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Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’

New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Yes please! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse? You betcha! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse in which Arnie plays a guilt-consumed father struggling to come to terms with the imminent death of his beloved daughter? Um, well, hang on a minute…

For once, I don’t think my thought processes are too divergent from those of the average person, or at least the average person who is still prepared to entertain the notion of watching a new Schwarzenegger movie. Let’s face it, there are not as many of us around as there used to be, for Arnie’s career has been in a state of – let’s be kind – managed decline ever since his political interlude, and arguably for some time before that. I think I may have said this before, but the old quote about the star still being the same size, but the films having got a lot smaller, was never more apropos than when discussing the world’s most famous former Austrian.

So Arnie presumably finds himself in a bit of a bind when it comes to choosing projects. Pushing 70, does he keep plugging away in the kind of testosterone-drizzled all-action fare that was his forte back in the 1980s and early 90s? This stuff was never less than mildly risible even when he was in his prime, and all the more preposterous now he’s of pensionable age. Or does he take a crack at more experimental, unexpected types of movie, even if they’re not necessarily going to draw in his target audience?

This is the conundrum of Henry Hobson’s Maggie (released in 2015), which appears to be aimed at people who like touching, slightly sentimental family dramas, but feel they just don’t include enough visceral zombie horror. (And die-hard Arnie fans.) I suspect this is not the largest target audience in the history of cinema.

Hey ho. The big man plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in the Midwest, who like everyone else is struggling with the outbreak of a virus that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. (This is referred to as the necro-ambulism virus, and I honestly can’t decide whether this is sufficiently clever or just the film not trying hard enough.) How did this start and get so widespread? As usual, it is deftly skipped over: this movie is all about Arnold, not r-Nought (a little joke there for people with a background in mathematical virus-modelling; you’re welcome). The world is not quite in Dawn of the Dead territory yet, but things are looking bleak.

This may have something to do with the response of the authorities, which if you ask me lacks a certain something when it comes to rigour. Once you get bitten by a zombie, it takes a number of weeks for the virus to fully take hold, during which time people are allowed to take their loved ones home and spend time with them. Eventually they are expected to drop them off at a government Quarantine centre (which is basically a euphemistically-named extermination camp for zombies). Not surprisingly, people are forever leaving it too late or refusing to give up their sort-of dead, which is why there are always zombies wandering out of the woods or appearing unexpectedly in public bathrooms.

Still, questionable though the system is, it’s this that enables the plot of the film to take place. The movie opens with Wade collecting his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from a hospital in the big city – she has been bitten and will soon be on the turn. Nevertheless, Arnie resolves to take her home and care for her for as long as he possibly can. Arnie’s wife, who is Maggie’s stepmother (played by Joely Richardson), has a few misgivings about this, as there are other kids about the farm, but they are packed off to stay with relatives.

Tough times are in prospect for Wade (fairly tough for Maggie, too, now I think about it) – gruesome reminders of people who hung on to their infected loved ones for a little too long are everywhere, the local sheriff is sympathetic but makes it very clear his priority is the safety of the town, and the town doctor seems to base his career around giving spectacularly suspect advice. But, you know, suffering is the basis of drama, or something like that anyway.

Well, if nothing else, Maggie is yet more evidence of the near-infinite flexibility of the classic Romero zombipocalypse set-up: Maggie is a horror movie, but only by default, due to its zombie content (in the same way that any film about aliens is technically on some level science fiction). It really plays much more like some kind of brooding, morbid, atmospheric drama about people struggling to come to terms with the fact of impending mortality. Sure, Arnie takes out a few zombies with an axe, but it’s not like he or anyone else enjoys it – this is absolutely not an action movie.

It’s arguably the precise opposite, as Arnie basically does nothing at all for most of the film. He sits. He broods. He looks mournfully about him. It’s Arnie, Jim, but not as we know him. He may be the top name on the marquee, but this is essentially a character role for Schwarzenegger, a notion which would prompt many people to – oh, I see you’ve already fastened your seatbelt. Well, to be completely fair to the big man, the ride is not too bumpy, for he is required to be withdrawn and introspective rather than too emotional. Hobson directs him sensitively and the end result is really not as bad as you might expect.

Most of the heavy lifting, character-wise, comes from Abigail Breslin, a talented young actress who finds the subtlety and the humanity in a part where it would have been very easy to go rather over the top. Also, she does get to go and do things, like talk to people, hang out with her friends and other incipient-zombies, and so on. On the other hand, this arguably creates a structural problem in the movie, for the focus slowly but definitely shifts from Wade to Maggie as the story progresses. The ground kind of shifts under your feet as you try to work out who your point of identification is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original script had started out being entirely about Maggie, with Wade’s role and character being beefed up when Arnie signed on.

Certainly, for a film which is being marketed on the strength of Schwarzenegger’s involvement, he is not the dominant force of old, and his involvement in the closing stages of the film is almost entirely passive. Still, by this point it has become abundantly clear that this is not your typical Arnie movie.

But is it any good? Well, the average Arnie fan would probably say no, and it has to be said that the film’s effectiveness as a drama is necessarily affected by the presence of a leading actor of such, um, restricted technical ability. But as zombie movies go, this is (literally) a change of pace, the central metaphor and subtext is sound, and the supporting performances are never less than adequate and in some cases rather fine. The reliance on atmosphere and the rather glacial pacing are likely to annoy fans of more kinetic zombie films, though.

I would struggle to say I genuinely liked or enjoyed Maggie, but I can still admire its ambition and various achievements. It sets out to do something different, and it certainly succeeds in that (that said, the general bleak tone, washed-out cinematography, and focus on parental care do rather put one in mind of The Road). My advice would be to treat this as a rather arty horror-drama which happens to have made one extremely odd casting choice, rather than an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie film.

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Before we go any further, a brief recap of this blog’s position when it comes to the Terminator franchise: The Terminator is a stone-cold all-time classic, and a practically perfect movie (possibly because it’s the only one in the series not conceived of as a blockbuster), Terminator 2 is very decent in a deafening-overblown-James-Cameron-big-budget-remake sort of way, Rise of the Machines passes the time in a not actively painful manner, and Terminator: Salvation is a pointless and puny waste of money and talent.

Given this general trajectory, the omens are not great for Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys even before we consider the silly title. This is a film the rights to which essentially went to the winners of an auction, so perhaps one’s expectation management should be even more severe than that.

Anyway, the film initially appears to be playing it safe and heading down the route of being a more polished remake of the original film, as, in the year 2029, Kyle Reese (this time: Jai Courtney) prepares to go back in time and save Sarah Connor (this time: Emilia Clarke) from cybernetic assassins. She is a target due to her being destined to give birth to John Connor (this time: Jason Clarke), the man who will lead the human race to victory following a nuclear war sparked by a rogue AI, Skynet. (Does anyone not know the Terminator backstory…? I feel obliged to recap it anyway.)

But when Kyle arrives in 1984, pursuing the Terminator already dispatched back there, he finds that time is out of joint: the Terminator has already been dealt with by another, somewhat wizened machine of the same model (I need not tell you who plays this role, I suspect), who is working with an entirely clued-up Sarah, while Kyle finds himself hunted by a T-1000 Terminator, which likewise shouldn’t be here at all.

What on Earth is going on? Kyle never actually asks this, so far as I recall, but he should clearly be thinking it, as should the audience. Well, to cut a long story short, this film takes the nuclear option when it comes to time travel as a plot device, and sticks anti-matter in its microwave (if that’s not too tortuous a metaphor). Basically, all the major characters end up in an entirely pre-apocalyptic near future, where they find out that Skynet is now an app or a mobile phone or the new version of Windows or something, and the reason this is happening is because…

I have two good reasons for not going any further. One is that it would involve heavy spoilers for the second half of the film, and the other is that I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. To be fair, Terminator Genisys probably isn’t much more full of blinky-blonky techno-cobblers and suspect determinism than any of the other sequels, but it’s a lot more up-front about it, predicating its plot around some startling narrative developments it never properly bothers to explain: what exactly is going on with the grumpy old T-800 that was apparently sent back to the early 1970s? Not only does the film not bother to explain, it essentially says ‘we’ll get to this in the next sequel’, which I feel is relying rather too much on audience goodwill. (It may be significant that playing a small but important role in this film is one – it says here – “Matthew” Smith, an actor more experienced than most in dealing with byzantine time-travel plots that may not, in the final analysis, properly hang together.)

The first act of the film has fun re-staging and screwing around with sequences from the original Terminator (Bill Paxton doesn’t come back, by the way), and this stuff has a sort of demented energy that serves the film rather well. Once everyone decamps to the future, though, the film becomes rather more predictable and even pedestrian: you’ll never guess what, but they’ve got to stop Skynet being created! Just like in number 2. Oh, and number 3. And, I’ll hazard a guess, number 6, when it’s finally made. Hey ho.

What is perhaps surprising is what a peripheral presence Arnie is in the movie, given I doubt they’d have made it without him. When his CGI double isn’t being chucked through walls in the action scenes, he spends quite a lot of his time just standing around, occasionally waking up to deliver comic relief or bafflegab exposition. He’s still clearly up for it, however, and this is surely his best work since that odd political interlude in his career.

Much of the film is left to Courtney and the Clarkes to carry, and they do a decent enough job, supported by a script which actually manages to find decent moments of emotion and thoughtfulness between all the crash-bang-wallop and tortuous temporal wrangling. J.K. Simmons pops up as – I think – a new character who was supposedly mixed up in the events of 1984, but he’s mainly just there to do exposition and comic relief as well.

Like all the other sequels, this knows the audience it’s pitching to and sticks in all the appropriate explosions and jokes and lingering shots of heavy weaponry, as well as enough references to the original film to gratify the fanbase (though Brad Fiedel’s theme is saved for the closing credits), although I would be really very hesitant about taking anyone to see this who wasn’t already familiar with the first film (at least).

If it doesn’t have the raw energy, inventiveness, and dramatic charge of The Terminator – well, hardly anything does, and at least it’s more fun to watch than Terminators 3 or 4 (in places, certainly). But the prospect of yet more, even more convoluted sequels, kind of makes my heart sink a bit. Blowing up the existing timeline and letting the bits fall where they may is what powers this movie, but it’s not exactly a long term strategy, and I can’t imagine them managing to drag the story back to a place where it actually makes sense any more. On its own terms, this is a rather unsatisfying film, narratively at least – but I still think that any further sequels will find the law of diminishing returns biting them very hard and very fast. Enough, Arnie, enough.

 

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It is, as Barry Norman always used to say, football results time down at the local cinema, with the current score being Expendables 3, Inbetweeners 2. I know I alluded to going to see Inbetweeners, and I expect I probably will at some point, but there are more important things to consider when there is a new Jason Statham movie on release – even if it is one where the great man shares the screen with about a dozen other people.

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I mean, look at that thing, that’s not a film poster, that’s a school photograph. There are probably more people on it than there were in the screening that I attended, although this was probably no bad thing as the theatre PA was, for some reason, playing the theme from Terminator on a loop prior to the film starting. Now there’s nothing wrong with Brad Fiedel’s magnum opus, but listening to it more than three times in a row puts one in the vein for running amok (it’s a bit like surreal French comedy-dramas in that respect). You could feel the tension ratchet up every time it started over again. (By the way, judging from the crowd I was in with, the demographic Expendables 3 is most successfully reaching consists of middle-aged men, Saudi Arabians, and drunks.)

Anyway, the film finally got underway, thankfully. Proceedings open with chief Expendable Barney (Stallone) and the boys busting a new character named Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) out of prison, on the grounds that he is an old mate (and so he should be, after Demolition Man and Chaos). Snipes hasn’t really been in a major movie for about ten years, mainly due to his going to jail for real on charges of tax evasion – which this film duly cracks wise about – and he seizes on his role here with gusto. And it is nice to see him back.

After some more of the laborious bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham they all go off to Mogadishu to bust up an arms deal but are shocked when their target turns out to be evil ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks, who used to be a respected and popular figure until he revealed what a horrible person he really was. He is played by Mel Gibson, and you can write your own joke at this point. Gibson puts a bullet in one of the minor team members, causing everyone else no end of distress (they obviously still haven’t really thought this ‘Expendable’ thing through).

Confronted, somewhat ridiculously, by mortality, Stallone gathers everyone down the pub and announces that they are sacked, on the grounds that they are too old. Yes, that’d be Stallone (68) sacking Statham (43) on the grounds of unforgivable dodderiness. Hmm. If they all carry on, Stallone declares, it’ll end up with ‘everyone in a hole in the ground and nobody giving a ****’. It did occur to me that even before anyone ended up in a hole in the ground, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of people actually giving ****s, but this was just ungenerous of me.

The Expendables’ former CIA liaison, Church, has departed (mainly because Bruce Willis wanted a million dollars a day to turn up, which Stallone refused to give him) and been replaced by a new guy named Drummer. He is played, barely credibly, by Harrison Ford. Ford offers Stallone another chance at bringing in Gibson, which of course he jumps at – even if it means assembling a new team of young Expendables to help him do so…

Something really odd starts happening to the film at this point, although it has been on the cards since the start of the film. As you can see, Stallone has run out of superannuated 80s action movie heroes to recruit for these movies (I’m guessing Steven Seagal is too busy hanging out with Putin to answer his phone) and the net has been cast a bit wider, with performers like Ford, Gibson, and Snipes signing up. This continues with the appearance of Kelsey Grammer as a mercenary recruitment agent and Antonio Banderas as a rather excitable Latino Expendable. Not only are these people not known solely as action stars, but most of them are actually charismatic and can genuinely act, and so there are a number of scenes which are genuinely involving or funny in a non-ironic way.

This really wasn’t what I turned up to an Expendables movie to see, to be perfectly honest: I just wanted cheesy old hulks staggering around bleating out one-liners while stuff blew up in the background. Now, it’s true that Stallone is the main character, and there’s also a significant appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, so there’s always a degree of cheesy old hulkiness going on, but even so. The new young Expendables are a highly forgettable bunch – if I say that the most charismatic of the lot of them is a guy who used to be in Twilight, you will get a sense of just how anonymous they are.

And, as I say, it was almost as if I was watching a proper, semi-serious action movie for a bit: the script comes within spitting distance of serious topics connected with deniable government interventions, the use of mercenary troops as a foreign policy tool, and the ethical underpinnings of the concept of ‘war crimes’. And again, this was not at all what I expected. The film was turning out to be much less stupid and ridiculous than advertised, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Thankfully, this attempt to drag the Expendables franchise into less ludicrous territory only lasted for the duration of the second act, at the end of which everything went back to normal and the film became as absurdly predictable as it had ever been. Serious talk of dragging Gibson off to stand trial for war crimes is dismissed by Stallone with a hearty cry of ‘Screw the Hague!’ and everything proceeds to blow up at quite absurd length.

That said, Patrick Hughes’ direction of the action sequences that are crucial to the movie is deeply uninspired, and most of them are just like watching someone else play Call of Duty, which isn’t a great spectator sport. To be fair, he doesn’t let the massive number of characters become a real problem, but it is true that some of the people feel a little underserved – and not just Mr S, either.

There must surely be some serious pruning of the ranks, in the event of this series grinding on for subsequent installments (we are told Pierce Brosnan and Hulk Hogan are already in talks, plus Stallone has been sending up balloons concerning a female-fronted version entitled – oh, God – The Expendabelles). The Expendables 3 isn’t an actively bad film: it’s not as depressing as the first one, or as ridiculous as the second. But the joke is showing serious signs of wearing too thin to be funny, and all concerned might do well to stop while it still has the capacity to amuse or entertain.

 

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One of the things I am occasionally taken to task for by those who know me is the fact that I don’t watch Musical Chairs (or, as they prefer to refer to it, Game of Thrones). Partly this is because I don’t have access to an ethically-sourced copy of the series, not least because I try to avoid giving money to Rupert Murdoch on moral grounds, but also because of all the fuss about it being ‘Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’. Well, I do like fantasy, generally speaking, so it’s probably not aimed at me.

The success of Musical Chairs means that now, whenever someone is trying to big-up anything else vaguely fantastical, the two get compared in more-or-less the same way that The Lord of the Rings was the genre yardstick ten years ago. When it comes to vintage fantasy films I am certain this is stretching a point, because – whatever else you might think about it – Musical Chairs is critically-acclaimed, while the overwhelming majority of heroic/epic/high/whatever-you-want-to-call-it fantasy films, even to this day, have been fairly naff.

Nevertheless, they’re still at it: introducing John Milius’s 1982 film Conan the Barbarian the other night, in the announcer weighed with ‘Long before Game of Thrones…’ or something like that. Now, obviously I’m not in a position to judge just how justified this association is, but I am inclined to be a little more generous than usual as Conan the Barbarian is that rare beast, a 20th century heroic fantasy film which is not completely and embarrassingly awful.

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Proceedings kick off with a quote from Nietzsche and Basil Poledoris’ thundering score, which together sum up pretty well the tenor of what is to follow. Hum: young Conan is the son of a smith in a Cimmerian village, many thousands of years ago. His father is wont to take him up a mountain and deliver somewhat baffling homilies about gods and giants and steel and the untrustworthiness of other people, but he is still quite upset when their village is raided by marauders under the banner of evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, taking it all impressively seriously). Conan’s dad having been hacked down and his mum having had her head chopped off by Doom himself, our hero finds himself strapped to a giant capstan of indeterminate purpose for the duration of a he-grows-up-into-a-strapping-young-man montage sequence.

‘Strapping young man’ probably doesn’t quite do justice to the physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, for it is of course he who plays Conan for most of the movie. Conan is freed from the capstan to become a star gladiator amongst the steppe nomads of the region, thus allowing Arnie to sweat and flex and grunt without the need for any dialogue. In the end, however, his sympathetic master releases him back into the wild (even with the benefit of an expository voice-over, it’s not entirely clear why this happens) and Conan sets out on a career as an improbably big and homicidal burglar.

As you might expect, he soon acquires a sidekick (ex-surfer Gerry Lopez) and a love-interest (the very-nearly-as-statuesque ex-dancer Sandahl Bergman) and three of them have a high old time breaking into temples in search of treasure, fighting slightly dodgy monsters, and generally behaving like a stereotypical D&D party. However the trio find themselves caught and dragged before the local king (a baffled-looking Max von Sydow) who offers them a deal: all charges will be dropped if they liberate his daughter from the insidious snake-cult run by, you guessed it, Thulsa Doom…

‘Good’ is obviously a relative term if we’re discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, but this is still a pretty good movie, for all that it’s attempting to realise a vast fantasy world on a clearly inadequate budget, with a trio of protagonists played by a bodybuilder, a dancer, and a surfer. You look at it now and just imagine how much a decent digital grade, some subtle CGI, or even just better cinematography would give the film more of the scale and vibrancy it really needs to capture the energetic spirit of Robert E Howard’s original stories. Practically the only thing which genuinely feels epic about it is Basil Poledoris’s thumpingly good music – for many years, if you wanted to make a hugely violent and ideologically slightly-suspect blockbuster and needed some bombastic-yet-somehow-romantic music, Poledoris was the guy to go to (as Paul Verhoeven demonstrated with Robocop and Starship Troopers).

Stripped of the music this is much more clearly a close cousin to the dinosaur movies that Hammer were making back in the sixties, targeting the same kind of audience hungry for violence, bare flesh, a touch of fantasy, and the kind of haircuts not normally seen on men outside of British New Wave Heavy Metal bands. Milius is clearly not attempting to make a camp film and so Conan the Barbarian takes itself very seriously indeed – there are virtually no jokes in it, though this obviously doesn’t stop parts of it looking unintentionally hilarious today (the scene in which Arnie is playing Whose leg is that? with a woman, who thoughtlessly starts turning into a demon in flagrante, is uproariously funny).

Milius goes further and drains most of the fantasy silliness from the film – modern films in this genre tend to revolve around the collection of plot coupons and Lost Artefacts of Convenient Doom, with no real sense of an emotional core to the story. Well, there are touches of the supernatural throughout this film, but it’s primarily about Conan’s quest for revenge on the man who killed his parents, and this is at least more accessible. There’s still the problem that Schwarzenegger, as a performer, is all surface, unable to suggest any kind of interior life in his character: the script may call for a scene in which a barbarian sits on a rock, brooding intensely, but what reaches the screen is a scene in which a bodybuilder just sits on a rock. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine anyone else having the same kind of physicality as Conan.

Schwarzenegger may not capture all the subtleties of Howard’s Conan, and his transformation in the film from barely-articulate brutalised gladiator to (relatively) eloquent moral agent is rather implausible, but the film does pay its dues to the original stories, even if it isn’t a strict adaptation of any of them. What Milius adds to the mix is a ferocious ideological element Howard himself might well have approved of: it all opens with Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, and further words of wisdom pepper the film, all in a similar vein: ‘Grab the world by the throat and take what is yours by right’, ‘Time enough for peace in your grave’, and so on. If this film was a person it would probably take you off into the woods and make you live up a tree, eating only things you had killed yourself. Equally tellingly, the contemptible followers of Thulsa Doom’s cult all carry bunches of flowers, and one of them, it is suggested, has inappropriate designs on Conan’s person. Subtext isn’t always necessarily subtle.

Perhaps it’s the sheer right-wing bravado of Conan the Barbarian which stops me from liking it a bit more than I do. I always find Arnie to be an agreeable screen presence, James Earl Jones is good, and so – perhaps surprisingly – is Sandahl Bergman. But despite all this, and of course, the score, the film is just so stolidly po-faced and stoic. The original stories had a bit more energy and life to them. That said, of course, this is still the best Robert E Howard film which has yet been made, and one of the best heroic fantasies of the 20th century: though that says more about the state of the genre than anything else.

 

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Good God, did I really ask my rental company to send me The Expendables? I fear it must be so. Quite possibly a textbook example of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ (at least, I assume it did: I have no memory of actually requesting this film). I saw this at the cinema back in 2010 and was not particularly impressed, but it’s got two of my favourite performers in it – so I can only presume I decided to give it a second chance for their sake.

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Sylvester Stallone’s movie concerns itself with the doings of a biker gang/mercenary team. On said team are Stallone himself as the grizzled leader, Mr Jason Statham as an ex-SAS knife thrower (no-one seems to have told J about the ex-SAS bit as he deploys his standard it’s-supposed-to-be-American accent regardless), Jet Li as (surprise, surprise) a martial arts expert, Dolph Lundgren as a giant crazy dude, and a couple of wrestlers I’d never heard of.

After cheerfully executing some Somali pirates at the top of the film, the Expendables head home to wait for their next mission. This comes courtesy of Bruce Willis, playing a shadowy intelligence operator, but to get the job Stallone has to fend off rival mercenary Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger). You would think that any scene with these three acting together would be memorable simply because it’s so iconic: but you would be wrong, mainly because they don’t seem to be acting together, just vaguely in the same vicinity. There is no chemistry between them, most of the jokes fall painfully flat, and you’re actually quite relieved when Arnie and Willis quickly bugger off.

In the end Stallone accepts the job of knocking over the president of a banana republic in Central America – he has teamed up with a renegade CIA agent to sell drugs, or something. Stallone and Statham pop over there to do a spot of reconnaissance, disguised as the world’s least plausible birdwatchers, not realising that their embittered former colleague Lundgren has got in touch with the opposition and is negotiating to sell them out…

Now, as action movies go, it’s pretty much inarguable that The Expendables has an all-star cast, even if some of those stars haven’t got quite the degree of fame they had a couple of decades ago. However, it seems pretty clear that a pre-existing action movie script has been savagely cobbled about to find roles for them all, because with the exceptions of Stallone and Statham hardly anyone gets the amount of screen time or action that you might expect. Okay, Arnie and Willis are just in one very short scene, and appear uncredited, but Jet Li’s hardly in the film either, and most of the wrestlers don’t get much to do outside of the third act.

One of the advantages that Expendables 2 had over the original was that the writers seemed much more aware of who was actually on the cast list and were able to tailor the script to suit them. Things seem much more hit and miss here, and the story barely seems to acknowledge the nature of the cast – for this film really to work as ‘action legends together at last’ you might expect the various lead cast members to reprise the various schticks they are best known for – in the course of the story, Li would fight twelve people at once, Statham would fight a giant in a garage, and so on. But there’s nothing really like this going on – the one point where the film shows signs of being what you’re hoping for is when Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren take each other on, and even this is so incoherently edited it loses most of its excitement.

And so we are left with a very ordinary, very unreconstructed, entirely subtext-free action movie full of big muscly men who can’t act (also Li and Statham, of course) running around shooting machine guns and slaughtering stuntmen by the dozen. It’s all so earnest and straightforward (not to mention hackneyed) that one almost wonders if it’s in fact a deadpan spoof of the genre. It can’t be a spoof; a spoof would have more charm and probably be a lot more fun.

This is the weird thing about The Expendables: for a film about red-blooded guys doing manly things (riding motorbikes, drinking beer, getting tattooed, shooting guns, hitting each other, deposing Central American dictators) the tone of the thing is actually rather mournful. Mickey Rourke pops up and delivers a monologue about failing to prevent a suicide, at the end of which he actually starts crying. Statham gets his own subplot in which it turns out his girl has been straying with one of the local basketball players – this at least means Statham gets an individual fight where he beats up the team and delivers the line ‘Next time I’ll deflate all your balls!’, but it doesn’t look like he and his young lady are likely to get back together any time soon.

In short, this film is not jolly or cheesy; it is – quite inappropriately – dark and brooding. (I never knew how to waterboard someone until I first watched The Expendables, because it happens to the leading lady at some length.) Possibly Stallone the director was aware of what a piece of ridiculous fluff this could have turned out to be, and the gloominess of the film is his way of ensuring that people will still take The Expendables seriously as a drama.

Except there’s no way that was ever going to happen, with a cast-list stuffed with ex-wrestlers, knowing in-jokey cameos from famous faces, and a ludicrous plot development at the end: a character who went bad and was apparently mortally wounded after trying to kill his former friends shows up, forgiven, back on the team and with only a dab of sticking plaster to show he was ever hurt in the first place.

It’s almost as if the creators of The Expendables intentionally set out to produce a film which avoided making the best use of its considerable assets. Instead of a knowingly cheesy action romp – a sort of testosterone-drizzled equivalent of Mamma Mia – stuffed with big names, what this film actually appears to want to be is a thoughtful drama about the existential crisis affecting modern masculinity. With explosions. Let’s be clear: neither The Expendables nor Expendables 2 is anything approaching a good movie (and heaven knows what Expendables 3 is going to turn out like), but at least the sequel is silly and fun. This one is just silly.

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There comes a moment in the career of every bona fide screen legend – provided they live long enough, of course – when both they and their fans are confronted with their Norma Desmond moment. They may still be big and famous, but the pictures in which they are appearing have inexplicably become somewhat smaller. Not necessarily badly-made or objectionable, but just – small. Like, for example, Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand.

This film was allegedly written by someone called Andrew Knauer, but I suspect this is just a codename for a new software package which assembles completed screenplays from pre-existing bits of genre formulae. In Las Vegas, tough-talking FBI guy John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is in the process of transporting straight-out-of-Central-Casting slimeball drug baron Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to prison, when the villain executes a frankly ludicrous escape plan involving an electromagnet, a 200mph car, a small portable bridge and the Dutch national football team, and heads for the Mexican border at high speed. Only the small and sleepy town of Sommerton Junction stands between him and freedom, and the personnel of the sheriff’s department there are not exactly guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Well, with the possible exception of the sheriff himself, who is a big old lad with a funny Austrian accent…

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Yes, this is what I suppose we must call Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big comeback – although, as I’ve already said, this is not really what you’d call a major movie. If Arnie was replaced as the star with a less iconic presence you could quite easily imagine this going DTDVD, because the story really is slight and in many places rather silly.

It doesn’t help that the film really struggles to find a consistent tone throughout its first half – the narrative cuts back and forth between Cortez making his escape, and Arnie’s relaxed and somewhat bucolic routine as a small-town sheriff (it turns out he used to be a supercop in LA who’s retired to the sticks, of course). The former is glitzy and outrageous, and has a hard, gory edge to its frequent violence, which is very much at odds with the mildly comic and low-key material with Arnie and his various sidekicks. In the end the full-on violent stuff becomes predominant – if the intent was to strike a contrast between the two, it doesn’t really work, as there just isn’t enough small-town-routine stuff, and most of it is blatantly laying in plot for the second half of the film.

That said, the movie is competently executed and usually quite well played. None of the good guys or bad guys actually turn into what you could honestly call three-dimensional characters, but then again this isn’t the kind of film where you would expect them to (not that it wouldn’t have been nice if they had). The good guys are mostly quite appealing, with the exception of Johnny Knoxville, who plays an annoying, over-the-top character… actually, this is Johnny Knoxville we’re talking about, so you can take the annoying and over-the-top parts as read, obviously. No surprises there.

One thing which did surprise me was my own positive reaction to seeing Arnie back in action on the big screen. He may not open up at the bad guys with a Vickers machine gun or wrestle somebody off the roof of a building with quite the same speed or fluidity as back in his heyday, but he acquits himself very respectably. It’s easy to make jokes about Arnie’s choice of comedy roles or his political career, but this is a guy who made some absolute classic action movies once upon a time.

And his acting is certainly as good as ever it was – those familiar features reconfigure themselves to suggest Shock, Concern, Anger, and Determination much as they ever did, which is to say one is reminded of someone operating a slightly sticky gearbox. The big guy still has charisma by the bucketful, particularly in the climax of the film. There’s a bit where the villain has had the temerity to suggest Arnie’s past it, tried to bribe him, and then resorted to fighting dirty. Schwarzenegger, pausing only to beat him (somewhat laboriously) to a pulp, responds rather gently with ‘My honour is not for sale.’ And it’s a lovely moment, worthy of the genuine star he remains.

Now, the script here is brave enough to acknowledge not only that Arnie is an immigrant, but also that he is knocking on a bit, and it’ll be interesting to see whether his future projects continue to play with this. By the time Clint Eastwood had hit his mid sixties he was making films which engaged with and made use of his iconic status and history. If Arnie attempts something similar we could end up with films which are at least interesting – but, disregarding rumours of new Conan and Terminator movies (oh, Lord), the only leading role on Arnie’s slate of upcoming projects is in an Agatha Christie adaptation (he’s not playing Poirot, in case you were wondering).

Oh well, judging from this movie Arnie’s got quite a few more movies left in him (some of those will probably turn out to be future episodes of The Expendables, but you can’t have everything), and I’ve no doubt some of them will be enormous monster trucks of films of the type we would expect. The Last Stand is a much more modest vehicle, and hardly very memorable, but as a way of getting reacquainted with Schwarzenegger it does what needs to be done efficiently enough.

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(Contains plot spoilers. And a misrepresentation, for hopefully comic effect, of the Belgian accent.)

Time for yet another edition of our regular strand, Oh God, Not Another One. And perhaps never was that title so well-deserved, as we turn our attention to Simon West’s unfathomable The Expendables 2. A friend of mine knows someone who’s a proper film critic, and managed to wangle a free ticket to the press screening. ‘Ambivalent’ is perhaps not the word to describe his response: ‘The worst film ever made,’ he declared. ‘Must be better than the first one, surely,’ I protested. ‘Oh yes,’ he agreed, leaving me a bit confused, but unshaken in my keenness to see it.

Anyone who is not a fairly hard-core Trekkie may be surprised to learn that plans were at one point afoot for Eddie Murphy, then at the height of his popularity, to play a major role in Star Trek IV (he was pencilled in to play the character who ended up as Captain Kirk’s love interest – there’s an image that’ll stick with you). However, the suits at Paramount vetoed the idea – why release a Star Trek movie with Eddie Murphy in it, when they could release a Star Trek movie and an Eddie Murphy movie and thus double their potential success? I suppose the Expendables films deserve some credit for doing a similar thing, only in reverse – with Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris and the rest of them all appearing in one film at the same time, it makes them much easier to avoid than if they were all in separate individual projects. The only flaw in the logic of this is that many of these people don’t actually have viable theatrical careers anymore, having long since moved on to the great DTDVD bin in the sky.

Hey ho. After some jolly opening slaughter, which at least includes Jet Li fighting half a dozen people in a kitchen (pretty much his only contribution to the film), our mercenary heroes head home. The slaughter itself is well-staged, even if it includes the first of many groansome in-jokes, and went on so long I began to wonder if the film was going to have any kind of plot or character development at all. It does, and we are presented with the sight of half-a-dozen extremely burly men crammed into the same frame trying to exchange wisecracks in the basso-profundo growl which is the vocal register of nearly everyone in the movie. (Ooh, tell a lie: Charisma Carpenter’s in this bit, too, but she only has about three lines.) This bit is mainly to introduce us to Billy, the youngest and freshest-faced of the Expendables. He is played by Liam Hemsworth (yes, one of the Thor triplets). It is made quite clear that everyone else loves Billy (in a very platonic way, of course), and lead Expendable Barney (Stallone) applauds his decision to quit the soldier-of-fortune line to spend more time with his lovely girlfriend. But even for mercenaries, contractual obligations apply and Billy is happy to work out his notice period.

Yes, the film stresses, the youngest and most popular guy on the team, who wasn’t even in the first one, is going to leave to be with his sweetheart – all he has to do is survive to the end of the month. The film-makers don’t actually superimpose a bullseye on Hemsworth’s chest at this point, or have him followed around by someone dressed in a robe and carrying a scythe, but the effect is very much the same. Anyway, at this point Bruce Willis pops up as employer/irritant Church and gives the guys a mission – to retrieve an important McGuffin that’s been lost in a plane crash in Albania. ‘It will be a piece of cake,’ he assures Stallone, which is of course Action Movie-ese for ‘difficult, time-consuming and protractedly violent’.

Off they fly to Albania where they indeed retrieve the McGuffin with the help of a new Expendable, Maggie (Yu Nan). But wait! Who is this emerging through the fog to menace our heroes but the villain? The villain’s name is Jean Vilain (thoughtful writing here, I think you’ll agree), and he is portrayed by – oh dear Lord – Jean-Claude Van Damme. He admires Stallone’s fixation with skull-themed ornaments, then reveals he himself has a tattoo of a goat. ‘Ze gert is mah symburl,’ Mr Vilain explains. ‘It eez the pet of Satarn.’ While Stallone and his boys are digesting that, van Damme clears off with the McGuffin, pausing only to – and you’ll never believe this – gratuitously murder Hemsworth. Bwahahahaha!

Well, our heroes tenderly lay their fallen comrade to rest (technically they just bung a load of rocks on top of him, but hey), and Stallone lets rip with some philosophical breast-beating. ‘Why is that that we, who don’t wanna live, who don’t deserve to live, are alive, while that young guy, the only one of us who wanted to live, who deserved to live, is dead?’ he howls – actually I don’t think Stallone’s mouth opens wide enough to allow him to howl, but he has a good try. The rest of the Expendables look on in silence, quite possibly thinking that, actually, they do want and deserve to live, but not wanting to spoil their boss’ big moment.

Anyway, they swear vengeance on Vilain for murdering their friend, which to me only suggests that they haven’t thought this whole ‘Expendable’ concept through properly, and things continue in a roughly similar vein until the climax finally arrives. Just to give you a taste, it features Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis driving a smart car through an airport terminal shooting machine-guns out of the doors and snapping each others’ catch-phrases, while elsewhere Stallone and Van Damme prepare to do battle in a manner that seems oddly suggestive. ‘Air yuh goeeng to man urp?’ taunts Van Damme. ‘I’ll man you up,’ ripostes Stallone, delivering this frankly dubious threat with an impressively straight face. Soon they are up close and personal, grappling sweatily.

Okay, okay. On one level The Expendables 2 is nothing but a knuckle-dragging, generic action movie, with very little to distinguish it in terms of plot and characterisation. There is nothing new in either of these areas, and what it does have to offer here is barely competent – it is at least more coherent than the average direct-to-DVD action movie, and the bigger budget is apparent, but that’s all. It’s also notable for a queasy sentimentality of a kind I’ve noticed in some of Simon West’s other films – Stallone’s speech over Hemsworth’s grave is the most notable instance, but this film is all about the camaraderie and machismo of guys hanging out, expressing their feelings by basically insulting each other all the time. Front and centre is a peculiar bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham, which the two performers can’t quite make convincing, but the movie’s riddled with this stuff. It clashes enormously with the hey-you’ll-like-this-one cheesiness of the jokes which also occur throughout.

But then again, whether an action movie gets a theatrical release or goes DTDVD depends more on the stature of the leading man than the actual quality of the narrative, and the sine qua non of an Expendables movie has nothing to do with the story but the gimmicky assemblage of as many superannuated Certified Action Legends as Stallone can find the phone numbers of. Mickey Rourke hasn’t come back, and Jet Li bails out early on (literally), but replacing them are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris (who doesn’t appear to even be attempting to act) – Willis and Schwarzenegger have (oh dear) beefed up parts this time around as well.

Now, I’ve nothing against the idea of making a film which is effectively Destroy All Monsters with ageing action movie heroes, because it has the potential to be fun. My main problem with the first Expendables was that hardly any of that potential got realised – with all these guys in the same film, I want to see them doing their personal schticks – or, even better, taking each other on – not just ploughing through dozens of stuntmen in mass fight scenes. The fight between Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li excepted, there was nothing like that in the first one – this one is a little bit better. Lundgren, bizarrely, makes an impression as the comic relief, Jason Statham gets a couple of good individual fights (including one where, dressed as a priest, he gets to say ‘I now pronounce you man and knife’ and then crack someone in the nuts with his thurible), and the final boss battle between Stallone and Van Damme is, truth be told, really quite good, especially for a fight between two men with a combined age of 117. The guys behind me in the theatre were cheering, in an only partially-ironic manner, every time Van Damme did his trademark mid-air-spinny-kick thing.

I suspect this may explain the success of the Expendables films – the crowd at the showing I attended was mostly made up of Men Of A Certain Age, specifically that age which meant they would have been teenagers (or a little bit older) when most of the stars of this film were in their prime, and as close to being credible as they ever got (the big exception is, of course, Statham, who’s still at the top of his game and bankability). They (and I) didn’t go to see The Expendables 2 wanting to see a clever plot, or subtlety, or innovation – we went to see all these iconic faces up on the screen together! Cheesy jokes! Ridiculous dialogue and action! Big-name rumbles! It’s an exercise in paying homage as much as it is going to see a movie. Certainly I can’t imagine any other movie daring to get away with some of the plotting in this one – it seems to be okay for characters to appear and disappear almost at random, provided they’re played by someone who was popular in 1987.

By any conventional standard, The Expendables 2 is an atrocious farrago: absurd, tonally all over the place, with a ridiculous, half-baked plot, and with an ensemble of many of the worst actors ever to appear before a movie camera (and, before you say anything, Jason Statham’s in it too). But the sheer presence of those particular non-thespians, en masse, transports it into a strange new dimension where all the usual critical criteria don’t seem to be in effect. It still isn’t any good, but at the same time it manages to be rather entertaining, and I suspect it’s going to make serious money. The only question is who on Earth they’re going to get to appear in the third installment. Apparently, Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Steven Seagal and Clint Eastwood are all in talks. Seagal and Eastwood? In the same movie? I’m sorry, I think I have to go and lie down.

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