Monday, August 30, 2010

The Manliest Review of the Year

In May 2008, the Sex and the City movie was released to record audiences around the globe. I was there opening night with my then-girlfriend who had indoctrinated me into the television show, which I actually liked despite early reservations that it was simply a woman's show. What I had learned watching the HBO series was that it was not just about women; women were the main protagonists, of course, but the show was about friendship, inner strength and trust, which are themes that don't necessarily belong to either sex, and smart characters helped grow the show out of it's early emotional limitations. Of course, the show is also about Jimmy Choos, man-hunting, and Vogue, which means that about 90% of the people who went to see this movie opening night were women, most of them weaned on the TV show that had begun airing ten years earlier. Though not a very good movie overall (lacking much of the quality of it's source material), because of this fanatical female following, it was the most successful R-rated comedy ever, and also most successful for a movie starring all women.

The Expendables experience has been kind of like that.

Statham, Stallone and Couture take on bad men
The film stands as a tribute to the old-style action films of the '80's and early '90's, and much like Sex, The Expendables is not a very good movie. It fails to make into my Top 10 based on it's mindlessness alone. However, I still had a good time, much like I did during a similar opening night two years earlier.

The movie starts off quickly, with the Expendables, a team of elite mercenaries led by Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross, conduct a messy hostage rescue mission on a boat in the Gulf of Adan. The team, consisting of blades specialist Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture), successfully rescue the hostages in dramatic fashion, but afterwards Ross is forced to kick Jensen out of the group for his growing psychological problems. It's a bad sign if your buddies think you're too crazy to be a good mercenary, but any good viewer would doubt this is the last we've seen of Jensen. Not long after, the Expendables' former teammate and mission coordinator Tool (Mickey Rourke) comes to them with a job offer, calling it "hell and back". On the island of Vilena, in the Gulf of Mexico, a dictator by the name of General Garza has taken over and practically enslaved his own people, with the might of the island's military behind him. The mission is to eliminate Garza, but upon performing a reconnaissance mission of the island, Ross and Christmas discover that Garza is backed by former C.I.A. spook James Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his goons Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels), determining that Munroe is the true target.

Rourke also performs as the teams' Swiss masseuse
As you can see just from the last paragraph, Stallone (who co-wrote and directed the film) searched high and low for the biggest cast of action stars he could find for this movie. Besides those mentioned, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in cameo roles, and efforts were made to recruit Jean-Claude Van Dam, Wesley Snipes, Forest Whitaker, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Steven Seagal, and Kurt Russell, though either disinterest or conflicting schedules kept them from the sets. The ensemble cast is barely that, however, as the movie mostly revolves around Stallone and Statham, with a little Lee and Lundgren thrown in for good measure. Stallone is as good as he's ever been as an actor (take that for what you will), but Statham remains something special even as his chosen genre lessens in importance by the year. Li, meanwhile is dry and uninteresting, only watchable when he's kicking things. 53-year-old Lundgren is only interesting in that he hasn't been on the big screen in years, though his character does do through some interesting transformation that the actor's talent can barely keep up with.

Stallone demands only the best cameos
Thankfully, the supporting cast is mostly talented, though given little to do in their roles. Although Eric Roberts joins an ever-growing line of bad 2010 movie villains with stupid decision-making and silly goals, the actor is at least good enough to make the role more fun than say, Jason Patric in The Losers or Patrick Wilson in The A-Team. His lackeys, played by Austin and Daniels, are serviceable for little more than their athletic prowess, as Austin is not at all different than his "Stone Cold" persona he put on for so many years as a performer in the WWE. I've never seen Daniels in anything, but to say the least his character was quite... British. Crews is a talented actor with little to do in this movie, his talents wasted on the small role he does his best to be present in. And while I'm sure Randy Couture is an intelligent, friendly guy, he has no business acting in anything that requires him to go on a monologue about cauliflower ear. Really, Randy? That's interesting, I'm just going to rest my eyes, but you just keep on talking. The cameo of Willis and Schwarzenegger along with Stallone is hilarious, with all three actors looking like they're having a ball delivering their lines. The three of them after all could be considered the three top action stars of the 80's, with billions earned between them. But the best of the best is by far Rourke, who once again shows the talent almost wasted from years of psychological issue and substance abuse. He's not in on any of the big action sequences or for much of the movie at all, but in his role he manages to be the heart of the movie, no small feat considering the amount of testosterone and explosions flowing through it.

Roberts and Austin dodge an attack by movie critics
And when stuff blows up in The Expendables, it BLOWS UP, big time. It's no secret that the explosions, violence and macho posturing is meant as the main attraction of the movie, as it goes over the top in this. When you compare it to other, relatively bloodless, action films released in this and previous years, the film feels even more out of time, and the viewer knows what it was like to sit in a theater in the '80's and watch their first Rambo flick. These effects are top shelf quality, with a reason for almost every blast and ricochet. The action sequences are actually well put together, if a little difficult to follow, especially the last sequence which takes place in the middle of the night.

(l-r) Stallone, Li, Couture, Crews, Statham
If there's a real problem with The Expendables, it's in relation to it's gender roles. The only two prominent female parts belong to Latin actress Gisele Itie and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer hottie Charisma Carpenter. Both add up to little more than damsels in distress, as Carpenter plays the ex-girlfriend of Statham's character who ends up in an abusive relationship, and Itie plays a revolutionary who hires the mercenaries and then must be rescued by them, instigating in a light romance with Ross (Which is just a little creepy since Stallone is seven years older than my father and Itie is a year younger than ME). It wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that there have been major female action stars who don't even make cameo appearances, such as Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. There's no doubt this is a boy's club, but even the tiniest extension to this branch of the genre would have been appreciated by the audience.

Nevertheless, The Expendables is a fun, independent and mindless source of entertainment, able to be enjoyed by action novices or experts alike, it's a rarity to see this many big names on one screen, even if several of them are a little long in the tooth. It's a film about friendship, making a difference and brotherhood, but also one in which men are blown up, burnt to a crisp, and decapitated in the most violent ways possible. For some (many, it seems), that is enough. It most certainly isn't for everybody. It's no Eat, Pray, Love, but when it makes that much at the box office, it doesn't have to be.

1 comment:

Opinioness of the World said...

Yay!!! Glad to see my "indoctrination" paid off! 'Sex and the City' IS fab and I'm glad that you could see through the glittering NYC landscapes and haute couture to the tight friendships.

I'm also glad that you mention the gender roles here. I think you're right...they easily could have had Rothrock or Yeoh or even Lucy Liu, Zang Ziyi, Angelina Jolie or Uma Thurman. As I've written about on my own blog, and I'm so glad you point out, women in action films often take a back seat to the men, playing the love interest or the girl rescued. While I recognize that this is a "boy's club," I agree with you that it would have been nice to have had a strong heroine.

Oh and regarding Stallone's "best" acting, that belongs to two films: 'Copland' (he was subdued and brilliant) and 'Rocky' (in the original he brings a hopeful naivete).