The Expendables 2

Male pattern badness
The Expendables 2, the sequel to what I once called the “manliest movie ever made,” is pretty much what you’d expect: laughable writing, sub-par acting by semi-retired action actors, big things blowing up, countless logical and scientific inaccuracies, ridiculous laconic dialogue, “in-joke” references to other movies featuring the film’s actors, and in spite of all this, at least some measure of fun.

The story, if we can call it that, once again follows Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his band of mercenaries as they do the dirty work of Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).  This time, the mission involves retrieving information from a computer in a safe on a downed airplane in Albania (yup).  Refreshingly, the team is buffed by two new Expendables, one of which is a woman, Maggie, played by Chinese actress Yu Nan.  Ross immediately has a problem with her joining, maybe because he’s distracted by the urge to protect women, or maybe because he’s just sexist; we can’t be sure.  The other is Billy, played by Liam Hemsworth, the only actor in the movie who delivers a single line of convincing dialogue.  Ross’s best buddy, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) once again appears, lest the team be bereft of anyone who can still perform anything requiring agility.  Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren reprise their roles of taking up space, while Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench, Ross’s arch-rival/frenemy, who makes far too many references to the Terminator films – this doesn’t work because Schwarzenegger already parodied his self-references in 1993’s Last Action Hero (and successfully, I might add).  Jet Li briefly resumes his role of martial artist Yin Yang (really?  That’s his name?), but he departs from the group early, as Li was working on several projects in China at the time of filming.

The mission, as it must, goes awry, and the information from the plane’s computer falls into the hands of a megalomaniac aptly named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who also murders one of the Expendables in order to make some nebulous point.  After burying their brother, the remaining Expendables flatly state their goals for the remainder of the film: “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.”  Stallone should have added, “So that I can finally have my showdown with Van Damme.”  This proves to be the only reason for Van Damme’s presence in the movie, as his character is barely onscreen and is given no opportunity for development.  I’m not made of stone; I know a fast-paced actioner starring Sly Stallone is not meant to be character centric, but having a reason to want the villain (especially one who is basically named “villain”) to receive his comeuppance would serve to streamline what is otherwise a bump-laden adventure.  Vilain, while sparsely seen until the final duel with Stallone, is apparently so badass that he wears sunglasses even at the bottom of a mine shaft.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers rely too much on Ross’s motivation – revenge for the death of someone we as an audience barely know – and not development of the villains as characters, which renders Vilain and his right hand man (played by longtime Van Damme collaborator Scott Adkins) ineffective compared with the villains played by Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the first film.

A movie like this relies upon its action, and if you enjoy ludicrous gunplay and fight scenes constructed with the goal of destroying everything in sight, this movie does not disappoint.  Inexplicably, the Expendables appear to be some sort of superpeople.  Ross, while speeding down a zipline, is shot twice, and doesn’t seem so much injured as he does simply disappointed about being hit.  When shot by Expendables, however, enemies transform into airborne chunks of meat.  While not as intentionally gory as the first movie, this has its share of grisly demises for Vilain’s army of redshirts, including one that follows the tried-and-true Theorem of the Magnetic Helicopter Blade, which states that if a fight scene takes place within thirty yards of an active parked helicopter, someone will be diced up in the propellers.

Much of the dialogue in the opening action scene reminded me of things I might shout when getting particularly excited about a video game.  “Here we go!”  “Take this, you bastards!”  etc.  Stallone at one point shouts the line “Rest in pieces!” after a henchman is shot about a thousand times, and even with his action-star enthusiasm, it’s still a groaner.  Even in an Expendables film, lines like these should be left on the cutting room floor.  It’s frustrating to think that big-budget films (i.e. the ones being greenlit and funded by major film studios) are the ones populated with writing so poor, while incredibly ambitious and dramatically sound films like Safety Not Guaranteed are being made with a budget barely hefty enough to pay the cast’s salaries.  To add to the badness, there’s a slightly-more-than-cameo by Chuck Norris, whose acting rust is supremely evident and who serves little purpose but to kill legions of un-Americans and deliver his famous “Chuck Norris facts,” which he still doesn’t seem to realize are parodying him rather than glorifying his martial arts exploits.  Unforgivably, Sergio Leone’s music is used to percuss Norris’s appearances.

The real highlight of the film is Yu Nan’s Maggie, Stallone’s first attempt to write a female character in a world inhabited by overgrown boys hauling gigantic phallic symbols around.  She gets more lines than one might expect (or that a viewer with Ross’s sensibilities might want), but she quickly proves herself as trustworthy and more intelligent than anyone in the group and fully capable of taking down five or six of Vilain’s henchman at a time.  While forming a friendly bond with Ross, she doesn’t end up as anyone’s love interest, though there’s a funny reference to the fact that she and Dolph Lundgren once starred in a film (Diamond Dogs) together.

The cast is studded with action stars, but is diluted by the inclusion of Lundgren, Couture, and Crews.  There are a few good performances, but the characters who deliver them vanish within the first half hour.  Van Damme looks to be in great shape, but doesn’t get to fight much.  The Expendables are made vulnerable by the death of a member, but the wrong Expendable dies.  I’ve heard talk of Nic Cage, Steven Seagal, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Wesley Snipes gearing up for possible appearances in The Expendables 3.  The impetus of the series has always been to elevate has-beens to currently-ares, but the problem with keeping things current is that you have to keep doing it, and The Expendables is about to reach a point of unsalvageable irrelevance.

The Expendables 2 (2012); written by Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk; directed by Simon West; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Yu Nan, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Total Recall

We can remember it for you

recallThe first third of Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall (Total Remake?) is very good sci-fi with beautiful Blade Runner-esque set designs and imaginative inter-universe ideas, including a weapon that shoots a rope, binding the target and subsequently allowing manual control of the victim through simple hand movements.  Once the film devolves into a chase scene that seems to last an hour and a half, however, the formulaic action and stock characters become a bit tiresome.  The most inspired sections of the film feature references to the original Philip K. Dick story and the original movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who isn’t quite the actor Colin Farrell is, but whose fish-out-of-water Douglas Quaid character seemed to fit more organically in the setting), including near-exact replicas of scenes and ideas from the original movie, the infamous three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb), and a robot who gets its arms ripped off whilst standing on the wrong side of an elevator (See you at the party, Richter!).

Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, pulling his nearly perfect American accent, which is kind of a shame in that the dystopian future of the story suggests that the only habitable parts of the world are now Britain and Austrailia – why couldn’t Quaid be an Irish guy?  And why does everyone else have to pull a phony American accent when they’re supposed to be fighting for rule of Britain and when, like Blade Runner, the Chinese have taken over most worthwhile industries?  Not a terrible foul, but a bit confusing and unnecessary.  Costarring with Farrell are Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid’s wife who turns out to be a government agent sent to kill him, as played by Sharon Stone in the first film.  Lori’s role is expanded here, and instead of being blown away by Schwarzenegger before a laconic bon-mot (“Consider that a divorce!”), she engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Quaid that doesn’t end until the final thirty seconds of the film.  Jessica Biel appears as Melina, a resistance member with whom Quaid must team up, played by Rachel Ticotin in the original.  Bryan Cranston, as likeable as he is, plays an effective (if hopelessly one-dimensional) villain here, taking Ronnie Cox’s role as the ruthless Cohaagen.  Here, instead of an evil CEO who removes the air from Mars, he’s the president of Britain (called UFB in the film) who seeks to invade Australia (“the Colony”) and crush any attempt at rebellion.

The story, as usual, follows Quaid as he works a dead-end job, this time in a factory producing war machines that look like a mix between Imperial Stormtroopers and the LOKI Mechs from Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  He and his wife are stressed out from their jobs, and Quaid decides to escape by visiting REKALL, a company offering a virtual reality experience in which incredible fantasies can be implanted into the customer’s mind as false memories.  Quaid meets Mac (John Cho), an operator at REKALL, who gives Quaid the chance to experience his fantasy as a secret agent.  As he hooks Quaid to the machine, however, something goes wrong.  “You’re a goddamn spy,” Mac says as he looks over Quaid’s files.  Just then, the operators are gunned down by Cohaagen’s police force, and Quaid, out of sheer instinct, kills them all using impossible martial arts and pinpoint skill with close-range firearms.  The film does a great job, as the Schwarzenegger film did, of maintaining the confusion about whether this is reality or in Quaid’s mind.  He’s accused of being a secret agent just seconds after he asks to be placed in a fantasy setting in which he is one.  Everything Mac offers Quaid in the fantasy eventually comes true in the film, including the fact that at different points in the story, he’s working for both Cohaagen and rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy in a cameo).  The final shot of the film mirrors the ending of the original, which resolves the story but leaves its reality open to a closer reading.  It’s a great payoff, but I’m not sure the hour-plus of nonstop action is worth the ending unless you’re a fan of the original, however.

The movie suffers from a case of Island Syndrome, with good actors speaking badly-written dialogue.  The conversations alternate between laconic and exposition-packed, and Farrell’s showdown with Cranston reminded me more of 2011’s frustrating thriller Unknown than the 1990 Total Recall.  What that film had that this one doesn’t was a strong woman; the Manfluence Principle is in effect here, as both major female characters are obsessed with Quaid: one (Melina) with romancing him, and the other (Lori) with murdering him.  Characters also speak background information in place of any sort of inventive revelation; for instance, Quaid and his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) speak aloud plenty they’ve already known about each other for years and would go without saying, such as how long they’ve both worked in the factory and that it’s kind of a shitty job.  Harry appears later in one of the film’s best scenes, a reimagining of a scene from the original combining the characters of Mel Johnson, Jr. and Roy Brocksmith, during which Harry claims to know that this is all part of Quaid’s fantasy and not really happening.  Quaid must figure out within a very short time whether this is a lie, and in either case make a decision with irreversible results (in the original, Schwarzenegger sees a bead of sweat roll off Brocksmith’s face and realizes he’s nervous, therefore he’s lying; I won’t spoil what Farrell’s Quaid does).  The tension nears that of the original and far surpasses the tension in any of the remake’s scenes, save one in which Quaid slices his own hand open to remove a tracking device.

Finally, Wiseman’s film seems to take the opposite stance on the Occupy movement that Nolan’s new Batman film did, albeit much more subtly than the bloated superhero epic.  The government is conspiring against its people by airing propaganda about a group of freedom fighters who simply want equality (calling them”terrorists” as we’ve heard so many conservatives do).  Nighy’s briefly-seen Matthias character takes on a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein role here, taking the heat for the UFB’s transgressions and reflecting the American public’s (don’t blame me; I didn’t choose the accents) unslakable need for scapegoats and blame-magnets, regardless of truth or guilt.

I’m not sure why this remake needed to exist (do any?) but the action is constant and intense (unless you’re like me and extended CG-action scenes induce a boredom so potent that you wish you were at work).  What works most of all, though, is the sci-fi setting and landscape.  More stories (hopefully better written) could take place here.  To be honest, the character I was most interested in was John Cho’s frosty-haired REKALL operator, who, depending upon your take on the film’s reality, could have been responsible for all of the story’s events.  As derivative as these ideas were even in Philip K. Dick’s time, they make for good sci-fi.  If screenwriters with the skill, will, and drive to make better stories in this universe exist, then as Arnold said in the original, “Give these people air!”

Total Recall (2012); written Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the 1990 film; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale.

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.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

“It’s okay with me.”

I am amazed that Elliott Gould is still alive at seventy-one after the amount of smoking he does in The Long Goodbye.  He sparks up a cigarette in nearly every scene in which he appears, even if he was already smoking in the scene previous.  It’s an interesting satire of the health-conscious 1970’s California, and goes hand-in-hand with the other jabs at Hollywood that pepper this engaging private-eye film.

I’d rate Gould at the top of the list of actors who have portrayed Philip Marlowe.  Bogie and Mitchum and the others do a fine job in their respective films involving the character, but Gould really seems comfortable in Marlowe’s shoes: he’s relaxed and funny enough to be a nondescript neighbor, yet he gets serious when he needs to.  Maybe they should do another film with Gould in the lead, since I’m not sure there’s really been one since 1973.

The story involves Marlowe’s best friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) running away to Tijuana saying he had a fight with his wife.  Marlowe is arrested the next morning, being told by police that Lennox and his wife are both dead.  The gumshoe decides to plumb the mystery, meeting a variety of colorful characters including Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and her Earnest Hemingway look-alike husband, played by an aging Sterling Hayden.  When you see this character’s ultimate fate in the film, it’s hard to deny that he’s a satire of Hemingway, but regardless, he’s one of the more appealing and interesting entities the film has to offer.  Marlowe’s quest also leads him to the bad side of a gangster called Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his motley crew of thugs, including the hilarious Harry (David Arkin) and a wordless, mustached gorilla of a man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his second film role ever.

Most interesting to me are the scenes involving Marlowe’s domestic life.  He cares deeply for his cat, yet can’t make nice with him.  His neighbors are a congregation of women who meditate and do nude yoga outside (Harry: “I think they’re a coupla lesbians!”), and occasionally ask Marlowe to pick up groceries for them.  The women seem to fawn over Marlowe, but he never obliges them or even hangs around to say much to them, even when he’s got nothing better to do (his excuses include, upon being asked if he wants a brownie, “No, they hurt my teeth”).  One of my favorite scenes occurs when Marlowe is shopping for cat food and asks a grocery worker if they have a certain brand.  “Man, all this shit is the same,” the worker says.  Marlowe then asks if the worker has a cat.  “What I need a cat for?  I got a girl.”  When Marlowe is dragged into jail, the worker is there, too.

Some of the other humor, which seems clever only at face value now, was new and progressive in the seventies.  The best example is when two cops attempt to shake Marlowe down, and he says, “Oh, is this the part where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and then you say, ‘Shut up; I’m the one asking the questions?” satirizing the norms of storytelling whilst living in a story riddled with conventional devices.

Take a look.

The film is a great re-imagining of Chandler’s novel and surely one of the highlights of Gould’s career.  The way he deals with other characters (as seen above), especially the motley assortment he encounters in this story, make me wonder whether he wouldn’t be at home in a Jonathan Lethem novel – read Gun, With Occasional Music if you’re interested in an Orwellian twist on the gumshoe genre.  It involves a private-eye living in a future where the very act of asking questions is illegal.  Marlowe’s predicament in The Long Goodbye is at least internally analogous, and both protagonists discover what they’re capable of in the end (which, in both cases, shocks the audience, too).

P.S. “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet” is never spoken in the film.  I don’t even know what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

The Long Goodbye (1973); written by Leigh Brackett (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler); directed by Robert Altman; starring Elliott Gould, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Nina van Pallandt.