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Thursday, July 14, 2011

10 Greatest Movie Montages of the ’80s

Whether used to depict training or competition in sports movies or simply to convey a sugarcoated sense of general winning-ness over time, the montage has become an inescapable staple of American cinema. What’s more, dressed for success, this cinematic cliché was embraced in the Eighties as it was in no other decade.

What was it about the montage technique that was so beloved of the era of spandex, bad hair, worse dress sense, big egos, and a love of male muscle? We can but guess — though it did of course provide an excuse for an extra slice of cheesy Eighties music to be layered on top of this hamburger of different shots and episodes cut together. Here are ten of the best.

 10. The Karate Kid

Ah, The Karate Kid. The classic 1984 teen martial arts movie that brought us “wax on, wax off” and the path to manhood of Daniel LaRusso (played by a baby-faced Ralph Macchio) who proved that even pre-pubescent pups don’t have to be bullied by the bad guys. During the course of the movie, “Daniel-san” not only gains a father figure in the verbally challenged Mr. Miyagi but gets a girl who looks twice his height and twice his age — although he has to wait until the sequel for his balls to drop, and by then his love interest has dumped him for a football player.
Despite a memorable finale, in which our pint-sized hero battles his nemesis, Johnny “sweep the leg” Lawrence, while standing on one leg, it was the build-up to the finale that made young palms start to sweat with muttered vows kindled about spending allowances at the local karate gym. As our hero surprises everyone except the entire adult movie theater audience by progressing through the tournament’s early rounds, “You’re the best!” shouts the permed, Eighties sweater-wearing Ali, and on cue Joe Esposito’s song of the same name kicks in, signalling the start of the movie montage we’d all been waiting for.

Daniel beats up an extra, then nervously bites his nails as the Aryan brotherhood from the Cobra Kai dojo kick ass, watched menacingly by their bullet hole-chinned sensei, an ex-Vietnam Special Forces sociopath. But runt Daniel does (less-than-convincingly) step up to the plate to show he’s got what it takes in the fighting stakes. It was the Eighties with a crappy white bandana, and we loved it. Sorta.

9. Scarface

What was it about the Eighties that so equated montage sequences with perceived success? Sure, they signify the passing of time and stuff (building friendships and relationships, yadda, yadda), but when have you ever seen the editing technique used to say: “Things are screwing up here?” Well, in 1983′s Scarface actually, where the montage mixes up the two opposing meanings like a cocaine high with a booze and drugs hangover.

Brian De Palma’s lurid gangster epic needs no introduction, its ultra-violent tale of snow blind ambition and excess under the Miami sun a symbol of all that was wrong with the Eighties… This and insipid, tuneless synth songs like “Push It to the Limit” by the long-forgotten Paul Engemann, whose tune was the soundtrack to the movie’s obligatory montage. As the dirge fades in and the money counter whirs, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana sets up coke deals, laughs on the phone about who has the best chest-revealing collar and teleports to his own wedding, and all in the space of two minutes.

The rise to power and wealth of a Cuban refugee never happened so fast — nor dressed in such a bad white suit. But after Tony has shown his guests his pet tiger and the tasteless life-size painting of himself and new wife has been unveiled, the cracks in the surface are all too visible in the numbed face of wife Elvira Hancock (played by fox, Michelle Pfeiffer). The chainsaw massacre and the iconic line, “Say hello to my little friend!” may have stolen the headlines, but this movie montage said it all.

8. Ghostbusters

What with the endless talk of a sequel (hopefully not destined to be the movie equivalent of ectoplasmic egg on your face), how could we forget 1984′s Ghostbusters? But let’s not forget what an awesome slice of cinematic history the original movie was. Complete with an all-star cast, comedy and sci-fi combos never got better as Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and the black dude kicked ghost ass and took spook names. From the opening Slimer scene, through to the possession of Dana (Sigourney Weaver) by “The Gatekeeper” and Louis (Rick Moranis) by “The Keymaster,” and on to the awesome climax involving splattering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man by crossing the streams, the movie was ghost-capturing gold dust throughout.

But in which two minutes of the movie was all this awesomeness best encapsulated? C’mon, it was the Eighties — in the montage, of course. News reports and headlines of ghosts and ghostbusting bombard the senses, Ray Parker Jr starts singing “There’s something strange…,” the bell sounds, and the guys are getting the job done (“The boys in gray slugged it out with a pretty pesky poltergeist, then stayed on to dance the night away with some of the lovely ladies who witnessed the disturbance”) skidding Ecto-1 around corners, hitting the streets, leaving specters as smoking remnants in traps, and generally soaking up the media frenzy (“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” says Venkman. “No job is too big, no fee is too big”).

And when the camera crews have finished flashing, a sultry spook unzips Dan Aykroyd’s pants, leaving him in crossed-eyed fellatio bliss. Eighties smut! Couldn’t live without it! Legend.

7. Over the Top

How did the concept for this 1987 movie get past the producers’ noses? Only with the help of heaps of cocaine, is all we can imagine. But then, with Eighties action flick hero Sly Stallone at the helm as co-writer and lead actor, maybe it was a foregone conclusion. Like the plot of this movie… Still, whatever we pompous critics of today might say with the benefit of hindsight, back in the day a movie based around an arm wrestling world championship seemed as good an idea as any — even allowing for the hemorrhoid that was baseball cap-wearing trucker Lincoln Hawk’s (Sly) alienated son. What’s more, the montage ruled… Kinda…

With the wailing electric guitars of Sammy Hagar’s “Winner Takes It All” in our ears, and the baying crowds of hicks, scorecard women in leotards, and arm wrestlers chalking their hands and tying their platform shoes(?), it seemed like the wildest party on earth. Even the patronizing announcer rocked, refusing to let us forget the female competitors and spelling out everything we needed to know about the contest: “This is a double elimination competition. You have to lose twice to be out. In other words, if you lose once, you still have one more chance.” Did you get that? OK!

In any case, all you had to do was sit back with some nachos and watch the vein-bulging, hammy antics of brutes like Bull “You ain’t s**t!” Hurley, John Grizzly, and the bearded guy who likes to get his face slapped, as they shouted “Heeuuh!” a lot and smashed each other’s wrists into little red pads on tables. Course, Hawk himself takes on all-comers, and intercut with this beautiful circus of building excitement as his son drives a car to get to the comp and give pop the support he needs to take the prize — which just about manages not to ruin it. Verdict: “Winner!”

6. Teen Wolf

When Michael J. Fox woke up one morning and suddenly grew hair and canines in 1985′s Teen Wolf, I guess all those of us who saw it contemplated what it would be like to be a werewolf, whether our own pubescent fur had started sprouting by then or not. The message was: there’s nothing to fear, son, find your inner animal — and why not stand on moving vehicles dancing to The Beach Boys while doing it? So long as you’re shooting straight hoops.

We’ll be honest, great Teen Wolf was not, but that didn’t stop its movie montage from hitting some high points. So, ignoring the black-and-white part up to about 3.20, indulge in sounds of the frankly incongruous hillbilly-blues ditty that is “Way To Go” by Mark Vieha (Mark who?), as some dude in fuzzy prosthetic makeup reverse passes, spins and slam dunks for the Beavers the way only a lycanthrope stuntman can.

After winning the game for the team, our howling hero struts down the high school hallway wearing shades and high-fiving extras who look like they’re about 30, wins another game for the team, and attends class, in between biting open a beer, eating pizza and savoring with us the sweet piece of eye candy that is Pamela. And unlike in The Karate Kid, you actually believed the wolf man was getting a slice of Eighties sweater-wrapped pie.

5. Bloodsport

If you were a kid in the Eighties, you appreciated the finer points of the performances of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Although “The Muscles from Brussels” ain’t the figure he once was, time was when he was an icon not just in gay circles but for any young squirt with aspirations of kicking ass. And 1988′s Bloodsport — the movie where he played real-life martial artist Frank Dux — may just have been the high-kicking zenith of his career.

The zenith of this movie? Well there were several high points (his wooden relationship with his journalist love interest not being one of them). The final fight between Frank and badass bad guy Chong Li (played by walking pair of pectorals Bolo Yeung) is definitely up there, but it’s montages we’re interested in, and while it’s a close call between the competition and training sequences — the former being a feast of martial arts mayhem acted out by Street Fighter-esque caricatures — we’re going with the latter. It’s a grueling grind of a regime, which basically involves Dux getting his ass kicked by his mentor (we counted him hitting the deck 17 times) in between brief spells of meditation and learning about pressure points.

Add to this moments like the bit-you’re-supposed-to-notice-’cause-it’s-crucial-to-the-end-of-the-film when Frank fights blindfolded (and makes quite the maid around his master’s house) and you know it’s a classic. As for the part where he gets his limbs stretched but takes the pain and pulls the ropes out of the log, well it’s low-budget cinematic history.

4. Top Gun

Top Gun was the 1986 movie that tried to take our breath away as “Maverick” Mitchell (played by pipsqueak Scientologist Tom Cruise) got with “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis, complete with mandatory Eighties perm). It was also the movie that taught us that male bonding was possible at altitudes of 30,000 feet and velocities of Mach 2. Yet, while dogfights in F-14s, chicks on motorcycles and quotes like “I feel the need… the need for speed!” got our young hearts racing in this somewhat over-hyped action flick, a less-memorable scene, its beach volleyball montage, worked — like all good such sequences should — as a kind of microcosm of what the movie was all about.

With tops off and bodies glistening in the sun, Maverick and his buddy “Goose” Bradshaw go up against rivals “Iceman” Kazansky (the permanently sneering Val Kilmer) and friend in a high-fiving, whooping excuse for homoeroticism dressed up as healthy male competition. “Let’s go!” shouts Maverick, and before you can say “butt slap!” we’re treated to cut after cut of grimaces, grunts, smashes, slow-motion dives in the sand, and macho embraces. Who wins the game? Who cares? After this testosterone-fueled romp of fighter pilot brotherhood, and music so tuneless it made you queasy, the audience was too out of breath to notice.

3. Commando

Commando was a classic, make no mistake. Did it matter that this 1985 movie had a great dumb lump of a plot — matched only by its great dumb lump of a lead actor in Arnold Schwarzenegger? Hell no! Could we forgive ex-Special Forces operative John Matrix his homicidal tendencies and monosyllabic deliveries? What’s to forgive? If your daughter was kidnapped by a fat psychotic Australian Freddie Mercury impersonator you’d be pissed enough to mow down a private army’s myriad minions in one of the most OTT movie climaxes ever, having delivered arguably the worst/best epitaph one-liners known to cinema (Four words: “I let him go”). Yes, Commando is king. End of.

What’s more, its title sequence was dramatic tension you could cut with a cleaver, made montage. A wife-beater-wearing Arnie pads along the forest floor like he’s stalking an animal, wielding… a chainsaw. But wait, after a couple of lingering biceps shots, we see that slung over this badass’s shoulder is a tree trunk… which he proceeds to chop up with an axe, this being his homestead. Then a shadow appears behind him, and he sees the intruder reflected in his blade. This is man of both finely honed senses and brawn… But is he going to hack the intruder to pieces? No, he’s going to pick her up and hug her — because it’s his daughter!

Credits roll, and with them the most implausible paternal relationship in cinematic history unfolds in images of ice cream eating fun, dad training daughter in martial arts, fishing in mountain streams… and hand-feeding a deer… A domestic bliss… of sorts… And all to an eclectic Eighties soundtrack that goes from edgy synths and steel drums to pan pipes to incongruously romantic strings and back again. It’s an idyll, kids, but trouble’s afoot — and Arnie’s about to blow up trouble with a rocket launcher! Yes!

2. Rocky IV

What Eighties movie could lay claim to single-handedly bringing down the Iron Curtain? Only 1985′s Rocky IV, which prompted a standing ovation not just from Mikhail Gorbachev and his aides in the movie as they listened to the eponymous hero’s victory speech (“If I can change, you can change, everybody can change!”) but doubtless also from the entire Soviet movie-watching public, who must surely have realized that West was best after this.

Yet, despite an epic final 14-round slugfest, in which Rocky upsets seemingly insurmountable odds to overcome superhuman steroid pincushion that is Ivan Drago (played by six foot four inches and 260 pounds of Dolph Lundgren) it was during the movie’s training montage sequence that we saw the truest picture of East vs West, shown through seamless intercutting and to the squeals of “Hearts on Fire.”

While a beanie-d Rocky outruns the KGB in the deep snow, Drago sprints around an indoor track in a leotard; as Rocky hauls a horses and cart out of a snow drift, Drago pumps iron like a gay porn star in a high-tech gym; while Rocky carries and chops logs, Drago’s veins pulse as he pushes massive weights; and as the Italian Stallion cuts down a tree, Drago fells sparring partners, reminding we wide-eyed watchers how he killed Apollo Creed earlier in the movie, uttering practically the only words of English he knew, “If he dies… he dies…” It’s a revenge mission in enemy territory for our boy: Rocky is the mountain-climbing Spartan, Drago the human fleshlamp. If the roles had been reversed and this had been a Soviet Cold War propaganda film, it would have been deemed too extreme by the censors.

1. The Naked Gun

If ever there were a movie that demonstrated the old maxim, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” when it comes to comedy, the original Naked Gun is it. From inspired one-liners to timeless visual gags, it’s a relentless barrage of laughing your ass off. (Case in point: Lt. Frank Drebin: “Nice beaver!” / Jane Spencer [stepping down from ladder with the taxidermy animal]: “Thank you. I just had it stuffed.”) The film is so full of golden moments, it’s difficult to pick any particular one. What’s more, 1988′s From the Files of Police Squad! is blessed with not one but two priceless montage sequences.

The first comes when romance is blossoming between Frank (played, of course, by the late, great Leslie Nielsen) and Jane (the ravishing Priscilla Presley). The genius of this sequence is its self-reflexivity, as it shamelessly lampoons the clichés of other feel-good montages with lowbrow comedy brilliance. To the tune of “I’m into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits, the couple — their relationship newly consummated in human-sized condoms — frolic on the beach, eat candyfloss… and get love tattoos from hairy bikers. Among the slapstick gems are the parts where they squirt mustard and ketchup over each other and the hotdog vendor, laugh their asses off leaving the movie theater having just watched Platoon and — our favorite — the slo-mo double clothesline of another couple as they splash through the waves. Slapstick win.

The Naked Gun‘s other awesome montage sequence is the sheer hilarity that ensues after Frank yells “Strike!” and begins calling the game whilst posing as an umpire in the baseball game finale. Frank does the splits, moonwalks, busts other Michael Jackson moves and generally lavishes in the crowd’s approval. And as the piano chords are struck, it’s more of the same, with the added bonus of him harassing — and bludgeoning — players to frisk them for weapons, and by turns hoovering home plate, producing a sander and Vaseline from the pitcher’s person and “uncorking” a bat. We’re even treated to Ed putting away soda, an ice pop, an apple and a whole cake as if he’s got four hands out of shot. Then the dugouts start communicating with a signal lamp and slaps to the face. Double slapstick win.

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