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.

J. Edgar

Share the power

Perhaps my favorite thing about Clint Eastwood’s films is that they’re difficult to market.  Million Dollar Baby caused an ingrate-uproar when Maggie Fitzgerald turned out not to be a mirror image of Rocky.  Invictus was part political drama and part sports movie, and all I think of when I remember the film is my father inviting me to watch it with him, claiming “This is a pretty good movie” (a shining compliment from my father).  Hereafter had Matt Damon, beautiful women, and sci-fi elements, but Matt Damon didn’t fight anyone, there was no sex, and no aliens.  The American public can’t handle this.  In 2011, from the man who once acted in movies seemingly created for the sole purpose of marketing, comes J. Edgar, another biopic, this time concerning the life and career of the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The role of J. Edgar Hoover himself is played subtly and professionally by Leonardo DiCaprio, who will have every right to stop biting his tongue during the Best Actor ceremony in February if he doesn’t receive a nomination.  Filling out the leading cast are Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s Assistant Director and lifelong companion, and Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary of fifty-four years (by 1972).  The three actors deliver performances which shed the novelty of watching a period piece and uncover the core of the story (characters/people) immediately.  Rounding out the cast is Judi Dench as Hoover’s beloved mother, with whom he lives until her death.  Where this could have been an incriminating piece on a well-disliked man, Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black make Hoover a sympathetic character from the outset, such that we question his principles and methods while simultaneously rooting for him in his personal life and many of his career exploits, particularly his rivalry with Richard Nixon, perhaps the only American president who will never get a sympathetic portrayal.  Even George W. Bush got one (not that he should have, but there you go).

The film’s principal line of tension is Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, not only as an assistant but as a romantic companion.  As a great many scenes take place within the realm of Hoover’s private life, there is plenty of fiction/speculation/embellishment here, but the story as portrayed by Eastwood/Black is so tender that no matter how much genuine information is available concerning Hoover’s sexuality, most viewers will hope this was pretty close to how it was.

In addition to this story, we get Hoover’s public life and his (somewhat sinister) handling of the “Crime of the Century.”  To prove the worth of his FBI, Hoover must track down the kidnapper of Charles Lindberg’s (Josh Lucas) child, which as we know, turned out to be Bruno Hauptmann (portrayed here by Damon Herriman).  These sections of the film involve more of the “period” side of things, showcasing movie theatres, early television ads, cereal boxes, and even a brief gunfight between gangsters and cops.  On the few occasions where we see blood, it appears stark, bright, and shocking on the heavily graded background, which renders the film almost black-and-white and gives it a timeless appearance.

I’m not so sure about Eastwood’s decision to cast Jeffrey Donovan as Robert F. Kennedy.  Donovan’s performance, albeit brief, comes off as more of a cartoony impression than anything else, and the fact that DiCaprio is wearing “old” makeup during these scenes doesn’t help the situation (the makeup is actually well done, but we consciously know what DiCaprio actually looks like, which makes our minds do funny things with these scenes).  Donovan is a competent actor, but there’s a reason he’s headlining a show on USA and not Hollywood films.

I’ve heard the film’s narrative referred to as being “disjointed,” and to these folks, I say the same thing I say to the “hard to follow” people and the “too boring/long” people: read a book.  Stop throwing words like “disjointed” out there when you have little knowledge of what a “jointed” narrative looks like.  Would you call a short story collection disjointed because there are page breaks between the stories?

Finally, Eastwood’s portrayal of Hoover strives to humanize its title figure, yet doesn’t change the fact that he did the things he did.  Still, making him this sympathetic while sticking to so much historical accuracy proves (if it hadn’t already been proved) what a master filmmaker Eastwood is.  He doesn’t try to make you like what Hoover did, and these scenes are presented in an objective enough way that no particular viewpoint is forced upon the viewer.  As Eastwood once said, “I’ve gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 magnum. But that doesn’t mean I think that’s a proper thing to do”.

J.Edgar (2011); written by Dustin Lance Black; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts.

 

Rango

We form a possum! ….

It’s rare that I find myself at a loss about where to start these things, but I suppose what bears underscoring at the outset of a Rango review is that it’s not so much a “kids’ movie” as it is an interesting animated film for people who love movies.

The most immediately striking aspect of Rango is that it’s in 2D.  It respects the conventions of not only hand-drawn animated films, but also the long-standing rules of classic Westerns.  Yes, you heard correctly: you don’t have to pay an extra five bucks for silly glasses, dim colors, and a headache.

The story involves a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who takes on the moniker of “Rango” after being dumped from the back of his owner’s truck in the middle of the Nevada freeway.  We’ve already got our first Western box checked: he’s a man with no name.  Make that two: there’s a Greek chorus of avian mariachis.  He meets an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who acts as a sort of guiding hand in the early going.  Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, run by Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), quickly coming up with tall tales about himself, which the local yokels eat up.  He also meets Beans (Isla Fisher), apparently the only woman in town.  Also appearing are the legendary Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who takes on the Jack Wilson role – the ruthless, black-hatted gun for hire – and Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, a cockney-talking gila monster.  Once Rango becomes the de facto sheriff of Dirt, he finds himself in a crisis: how to bring back the town’s lost water supply, a task made even worse due to his phony stories about himself, which have caused the residents to believe in him.

The writing in this movie is leaps above most animated features, including last year’s diamonds-in-the-rough, Despicable Me and Toy Story 3, if not only for the fact that it takes risks.  The opening involves Rango doing an exorbitant performance piece with a toy fish, a dead cricket, and the naked torso of a Barbie doll.  Throughout the rest of the film, the dialogue is clever, packed with relevant references to culture that will soar over children’s heads like the hawk that chases Rango in the post-opening sequence.  Screenwriter John Logan outdoes himself in this respect – the writing is much better than it has to be in a movie of this nature.  His knowledge (and more so his love of) classic Westerns is evident, but the screenplay always keeps in mind that the characters are talking animals (with guns and scaled-down bullets, yes, but talking animals nonetheless).  As I said, it’s a good animated film, period, not just a children’s movie.  In fact, children will likely dive under their seats every time Rattlesnake Jake slithers onscreen.

One of the film’s best sequences (and there are a lot of great ones) comes when Rango meets the fabled “Spirit of the West,” played by Timothy Olyphant.  I won’t spoil who the Spirit is, but I’ll say that it will confound anyone who hasn’t seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” and will cause those who love Leone’s films (as well as other classics such as Shane, Once Upon the Time in the West, and True Grit) to stifle the urge to stand and cheer.  I’ll also say that Olyphant, who barely alters his voice for this role, sounds just like the guy he’s portraying.  It’s absolutely stunning.

The film, of course, requires suspension of disbelief.  Why are the animals living next to modern Las Vegas living in a makeshift Old West?  How did they get those tiny guns and tiny bullets?  Stuff like that.  The thing that still stands out here, though, more than talking animals fatally shooting and crushing one another, is the one-woman-cast that pervades so many films now.  Even movies aimed at the young ones prevent female heroes from taking center stage.  Fisher’s character in this acts only as the damsel, and Breslin’s acts as the little kid who appears in so many Westerns to cheer the hero on.

Misogyny aside, we have a good film with bright colors and creative use of animated space.  It has good writing, conscious attention to film conventions (particularly the films that influence it), and it abandons (nay, ignores) the 3D nonsense sure to ruin countless upcoming films before the American movie-going public realizes 3D doesn’t work with our brains.  Above all, Gore Verbinski finally made a good movie with Johnny Depp.  There hasn’t been one of those in awhile.

Rango (2011); written by John Logan; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina.