Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Labor Day Weekend Movies - Expendables 2 and Lawless

Saw two movies over Labor Day significantly better than the other, but both pretty entertaining.

The Expendables 2

This is gonna be pretty short and sweet. I was no huge fan of the first Expendables, which I felt didn't really deliver what it promised, a Magnificent Seven-style team-up of 80's action movie icons. The first one, in my mind, just kind of limped along, with Stallone leading a hodge-podge of B-list 80's guys, and newer action stars.

It wasn't a total loss, Stallone and Statham had real chemistry as the "Butch and Sundance"-type duo about whom the rest of the team circled. Some of the action was fun, but all-in-all, there just wasn't much there. We did get a blink-and-you'll-miss-it meeting of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis in the same scene. It was amusing, mainly because the entire scene seemed to revolve on homo-erotic jokes between Sly and Arnold. (I don't mean homophobic, they weren't just calling each other "gay." I literally felt like they wanted to step off screen and make out.) Yet, Arnold an Bruce weren't involved with anything more strenuous than  forcing their egos into the same room.

The sequel, happily, actually delivers in a lot of places the original didn't. We see Sly, Arnold and Bruce mowing down generic bad guys together. Chuck Norris shows up to lend a hand (and rattle off some embarrassing "Chuck Norris Meme"-inspired jokes). And Jean-Claude Van Damme steps in as the main villain, Jean Villain (no kidding). Honestly, while Jason Statham once again pretty much runs circles, acting-wise, around the rest of the cast, Van Damme is quite good. You almost wish he had more screen time.

This is not a film I'm going to really praise. It's not a "good movie." It's a mess as far as plotting and logic go, and the jokes start with the almost entirely self-referential and push into groan-inducing (I can't even tell you how man "I'll be back" jokes they give to Arnold). That aid...I grew up on this stuff. It's a kick to see all these true icons share the screen, and there is entertainment value in that. I laughed a lot, and even though I was laughing at the movie, and not with it, I don't really think anyone involved would care.

So maybe I was laughing with it, but I still wish it had a script as good as The Magnificent Seven. A real chance to see these guys work, rather than just skating on their history.


On the other hand....

Holy crap what a movie. Great script by Nick Cave (based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant), great direction form John Hillcoat, great performances across the board. Shia LeBeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pierce, Jessica Chastain and Gary Oldman are all terrific. Yet, Tom Hardy is the performance that hols everything together.

The Bondurant brothers are bottleggers in the 1930s, and their legend is that they are indestructible. Hardy, as middle brother Forrest is the brains of the operation, providing leadership for his violent older brother, Howard (Clarke), and reckless younger, Jack (LeBeouf). When the authorities, in the creep-tastic form of Pierce's Charlie Rakes, move into the county, aiming not to shut down the bootlegging, but to get their cut, Forrest stands firm, and touches off a war.

Lawless is a violent film lots of beatings, shootings and slit throats, but it makes that violence meaningful because we care, deeply, for what happens to the Bondurant brothers, and everyone in their circle. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the third act, from the point where Jack's enjoyment of the riches from the family deal with gangster Floyd Banner (Oldman) brings tragedy to the final moments. You feel a part of this family, and you see the honor and love (often tough love) that exists between them in the violent world they inhabit. It's crackerjack filmmaking.

I also have to, once again, praise Tom Hardy. His Forrest is an old man in an old man's body. Communicating in grunts, rumbles and mutterings. Powerful and in charge with matters of business and family, but sweetly clueless to the advances of Maggie Beauford (Chastain), the former Burlesque dancer from Chicago the family hires to help run their roadside market/diner/gas station. The man just commands the frame.

Lawless is bloody and harsh, but worth your time for a well-crafted, intense and emotional film about a very different type of organized crime than what you would see in The Godfather. Which I recently watched, I don't want to push it too hard, or oversell, because Coppola's film is a masterpiece, but I did feel a very similar vibe between the two films.

Very, very much recommended.


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