Friday, February 8, 2013

Double Feature: The Expendables' Report Card

In 2010, The Expendables reminded us how much we love old school action movies. Even more, it reintroduced to a generation the explosive stars of yesteryear, and proved to be a renaissance for aging actors Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dolph Lundgren. But while we all marveled at the bombastic, over-the-top exploits and strangely hypnotic violence of that release (and, albeit to a lesser extent, the 2012 sequel), The real rest for Stallone and crew is whether they can take that momentum and channel it into legitimate career resurgence.

Ah, old-school action flicks. Where men are manly, women exist only in various states of undress, and the hero can get away with all his misdeeds without any consequence whatsoever. That's the world of Bullet to the Head, the first film directed by Walter Hill since 2002's Undisputed. Based on the French graphic novel "Du Plomb Dans La Tete", it follows veteran hitman and New Orleans resident Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), who has been double-crossed by his anonymous employer and vows revenge. While he reluctantly teams up with Washington police Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), who is after the same people, there's no doubt that Jimmy's take-no-prisoners approach will grind against Kwon's law and order methodology. But while both are being targeted by a ruthless crime lord (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and his sadistic enforcer (Jason Momoa), they must work together if they want any chance of getting out of this mess alive.

I never want to see this image again...
The problem with Bullet to the Head (yes, I'm getting right to it) is that the movie takes itself far too seriously. It follows a typical buddy cop formula, but doesn't have any of the ribald humor you'd associate with the genre. Stallone and Kang regularly exchange barbs, but they're all mean-spirited, racist and sexist to the point where you enjoy the scenes in which they are alone more than when they deign to recognize one another. The characters are at least honest with themselves about the kinds of men they are, but when there's no potential for a friendship to develop between them, what's the point? It wouldn't be so bad if the action upped the ante, but its obvious Hill is out of practice as a director, as all the production credits in the world won't help you line up a decent shot. Bullet to the Head wants to be a noire thriller in the vein of a modern-set Gangster Squad but doesn't have the chutzpa to have the same amount of fun as that cast and crew had on the set.

This was all the work he could get after Conan...
I'm not sure which actor the film wastes more; Sarah Shahi, who is at least decent as Jimmy's artist/former med student daughter, or Jason Momoa, who is electric but stifled as the generic bad guy who is destined to be killed by a man half his size and twice his age. Either way, Bullet to the Head is the complete antithesis of the Expendables titles. Not one ounce of fun can be had here, unless you desperately want to see bloody action and missed out on the far superior The Last Stand, which has already been run out of a lot of theaters. Even then, there's a much better option out there than the #9 movie of 2013.

Okay, so "much better" is somewhat a subjective term. After all, Jason Statham vehicle Parker isn't all that different from his more recent fare, and only pops in at #7 for the year, not far removed from Bullet to the Head. In Parker, based on the book "Flashfire" by Donald Westlake, Statham plays the titular hero, an honest man in a dishonest business. He's a thief, one of the best, and when he is double crossed by his team after a successful heist he is left for dead on the side of a dirt road. But Parker recovers, swearing revenge on the men who wronged him, no matter what kind of criminal connections they may have. To succeed, he'll need the help of a financially-struggling real estate agent (Jennifer Lopez) who can help open the right doors in Palm Beach, the location of the traitorous Melander (Michael Chiklis) and his next job. The cash up for grabs? $75 million.

In a couple of ways, Taylor Hackford's Parker is a bit like Bullet to the Head, in that they're both headed by violent, unrepentant anti-heroes who have no problem killing those who wrong them. On top of that, each have out-of-their-element partners who really don't have a lot to do unless they're in the same scene as the protagonist. Jennifer Lopez for instance has little to do but be a sexy sidekick, and her presence only adds unneeded drama to an overly-simple story. You literally could have any person in this role for success, with only Lopez' supposedly-insured buttocks differentiating her from the typical Hollywood starlet. To be fair, she does do well in the "comedy relief" department, but then so do most third-rate actors. Still, the action is fiercer, the fights feel less forced, and overall people act exactly in the ways you might expect real people to behave. It's not a bad screenplay, even with its glaring flaws.

Statham getting the ladies feels more natural...
But Parker's flaws are most definitely still there. The romantic subtext between Parker and Lopez' Leslie Rogers is doomed to failure from the beginning (and we know it) and yet we're forced to sit through the whole mess. Michael Chiklis is stretched as a main bad guy, which might have been all that was open to him after the failure of the Fantastic Four franchise. And while at least Bullet to the Head used practical effects to create its bloody mayhem, Parker's use of digital blood is notable in that it's plainly obvious that the blood splatter was cooked up in a computer lab. It's cheap-looking and really takes the viewer out of the experience just when things start to get good.

Yup, it's "Clobberin' Time."
It's easy to see why the distributors of Bullet to the Head and Parker released their movies so early this year. These are low-budget action flicks so far removed from the tentpole titles of the summer Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Elysium that they seriously pale in comparison. Add in the fact that Stallone and Statham have never been BIG box office draws (not alone in comparison to bigger stars, anyway) and appeal to only small, niche audiences, and the recent lack of interest in their returns is understandable. These are guys putting out more of the same, uninspired crud that went out with the Dodos and their previous careers. Both have done better. Both could do so again. But we might be waiting a while before we expect anything fun to come from this pair of aging action stars.

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