Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Expendables (2010)

I'm not going to insult your intelligence by explaining the cast or premise of The Expendables. If you have fond memories of the same 80s action movies that I do, then you probably already know about it and have been gritting your teeth in anticipation of it's release, but I guess that's part of the problem. Any film that trades so heavily in nostalgia is bound to raise expectations to impossible levels. I'm certainly not immune. Let's face it, it's been a pretty lean decade for action films and I'm only human. When you've been subsisting on direct-to-video scraps, a film like this is going to have you climbing aboard the hype train for a one-way trip to Disappointment Interchange. Luckily my natural cynicism kicked in before catastrophic derailment, and my excitement was tempered to manageable levels. In the end I found the film enjoyable but seriously flawed. Not quite a non-stop express to Awesome Central, but an exciting if bumpy ride that eventually pulls into Adequacy Station.

If there is a penny on the train tracks that threatens to derail the whole film, it's the script. At its core it's a fairly standard action movie scenario. A corrupt CIA agent (Eric Roberts) is stirring up trouble in a fictional South American country (surprisingly it's not Val Verde, the fictional country referenced in Commando and Predator) and it's up to Stallone and his team of Expendables to take him down. Somehow though, it seems oddly structured and paced, curiously missing in typical action-movie beats. Apparently there were a lot of rewrites due to scheduling conflicts, and it shows. You know how sometimes a big-name actor will drop by the set of a Direct-to-Video film for a quick paycheck, but because their scenes are so rushed they seem weird and out-of-place? Well most of this film is like that.

The other major problem with writing a script for such a big, iconic cast is that it's really hard to juggle them properly. Inevitably some actors are going to get shortchanged. Statham and Stallone get the bulk of the screen time, Li and Lundgren get a lot to do as well, but some of the others, like Crews and Couture, just show up inexplicably in the middle in the film. It's sad, because at 107 minutes there just isn't enough time to develop any of the characters properly, or at all. There isn't even a getting-to-know-you scene where everyone is introduced by name and specialty. Crews's character has the hilarious name Hale Caesar, but they don't even bother to mention it as far as I could tell.

A couple of Expendables appear briefly but manage to steal the show anyway, and one is Mickey Rourke as their mentor Tool. There's a part where he's chatting with Stallone and gets all emotional as he relates one of his old war stories. It's a cliched moment but Rourke sells it, and I was thinking "Why are you in this movie, Mickey? You are too good for this script." He's given the character his trademark Rourke quirks (or "quourkes", as I call them) like goofy glasses and a big pipe. He steals every scene he's in. Can we have some prequels about Tool's previous adventures with Stallone please? You can call it Toolin' Around.

The other Expendable I liked was Dolph Lundgren, who, like in the recent (and awesome) Universal Soldier: Regeneration, looks like a terrifying Frankenstein's monster. When he calls someone "cockroach" or "insect", I can believe that they'd shit their pants in fear. I particularly liked the bit where he stands on a guy's head (while he's driving!) and when he pulls him up off the floor he's got a Dolph-sized bootprint on his face. I'm glad they gave his character Gunnar his own little mini-arc too. When the film begins he is acting crazy and Stallone kicks him out of the gang. He is hired by the bad guy and tries to kill the other Expendables, but at the very end of the film (spoiler) all is forgiven and he is brought back into the fold. I thought that was very nice of them. I guess they aren't that Expendable after all.

Nobody is expecting a brilliant script from a film like this, but I do expect one or two badass one-liners and I'm not sure I got them. I know terrible one-liners are action movie staples, but here they don't seem to make a lot of sense. There's a part where Terry Crews blasts some bad guys and then shouts "You remember that next Christmas!" What does that even mean? When Schwarzenegger pinned a guy to the wall with a machete and quipped "Stick around!" it wasn't exactly Oscar Wilde, but at least it made sense in context. Schwarzenegger's much ballyhooed cameo in this film is particularly disappointing. It almost seems improvised.

Unpolished banter is just one symptom of a script riddled with weird moments. Subplots are brought up and then abandoned. Certain lines seem important but go nowhere, like vestigial organs from earlier drafts of the script. Stuff that is common to direct-to-video but is strange to see in a big budget film. For instance, there's a part where bad guy Eric Roberts is discussing the evil General's rebellious daughter, and when he discovers that she's a budding artist he shouts "She paints too? This is how it starts!!" I don't know where this art-hating thing comes from, but in a neat callback the General later paints up his men with lightning bolts on their faces like they're the Baseball Furies.

Now, I hear you saying "Nobody gives a shit about the script! If you want more than tits and explosions in your action films then you're a gay homo fag etc." I really hate this attitude, but okay. Let's talk about the action scenes.

As we all know, the current style of filming action scenes involves strapping handheld cameras to some hyperactive labradors and then cutting between them every half second. This method is the mortal enemy of old-school action, which emphasised choreography, clear geography and visual storytelling. If modern action scenes were a person (I picture them as a two-headed monster with the heads of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass) the old-school action hero would impale it with a pipe and tell it to "let off some steam".

I thought if anyone could understand the appeal of classic action movie choreography it would be Stallone, but alas it was not to be. The fight scenes in this film are over-edited and sloppily put together. There was a Li/Lundren fight that was apparently choreographed by the great Corey Yuen, but damned if I could tell from the way it was edited. It's a pity, because from what I could see of the fights they were pretty good, with lots of creative and interesting violence. Gary Daniels gets a particularly grisly and entertaining death.

The action isn't all bad though. Action sequences that do not involve hand-to-hand combat are filmed well, with lots of fiery explosions. The final assault on the General's mansion is a particular highlight, with a body count in the triple digits. I can think of a lot of good bits, such as Stallone's crazy-fast reloading skills, Terry Crews mowing down dozens of bad guys with his full-auto shotgun and Statham tossing knives into many uniformed bad guys. With moments like these I can't write the film off completely. It's still a lot of fun.

I should note that most of the blood effects in the film are all CGI. Obviously I would have preferred squibs, and if I had to guess at why they went in that direction I'd think it was so they could have the option of selling their souls down the track and cutting the film down to a PG-13. There's also a bit where Steve Austen stumbles around on CGI fire, which looks terrible. I know Steve Austen is a big guy, but I'm pretty sure you could have found a suitably huge stuntman and put him in an asbestos suit. Or put a normal sized stuntman on a miniaturised set, like Godzilla. There are many options. CGI fire is the coward's way out.

So yeah, the film had some flaws, but it also had some good action and memorable moments. I enjoyed it a lot. Judging from the crowd at the showing I went to, I suspect there are a lot of hipsters seeing this film simply for snark potential, but luckily they can only pay for their ticket in real money and not Irony Dollars, so the film is still doing pretty well. I was worried that it would be another case of Snakes on a Plane syndrome, where everyone is so busy making fun of the premise that they forget to see the actual film. Hopefully it makes enough money that they can make a sequel. I'd definitely see it. I'm even hoping for a Direct-to-Video knockoff starring Steven Seagal. They can call it The Dispensables.

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