Assassin’s Creed

Everything is permitted

labedThe Assassin’s Creed video games are hit and miss.  Their format – placing the player in the mind of a character who relives the memories of an ancestor – creates too many layers for the experience to be truly immersive, because you’re essentially playing a video game about a person playing a video game about the cool thing you wish you were doing.  On top of that, whenever your assassin protagonist takes the life of a major target in the “past” segments, the background reverts to the Animus and reminds you that you’re not really doing the cool thing.  In that sense, despite the twenty-five or so games in the series, AC’s structure actually works better in a film.

Justin Kurzel once again brings Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender together, this time as Sophia Rikkin, the leading scientist of Abstergo’s Animus project, and Cal Lynch, a lowlife who goes from being a poor man’s Clarence Worley to a vital test subject.  Abstergo, the company that has puzzled out how to allow people to relive the memories of their ancient ancestors, is (as it is in the game) a front for the Templars, who throughout history have battled the Assassin Order for control of a McGuffin called the Apple of Eden.  The Templars claim to want to use the Apple to “cure violence,” but their seemingly bleeding-heart mission is a red herring: the Apple will allow them to control free will, so while they might be able to stop the perpetual war between themselves and the Assassins, possession of the Apple essentially constitutes control of the world.

Cal is chosen as a guinea pig because he is a direct descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who lived in 15th century Spain during a pivotal tug-o’-war over the Apple.  In proper AC fashion, a historical figure was the Grandmaster of the Templars at the time (in this case, Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, played by Javier Gutiérrez).  The brutal Inquisition contends with Aguilar and fellow Assassin Maria (Ariane Labed!), who aren’t greatly developed as characters (since the film runs under two hours and takes place mostly in the present) but who are every bit the stealthy, nimble, unhesitating badasses you’d expect the Assassins to be – they even pop off some signature moves from the video games, which are cheer-worthy for fans of the series, but not overt enough to be jarring to the average viewer.

The film does some interesting things with gray area: it’s not clear who the “good guys” are in the beginning, as we only have Abstergo’s word that the Assassins are the ones causing all the violence, but it’s fairly evident to the observant that the Templars/Abstergo have always been the evil megalomaniacs (Rikkin, Jeremy Irons’s character, is introduced in a scene where he plays the piano in a dark room while watching himself give a speech on television – has a good guy ever done that?).  The real wildcards are the other Abstergo inmates, most notably Moussa (Michael K. Williams), descendant of a Haitian Assassin adept in the art of voodoo poisons, and Lin (Michelle Lin), who has no lines but whose martial arts speak for themselves.  They stage a prison break and are heading to the Animus to murder Cal just as he figures out what’s what and takes the oath of the Assassins (enough to get the audience juiced up both times it happens), which is inspired by/taken from an old Slovenian novel, Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol.

The big question leading to release was whether this movie would be any good, as video game adaptations are not known for being, or even whether this would be the best video game movie ever made (as the AC games are nowhere near the best games ever made, I’m not sure why anyone would expect that, but I digress).  But look.  The King of Fighters and Mortal Kombat aren’t high quality cinema, but they’re good video game movies.  They’re fun, they’re preposterous, and they’re full of entertaining (if thin) characters who do more than just spout one-liners from the source material (Shang Tsung notwithstanding).  Assassin’s Creed fits into that pocket, but with a more accomplished filmmaker, which means that while the story takes itself a bit seriously, it’s both aware of itself and able to stand on its own.  As a film, it’s mostly a popcorn action flick, but it’s one in which women and non-white people are major players, and wherein the Catholic Church is accurately evil.  Try getting that from the ’90s.

I kept waiting for this movie to get bad.  Mind you, it doesn’t get a lot better than “good for a video game adaptation,” but it doesn’t get bad.  Labed’s Maria, though underused and prematurely removed from the story, is enigmatic, beautiful, and maybe the film’s most interesting undeveloped hero (nothing against Fassbender, but she would have been a fascinating protagonist).  Williams, again playing a criminal, not only achieves more than “scarred inmate” status, but gets to be fairly playful and somewhat deep in the process.  Cotillard’s character is the one in the center, constantly deciding on her alignment, and although Sophia is a somewhat silly role next to last year’s Lady Macbeth (or most that Cotillard has played, really), her trust in Kurzel’s direction shows.  In fact, maybe that’s the best thing I can say about this film: no one ever seems like they don’t want to be in it.

Can the sequel be based on Liberation, please?

220px-assassin27s_creed_film_posterAssassin’s Creed (2016); written by Michael Lesslie; directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Ariane Labed, Michael K. Williams, and Jeremy Irons.

 

 

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2014 Favorites

We now return you to 2015, already in progress

blackberrysnack1The internet ate my writeup of Still Alice, but to sum up: if you’d told me that one of the year’s most emotionally evocative scenes would involve Kristen Stewart delivering a monologue from Angels in America, I’d have assumed you were talking about the SNL reunion.

Same rules as usual this year, only I’ve expanded each category to five joint “winners” plus the usual sleepers (because there were a lot of great performances and productions this time around, and of such varying style).  I’ve done away with the Body of Work category, because it’s too much to keep track of, and assumes that I see absolutely everything, which I can’t.  Note that “Favorite Characters” cannot be portrayals of real people. I’ve added “The Unseen” and “The Unsung,” which comprise, respectively, the movies I wanted to see but did not have a chance to, and the movies I saw but for whatever reason did not write about on the blog (these reasons range from losing a file to not having time to simple disinterest – I don’t make money on this [but you could change that if you really wanted to: paypal billyramoneFTW at gmail).  Use the left-hand navigation or the infinite down-scroll to check out my writeups of each film.

2014 Favorites

Picture

Only Lovers Left Alive

Selma

Tracks

Birdman

A Most Violent Year

Sleepers: Wild and The Imitation Game

Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe – Nymphomaniac

Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie – Miss Julie

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson – Tracks

Tilda Swinton as Eve – Only Lovers Left Alive

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland – Still Alice

Sleeper: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed – Wild

Actor

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. – Selma

Colin Farrell as John – Miss Julie

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachman – A Most Wanted Man

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke – Locke

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game

Sleeper: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Supporting Actress

Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter – A Most Wanted Man

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King – Selma

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland – Still Alice

Emma Stone as Sam Thomson – Birdman

Samantha Morton as Kathleen – Miss Julie

Sleeper: Stacy Martin as Young Joe – Nymphomaniac

Supporting Actor

Elyes Gabel as Julian – A Most Violent Year

LaKeith Lee Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson – Selma

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher – Whiplash

Edward Norton as Mike Shiner – Birdman

Tony Revolori as Zero Mustafa – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sleeper: Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander – The Imitation Game

Director

Ava DuVernay – Selma

Liv Ullmann – Miss Julie

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year

Screenplay

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

Ava DuVernay/Paul Webb – Selma

Jim Jarmusch – Only Lovers Left Alive

Favorite Characters

Eleanor Rigby (played by Jessica Chastain) – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Eve, Adam, and Ava (played by Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska) – Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Cameo

William Mapother as the Preacher – I Origins

Persona non Grata Forever

Clint Eastwood

Unseen

Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Camp X-Ray, Big Eyes, Two Days-One Night, Ida, Winter Sleep

Unsung

Ragnarok, Still Alice, Into the Woods, The Big Ask

Best use of “Chastaining”

Well, Jessica Chastain was in four films this year, and she “Chastained” in one of them (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), so I can’t in good conscience give this award to anyone else.  In a close second, however, are Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda in Rob the Mob.

That does it for 2014.  If we ever meet, let’s talk about movies.  See you this year!  -RH

Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.

 

Haywire

It begins and ends with the same word

“It’s always about the money,” says Ewan McGregor to Michael Fassbender, as we in the audience wait to be surprised.  Instead of a surprise, though, we get the feeling that what Ewan (or Kenneth, as his character is so named in the film) says refers to something broader than the events within the film.  Just look at the films Steven Soderbergh has done.  Now look at this one.  Now look at this one’s cast.  It’s either the director’s charisma and substantial resume, or an equally substantial paycheck that brought this group of fellows together.

You want a real surprise?  Okay, here goes: Haywire isn’t a bad movie.  There’s a literary form called Paraprosdokian, which occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase is so surprising to the reader that it changes the reader’s interpretation of the first half.  Can you think of any films that effectively apply this technique to a visual medium?  If you answered yes, were any of those films released after 1990?  Countless movies of this generation attempt the “shocking” narrative twist, but they omit that special moment when, after hearing a clever turn of phrase, you take that split-second breath before saying, “Ohh, I get it.”  That breath is what makes getting it satisfying.  This generation’s thrillers do one of two things: hold your hand and ease you into the twist so slowly that nothing could possibly shock you, or lead you down one path before violently shoving you down another.  Haywire falls victim to the former (want an example of the latter?  Check out my review of Unknown).  Fortunately, Soderbergh’s thriller has a little bit of cushion.

A fair warning: if you don’t fall for Gina Carano’s character of Mallory Kane when she’s gently sipping tea in an upstate New York cafe’ in the opening scene, then you never will.  The film follows Mallory’s retelling of her betrayal at the hands of a private military company.  The fact that most of the film is told through flashbacks eliminates a lot of potential tension, but not inherently: Carano’s straight-laced delivery perishes any though of Mallory being an unreliable narrator (unlike last year’s The Debt, a similar narrative in which a detail left out by Jessica Chastain’s character changes the entire plot).  The company, which may or may not be run by Kenneth (McGregor), has murky dealings with contacts in Barcelona and Dublin, where Mallory is sent to do a couple of jobs.  The company also involves Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose positions are unclear.  While doing a job with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent, Mallory is sold out and becomes the object of an international womanhunt.  While attempting to figure out who’s pulling Kenneth’s strings, she systematically takes down her hunters, simultaneously protecting the innocent people involved – namely a diner named Scott (Michael Angarano) and her father, John (Bill Paxton).  Michael Douglas even appears as a guy who does something for the U.S. government.

What struck me about the film is how quiet it is.  Not sound-wise, mind you; the gunshots are thunderous enough.  But there are long shots of Mallory running, walking, and driving – shots that I admire.  A scene in which Mallory backs up a car shows us not what’s behind her (all elements of danger: angry cops, wild deer, rugged road conditions), but just her face and what’s moving away from her in the safe distance.  Carano does all of her own stunts and fight work, which is refreshingly easy to follow, as it’s well-cut (i.e. not edited much) and makes no obvious use of wires or CG.  The music is equal parts calming and vein-pumping when it should be.

I’m still not certain, however, whether the “big reveal” is supposed to be a genuine surprise.  We had no reason to believe it wasn’t this person.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the male characters (with the possible exception of Paxton’s sympathetic dad) have as much personality and as many distinguishing features as a six-pack of toothpaste tubes, Haywire becomes a film in which it’s pointless to try to solve the mystery yourself.  You know it’s all going to be spelled out in an hour anyway.  The ending also leaves one begging for another five seconds with the characters (and not in the incredible way Another Earth did).  “That’s a hell of a way to end a movie,” a film-goer said to me as we exited the theatre.  “It’s like they were setting up a sequel.”

Mallory’s most revealing scenes happen when she’s sipping tea or walking through her apartment in a bathrobe.  There’s not much growth for her character – there almost is, when her father, unbeknownst to her, spies her killing an attacker, and we know it’s the first time he’s seen this happen – but we’re allowed to feel for her.  She has sympathy for the innocent, and has a life – or wants one – outside of killing bad people.  We did, however, need that extra five seconds.  The film’s best scene is a terrific one-shot conversation between Mallory and Michael Douglas’ character, who appear almost as silhouettes, in a garage at the end of an airport runway.  It’s tenser than any of the fight scenes, and the potential consequences are much greater (because, let’s be honest, are we ever afraid Mallory is going to lose a fight?).

Gina Carano is a good actress, though I’m afraid that if her career skyrockets, she will be pigeonholed into this exact same role again and again.  But at least it’s a leading role.

Haywire (2012); written by Lem Dobbs; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. 

Machete

Introducing Don Johnson

A few years back, Robert Rodriguez directed a hilarious trailer advertising an imaginary exploitation film featuring Danny Trejo as a grizzled Mexican action hero who “gets the women and kills the bad guys.”  In proper step with films of the type, the trailer gave away virtually everything that happened in the movie.

With one thing and another, that trailer is now a full-length film.  Danny Trejo, 66 years old, plays the title character: a Mexican ex-federale with a penchant for sharp objects and various vendettas which develop over the course of the story.

Rodriguez delivers on the  promise of the trailer.  Some of the scenes were re-shot, some actors recast and some sections removed in order to tell the full story, but the spirit is there.  The premise is absurd and the illegal immigrant laws being the main driving force behind the narrative is a simple-yet-effective red herring for the wanton violence that accompanies it.

While Stallone’s The Expendables had one of the most impressive action casts we’ve seen, Machete has possibly the single weirdest cast in film history.  Oddly enough, the players fit into their parts perfectly, and the ensemble is spread thinly enough over the screenplay that it doesn’t seem like just a bunch of cool actors hanging out together in a Rodriguez movie.  The cast includes Trejo in the lead, as well as Robert De Niro as Senator McLaughlin, a politician with a cowboy hat and a fake Southern accent who seems to be vehemently against illegal immigrants (“terrorists” as he calls them); Jeff Fahey as Michael Booth, the Senator’s adviser and the main conspirator that gets Machete’s revenge mission going; Cheech Marin as Padre’, Machete’s brother, a shotgun-wielding priest; Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, the leader of an underground movement of Mexican renegades fighting for what is right; Jessica Alba as Sartana, a half-Mexican immigrations officer debating whose side she should be on; the immortal Don Johnson as Von Jackson, the evil leader of a group of “border vigilantes” (good-ol’-boys who gun down any Mexicans crossing the border); Lindsay Lohan as April, Booth’s daughter, a socialite who later becomes a “nun with a gun” to exact her revenge on De Niro; Tom Savini as Osiris Amanpour, a hitman who advertises his services via 1-800-HITMAN; and perhaps most significant of all, Steven Seagal in his first big-screen appearance in ten years – he plays Torrez, a Mexican drug lord who serves as the film’s central villain.  Not only is he on the screen again, but he’s a bad guy, and not only is he a bad guy, but he’s battling a heroic Danny Trejo, who would surely be a throwaway henchman in any of Seagal’s career-vehicle films.

Refreshingly, Rodriguez takes many of these actors out of their usual element: De Niro as a conservative political animal, the lovable Fahey as a monstrous conspirator, Seagal and Johnson as baddies, and so on.  There are also several references to Rodriguez’s older films, specifically in the latter third of the film when Trejo dons the same outfit he wears in 1995’s Desperado, including the infamous throwing knives, as well as a shot in which Trejo leaps atop a limousine to slay the people inside.

The film begins to border parody after awhile, and the shootout in the end has a bit more potential (and buildup) than is delivered, but Rodriguez is a bit more responsible with his writing – he still can’t name characters well and he still occasionally kills off characters immediately when they’re not needed in the plot, but he’s getting better.  Overall, the film is extremely enjoyable and for the most part stays within the conventions of the genre.  Trejo, 66, with lines in his face as deep as any open-ocean trench, hooks up with all three of the film’s leading women on separate occasions (and once, two at a time when April’s mother is involved).  There are one-liners galore which I won’t spoil here, and while there is a solid ending, there’s the inevitable cash-in sequel hook – “Machete will return in MACHETE KILLS…and again, in MACHETE KILLS AGAIN!” – though I assume Rodriguez won’t actually be making those pictures.

Confusion came to me in the form of a fake trailer by Quentin Tarantino entitled “Agent Orange.”  The confusion occurred because the trailer wasn’t there, despite its hype, and there seems to be no information left about it on the entirety of the internet.  I’m willing to believe it was just a rumor, but it seemed almost too specific in its cast and premise to be completely made up.  Regardless, this takes nothing away from the movie.  Get out to see it.

Machete (2010); written and directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez and Jeff Fahey.

The Expendables

The manliest movie ever made

After Sly’s alarmingly violent Rambo reboot, I forced myself (despite my excitement) to reserve expectations for The Expendables, thinking it might end up another gorefest involving Stallone “playing in the jungle,” as Mr. Schwarzenegger puts it.  I had some confidence going in, however, because the formula for a classic actioner was always there.  Present in the film’s initial trailer and the opening credits sequence: Stallone’s banter-laden tough-guy dialogue, bullets, clouds of flame, projectile body parts/human bodies inexplicably shooting through the air, and the main cast members’ surnames splayed over the action in metallic silver text (although how Randy Couture’s name ended up on the screen will forever be a sad mystery to me).

Stallone’s newest effort is not so much a “who’s who” of action films as it is a “who’s been there.”  An early sequence features Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone himself talking in a church.  If this hadn’t been shot with a digital HD camera and presented to me as part of a film, I might have thought it was just the three of them reminiscing about the glory days.  It’s a scene with some true magic, and it is refreshingly obvious that these roles were written specifically for these actors.  “What the fuck is his problem?” Willis asks as Schwarzenegger leaves.  “He wants to be President,” Stallone replies snidely as Arnold gives him a look you could shoot out of a cannon.

As relatively straightforward as the movie is, you’ll likely forget the story once you get caught up in the fun.  I’ll give it a shot: Evil dictator teams up with rogue CIA agent and Stone Cold Steve Austin; mercenaries needed because CIA killing their own guy looks bad; wizened old-timer (Mickey Rourke, despite being younger than Stallone) tells touching story about old days; Stallone and his buddies take the job; mission is not what it seems.  It’s the type of story meant for Stallone’s writing style: simple, plenty of room for one-liners, and littered with dead people.

This film is such an action-star cast party that you’ll also probably forget the characters’ names, and if you remember them, you’ll feel a bit silly using them.  But the names are worth remembering if only for their novelty.  The cast includes Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a heavy weapons expert whose only monologue is about explosives; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the only one in the group who actually has a girlfriend, though he has somehow kept from her the fact that he’s a ruthless murder-machine.  Statham gets a role that is a bit deeper and infinitely more fun than the expressionless, American-accented statues that pass for characters in such popcorn action fare as the Transporter and Death Race films.  The role of Lee is no Turkish or Bacon, to be sure, but at this point in his career (unless he makes it into Guy Ritchie’s proposed remake of RocknRolla), Statham is unlikely to be doing anything but this kind of film for a long time.  In addition, we get Yin Yang (Jet Li), who has more speaking scenes in this film than American directors usually allow him, and they’re magical to witness, particularly a driving scene with Stallone in which he discusses the positives and negatives of his stature, and his fighting scenes are, as usual, dazzling (though it’s clear that a fight team is helping him out with the tougher material these days).  Dolph Lundgren also appears as Gunner Jensen, a Swedish sniper and apparent junkie.  How long do you think Rocky and Drago can last on the same team?  Just watch the first scene and you’ll know.  The last member of the team is Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert and…y’know, he does that MMA schlock.  He’s one team member too many, and I know this isn’t dramatic, Oscar-race cinema, but every time he was alone on screen, I was embarrassed for him.  Rounding out the cast are a decent group of one-note bad guys, including an extremely hammy Eric Roberts as “James Munroe,” a corrupt CIA agent with a suspiciously allegorical name; General Garza (David Zayas), the apparently-evil dictator, though we’re expected to simply take the narrative’s word on that; The Brit (Gary Daniels), a stereotypical European enforcer who we just know will end up fighting Jet Li later; and Dan Paine (Stone Cold Steve Austin), Munroe’s bodyguard.  This is the type of role Austin should have been playing at the very beginning of his acting career (note: this is still the beginning, but he’s been in a few films now, and the henchman role suits his abilities).  Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie’ appear as the film’s women, but you may not remember them either.

The Expendables manages to be manly without being misogynistic, overly gory, racist, or a sweat-inducing sausage-fest (i.e. 300) .  Not a single breast or naked rear end is shown, and the two females with speaking parts are treated with respect.  The most violent scene occurs within the first ten minutes, and the gore slows down in favor of telling a story.  The cinematography is nicely crafted – care is put into every corner, not just the mindless stuff.

This film is classic action fare with witty references, a writer/director/star who knows the genre, and a cast of familiar (and likable) faces.  Perhaps the body count in this film will clear up some room for Kurt Russell to appear in a sequel?

The Expendables (2010); written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Mickey Rourke.