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.


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.