Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Expendables

Oh, Sly.

As I've said, I want to like your films, I want to support your work, but sometimes you do make it hard. It seems hard for me to understand how you can be so open an honest with yourself when writing scripts about Rocky Balboa, and then so crass and empty with, well...just about everything else. I see that you try, I really do, but somehow putting pen to paper about that big lug from Philly allows a door to open inside you that lets you unflinchingly write about yourself.

Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky Balboa all feel like honest looks deep into your heart. Rocky III wasn't as good as those, but you seemed so open about how you had lost touch with yourself. Even Rocky V, I could see the shades of yourself, in the Rocky that had fallen from the top.

Let's just forget Rocky IV ever happened, OK...Great villain, but I don't want Rocky to be involved with jingoism.

There's other places where I can see the best of Stallone. Cop Land, Nighthawks, F.I.S.T., even First Blood, the guy can act. Thing is he keeps running back to the lowest common denominator. Rambo, from a few years ago, was trash. Pure trash, that used the Burmese situation to justify filling the screen with gore, in hopes of bringing in the crowds that had been expected to flock to Grindhouse. (Thing is, it worked out better for Stallone than it did for Tarantino and Rodriguez.)

The Rambo films were never about gore. Violence? Oh hell yeah, but there was also a point of respectful distance from reality. We do not go to these movies to see reality, we go to see a simple morality play wherein our guy does what is right, and kills those who do wrong. Yes, there are subtextual psychological elements you can pull apart for years, but, much like comic books, the idea is broad stroke morality.

Good guys stand up for the weak, the oppressed. They can deal violence, but do not revel in it, they are sickened by brutality. That line is hard to hold when the film, and the filmmaker, seems to be reveling in the brutality they can put on screen.

I write all this as preface for my thoughts, now having seen The Expendables.

First off, I really think the ad campaign for this is awful. They're selling it like a modern The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven. First off...Look at that poster. There's nine guys on there. Only six of them are really "Expendables," and one of those is sidelined for the majority of the picture. Of those five, you've heard of three of them. The film is kinda like watching The Magnificent Seven, staring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, and five versions of Horst Buchholz. (Look it up.)

Then there's the much talked about scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis sharing the screen. Well, it's "blink and you'll miss it" stuff. The Governator has all of 6 lines, maybe. Most of them are bad in-jokes. The real problem with this scene is kind of indicative of the problem with the entire film. There's clever jabs at your image, and then there's pandering.

There's a great moment of homoerotic humor between Schwarzenegger and Stallone that made me laugh out loud. That's a clever jab at one's image. Then there's a groaner about Schwarzenegger's character (who's last name is "Lugar," I think?...Ummm) wanting to be President. Pandering. Much to obvious a joke, relying on pushing your brain out of the movie to work.

Plus, and here's where I get into technical storytelling problems, this scene pretty much sets up the rest of the film. Lots of exposition, but we're being asked to wade through all the "hey, look at us all together" stuff, to process it. Willis, as "Mr. Church," is laying out the whole deal, and you're snickering because Arnie looks like he can't walk straight anymore.

Yet, that's the only real scene where Stallone actually has what he's selling. It's three ICONS of 80's action cinema on screen together. The rest of the time, it's just big muscled guys slamming into each other. I mean, at points it feels like Sly's just spinning a wheel for match-ups. Ok, Statham and Rourke challenge each other to knife throwing, then it's Lundgren vs. Lee, then Stallone vs. Austin, then Lee vs. Lundgren 2, then Couture vs. Austin. The plot revolves around a petty dictator and his rouge CIA handler on a South American island, but really it's just about who can fight who next.

There is some sense that Stallone is trying to make some of these lesser-known guys into stars. However, stars like this aren't really made, in my opinion. They emerge with a presence almost immediately, and then either grow as an actor, or not. That's the difference between direct-to-DVD stars and somebody like, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Giving Couture a painful monologue about his cauliflower ear ain't gonna do it.

Worst of all, the filmmaking is not crisp. It's not well shot, with scenes near the end with a ton of CGI fire effects just looking truly cheap and awful, and it's not well cut. The final assault/ battle is simply murky and confusing. I found myself sitting in the theater, thinking about Avatar. Love or hate that movie, James Cameron is a master of conveying battlefield geography. When you watch the final battle of Avatar, you know where all the characters are, and who's trying to target, or defend each landmark. You also understand how those things relate to each other.

The Expendables just becomes random shots of people running around, punctuated by shots of very large guns being fired. I kept trying to figure out if the team was inside or outside the Presidential Palace, and when it turned out they weren't, I wondered what other, huge building, not obvious in the establishing shots, they were supposed to be in.

So, in essence, you're watching actors/characters you have little connection to do things you can't quite understand.

Someone asked me if the movie was "fun." I certainly understand the question. There are truly awful movies I love because they are just enjoyable to watch. Yes, I did get a kick out of some of this movie, but I think "fun" would be overstating it. There is a sequence where Terry Crews unleashes a fully automatic shotgun that is full-on 80's action gold, and contains the best shot in the film. I laughed out loud. Statham is highly watchable, and is arguably the best actor among the Expendables, proper. Hence, he gets the romantic subplot.

So, yeah...it was "fun," to a point. However, not so much that I can recommend running out to see it.

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