sentiments of an opportunistic class ridden society is an atavistic impulse threatening feeble democratic notions of social mobility. Wheatley orchestrates a transgressive, masala like parable of mischief, conducting an indescribably palpable ideological discord of congenial malfeasances. What rise indistinctly to the surface is a gamut of modernist disturbances: psychological disembodiment, sexual malady and consumerist neophytes – a cinematic orgy of 1970s British cultural tropes. Wheatley has crafted something bravura with High-Rise, a work of staggering cinematic resolve, a wretched, cannibalistic tour through the cabals of political and social modernism.
Growing up, Cobra was one of those cinematic anomalies in the career of mainstream Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, a blip that was drowned out by the summer of 1986 in which Top Gun and Aliens projected fascistic rumblings, dreaming of an infantile militarized Americana. Although Cobra did decent business at the box office, the film wasn’t well received by critics. While the Wikipedia entry points to ‘overuse of genre tropes’ as a point of criticism, this in many ways is one of the undeniable strengths of the film, that it converses with a gamut of genres and does so in a way that renders it a charming pastiche. Most visible and transparent are the neo noir and horror accents, which contradicts the hard body action tag used to market the film. In 1986 Stallone’s stock was high and he had just departed from the Beverly Hills Cop project that would eventually launch the international career of Eddie Murphy. Cobra is certainly derided mainly because at that time Stallone was becoming a self-parody, explicating a narcissism that is fetishized in all aspects of the film. While the film is an obvious vanity project for Stallone’s international stardom this puerile aspect of the project is augmented by a neo noir sleaziness and exploitation horror aesthetic that recalls the vigilantism of Dirty Harry and the dystopian neon landscapes of The Terminator. Cobra is a melange of genres and film styles, and in many ways exudes an uncertainty about its own cinematic existence. You can almost hear Stallone saying back to himself; ‘how can I sell this to audiences?’
The original work print of Cobra was significantly longer than the theatrical version, around 2 hours in length. Now that does not necessarily mean the work print is probably a better film just because it is longer; some of the best films are those that comprehend the lost art of narrative economy. The problem here is we know that Stallone butchered the work print as he panicked when he saw the final product and edited the life out of the film, in fear of the filmic competition that year and also because he apparently didn’t trust or have faith in director George P. Cosmatos. Cosmatos had already worked with Stallone on the hugely successful Rambo 2 so this argument doesn’t really hold any credence with me. Furthermore, Cosmatos’s reputation as a more than competent genre director has been maligned by stories about his presence as a pseudonym, a cipher through which actors would perform directorial exegesis. This seems to be the case with both Cobra and Tombstone, two films that apparently Cosmatos did not direct but was merely on the film set cracking jokes with his cast and being paid handsomely. It doesn’t help that stars including Stallone have actually validated the perception of Cosmatos as a hack. Unsurprisingly, Rambo 2, Leviathan, Cobra and Tombstone, four of Cosmatos’s best genre work, is never really acknowledged as such, but instead derided and reduced to a fluke.
Cobra is certainly not one of the best films of neither 1986 nor the 1980s but it is worthy of a second look as it feels closer in tone and spirit to a loose collective of films that emerged in the mid to late 1980s, such as RoboCop, which project a vision of urban American society as not just nightmarishly dystopian, but manifest a nasty vigilantism, critiquing gender politics and decentring the establishment. I’m not arguing Cobra does all of these things but only be reclaiming genre cinema of this kind which is often glibly scorned upon can we begin to really fully contextualise and track the development and slippages of mainstream Hollywood cinema in this particular moment in time. But that also means giving Stallone’s career the candour that it deserves. In some ways Cobra already has been reclaimed, but by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has acknowledged the film’s influence on Drive, another genre pastiche.
The first rule of stardom – never believe your own hype. Not unless you are SRK who has not been making the best career choices of late. When was the last time SRK really made a great film that he can lay claim to? You might have to go back to Paheli, Swades or even Asoka – all respectable films which were well received. The same cannot be said for poor SRK’s recent choice of films, which have not only been terribly inflated vanity projects but measured by a desire to emulate the feel easy stylisation of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Oddly enough two of his most recent films – Chak De India and My Name is Khan have in fact saw SRK come closest to his real life persona and even tapping into his ambivalent Muslim identity. Both films seem to have something valuable to say about stardom whereas Don 2 and Ra. One offer a version of romantic heroism, which is precluded on a strangely pretentious narcissism. Ever since SRK hit the gym after Om Shanti Om, his face has gone through a period of star transformation whereby the new, leaner and metrosexual SRK feels like a conceit driven to indulge deeper personal fantasies to do with body worship. The trip to the gym seemed to work for someone like Salman Khan but only because he never truly took him or any of his films that seriously to begin with. Dabaang brought Salman to a much wider audience than ever before, helping to kick start a re-interest in the masala action film genre and reconstructing the romantically infatuated male protagonist into a new age revenge machine.
Ra. One was touted as a big budget science fiction spectacular on par with Hollywood productions in which the special effects play a leading role. Some critics resolutely trashed Ra. One while some were unsure what to make of it all including SRK’s wooden performance. I never expected Ra. One to be a brilliant film but given all the hype surrounding the special effects, the film never really delivers in that category either. The story draws strong influences from the Terminator films, Tron, Lawnmower man and many different Hollywood comic book films. Ra. One attempts to merge familiar science fiction concepts with comic book heroism but suffers from a highly formulaic script, strangely OTT performances, ropey special effects and a schizophrenic narrative structure. In many ways, the film is a spectacular failure for a major film star who seems to going through an increasingly public middle life crisis. Had the film been able to harness the imagination and energy that went into the brilliantly executed Bandra train sequence that sees G-One (SRK) bouncing through the compartments to stop a runaway train (one of the few points in the film in which narrative interruption via the soundtrack feels justified) then the film may have had the potential to rise above its genre trappings into moderately pleasing escapist fare. However, not even this brilliantly executed sequence can save Ra. One from disappearing into the abyss of Bollywood stardom.