Wednesday, 12 January 2011
Ridiculously overdue review - 'The Expendables'
Indeed, I didn't even get around to seeing this film - The Expendables - on the big screen. And that was a cause of some anxiety for me. Because it was my excitement for this film, more than any other, that was most directly responsible for my decision to start up Ka-Boomski. In bringing together that which Empire quite rightly declared "the most awesome action cast ever assembled," and in so doing whipping up a frenzy in the hearts and loins of generations of action movie lovers, Sly Stallone made me remember just what it was I loved about the shoot-'em-up flicks I grew up on. The way these movies gave so little regard to taste, decency or subtlety, and presented us with joyous spectacles of rampant destruction, purely and simply for our amusement. Movies in which bigger, bloodier and more destructive was the only way to go. Movies in which the idea of toning it down for a PG-13 would be laughed out of the office.
But not only that... these, at their best, were movies with a real sense of scale, pace, character, and atmosphere. I'm talking the likes of The Terminator, Robocop, Predator, Die Hard, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Lethal Weapon. Even Road House. These are not the 'mindless' entertainment some would write them off as. No, they're not especially intellectual, but that is not their purpose. They serve to get the viewer's blood pumping, to wrap them up in their bullet-ridden dreamscapes, and they achieve that first and foremost via good storytelling and good filmmaking. They are the work of people who understand the craft of filmmaking.
I'm pretty certain Stallone is such a person. He single-handedly wrote all six Rocky movies, and directed four of them. He had a hand in all the Rambo scripts, as well as directing the last. Indeed, he contributed to the scripts of most of his movies. He has always balanced out those duties with performing, and in most instances he has been largely successful.
The Expendables is not such an instance.
It's not just a case of "it could never be the movie we wanted it to be." It would be too easy to use that excuse, to insist that action fanatics so anxious to see their favourite stars sharing the screen would never be satisfied; that inevitably one or two stars wouldn't get as much to do as the others; that some of their other favourite stars weren't featured at all. Absolutely, there are plenty of people out there whose principle complaint is the absence of Kurt Russell, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, Tony Jaa, Mark Dacascos, Michael Jai White. I'm sure there are even some bemoaning the absence of Michael Dudikoff, Thomas Ian Griffith and John Cena. Christ, some might even wonder why Vin Diesel and The Rock aren't in it. All these complaints are understandable, but ultimately no big deal. Stallone really did put the best action cast of our time together, even with the presence of such (to date) lesser cinematic figures as Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Steve Austin.
No, the problem isn't the tough guys Sly neglected to enlist. It's the writing and directing he neglected to give his full attention to.
Why assemble so kick-ass a crew when you're going to put them through so pedestrian an exercise in action cinema? Why have them hone their moves and sculpt their physiques when it's all going to be so poorly shot and edited you can hardly follow the action? Why promote an 80s practical aesthetic for the most part, then piss all that goodwill away with weak CG blood, explosions and fire?
Why give snippets of backstory and subplot to some characters and leave others pretty much blank slates? A team movie means focus spread evenly across the team. Predator and Aliens managed that; hell, so did Red Dawn. The Expendables doesn't even come close. The sad truth it isn't a team movie at all; it's another Stallone movie, but with a slightly bigger supporting cast. At a stretch we might call it a buddy movie, given that a good portion of the action follows Stallone's Barney and Statham's Lee, with a smidgen of the spotlight saved for Li's Yin Yang - yes, they really did name him that - and Lundgren's Gunner. Okay, Lundgren got lucky namewise. He also got himself potentially the most interesting role, as the Expendable who goes rogue and sides against them (distinct echoes of Waingro in Heat, I feel). But again this presents a missed opportunity, as this conflict which should have significantly fuelled the story is never utilised to its full potential. Ultimately it results in one semi-decent chase sequence and fight scene, then we don't see Lundgren again for at least the last thirty minutes, bar a bewildering reappearance in the disappointingly benign closing scene.
All this considered it's really no surprise that Stallone, Statham, Li and Lundgren were the first names announced for this movie (indeed, bar Lundgren they're also the only actors to get their name up before the title in the opening credits). Couture and Crews - we really never get a sense of who they are. They're just there. Crews might make cracks about Li's height, and Couture might be game enough to joke about his cauliflower ears (and some vague bullshit about being in therapy), but that's about the long and short of it. Indeed, such cracks about the physicalities of the cast proliferate throughout, with Stallone and Mickey Rourke (who looks like he just wandered in from the set of Iron Man 2 and who, let's be blunt, has no reason to be in the film at all) making fun of Statham's baldness, Eric Roberts calling Lundgren a giant, and so on and so forth. Strangely enough, about the only person who doesn't get the recieving end of any looks-related abuse is Stallone himself, despite the fact that he looks like a leather-skinned punchbag after a few too many bad facelifts. (Funny that, eh. Ahem.) Which serves to underline that, while it may masquerade as an ensemble piece, The Expendables is really a one-man show. And in this case, that one man was taking on far more than he could realistically handle.
The Expendables was by no means an unattainable goal. I've no doubt that it really could have been the explosive epic we were dreaming of, with only some minimal adjustments to the script, and someone else in the director's chair; someone able to commit themselves 100% to that job, rather than spreading themselves thinly across the whole thing like Stallone has. Unfortunately, the movie we're lumbered with is just a mess. Ain't that a shame.