Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

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.

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.

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