Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sometimes Throwing Away Is Better Than Recycling

Yesterday, a double feature: Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, followed by a revisit of Phillip Noyce's recent Salt (not having had our fill, we snuck into the adjacent theater).

As for Salt, I have nothing new to add to my prior review except to concede that maybe I was harder on the film than was strictly merited. But maybe not. It was fractionally better on second viewing. The key actors did well enough with their tasks, and Noyce has made a watchable thriller. But if I was stingy, it wasn't by much. Call it a B (instead of B-).

I might invoke the same genre-related grade inflation for The Expendables--I guess I do--but my magnanimity has limits.

Stallone plays the de facto leader of a group of semi-retired renegades, a loose assemblage of mercenaries who specialize, apparently, in mayhem when the money is right. Bruce Willis is the business-suited man with the mission (and the money), and voilá! they have a (thin, semi-coherent) reason to blow shit up. The characters are all men who have spent their lives killing and stealing and exploding things, whether for purely criminal purposes or under the quasi-legitimate guise of some secret military behest is not immediately clear to me (and in any case they help the distinction to seem moot).

Apparently all that was required to get into this cast was huge muscles and, I'm guessing, cheapness; apart from Jason Statham, all of these guys are action heroes past--sometimes well past--their prime: Stallone, Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and (the notable exception to the size rule) Jet Li.

Steve Austin (who could carry a sandwich board that says "I'm not an actor, but I play one on TV") is beyond football-player big, such that one instinctively finds him suited to a career in, I dunno, pro wrestling. Like a good spokesmodel, he was clearly hired for his looks. Dolph Lundgren, whose literal 15 minutes of fame was playing Stallone's opponent in one installment of the Rocky franchise, looks almost to have been resurrected from the dead. It's a bit odd given how statuesque he was only a few years ago. Now he's like someone's grandpa (Grandpa Frankenstein) who has been strapped to a huge steroid injection. (Actually, it sounds like Lundgren needs his own sandwich board, saying "I'm not an idiot, but I play one for money." From Wikipedia: He graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology. He has a master's degree in Chemical engineering from the University of Sydney (1982). He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983, but he quit after two weeks to pursue acting. He speaks more than five languages: Swedish, English, German, French, Spanish, some Japanese, and some Italian.) In fact, Stallone, Lundgren Jet Li and the circus freak Mickey Rourke all look like grandparents who are desperately trying to stay young thru the miracles of pharmaceuticals and movie effects. (Well, Rourke barely looks human, so he may have a get-out-of-the-circus-free card.) Stallone, with his bulging varicose veins and misshapen features looks like someone torn to pieces some years ago and badly reassembled.

But hey, this is just the look you want for grim. Grim is what these guys are equipped to do. Sunglasses are taken off and put on for emphasis. Guns are cocked. Knives twirled. And if they look bad, at least they're given ludicrous lines to say. The Cliché-Mate 2000 works overtime to cough up all manner of testosterone-curdled stock tough-guy phrases for the boys to hurl at each other, this tripe being grunted out between thrusts and volleys and flexes.

Even before setting foot in the theater I felt sure this is a movie no one needs to make or see. But about 1/2 way thru the film I began to think I was using the wrong yardstick (that is: any yardstick at all). The Expendables is an animated comic book, really, a graphic novel translated to the big screen, a movie along the lines of Sin City or Max Payne. After a point it just seems silly to make a critical evaluation at all. There is no subtlety, the interactions between people are cardboard-cutout stiff, and the plot is as blocky and overt as a miniature golf course. No, this is a body count movie in the vein of Schwarzenegger's Commando. But at least that film was chuckling at itself most of the time. It was meant to be fun. The Expendables laughs at itself too, which is a welcome change from the Stallone films I remember (though maybe I always missed the humor in his other movies because I always walked out so soon) but the laughs come as a spice swirled sparingly into the grim cake. It's fun in the way that gutting a warm deer carcass is fun.

But, as I say, let us not compare it to Gone With The Wind. And surprisingly, my eyes rolled so far back in my head--Exorcist eyes--that it seems I eventually saw straight again and even (dare I say it?) even enjoyed myself a little. I laughed a bit. The action scenes are so ludicrously over the top that you just have to laugh. The plot is no more than a weak glue that carries us from from slaughter to slaughter. The slaughter scenes, as is de rigueur, are all jump cuts and wiggly-cam. I've bitched enough about that. There are lots of explosions and a heavy reliance on the expected total suspension of disbelief. If you like that kind of movie, you'll like this movie. I guess.

But even with all these caveats the film feels like a student project with a big production budget. I like Jason Statham in these kind of things (I guess this is all he ever does), but he's given no better a part than anyone else--though he rides the one motorcycle of the group worth shit. There's even a brief cameo by the sitting Governator of California. (you'd think by having to tell all the lies that any politician must tell to succeed that Arnie would have become a better and better actor. But no, he just seems stiff and out of place with his stupid cliché lines.) Bruce Willis, another iconic tough guy here employed as a menacing management type, in this company just seems soft and egg-headed. But at least he made his appearance. If they could have snagged the fascist Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Dam and Squinty Clint Eastwood they could have given one last blast to all the retirees.

But that's about all I can find good to say. Good luck.

Grade: C-

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