Hypnotic ‘Joker’ dares us to feel empathy for the devil

Remember the Joker’s catchphrase from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman – have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Well, this 2019 incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime is one devil who just loves to dance.

He dances to old show tunes. He dances to music in his own head. He dances just for the heck of it. He dances to express his rage, his frustrations, sometimes even his hopefulness, and to invite us into his headspace.

Some of the time, he dances shirtless, and this is where star Joaquin Phoenix’s bones – he shed many pounds for the role, reportedly to the detriment of his well-being – appear to take on an identity all their own.

Physically, his character is difficult to look at while his mesmerising performance makes it just as hard to look away. (I’ve not felt more unsettled looking at someone lacing up his shoes than I did here.)

The overall effect of his near-cadaverous appearance, coupled with his deeply layered, strangely sympathetic turn as an iconic comic-book villain in a highly un-comic-book-like movie, is stunning.

Eschewing most previous Joker origin stories, the film introduces us to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a struggling individual. Not struggling comedian, or struggling employee, or struggling, devoted son, nope. Just plain struggling.

‘You wanna know what’s really funny? DC fans everywhere are going to be saying,

‘You wanna know what’s really funny? DC fans everywhere are going to be saying, “Jared Who?” after this.’

Already broken (by what, we eventually learn as the film goes along) when we meet him, Arthur has been left with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he is troubled. Yep, he only laughs when he hurts.

It is a pained laugh that is not just difficult to hear, but also speaks volumes about his internal anguish. It is one more element of Phoenix’s tour de force performance that invites us to ponder just what is going on behind those makeup-obscured eyes.

We may find fleeting but familiar glimpses of our own struggles, or those of people close to us. Or recognise some of the heartbreak, the yearning, the pain of bluntly dismissive remarks from the ones we look up to, or count on.

Those given to more introspective moments may even recognise our words and actions in the people around Arthur. Whether we identify with victim or victimiser, this feeling of familiarity combines effectively with the film’s own relevance to the societal fractures of 2019, despite its early 1980s setting.

This dangerously evokes a sense of empathy for a character whose CV, as any fan of the comics will tell you, includes “mass murderer”.

‘A little bitty tear let me down, spoiled my act as a clown. Guess I’ll just dabble in anarchy and nihilism then.’ - Warner Bros

‘A little bitty tear let me down, spoiled my act as a clown. Guess I’ll just dabble in anarchy and nihilism then.’ – Warner Bros

The story of Joker, however, is set well before he carved out that credit on his resume. It is inspired by the character’s beginnings as told in the acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke, by way of Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy.

And if you needed any further proof of those two cinematic influences, their star Robert De Niro is right here as well – ironically enough (and where The King Of Comedy connection comes in), playing a popular talk-show host whom Arthur idolises.

For a good deal of its running time, Joker seems to play fast and loose with what fans may hold sacrosanct. At one point, it even starts down a road that makes you want to shout curses at the screen, and at co-writer/director Todd Phillips.

Rest assured, however, that when all is stabbed and done, the film does not disrespect your … um, fanhood.

It begins as a grim, grimy character study, with the story gradually taking shape around Arthur’s travails (and with his transformation come callbacks to great screen Jokers of the past, notably the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger versions).

With most of the proceedings seen through his eyes, expect some twists and surprises that, increasingly, make us simultaneously sympathetic yet repulsed by Arthur’s actions.

‘All hail the new king in town, young and old, gather round … dang, I just can’t get

‘All hail the new king in town, young and old, gather round … dang, I just can’t get “Partyman” out of my head.’

But at this point, it seems all right to feel that way. After all, here, Arthur is just a guy sincerely trying to do what he believes is his calling in life. And, as life beats him down one crushing blow at a time, Joker seems to be inviting us to walk with Arthur and at least find common ground with his situation.

Make no mistake, though: it is ultimately about a descent into insanity.

The slow burn of Joker’s initial 80-odd minutes chronicle, in parallel, both Arthur and Gotham City’s downward spiral (this is a far more squalid and dismal Gotham than we’ve seen before) and show us just how entwined the two are – in a sense, setting up his future rivalry with Batman.

Then the whole powder keg is set off in staggering fashion, leaving us clutching the singed strands of our own expectations and wondering if, indeed, it just takes one bad day to bring our carefully curated worlds crashing down.

And we leave in a half daze, pondering the way Phillips and Phoenix harmonised so wonderfully to deliver a hypnotic, disturbing and challenging product that fairly transcends the genre, while remaining respectful towards it. And that’s no joke.


Joker

Director: Todd Phillips

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler

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A parade of strength and pride

EVERYTHING is set and China is ready to display its military strength at the 70th anniversary celebrations.

Tomorrow, all eyes will be on this next super power when the military parade march along the Changan Road and pass the Tiananmen Square in the capital city of Beijing.

This will be the 15th time a national day military parade will take place since the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The last time such an event was held was 10 years ago.

“This is no ordinary parade, it is a parade of strength, confidence and pride, ” a senior editor of a local daily said proudly.

But I confessed that I barely have any knowledge on defence matters and am quite clueless on weapons.

“A country has to be stable and strong in economy so that its people can live in peace and prosperity.

“And in order to achieve this, one has to be strong in defence, ” explained the editor I had a chat with during an assignment recently.

I can understand how he feels. After all, China has for a long time felt bullied and ripped-off by the powerful countries in the past.

“This is also an important moment to instil confidence in the people, telling them that they no longer have to worry about the nightmare they have suffered, ” he said.

The scale of this military parade would be the largest so far, said Cai Zhijun, deputy head of the office of the leading group for the event.

“There will be 59 formations and a military band. More than 160 aircraft and 580 pieces of equipment will be showcased at the parade, ” he told a press conference recently.

A senior People’s Liberation Army officer told Xinhua that a selection of new weapons would be featured at the parade.

“All the weapons and equipment are domestic and in active service with a high level of information technology application and better strike accuracy, said another army officer.

A total of 188 military attaches from 97 countries stationed in China have been invited to watch the parade.

Chinese National Defence Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said at the country’s first military parade 70 years ago, they were short of aircraft.

“We only had 17 then. Premier Zhou (Enlai) said not enough aircraft, then we fly two times. And now, we have become strong and our aircraft no longer need to fly two rounds. We are relieved to tell the martyrs that such peace and prosperous era is what you all had wished to see, ” he said.

Wu also refuted allegations of China flexing its muscles at the parade.

“Over the last decades, China has made great contributions to the world. The stronger the country is, the greater constructive role we will play in keeping world peace, ” he added.

A total of 15,000 military personnel, aged between 20 and 70, will be taking part in the parade. They are the best of the best, shortlisted after rounds of screening.

I was lucky enough to visit an army camp and see the training session of the foot formations, comprising members from the guards of honour, soldiers, navy, air force servicewomen, reserve forces, peacekeepers and other divisions.

The male personnel have a height between 1.75m and 1.9m while the females are between 1.63m and 1.75m.

One of them is Guo Fengtong, 29. “It is a great honour to be able to participate in the event. For this, we trained extra hard with one goal and hope we are able to show our best at the national day parade, ” he said.

A member of the guards of honour division, Guo has pledged his service to the armed forces for 14 years. And his most unforgettable duty took place at the Beijing Olympics 2008.

“I was part of the flag detail to raise the Five-Star Red Flag at the opening ceremony but I had a blister and infection on my foot 12 days before the event.

“I was quite depressed then because I had trained for so long for the moment and worried that the whole process would be affected by me. Luckily I managed to recover and we completed our task perfectly, ” he added.

Ma Yanfei, 23, said she has been dreaming of becoming a guard of honour after seeing them on duty.

“They appeared very smart, strong and brave to me. So, when I was recruited into the armed forces seven years ago, I applied to join the division.

“I feel proud because we carry the image of the force as well as the country, ” she added.

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The Westminster Drive

Mr Tang was my lower secondary Maths teacher, and to him fell the task of teaching us about negative numbers.

He imparted the following wisdom: If you multiply or divide two negative numbers, the result is a positive number. How to remember? Simple: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Mr Tang seemed to think this was the most amusing analogy, but he found a lot of things like that funny. He also loved singing Dean Martin’s Everybody Loves Somebody (sometime), but that’s neither here nor there.

The coming together of Umno and PAS as formal allies a few weekends ago has been heralded as an epic moment – a historical coming together of once implacable enemies, maybe on a scale never before seen in Malaysia.

Except of course such unions have been seen before. Multiple times.

Malaysia’s political system is structured in the exact same way as our former colonial masters, the United Kingdom. Said system is commonly referred to as the Westminster Parliamentary system.

Without going into too much detail for now, a key feature is that within a Westminster FPTP system, there really are only two political sides that tend to matter – a government and an opposition.

Third parties, fringe political movements, and so on tend to have no place.

What this means is that the system invariably drives political parties together (even those with seemingly clashing ideologies) towards either the government or opposition poles – something I call the Westminster Drive.

I don’t think I could summarise the core of the Westminster Drive any more elegantly than: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Malaya’s early dominant parties were Umno, MCA and MIC. The Westminster system incentivised the creation of parties that were similar in nature and target constituency, but existed on the other side of the aisle. This can be seen as the context in which PAS and DAP became prominent parties.

For a long time, because of different ideologies, these two parties did not work closely together.

Their first notable attempt was in 1990, basically under the aegis of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his Semangat 46.

The next time PAS and DAP would work closely together was in 1998, basically brought together by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and PKR, which served as a bridge of sorts.

First they formed Barisan Alternatif, which then broke up. Then they reunited as Pakatan Rakyat, which then broke up.

Nevertheless, these unions were also thought of as historically significant, as they were interspersed with periods of conflict, such as when PAS’ push for an Islamic State push was met by Karpal Singh’s famous “Over my dead body!” response.

After the most recent breakup, PAS began to move away from Anwar and PKR, and started its drift back to Umno.

Meanwhile, having already birthed PAS, Semangat 46, and PKR, Umno saw yet another splinter, resulting in Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Eventually Pakatan Harapan was formed, consisting of PKR, DAP, Bersatu, and Parti Amanah Negara (a PAS splinter party).

Dr Mahathir working together with figures like Anwar, Lim Kit Siang, and the many others he had put in jail and persecuted, was also deemed an epic historic moment.

These moments are indeed epic and historical, given all the emotions involved, and all the things these people had said about and done to one another over time.

Without taking away that significance, all these alliances can and should also be seen in the context of the Westminster Drive.

Invariably, it is the theme of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” that has made strange bedfellows of Malaysian political parties – bringing together Islamists and Islamaphobes, former dictators and liberals, and so on.

Dr Mahathir has been both the figure in the government everyone united against, as well as a chief figure in uniting everyone against the government.

PAS came from Umno, spent an entire generation demonising Umno, spent a lot of time demonising DAP, spent a bunch of time as fast friends and allies with DAP, and has now gone back to demonising DAP and allying with Umno once again.

The whole thing is something of an incestuous game of musical chairs. No permanent friends, only permanent interests – and usually of the ‘self’ variety.

While many of us are understandably concerned about the manner in which the latest Umno-PAS tie-up is going to be raising the temperature on issues of race and religion, it may be worthwhile to remember that historically in Malaysia, ideologies have been built around political poles, not the other way around.

In other words, the Westminster Drive tends to make the primary question which side of the fence you are on. Only once you have decided that, do you usually determine what ideology you then want to create in order to justify your position.

On an individual scale, we can see this in the way Muhyiddin used to try and position himself. Some years ago, he famously declared that he was Malay first, and Malaysian second – the antithesis of the DAP position.

The obvious context for this was an attempt by Muhyiddin to differentiate himself within Umno from Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who at the time was positioning himself as the 1Malaysia unity guy.

Of course, when political fortunes changed, Muhyiddin eventually found himself becoming ‘fast friends’ with DAP, and totally left behind the whole ‘Malay first’ schpiel.

Once we start to understand the political culture driven and cultivated by the Westminster Drive, as seen in all the examples above, then we come to agree with MCA’s assessment that the Umno-PAS union is something of a political inevitability.

There was a window of opportunity, probably in the first 6-12 months of the Pakatan government, in which (had they played their cards right) it could have ensured that the Umno that had been made fat with endemic corruption would simply crumble and fade away on its own, once the tap had been turned off.

Having not played their cards right, they gave Umno the time to learn how to be an effective Opposition, and paved the way for this inevitable alliance.

This isn’t to say that there was zero on the ground demand for this alliance. As I’ve written before, the fragmentation of Malay political power into five relevant parties (as opposed to DAP’s undisputed dominance of the non-Malay political space) has been a source of ongoing anxiety.

The Umno-PAS union has gone a long way in assuaging this anxiety – a fact which likely accounts for the very enthusiastic response that greeted the union, even among some centrist and moderate Malays.

Now that the union has been formalised, however, their leaders will be hard at work at crafting the ideology and narrative that suits their political interests best. In this effort, I think we can expect the voices of said centrists and moderates to be drowned out.

We are of course seeing all this already play out. Almost the very day after leaving PWTC, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang was already in Sarawak, warning them not to let the Chinese ‘take over’ the state.

The trend continues with responses to the verdict regarding fireman Muhammad Adib Kassim and the shootings in Bayan Lepas.

While we brace ourselves for more to come, it is vital that we do not lose sight of how it is underlying political systems and incentive structures that is cultivating this type of behaviour and national discourse. If we do not stop or change the Westminster Drive, the result may be being stuck in this loop forever.

Stopping this regression into the darkness of identity politics will require thinking outside the box, and breaking existing moulds. If we are brave enough to do so, maybe we can inch back to a Malaysia where everybody loves somebody (sometime).

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Marathon man in the sack

Dear Dr. G,

I am hoping you can address my query regarding duration of sex, as I am rather bothered by my own issues of prolonged timing in my sexual experience.

I am a chap in my late 20s who started having sex when I was 21. Since my first sexual encounter, I always take pride in my ability to last longer than most men in bed. Needless to say, I have been the admiration and inspiration for most of my friends, especially the ones who are “short-changed” in the timing between the sheets.

In recent years, the duration of sex is increasingly long, and sex can take as long as 30 minutes. In fact, on several occasions, I was finding it difficult to ejaculate as my stamina had run out beyond half an hour.

My girlfriend, who was initially satisfied, is getting a bit frustrated. She thinks such “marathon run” is abnormal.

She read somewhere this is called delayed or retard ejaculation.

This week, I would like to put Dr. G on the spot about the optimal duration of sex.

What is the average timing of penetration to ejaculation for most men?

What is that desirable sweet spot for couples when the partners are pleased and the guys are not running out of breath?

What if I do suffer from prolonged interval to reach climax?

What would be the causes?

Can my marathon run be curable? Please help.

Yours truly,

Marathon Mark

Most man can reach orgasm during sexual intercourse within a few minutes of active thrusting. Although there are plenty of urban myths, misunderstanding and expectations of the optimal duration of intercourse, the timing remains one of the yardsticks to measure the success in the sack. In the scientific viewpoint, the duration of intercourse has been widely examined for both masturbation and vaginal sex. Most studies demonstrated nearly 90% of sexual encounters, from the point of penetration to ejaculation, last from one to 10 minutes. In recent years, more high tech app that measures sexual activities even released the findings from the big data amongst different demographics. The studies recorded average sex lasted for one and a half minutes in Alaska, while this can be as high as seven minutes in New Mexico.

For the quest for the sweet spot of the most desirable timing of intercourse, Penn State University surveyed 50 Americana and Canadian Sex therapists in 2010. In this publication, most therapists agree three to seven minutes is “adequate” and seven to 13 minutes regarded as “desirable”. Most also agree duration of 30 minutes was too long and can potentially be regarded as delayed ejaculation.

Delayed ejaculation is generally defined as persistent inability or difficulty in men to achieve orgasm, despite sustained sexual stimulation. It is estimated up to 8% of men reported such sexual dysfunction. Although such ability may be admirable for most, but the sufferers of delayed ejaculation report frustration, anxiety and sexual dissatisfaction.

Most causes of delayed ejaculation are psychological, but some organic reasons such as aging, anti-depressants and diabetes may also be responsible. Some psychological factors such as negative sexual upbringing, history of sexual abuse or even the guilt of embracing the pleasure of sex are identified. In fact, some experts even associate delayed ejaculation with certain masturbatory techniques. Apparently, excess pressure and grip of masturbation can be more erogenous than sex with a real partner, rendering the ability to climax diminished amongst sufferers.

The definitive therapy for men with delayed ejaculation is teaching men techniques to enhance the experience of having orgasm through penetrative intercourse. Some medications are also recognised to facilitate achieving orgasm. These may include cyproheotadine (Allergy Medication), Amantadine (Anti-Parkinson’s) and buspirone (anti-anxiety). However, the long-term efficacy of these treatments for delayed ejaculation is not certain.

The retired Ethiopian long distance running athlete, Halle Gebrselassie, who won two Olympic Gold Medals once said: “When you run a marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners, and not against time.” When it comes to the duration of penetrative intercourse, although the timing of sex is often used as the barometer of performance success for men between the sheets, there is no real hard data to correlate the duration of sex with partner satisfaction.

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'Ad Astra': Brad Pitt gets a little lost in space

Is it humanity’s doom, that it takes its greed and nationalistic/ ideological differences everywhere – even to the stars?

In the unspecified near future of Ad Astra, mankind has established colonies on the Moon and Mars, but still fights over their resources.

It’s no different from what we’ve seen on shows like The Expanse, and certainly a far cry from the optimistic, integrated future posited by Star Trek and its spinoffs.

Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) is not, however, a film about such conflicts, even if they do make their way into some scenes and conversations.

It is instead tightly focused on one man’s transformative journey and, in the process, powerfully drives home the enormity, burden and toll of space exploration (or any endeavour that seeks to bridge vast gulfs and blaze trails).

That man is astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a tautly self-controlled individual as distant from the people around him as the stars are from our grasp.

When a lost space mission commanded by his long-presumed-dead father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) suddenly becomes a threat to Earth, Roy is summoned to help.

But it’s a mission fraught with danger (from the conflicts mentioned above) and obstacles (from his own secretive superiors).

Are you sure you should be wandering around without a helmet, Bard? You never know when a Face Hugger might attack you.

Are you sure you should be wandering around without a helmet, Bard? You never know when a Face Hugger might attack you.

It is in the journey required by Roy’s mission, and his own path to dealing with the effect on his life of his father’s absence, which co-writer/director James Gray (Little Odessa, We Own The Night) tries to get us invested. For the most part, he succeeds.

Firstly, by staggering us with one reminder after another of how vast, desolate and yet dangerous space can be, and turning even seemingly irrelevant detours into little capsule nightmares that leave the viewer more thoroughly shaken than entire movies (I’m looking at you, Life).

Secondly, by eliciting a remarkably contemplative and relatable performance from Brad Pitt, whose subtle shadings of Roy’s bottled emotions (and their gradual uncorking) keep the viewer glued to the personal drama unfolding amidst all the spectacle of space exploration.

The difficulties, however, come in connecting this effectively realised portrayal to the characters and situations around the main character.

‘I’m so glad we’re finally taking the fight to the Pod People’s home planet. Wait ... what do you mean this isn’t a sequel to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?’

‘I’m so glad we’re finally taking the fight to the Pod People’s home planet. Wait … what do you mean this isn’t a sequel to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?’

For one thing, the inevitable meeting of father and son (hardly a spoiler) is a little disappointing.

Clifford’s Captain Ahab-ness is frustratingly left undepicted, and we do not get enough of a handle on his character; snatches of classified transmissions and the brief face-to-face do not suffice.

(Some screen time would have been better utilised on this instead of, say, the lunar buggy chase sequence, impressive and believable as it is.)

And, with nearly every other supporting character reduced to mere plot propellant, we just have to make do with being told how much Roy’s aloofness has cost him – we never really get a sense of it, until quite late into his mission.

Fortunately, we have Donald Sutherland along for the early part of the ride (did his Space Cowboys connection to Tommy Lee Jones play a part in his casting?) to serve as kind of a guiding light, and we do get the sense that Roy misses having a father figure in his life in their scenes together.

‘And this is our Mars base library. Excuse the empty shelves … it’s so dull here that all our colonists are actually reading again.’ - Walt Disney Studios

‘And this is our Mars base library. Excuse the empty shelves … it’s so dull here that all our colonists are actually reading again.’ – Walt Disney Studios

Knowing of Gray’s work only from his gritty crime yarns, I have to say that the director proves quite sure-footed in his maiden voyage through a genre that can trip up the best of them.

And as space exploration dramas go, Ad Astra deserves praise for its scope, stunning visual achievements and strong central performance.

I did not feel cheated, like after watching Interstellar, for example; but was not as exhilarated as I was coming out of The Right Stuff, Gravity or The Martian, either.

While the intent of Gray’s bookends for the film is clear, too many unanswered questions remain about the aftermath of Roy’s journey – given everything that happens – for Ad Astra to be as uplifting and liberating as the personal triumph it declares.


Ad Astra

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Loren Dean

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'Rambo: Last Blood': Revenge, cold and crimson

One could well imagine the screening of this movie taking place inside a sold-out arena full of WWE fans, with the “You’ve still got it!” chants rocking the house in the final, brutal third act.

Yes, well, one could also imagine this as a (mean) spiritual cousin to Home Alone, with an aging John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) tackling a home invasion in the bloodiest and most explosive way possible.

Actually, one could imagine quite a bit, as old Han was fond of saying, to serve as the story for this purported finale to the Rambo franchise.

Too bad that what the filmmakers have settled on is kind of … generic.

On and off since 1981, the traumatised Vietnam War veteran has been dishing out punishment and revenge to rednecks, Viet Cong, Soviet military advisers and special forces, Burmese SPDC troops and the like.

Now, he tangles with sex traffickers in a Taken Lite plot line that serves only as the springboard for some pretty extreme violence (though I can’t shake the feeling that, bloody as it is, our local version has been sanitised a little).

The stakes have to be personal in order to warrant the kind of payback meted out in the finale, and the person picked to suffer this time is Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). She’s the girl Rambo practically raised as his own daughter from the time we saw him take those first hesitant steps towards his father’s home at the end of 2008’s Rambo.

When she sneaks off to Mexico in search of her estranged biological papa and is ensnared by a human trafficking ring, nasty things ensue.

Rambo: Last Blood

Rambo War Journal entry #4753: It was a lot easier beating my sword into a ploughshare than it is trying to reverse the process now, lemme tell ya.’

As a setup for vengeance, this whole business is a bit unevenly executed.

Director Adrian Grunberg (Mel Gibson’s Get The Gringo), working from a script co-written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick, makes some odd choices that result in a clumsy structure and out-of-character sloppiness for Rambo.

Still, Stallone and Monreal have a nice and easy chemistry that makes you buy into this whole surrogate dad relationship and appreciate the pain that the film’s events bring.

But the villainous traffickers, the Martinez Brothers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Oscar Jaenada), are so thinly written as to resemble animated cinema lobby standees. If cinema lobby standees came rigged with blood bags.

As spleen-venting franchise cappers go, I would have been more than happy to see the saga come to a close with the 2008 movie, which ticked all the correct boxes for visceral thrills, nasty bad guys, heroic sacrifices and Rambo’s trademark “war you wouldn’t believe”.

But now we have Last Blood, which is worthy only in its final act. It is content to coast through its first hour purely on the goodwill established by the first four films – and let’s be honest here, not all of them were great to begin with.

Rambo: Last Blood

‘Gosh, you guys really mean business with your No ID, No Entry rule, huh?’

Though it must be noted that, whenever Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score for First Blood was used in the subsequent films, it singlehandedly elevated them well above their actual merits.

Such is also the case here. In the film’s OTT climax, Stallone uses the Goldsmith motif, his own familiarity with the character, some deft editing and stunt work, and our willingness to vicariously buy into this vigorously violent vengeance, to really stoke the furnace.

By the time the obligatory montage of scenes from the entire series plays over the closing credits (with even a mid-credits scene of sorts), we do experience a sense of closure.

It is accompanied by a feeling of loss, too, brought on by the realisation that one of action cinema’s most enduring (38 years, brah) heroes is about to sheathe his rather intimidating knife for good.

At least, until the box-office grosses are tallied, and The Very Last Blood will be spilled.


Rambo; Last Blood

Director: Adrian Grunberg

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Yvette Monreal, Adriana Barraza, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Oscar Jaenada

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Linger and sweat over Booker Prize-winner Marlon James’ ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’

With shapeshifting humans, moon witches, fetish priests, devils and demons, gods and demigods, there is a stunning amount to grasp and unpack in Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Booker Prize-winning Jamaican author Marlon James.

The novel feels like an allegorical mash-up of Hans Christian Anderson stories with Alice Through The Looking Glass – there are mystical doorways, slavers and necromancers, and monsters that spring from ceilings and vanish into smoke when they hit the floor.

All the elements have a familiarity about them if you’ve read enough fairytales and fantasy fiction, or if you’ve heard the tall tales from generations past. And yet the 48-year-old author’s storytelling cunningly makes these tropes and characters feel fresh and new.

This book is the first part of a planned Dark Star trilogy. We know that the series will take a cue from Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed movie Rashomon and retell the same story from different perspectives in the two sequels.

Book #1, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, begins as a first-person narrative, as our loquacious hero emerges out of an ancient Africa that exists only in imagination. He doesn’t remember having a name, so “Tracker” is the moniker with which he identifies. Tracker has been captured and he is recounting his life story to the inquisitors interrogating him in his prison cell.

The opening chapter reads almost like a High Chant, something a chorus of Greeks in a long-forgotten play might relay. As Tracker recalls his teenage years, there is a lot of talk about sex, sexuality, rites of passage and more sex – a fairly accurate depiction of a pubescent boy, really. A lot of detail has gone into the sexual relations – who’s having it, when, how, and who’s not – and Tracker has all the information. Consider this a heads-up for anyone who’s prudish about carnal depictions.

Meet Marlon James' brilliant new character, Tracker, in 'Black Leopard, Red Wolf'

James’ prose is dense, but in the most wonderful way. It’s a delicious ache to know we’re going to read about these events again from someone else’s point of view in the coming years. Because James makes it clear that his characters lie, and we have only Tracker’s word for now.

Meanwhile, fight scenes read like well-choreographed action sequences in a film as James vividly captures the cracking of skulls, the eruption of blood, and the horror at facing witches and demons the likes of which thrive in our nightmares.

Legends, myths and practices from across Africa’s vast history, landscape and diverse peoples are woven into this rich story. Pulling from Ashanti folklore, James’ depiction of Asanbosam and Sasabonsam, monstrous vampire brothers that feed on humans, are particularly terrifying.

Ostensibly, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a quest book: Tracker and his friend Leopard are hired to find a boy who would be king. As we get further into the quest, meeting new companions just as old ones get left behind, the mystery deepens around the lad they’ve been sent to find.

Like a wolf, Tracker is gifted with a “nose”, the ability to smell a scent and follow it to the ends of the world. The smell changes if the quarry dies, but once he has picked up a scent, he can track it anywhere. In one story, he even goes beyond this earth and down into the underworld following his target.

Meanwhile, Leopard is a shapechanger with the power to transform himself into his namesake. The two men share a goal, a companionship and a deeper love – and anyone who has truly lost their very first love will know the pain that Tracker refuses to admit in his storytelling.

Tracker recounts his years to his captors. In speaking to them, he tells us about the death of his father and how this set his life on the course that ultimately gets him captured and interrogated. How the fame of his tracking ability spread far and wide, such that a queen whose son was kidnapped sends moon witch Sogolon and various retainers to find and hire Tracker to locate and rescue her boy.

Ulterior motives abound, and as Tracker tells it, Sogolon feeds him information in dribs and drabs as they search for the missing prince. According to Tracker, Sogolon kept potentially vital information to herself, perhaps because she felt Tracker may not have done as requested should he have known the entire truth.

This is not a novel to consume in one feverish sitting. It’s a chronicle that wants you to take your time, linger and sweat over its words and meaning, and challenges you to piece together the path you’re being taken on before the protagonist can reveal the outcome.