Friday, August 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Expendables 2

The ultimate selling point of The Expendables franchise has largely been similar to The Avengers. Certainly they could not be more different in overall tone, and there is no continuity experiment at work. But at their most basic, they are both ensemble films offering the previously unheard of opportunity to see all your favorite childhood heroes teaming up in the same movie. For Avengers it was the comic book characters they grew up reading. For Expendables it's the action stars of the movies of their teens. But there is a reason why Avengers worked and the Expendables films absolutely do not. Comic book superheroes, whether because of their adaptability, their universal themes of teamwork and altruism, or their fantastical detachment from reality that keeps them from being anchored to one setting or time period, have a timeless quality to them. The Avengers was about characters that have been enjoyed by generation after generation of readers. It was a movie that touched that small shred of childhood innocence every jaded adult still has and taught us to cheer and have fun again. The Expendables, by contrast, is anchored unshakably to one long dead era in action filmmaking.

That doesn't have to be a bad thing, to be fair. Many great filmmakers love to pay tribute to, even recreate, older styles of film. But it's something that must be done carefully and with a certain amount of self-awareness. The Expendables feels less like old pros making a throwback to a bygone time and more like once popular glorified stuntmen desperately trying to jumpstart their long dead careers. The film doesn't come across as nostalgic so much as anachronistic.

You might not believe this, but it truly breaks my heart to have to tear these movies apart. I have as much of a fondness for the age of cheesy action schlock as anyone. Sylvester Stallone in particular was a personal hero to me, not just for the movies he made but for the life he lived. His inspiring background of a man from nowhere who fought tooth and nail for his dream, it's enough to bring anybody to tears. No matter what, he always came across as incredibly sincere, a man who loved what he did and worked hard at it. Even when his movies were bad (which they frequently were), he was always fun to watch, if only because you could tell he was trying. He was likable, perseverant, a true role model. And it goes without saying he made some of the most entertaining movies in my library: The Rocky's, the Rambo's, Tango & Cash, Demolition Man, Over the Top, Death Race 2000, Cobra, all memorable, all fun as hell.

So believe me when I say I desperately, earnestly want to like the Expendables movies. But I can get no enjoyment out of watching my heroes embarrass themselves like this. It's not just that they're making a bad movie, I'm used to that. It's that they're out there acting like the 80's never ended. I'm basically sitting here watching a bunch of over-the-hill actors going their their midlife crisis (yes, I know most of them are in their 50's & 60's, the point still stands). The 80's were fun, but they're over now, and for the most part we're better off for it. We've moved past the days of stuntmen pretending to be actors, of musclebound grunts firing excessive amounts of ammunition and uttering cornball one liners. We've grown up since then. We've learned to cast actual actors in our action movies, to create more dynamic and creative action scenes. We've learned to write scripts with actual depth, were humans aren't expendable cannon fodder, and borderline fascist vigilante mindsets aren't blindly accepted. After how far the genre has evolved, you can't just go back to those comparatively simple-minded ways of doing things and expect it to have the same effect, and least not without a deft hand. It's a fine line to walk, recreating old styles in the present, and The Expendables films clearly have no idea how to walk it.

And what kills me it the missed opportunity here. Imagine what might have happened if Stallone & Company had simply accepted that. If they had accepted that their careers were essentially over, that action films of their breed are gone and never coming back, and then made a movie that reflected that. Maybe they could've made something along the lines of The Wild Bunch, the tale of a group of aging mercenaries realizing that their time is coming to an end, that they just can't cut it anymore. The film is called "The Expendables*", after all. We could follow them as they go on one last job together, a suicide mission they can't hope to come back from. Let the movie end not on a promise of more pointless sequels, but the whole team going out in a blaze of glory. Make something truly memorable, a thoughtful introspective farewell to their legacies, both the good and the bad. Done right it could be the Unforgiven of 80's action movies. But no, instead these guys seem determined to overstay their welcome.

But I can take the bad acting, the awful writing, the lazy action, I can forgive just about anything...if they were fun. But they're not fun. At all. They're dull and depressing.

Specialization: this is what it looks like
 A big part of the problem is everyone in the movie is essentially playing the same character. That's understandable since most of them spent much of the glory days of their individual careers playing the same character, but that doesn't excuse it. The most important  part of any team in fiction is specialization. Every member needs their own unique thing that only they can do and, more importantly, some kind've personality to make them stand out. But here every member of the team is a musclebound grunt with a dark past, a fetish for oversized guns, and a devil-may-care attitude towards the death of their fellow man. There are minor differences, like Statham's occasional preference for knives, Li (who's only the the first scene BTW) bringing the Kung Fu as always, and there's a sniper of course. But overall they all shoot, they all stab, the all blow things up. It's like if instead of a diverse team of aliens and gods, the Justice League was just seven Batmans...Batmen...whatever. And no, don't tell me that would be awesome, because it would not. It would suck.

In the interest of fairness, The Expendables 2 is far less dull than it predecessor. In fact, it comes tantilizingly close to "fun". Sure, the direction and writing still sucks, but at least it conveys the somewhat infectious feeling that the cast had a good time making it. The eschew time wasting filler like Statham's girlfriend drama and just cut right to the just everyone came to see. The only thing than can save horrible puns like "I now pronounce you man & knife" is the kind've delivery that says "yeah, that was the worst pun I could possibly make...and I said it anyway, tee hee". It's the kind've good bad that makes who have groan and half life. It's still pretty forgettable compared to most other films these guys have made, but it at least holds your attention. Though that doesn't excuse face-palming decisions like bringing in Chuck Norris to milk his long dead meme. And it certainly doesn't cover up the horrendous pacing, which skips from one action set piece to another with no time to breathe, then perplexingy slows down way to much for the quiet moments laughably called "comedy" & "character building".

The highlight is probably Jean-Claude Van Damme as the bad guy. First off, he's about as cartoonishly evil as you get. In line with the series' preoccupation with pun-filled names, he is called, I kid you not, "Jean Vilain", and in the tradition of 80's villains, he's a Frenchman leading an army of Russians, a one-two punch of foreign stereotypes. Hell, he evil has a satanic tattoo just in case you hadn't figured out he's not good people yet. But more importantly, Van Damme really seems to be enjoying the hell out of playing such a smarmy, one-dimensional bastard. He's easily the most fun thing in the movie.

So yeah, the good news is these guys have managed to work their way back up to the level of "enjoyably bad", as depressing as that is to say. The bad news is, it's still not worth your time. Bringing together a bunch of big names is great, but you just can't sit and wait for the fireworks, you got to work at it. And it still boggles my mind that guys like Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jet Li, & Terry Crews keep showing up for these things. After all, they still have careers. Sly, on the one in a million chance you read this, I beg you...let this end. You're only embarrassing yourself. It's a disservice to your legacy and the legacy of everyone involved.

*Speaking of that title, have you ever notices how very NOT expendable people are in this series? I mean, you'd think they'd be a Mission Impossible style team, going on suicide mission where at least one guys dies every time, but in the last movie they don't even kill off the guy who turned on them!

No comments: