Top Ten Tuesdays – Robert De Niro

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It’s Tuesday again, and that means it’s time to look at ten films by one of my favourite performers – this time around I check out Robert De Niro, one of the finest actors of all time and someone who has perhaps more iconic performances in history. There are so many films I have not been able to discuss here, and while recent movies have not been as well received, for over thirty years he has been at the top of his game. I haven’t given much thought to the list order below, it’s a mixture of favourite De Niro performances and favourite films that he has been a part of, but really the numbers are not important.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

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I may get a lot of stick for this one, considering some of the much more acclaimed films I haven’t included in my list. De Niro transforms himself once again and maybe becomes the most un-De Niro of his career. Unsurprising given the character he plays here (The Monster) but he still manages to bring power, gravitas, and emotion to the role. I’ve always enjoyed this version of the story – much of it comes down to the look of the film, but you have a strong central cast in Branagh, De Niro, and Bonham Carter. The film retains a bleak tone, and a truly gothic approach, ensuring it is an authentic vision of Shelley’s masterwork.

Cop Land

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Although more famous for Stallone’s performance, De Niro also puts in another heartfelt character examination as he plays an unusually (for him) good, plain cop wanting to shut down corruption within the force. In this ensemble film with some terrific actors, De Niro stands out primarily because of how normal he is when compared to the characters he is more known to play.

Ronin

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Ronin is one of the best films ever to not really be about anything – it’s one big mis-direct for most of the movie as we follow a group of mercenaries, led by De Niro who are tasked with hunting down some mysterious briefcase for the IRA. Throw in some intrigue, back-stabbing, Russian mob, political nonsense, action, and some of the best car chases ever filmed and you have a riveting film which is endlessly watchable. There is a brilliant cast each unleashing strong performances, and De Niro leads the way tricking the viewer, his companions, and his enemies.

The Deer Hunter

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This one cemented De Niro as a long-lasting talent and features some of his most gruelling work, both physically and emotionally. We follow De Niro and his friends starting out as casual workers and hunters who are abruptly ripped out of their simple lives to the horrors of Vietnam. De Niro’s Mike is one of many characters who change dramatically throughout the course of the film, though De Niro is possibly the one who tries to hold on to his previous life most dearly even though he resorts to brutality to survive. It’s a startling, powerful film with a superb cast, and allows De Niro opportunity once again to craft another iconic figure.

Heat

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De Niro plays the villian in Michael Mann’s opus, but it is the duality between his desire for a normal life, his need for one last score, and his obsession with beating the cops which ensures the character is more than a by the numbers crook. His scenes with Pacino are electric, but so are his scenes with Kilmer, Brenneman, and so on. With Mann in control, with wonderful dialogue, and with De Niro and co at their best, this was always going to be a classic.

Godfather II

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De Niro’s first big outing sees him filling in Brando’s shows – arguably the most difficult job in cinema history, but he manages to be everything Brando was and more, carving out his own style as the young Vito Corleone entirely separate from the Don which Brando portrayed. Arguably he is more like Pacino in the first film – a young man trying to find his way in a violent world, eventually being drawn into that violence and its seductive potential rewards.

Raging Bull

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Going through some shocking physical changes earned De Niro an Oscar win, but even if he had not piled on the pounds, his performance here is nothing short of flawless. La Motta is an ugly figure, a man driven to success but easily swayed by the demons which try to pull us down, and De Niro and Scorsese never flinch from showing the grim realities of success, of downfall, of the power-hungry, and of sheer masculine brutality. The fights are wonderful of course, but it is that contrast of the glory of victory and adoration of the crowd juxtaposed with all the wife and brother beating which make this an anti-Rocky and one of the best films of the 1980s.

Taxi Driver

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To prove that he wasn’t a one trick pony (though with Mean Streets earlier he had already done this) after the success of The Godfather part II, De Niro set his sights on another iconic character. He converts Travis Bickle from words on a page to a brazen, all too real paranoid romantic, a man who is steadily losing his mind in the midst of all of the scum and filth he sees surrounding him. Scorsese and De Niro again create another ambiguous masterpiece as Bickle is a clearly disturbed and dangerous figure, but his attempts at saving others and his ironic ‘happy ending’ merged with his ultra violent descent and near assassination attempt leave the viewer with uncomfortable questions to ponder on.

Goodfellas

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The film that brought De Niro successfully into another decade and again partnered him with Scorsese and Pesci, Goodfellas is another extraordinary tale with high levels of violence, realism, and humour. Although the dreamlike quality of much of Scorsese’s work is present, this is largely an effectively realistic portrayal of mob life – from both the inside and outside, from both the good and wrong side of the law. It’s hard to say who steals the movie here with Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta all superb, but De Niro is the one who manages to hold sway over the more maniacal and obsessive other duo.

The Untouchables

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People forget that De Niro was even in this movie. In fact, it’s rare that I hear people talking about the movie at all, unfortunate because it features one of De Niro’s best performances – and the same can be said for Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Billy Drago. De Palma keeps the tension high, the entertainment flowing, and De Niro is free to give his version of an Al Capone who is on his way out thanks to superhero good guy Eliot Ness. It’s an unusually beautiful film given the subject matter, and although there is plenty of violence there is a lot of heart as Costner leads his family – both at home, and his family at work to hopefully safer times. De Niro is excellent as Capone in a performance which drew a substantial amount of criticism, but he comes over as a Tony Montana style leader, his grasp on reality and on his own power pouring away, even as he still leads with an Iron Glove (or baseball bat).

What is your favourite De Niro performance and film – is it something I’ve missed from my list? Do you prefer De Niro’s comedy roles or his more serious, dramatic performances? Let us know in the comments!

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Top Ten Tuesdays – Sylvester Stallone

In this new series of posts I’m going to list ten of my favourite films by some of my most loved directors and actors. While I may not have seen everything that they have done, I’ll catch up to them eventually. For some of the posts, I’ll be adding films I’m not as keen on to ensure a list of ten so be on the look out for your favourites. The ordering of most of these posts will not be strict and in most cases there will not be too much difference between my number 1 pick and my number 5 pick.

Apologies in advance – this one is going to be a little messy. There are a bunch of recent and not so recent Stallone films that I haven’t seen, and there are quite a few series entries which are all equally good, so I’ve decided to add a few films to the 10 to make sure that some films outside of Rocky and Rambo are included. In my childhood and much of my adolescence, Arnie was my action hero. I knew about Stallone, and I had seen a few Rocky movies, but it wasn’t until my mid-teens that I finally caught up on the bulk of Stallone’s output. It’s interesting to note that Stallone frequently writes or directs his movies, and even when he isn’t credited he will throw in a lot of ideas or suggest script changes which, in most cases the Director will agree are an improvement. The Razzies have been unkind to Stallone over the years, almost as an in-joke giving him nomination after nomination for Worst Actor. While he may not have the widest range, this is a disservice to a clearly intelligent man who has inspired millions through his performances – something that many Oscar Winning actors cannot suggest they have done. And who needs acting when you can literally punch The Cold War into submission? So lets join together and salute the machine that is Sly Stallone.

10. Escape To Victory

escape-to-victoryDecades on, this is still the best football movie ever made. With a host of stars against the ever popular backdrop of WWII, it sees a team of Allied POW footballers taking on the might of the Third Reich. Stallone stars alongside Michael Caine as one of the leaders among the POW in their daily survivals and escape attempts, and his early antics at trying to get involved in football are hilarious. Although a lighthearted movie in the vein of classics like The Great Escape, there are obviously darker moments, but it’s family friendly stuff with such obvious bad guys that everyone cheers when The Allies decide at half time that they can beat the Germans.

9. Tango And Cash

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A film with legendary set problems, had this followed Stallone and Konchalovsky’s original vision it could have been a much grittier movie. As it stands though it is a weird mixture of violence, drama, and comedy with two great leads in Stallone and Russell. It’s a long way from the best film on this list, but it’s still a decent 80s Buddy Cop movie. The twist this time is that the cops are framed for murder, and have to escape and prove their innocence, blasting their way through bad guys and protecting Teri Hatcher as they go. It isn’t Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, or Beverly Hills Cop, but it isn’t far off. For a rougher edge, less of the Buddy action, less comedy, but more of the on-set problems check out Nighthawks.

8. Daylight

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If the 80s saw the rise and fall of Buddy Cop and one-man-army movies in the US, then the 90s felt the same way about disaster movies. While there were big budget hits based on apocalyptic events such as Armageddonthere were more minor contained films like Volcano which didn’t quite hit the mark. Daylight was released in the same year as Twister and Independence Day and is less of an obvious spectacle than those two. When you hear the rough plot for these three films, Daylight isn’t going to be the one anyone picks as the one they would choose to watch. It’s unfortunate as this is a perfectly good disaster flick, one which racks up tension more than the other two, and arguably has a more interesting group of protagonists. Given the confined setting, we get to spend a lot more time with these people and it feels more emotional when one of them dies. The cast is good, the action is strong, though the effects are understated and not bombastic. There isn’t anything here that you haven’t seen before (except maybe Viggo Mortensen being a dick) but it’s fun viewing anyway.

7. Cliffhanger

One of two returns to form for Stallone in 1993, Cliffhanger is a spectacle, with many jaw-dropping stunts scene, and scenery. Maybe the only thing more jaw-dropping is the scenery chewing with everyone’s favourite alien John Lithgow giving a delightfully Hans Gruber-esque performance as the snarling, heartless bad guy. With an alarmingly tense and bleak opening scene which did for mountains what Jaws did for oceans, Cliffhanger takes a basic premise and notches the action up to dizzying peaks thanks to its beautiful, naturally terrifying setting high above the ground. Stallone is on form as Gabe Walker, a mountain climber and rescuer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during a $100 million heist. With a good supporting cast featuring Michael Rooker and Craig Fairbrass, this one is cut and dry good guys versus bad guys popcorn munching fun.

6. Rocky III/RockyIV

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By this point in the series, the well was starting to run dry. Balboa had fallen in love, had been given a shot and missed the championship, then given a shot and won the championship, yet the endearing nature of the character, of Mickey, Paulie, and Adrian meant that the public wanted more. Rocky III and IV see Stallone’s creation having to defend his title against a superior, younger, meaner fighter, and both have a tragedy. III has Mr T giving a powerhouse performance, and the death of Mickey, while IV sees Dolph Lundgren give a concrete block performance along with the death of Apollo Creed. Both have the 80s montage training scenes, enjoyable scripts with laughs, love, and heartache, both have great one liners, and both of course have pumping fight scenes. Endlessly watchable there isn’t anything new here, but both are comfy, warm, classics.

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5. Demolition Man

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Unlike almost all of the other leading action stars, Stallone throughout the 70s and 80s never ventured into science fiction. Demolition Man remains an anomaly in his filmography as it tackles elements such as time travel, hover cars, and futuristic toilet behavior. The film begins in typical Stallone style with Stallone’s reckless cop Spartan chasing down maniacal criminal mastermind Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). After a hostage crisis goes wrong, both Spartan and Phoenix are sentenced to Freezing, in possibly the least effective punishment ever. Roughly 30 years later Phoenix escapes to find a new world of peace and a complete lack or crime, along with a complete lack of ability to deal with crime; He resumes his tyranny. The authorities unleash Spartan and the game of cat and mouse begins once more, this time in the future leading to lots of cool effects and comedy fun. Stallone and Snipes are great together, Sandra Bullock is perfect, and there is an interesting wider cast. The stunts and action are strong and the script is a lot of fun, and I’ve no idea why this one was so badly received.

4. Cop Land

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Copland is probably the best films Stallone has ever been involved with. Not only does he give a genuinely strong performance, he is helped by a few other names you may recognise – Robert Patrick, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta. Out of all the films on my list, this will be the one fewest have seen. Critically praised, though not a massive commercial success, Cop Land is a Crime Drama, low on action, but high on quality as Stallone’s tired Sheriff deals with corruption in his own back yard – an area of his town where many high-ranking cops live with their families. More akin to Goodfellas than Rambo, this proves that a good script can make anyone give a good performance, and shows again that Stallone is much more than a machine gun with a body attached.

3. First Blood

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Speaking of – here’s the film that launched Stallone’s other most famous character – John Rambo. A broken, beat, and scarred Vietnam veteran, First Blood sees Rambo tracking down his old buddies from ‘nam. In this first outing, he stumbles upon a small town in Northern USA after finding out that he is the last surviving soldier from his unit. He is picked up by the tough local Sheriff for vagrancy and subjected to humiliation by a sadistic jobber hick cop. Suffering from flashbacks and assorted trauma, Rambo breaks, beats the crap out of the cops and flees into the dense surrounding forests, cops and locals in hot pursuit. First Blood is an action thriller of the highest order, low on the gore and over the top action of each of the sequels. Only one person loses his life on camera, more the result of an accident than anything else, and Stallone gives a wide-eyed, unflinching portrayal. Sure it doesn’t try to be too clever, and it knows it is still an action movie, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed in getting its message across along with having great fist fights, chases, and gun play. The support cast each does a great job – Crenna, Dennehy, Starrett in differing roles, but it is Stallone who shines. His passionate speech towards the end is the best of his career, and he genuinely looks and acts like a tiger who has been beaten one time too many and is now biting back, turning the surrounding habitat in into a weapon.

2. First Blood Part 2

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Having said, that Rambo 2 is my favourite of the series. There is still political commentary and moments of truth and tragedy, but those are more often relegated to one-liners between bouts of grenade lobbing. Rambo is screwed by his own country once again as he is recruited and sent back to ‘nam to look for missing POW. What we don’t know until halfway through the film is that it was always a futile mission, a box-ticking exercise to keep the public happy. When Rambo does indeed find and rescue some POW, his country turns his back on him once again and leaves him stranded in hostile enemy territory. The action in this movie is right up there with the best the 80s has to offer, with a number of pulsating scenes – the riverboat attack, infiltrating the camp, and the final flight. The film has some great dastardly villains from Vietnamese, to Russian, to American and each time Rambo takes one of the main antagonists down, it is done with real USA USA chanting cheer. It’s easy to right this off as right-wing nonsense, but that would be avoiding the central truths and all that wonderful action.

1. Rocky 1/Rocky 2

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Naturally, both the start and peak of an impressive career Rocky is the perfect blend of The American Dream, love story, optimism, never giving up no matter how mismatched the odds. In many ways it’s the quintessential American film, and it’s also fitting how the story of the film mirrors the story of its making – an unknown actor and writer scrapes himself up from the streets to create one of the most commercially successful movies of the decade and one of the most recognizable characters in movie history, also earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the process. It’s one of those rare moments where everything comes together in unison – the writing, the cast, the director, the music – everything is tuned to perfection and creates a fascinating, eternally watchable, inspiration. Shortly after Stallone basically pulled the same stunt for a second time with Rocky II – it’s basically the same story played out with a different timeline and with a different end result. Both have stellar performances from all the main players – Stallone’s character is one it’s impossible not to root for, a bumbling, charming buffoon, while Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, and Carl Weathers all give career best and each create their own icons (with all but Weathers earning Oscar nominations). Filling the films with iconic moments also helps – Rocky’s ascent to the top of the museum steps, Mickey’s grueling training regime segments, Rocky and Adrian’s early awkward dates, and of course the fights are all etched in the memories of movie fans. Stallone would go on to appear in many more great films, but this was never bettered.

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There you have it. I’m now keen to catch up on those late 90, early 2000 movies that Stallone did to see if they’re as bad as everyone says, and there are a few early ones I’d like to revisit. Let me know if I missed any of your favourites, and what your picks would be!