The Expendables

Fans of 80’s classics Cobra, Commando, Rambo II, Above the Law, Bloodsport, and Missing in Action should be rejoicing over Sylvester Stallone’s pool of testosterone in The Expendables, his attempt at delivering the highest-caliber shoot-em-up/martial arts/men-on-a-mission thrill ride featuring a discounted menu of Senior action icons.  Why is it that perhaps the most promising film concept of the season turns out to be such a dud?

The answer: Sylvester Stallone, the writer/director.

I’ll give the man some credit as the lead star—at age 64, he’s bringing it, botox and all.  Ripped to shreds, and pumped up with steroids (there just can’t be any other way), Stallone returns to cinemas as Barney Ross, leader of a mercenary squad hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to take out a former CIA operative, Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his drug-trading South American general Garza (David Zayas).  Stallone wants a payment of $5 million for his team which includes a list of hand-me-down single-trait killers.

Among the line-up we have Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, a blade-wielding expert, believing wholeheartedly that knives travel faster than bullets.  Jet Li plays martial-artist Ying Yang, but his sole trait is that he’s made fun of for his height.  Why don’t they call him Short-Round?  UFC fighter Randy Couture really has no traits except for awkwardly explaining his cauliflower ear.  Terry Crews is only memorable for toting an AA-12 shotgun (much like Jesse Ventura being memorable for sporting a Gatling gun in Predator).  Finally, Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner, messed up on drugs and a thirst for blood, an uncontrollable rage that gets him tossed to the curb and wanting to exact revenge.

After Ross accepts the mission from Mr. Church, he and Christmas head out to their South American location to scope out their targets and who all is involved.  The two end up launching an attack on the entire base after nearly being captured along with their informant, Sandra (Giselle Itie), the daughter of Gen. Garza.  Upon the boys’ escape, Sandra refuses to leave and gets captured by her father’s army.  Ross returns to listen to the team’s mechanic, Tool (Mickey Rourke), tell a Vietnam story about a woman he failed to save that has haunted him ever since.  That story apparently shakes up Ross clogging his brain with guilt and remorse, and he decides to return to the island and rescue the woman, but his men refuse to let him go alone.  Meanwhile, former teammate Gunner has given up his old team to Munroe and has plans to stop the ‘expendables’ from succeeding.

The Expendables has only one good scene—where Rourke pours his heart out over his Vietnam regret.  As potentially forced as Stallone’s dramatic change of heart may be following Rourke’s speal, the scene still plays out very well, and it’s the only real ‘acting’ moment in the entire movie.  I know some will be questioning about the obligatory scene featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis hamming it up with Stallone.  Well, as much fun as the scene should be, it isn’t.  It’s forced.  It’s awkward.  It’s poorly written, if scripted at all—much like the rest of the film.  Schwarzenegger plays a competing mercenary leader that used to work with Stallone, but they went their separate ways.  He tells Willis, “Give this job to my friend, he loves playing in the jungle.”  Bruce says of Arnold, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  Stallone: “He wants to be president.”  So much for what could have been.  But that’s the problem with Stallone’s entire movie.

This had all the potential in the world, and the movie disappointingly feels like a cut-and-paste assignment thrown together so sloppily because of Stallone’s desire to cram a bunch of action stars together.  He delivers zero character development, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and I hardly believe Stallone’s sudden transition in wanting to rescue this younger woman (suggesting an awkward romance between her and the action star who is 30 years her senior).  Also be sure to watch out for any of the dialogue, as it hits you in the gut so hard with its stupidity that you’ll be puking within the first 20 minutes.  I’m not talking about funny camp-style 80s one-liners.  I’m talking about terribly-written dialogue meeting awful line readings, one after the other—particularly from Lundgren and Li.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the film isn’t the bad acting, or the horrible writing, or the lacking camradery among the Expendables, but it is Stallone’s way of filming most of the scenes.  Shot almost completely in close-up the entire time, Stallone zooms in on these stars’ individual faces, even in multi-character moments, and it is beyond awkward.  Trust me, he’s not doing these old-timers any favors.  Even in scenes showcasing the location of the island, the extras in the town are shot in close-up, and it becomes unbelievably distracting.

If that’s not enough, even the fight sequences have little creativity and energy.  Granted, the final action bout on the island featuring the entire mercenary squad against a hundred or so faceless enemy soldiers works about as best as it can, if you can tell what’s going on—which is a rare occasion.  The battles also feature hilariously cheesy CGI blood and sloppy special effects surrounding the mayhem as the film’s MPAA rating was never decided on until late in the game.  Since the movie could have ended up being PG-13, I guess no physical fake blood was used during filming, and it really shows.

In fact, all of the film’s flaws really show.  It seems to be an embarrassing exercise in rushed filmmaking with little substance to build on from the get-go.  I love the concept of The Expendables, and I really feel as though I wasn’t expecting top-notch quality here.  But Stallone, who actually put out a solid and gratuitous fourth Rambo installment just two years ago, ought to know how to write and direct at this point.  It feels as though he did neither here, having his film fare about the same as these Direct-to-DVD actioners we see Steven Seagal and Van Damme releasing five of a year.  For the inevitable sequel, I hope Sly stays in front of the camera and allows another filmmaker to take the reigns, perhaps Quentin Tarantino?  Hey, I can dream.

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Rating: 2.5/5 (2 votes cast)

Iron Man 2 (Take-Two)

Guess what? Summer begins early, as it does with the year’s major blockbuster movies.  Robert Downey, Jr. is back in action shooting to thrill, and let me just say, “Iron Man 2,” while not coming out blazing, still knocks last year’s hideous kick-start “Wolverine” out of the park.

Director Jon Favreau and his star Downey hit the jackpot two years ago with the release of “Iron Man.” Not only did it manage to be the year’s second biggest domestic hit, bested solely by “The Dark Knight,” but it inched past Spielberg’s return to “Indiana Jones,” and even managed to become one of the year’s best-reviewed films.  Audiences loved it even more.  With the release of Marvel’s second installment, the winning streak continues, but not nearly to the same effect.

“Iron Man” did the impossible.  It blended moderately abundant action sequences into an impressive character study of Tony Stark, a weapons creator so self-absorbed and ignorant to the reality of the business he deals in.  Upon a rude awakening, Stark changed his vision for developing the ultimate weapon, eliminating multiple trigger-fingers, and standing alone as the sole necessary weapon of the United States.  “Iron Man 2” picks up where we last found Tony, only this time out, returning director Jon Favreau seems to be less interested in the thrills so predominant in the first outing.

In “Iron Man 2,” Stark has to take on the U.S. government, demanding that the Iron Man weapon be turned over to the military, as well as face off against multiple foes (Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke) trying to end his career and his life.  His friendship with Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is tested, as is the sexual tension between him and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  On top of that, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) starts hanging around to try and encourage Stark to stop fooling around and join the Avenger initiative.  Add in the fact that his new secretary (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have a secret looming and the reality that Tony’s power source that keeps him alive also has potentially fatal side effects on his body–it seems the man sure has his work cut out for him.  So much going on and so little intensity… But where’s all the kaboom??

It might be scary for fanboys to find out that “2” may have significant meaning in regards to the action on display in the film–the movie literally contains two action sequences to devour.  Not to say that burdens Tony Stark’s latest adventure, but it does allow for the content of this installment to be swarmed by multiple subplots and characters that never really advance the story in an exciting way.  Granted, this isn’t the cobbled mess that “Spider-Man 3” was, it just hasn’t the finesse of the film that preceded it.  Since no one could describe this as “an action-packed thrill ride,” Iron Man 2 luckily has brilliant actors and a very solid director in Favreau to save it.

This movie is totally, completely and utterly about Robert Downey, Jr.  Sure, we have all these great supporting actors, but every reason to see this movie rests upon the shoulders of a more-than-capable star portraying the single most interesting superhero character in the history of cinema.  Yes, I said that.  Who needs Bruce Wayne and his whiny-baby, cloak and dagger, angry teenager antics?  Who cares if Peter Parker can’t figure out if he’s more capable as a  human in love, a protector of New York, or an emo break-dancer?  Who wants to waste their time wondering why Wolverine can’t get his claws together and tell his past to go find someone who cares?  Tony Stark doesn’t play those games.  Downey has a fully realized character–top-dollar hilarious and engaging.  The movie goes for long stretches without things blowing up, and Downey manages to capture our attention with his inventiveness and brilliance as actor.

If the movie never reaches the level of the 2008 predecessor, it’s because the movie has a lot more down time and subplots.  The studio seems so bent on bridging “The Avengers” movie two years out, that Stark’s story suffers, and the movie becomes overwhelmed with exposition and witty banter.  At least it doesn’t kill the movie, and the action in the film really does deliver even in its limited doses.  Even Favreau allows himself to have a little game time, upping his role in the film, and kicking some butt in the middle of the big finale.  “Iron Man 2” may not be the film that ups the ante as far as sequels typically go, but the movie still manages to be plenty entertaining for two hours, and it contains a fully-realized hero that consistently breaks all the rules and dares to be wholly memorable.  Even if fanboys are left wanting more explosions, I’m sure they’ll be satisfied with this outing and jazzed about the upcoming showdown.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Iron Man 2

This is why great movies shouldn’t have sequels. Make no mistake, Iron Man was a great movie. It took a character from the depths of obscurity and made him a national symbol. Sure it was a comic book movie, but it had more heart and more flare than a lot of more serious films. The story of a man totally absorbed in himself and his own pleasure being changed and using his power to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves was truly inspiring, led by a truly gifted actor. The action, while limited in quantity, was excellent in quality.

How do you follow an act like that? Well, at the command of the almighty dollar, Marvel Studios had to try. To be fair, what they came up with is watchable, in fact clearly a better sequal than their colossal disappointments of Spiderman 2 and X2: X-Men United, but it has none of the power of Iron Man.

The scene in Iron Man where Stark rescues the villagers from the Ten Rings is a scene I’ll probably never forget. It took two thirds of the movie to get to Stark’s first heroics as Iron Man, but it was well worth it.

If you’re thinking that, now that we have the origin story out of the way, we’ll get some extra action and heroics, think again. Marvel has to cram in more subplots and implausible characters to eat up time. Well, that’s not so bad, you say, more plot development is good, right?

Not when the writers are used to writing for comic books. Comic books have room for stories that go in circles, whereas movies simply don’t. For example, in part 2, Stark finds out that he’s dying due to the effects of the reactor core he built in part 1. Precious time for action sequences disappears forever while he remodels his workshop to build a machine and creates some “new element” that was supposedly impossible to create through a process the movie never even tries to explain. This new element magically cures his ailment and everything goes back to normal, so it doesn’t even drive the story. If I were to read through a decade’s worth of monthly comic book issues, I would expect some filler crap like this, but for a movie, it’s just wrong.

Similarly, after Stark seemed to have gotten a new set of priorities in part 1, in part 2, we get more of him staggering drunkenly, driving sports cars, and trying to score. When someone turns over a new leaf, is it unreasonable to expect them to never relapse? Probably. But that’s not the point. Why are we paying to watch the same stuff over?

Unlike comic serials, which are expected to keep a story going perpetually, a movie can, and should, present a coherent story that stands on its own and doesn’t waste time with filler. Judging by the buzz among nerds over the past few years, and by the easter eggs in both Iron Man movies, Marvell plans on changing this. Iron Man 2 is actually set-up for movies about Thor and the Avengers (who include Iron Man). In other words, Marvell plans on making movies more like comic books, written not so much to entertain as to advertise the next movie and keep you coming back for more. This might score with the hardcore comic nerds, but I doubt the general public will tolerate it for long.

I should probably say that Iron Man 2 is not horrible, and is even kind of entertaining if you turn your brain off. I’m sure there will be a third one, and I’ll probably see it. After all, both Spiderman and X-Men made improvements with their third installments. Once Iron Man 2 is out on video, it won’t be a bad way for you to kill two hours.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (4 votes cast)


killshotSynopsis: Beautiful Carmen Colson (Diane Lane) and her ironworker husband Wayne (Thomas Jane) are placed in the Federal Witness Protection program after witnessing an “incident”. Thinking they are at last safe, they are targeted by an experienced hit man (Mickey Rourke) and a psychopathic young upstart killer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The ensuing struggle will test Carmen to the limit. (IMDB)

Review in short: ‘Killshot’ is consistently interesting and also consistently messy. It has a top-notch cast and a respected director (John Madden, Shakespeare in Love) at the helm, but the troubled production doesn’t allow for a clear vision. The film doesn’t know whether to follow the protagonists or the villains. The performances are decent, although Gordon-Levitt veers a bit over the top. By its finish, the movie is merely okay, better than expected, but not as good as it could be–it feels exactly like a made-for-cable thriller.

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Rating: 1.0/5 (1 vote cast)