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Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Willis’

Is there a dodgier proposition in the whole of movie-dom than the double-duty sequel? I speak of when film-makers, usually to prop up flagging franchises, decide to continue the ongoing story from two or more previous films in a single new movie, often with ‘Meets’ or ‘Vs’ in the title. As far as I can work out, this sort of thing got started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the genre (if that’s the right word) has gone on to include such dubious recent pleasures as Freddy Vs Jason and Alien Vs Predator.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that the double-duty concept is synonymous with worthless film-making, for interesting and entertaining films can result – many of the better Godzilla films certainly qualify, if you bear in mind that some of the Toho monsters started off by headlining their own movies and then meeting Godzilla in a later instalment. And you could certainly argue that Marvel Studios’ whole success has been built on the principle of this kind of shared fictional world.

Whether M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is more inspired by the old-school horror mash-ups or the Marvel project is not immediately clear, but this is certainly one of the more intriguing double-duty sequels of recent years. Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split seemed like a perfectly competent horror-fantasy movie until an electrifying final twist revealed it took place in the same world as his 2000 movie Unbreakable. The implication – that a confrontation between the main characters of the two films was inevitable – was an undeniably exciting one, certainly enough to make most people overlook just how spotty Shyamalan’s record has been as a writer-director.

Well, anyway, here we are: things are more or less how they stood at the end of Split, with a serial killer known as the Horde (James McAvoy) on the loose – so known because of his multiple personality disorder, one of those personalities being the superhuman Beast – and terrorising cheerleaders like it’s going out of style. However, on the lookout for him is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the near-invulnerable hero of Unbreakable, who has apparently spent the last 19 years working as a vigilante with his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). (Even after all this time Dunn has yet to land himself a proper superhero code-name, usually being referred to as the Overseer – which hardly pops – or the Green Guard, which is just rubbish.)

Sure enough, Dunn manages to track the Horde down, but the confrontation between them remains unresolved as the authorities, led by psychiatrist Dr Staple (Sarah Paulson), swoop in and rush them both off to the local laughing academy, where they are held in conditions designed to neutralise their so-called super-powers. Staple announces that her mission is to convince them that they are not superhuman but simply disturbed – and her patients include not just Dunn and the Horde, but also Dunn’s former friend Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), better known as the brittle-boned mass murderer Mister Glass…

There’s obviously a certain amount of fun to had with a premise like this and to begin with Shyamalan mines the potential well, setting up the encounter between Willis and McAvoy and reintroducing various characters from both the previous films (perhaps the first warning sign in the movie is when it becomes obvious that the director has yet to break his habit of giving himself pointless and ostentatious cameo parts). At least you know what’s at stake here and how the movie seems likely to play out.

Once everybody is in the mental hospital, however, the movie collapses into a saggy and self-regarding mess in the classic manner familiar to anyone who’s sat through the collected works of M Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan seems to assume that everyone else will find his characters as intrinsically fascinating as he does, and the result is many windy scenes that don’t go anywhere as the director meditates on the situation he has created. Scenes outside the hospital with Dunn’s son and the last girl from Split (Anya Taylor-Joy) don’t add much, and basically the story loses most of its momentum. Sarah Paulson has the thankless task of playing a character who initially seems to be stupid, as she keeps declaring that superhuman beings don’t exist (we as the audience obviously know otherwise, or this film would not have been made), and the fact that Samuel L Jackson barely appears in the first half of the film is also an issue given it’s supposedly about him. The actor certainly carves himself a thick slice of ham when he does eventually show up in earnest, while James McAvoy turns in another bravura performance as the Horde’s various identities – but, again, the result of this is that Bruce Willis (never the most demonstrative of actors) kind of vanishes into the background as a result. (The film also has the issue that Jackson is visibly and distractingly older than Charlayne Woodard, the actress supposedly playing his mother.)

The whole film is stricken with this awkwardness and lack of balance, suggesting one thing and then actually delivering another. And the tone of it is odd: by most metrics it certainly qualifies as some sort of superhero fantasy – Jackson’s character is obsessed by the tropes of the genre and ends up trying to orchestrate a return engagement between Willis and McAvoy – but it is filmed and directed like a horror film. For all the film’s lofty ideas about human potential and gods walking amongst us, it’s the grittier, more downbeat style that wins out – we are teased with the prospect of a cinematic superhero battle, but what we end up with is a clumsily-choreographed wrestling match between two men in a car park. The substance is weirdly at odds with the portentous way in which it is presented.

So, very much a return to form for M Night Shyamalan, by which I mean it is wildly and frustratingly uneven. Just to confirm he’s sticking to his usual playbook, Shyamalan wraps the film up with not one, not two, but three half-assed plot twists. In theory that should equate to a satisfactory one-and-a-half-assed plot twist, but apparently these things are not cumulative. (If nothing else, at least the director appears to have discovered an interesting new field of mathematical enquiry.)

I couldn’t help feeling that Glass was a huge missed opportunity, but Olinka – who came to see it despite not having seen either of the prior films – found it to have some interesting ideas about the tyranny of normalcy. I still think she is being too generous about it. It does seem to lend weight to the idea that it’s M Night Shyamalan’s good films which are the anomalies, not the ropey fare he usually seems to produce. This film, certainly, is a waste of talent and potential.

 

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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.

expendables

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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Now, I like a bad movie more than most people. But I like a bad movie that’s energetically and inventively bad, a movie that has bold new bad ideas and executes them in an inventively misguided way. In short, I like a bad movie with panache and style and the courage of its convictions – and, what the hell, at least a minimal degree of technical competency.

goodday

A Good Day to Die Hard is not my idea of a bad movie. I mean, it’s not a good bad movie. It’s a bad bad movie. I would have ventured to suggest it might constitute a sharp, savage blow to the windpipe of the whole Die Hard edifice but for the fact that it is already $25m in profit less than a fortnight after its release. This would suggest we can anticipate yet further installments with painfully punning titles such as The Die Hard Is Cast, Die Hard Fliedermaus, and I Think I’d Rather Die Hard Than Sit Through Another Sequel As Rotten As This One.

Sigh. A distinctly unengaged-looking Bruce Willis is back in harness as NYPD cop John McClane, a man who really appreciates the value of wearing lots of layers. As usual, we don’t get to see him doing any NYPD cop stuff, for almost as soon as the movie starts (BBC newsreader Sophie Raworth’s family will be delighted as hers is the first face you see) he flies off to Russia, where his tearaway son John Junior (Jai Courtney) is in the clink for shooting someone, a crime it appears he really did commit (not that the film makes much of a fuss about it). He is driven to the airport by his daughter, who as before is played by the ever-watchable Mary Elizabeth Winstead. However, she is only ever-watchable in this movie for about three minutes, which is a shame.

Anyway, take your credulity by the neck and exert strong, steady pressure with those thumbs, as it turns out that McClane’s tearaway son is actually an undercover CIA agent, but has neglected to tell anyone this. His being in the Moscow nick is all part of a cunning plan to spring a political prisoner who… oh, look, I’m not going to bother with any details about the plot, as it is just silly and convoluted and borders on the very tasteless indeed.

All we get across the comparatively brief running time of this film is a succession of deafening and technically competent action sequences, all of which are overblown to some level. Bruce Willis occasionally shouts ‘I’m on vacation!’ between bouts of machine-gunning people in ski-masks. I suspect the Die Hard movies are where M Night Shyamalan got the idea for the indestructible Bruce Willis character in Unbreakable: at one point he is catapulted thirty feet through the air and smashes through what looks very much like a plate-glass window only to rise, grumbling, to his feet and get on with the excuse for a plot. His default expression for most of the movie is that of a man dragged out of the shower to answer the phone.

None of this is necessarily bad in an action movie, but the most basic elements of the story simply aren’t there, like characterisation, decent establishment of relationships and characters, signposting the plot, and so on. A lot of the dialogue at the screening I attended was actually unintelligible, though this may have been down to that particular theatre. Not only are the fundamentals of film-making only marginally present, but the movie appears to have only a passing acquaintance with the region in which it is set: Moscow and Chernobyl are well over 400 miles apart and yet the characters appear to drive between them in a couple of hours.

So, the plot is risible and occasionally hard to follow, the characters are shallow and irritating, there’s hardly any memorable dialogue, and there’s none of the wit or subtext that distinguished the best of the earlier films. The first film was about a skyscraper under the control of a dangerous criminal, the second about an airport under the control of a dangerous criminal, and so on. You’d’ve thought that bringing the series to Russia would have provided the occasion for at least something edgy and pithy to make it into the script, but no. This film just lurches from one ridiculous set of explosions to another, pausing only for an unconvincing piece of father-son bonding on the way.

As long as we’re talking superannuated action stars from the 1980s, then I think this movie shows the power of an existing ‘name’ franchise – Willis’ fellow Expendables Schwarzenegger and Stallone both brought out new movies recently, both of which mightily flopped, despite the fact that they were both narratively and creatively much more competent than A Good Day to Die Hard. Here, though, the studio looks like it’s going to make money, though at the cost of comprehensively sliming the name of a once-iconic action series. This movie is mechanical, joyless, tedious crap – a good day for the accountants, but a bad day for everyone else.

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(I don’t know, you wait ages for a review of a movie about time travel, and then two come along at exactly the same moment messing up each others’ causality and changing their own endings. Tut.)

Yet more evidence of dodgy judgement at the UK’s premiere cinema chain named after the Greek word for theatre: never mind their fondness for not showing Jason Statham movies, converting perfectly lovely foyers into coffeeshops, and not employing nearly enough (or indeed any) ushers to keep the vast numbers of foreign students who patronise their establishments quiet, they’ve also decided not to show Rian Johnson’s Looper at any of their standard cinemas.

I really wanted to see this film, given the subject matter and glowing reviews it’s received, and so there was nothing to do but attempt to get to Oxford’s out-of-town multiplex, an undertaking I have never before attempted without the benefit of a lift. To cut a long story short, two bus rides, a reasonably long walk, some unplanned hitch-hiking and a possible unexpected appearance on The Super League Show later, I found my way to said establishment.

(The Oxford Vue is not quite as lovely on the inside as its Cribbs Causeway counterpart, but the seats and facilities are still notably better than the ones at the sweetshop and the coffeeshop – especially since the refurb of the latter. )

Anyway, the epic journey turned out to be worth it as Looper is that rare beast, a good, intelligent SF film that works as a satisfying genre movie too. Our protagonist is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an inhabitant of Kansas City in the year 2044 and on the face of it a fairly nasty piece of work – a drug addict who funds his habit by working as a mob executioner, or ‘Looper’. Why this unusual nomenclature? Well, therein lies the tale.

Joe’s employers are based in 2074, by which point time travel has been invented. In order to confound the cops in that year, when the syndicates want someone eliminated, they have him zapped back to 2044 where he is instantly killed by Joe or another Looper and his body disposed of. However, there is a catch – to protect themselves, sooner or later the mob always send the 2074 version of the Looper back in time to be killed by their younger self (this basically constitutes a termination of contract in more ways than one).

Most often the Looper executes himself without even realising it until it’s too late – but mistakes do happen, and the consequences for everyone involved are severe (Johnson includes a sequence of bravura nastiness and ingenuity early on to illustrate this point). Inevitably the day dawns when Joe finds himself sighting along his blunderbuss barrel at… himself.

But the future Joe (played by Bruce Willis) is not just here to be another victim – there are very particular things he wants to do very badly now he’s back in 2044. Can young Joe figure out what his elder self is up to? And even if he can, can he really bring himself to end his own life this way?

Well, the first thing one must say is that, unless you just treat time travel as a plot device tp get you to the scene of an adventure, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a story using  it which actually makes sense. Even the first Terminator, which seems to have been an influence on this film and is generally pretty coherent, got accused recently by an acquaintance of not making any logical sense. And while Looper has a pretty good stab at explaining why it is that future Joe doesn’t remember everything that’s going to have happened in the film on account of his already will having-had been there as young Joe (oh, time travel, gotta love the grammar), the same is broadly true: most of the details don’t really hang together.

On the other hand, Looper‘s consistent inventiveness, wit and style do a tremendous job, not necessarily of covering this up, but ensuring you’re not actually that bothered by it. The storytelling manages to be both clear and surprising, setting up a complicated scenario with commendable speed and economy and then constantly finding new spins and angles on it. On top of this, the movie’s action sequences are also solidly put together and genuinely exciting.

What really makes the film work are the central performances – Jeff Daniels has a great extended cameo as a very laid back crime-boss from the future, but most of the work is done by the leads. Emily Blunt deploys an extremely decent American accent as a character who’s crucial to the second half of the story, and manages to be more than just decorative. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a sterling performance, all the moreso given the constraints on him – for one thing, he’s wearing prosthetics to make him look a bit more like a young Bruce Willis, and for another, he’s not just playing Joe, he’s playing Willis playing Joe. The prosthetics are not 100% convincing but the performance is. Bruce Willis himself is at the absolute top of his game in this film – watching him here you remember just how good he can be, both as a straight actor and an action movie star.

The presence of Willis, plus a few other elements, really put one in mind of the early films of M Night Shyamalan (before he completely lost the plot) – is this to suggest that Looper concludes with a monumental twist? I fear I cannot in all decency confirm or deny this. In any case, this is a startlingly good and clever piece of film-making that entertains and surprises virtually non-stop for two hours. Recommended.

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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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 5th 2009: 

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which has recently crawled one space higher on the Sugababes reserve list. Were you to have really nothing worthwhile to do and dive back into the tottering, mouldy piles of 24LAS back issues which perpetually threaten to clog up my virtual office space, you would discover in the Christmas 2003 edition a heartfelt plea for a talented young actor named Gerard Butler to be released from the near-obscurity a succession of bad script choices had landed him in. Fast forward a few years, and good fortune and a lot of shouting whilst wearing leather shorts have indeed made Butler a bona fide star – it’s just a pity the column was on hiatus when it happened. Anyway, he’s back on the big screen now as the leading man of Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer.

Gamer is not a movie afraid to partake freely from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches. In the future the world is dominated by powerful corporations, but nobody minds that much as they’re all obsessed with computer games – plus ca change and all that, but the twist is that in these games, rather than controlling a sprite on a screen, you control a real live person whose motor cortex has been injected with nanotechnological cells. The game at the centre of the film is Slayers, where death-row inmates are equipped with high-powered automatic weaponry and let loose on each other under the remote control of computer gamers from around the world. If one of the cons survives for thirty sessions in a row, he wins his freedom. Current champion Kable (Butler), under the control of star player Simon (Logan Lerman), is getting perilously close to releasing himself. The mogul running the game, Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a role that demands he use anything up to thirty percent of his talent), has his own reasons for wanting Kable silenced, so it’s rather unfortunate that one of those improbably well-resourced subversive networks so often found in this kind of film set about springing Kable and stopping Castle’s plans.

As you can probably surmise, unlikelihoods pile up on unlikelihoods in quite dizzying quantities as Gamer proceeds (my favourite being when Kable fuels his getaway vehicle by chugging a bottle of vodka and then widdling in the petrol tank), especially as this film is supposedly set only a few years into the future. The story is so implausible (a less charitable individual might prefer ‘incoherent’) that to begin with it’s a little difficult to follow, something not helped by the onslaught of whip pans, smash cuts, handheld camerawork and crazy-paving editing the viewer is bombarded with. To be honest, your reviewer is feeling rather old and embarrassed for not twigging straightaway that this is the signature style of the game-savvy directors who perpetrated the indescribable Crank movies.

Gamer aspires to be rather more serious than either of the Cranks, but it’s not appreciably more mature. I would normally assume with a story like this that the directors’ message was basically ‘Isn’t the way we’re entertained by sex and violence just awful?’ – which, of course, would be immediately and terminally undermined by the fact that the film is being marketed on the strength of its sex and violence – but it seems to me that this is hardly the kind of line likely to be taken by the guys who in the past have gleefully given us Jason Statham sticking a shotgun up someone’s backside before frottaging an old lady. Any serious moral condemnation Gamer appears to be making is surely only a trick of the light, or a convenient pretext should this movie itself be taken to task for its content. Similarly, the potentially fruitful subtext of the movie – that people behave on-line in ways they’d never dream of doing in real-life – is only really examined in passing.

I was going to observe that Gamer is the first movie in history to be named after its target audience, which if nothing else is considerate, but I’m not entirely sure the computer-gaming community will appreciate being depicted as they are here. Simon comes across as a far from likeable spoilt nerd, and he’s by far the most positive specimen on offer. The only other real candidate is a morbidly obese slob living in squalor whose life appears to revolve around using his computer to engage in vicarious sex acts. Not exactly guaranteed to get the crowd on your side, guys. By extension the rest of the gaming community is depicted as morally bankrupt and/or depraved, quite happy to see human beings blown away for entertainment (in Slayers) or used and abused in grotesque and personal ways (in Society, the movie’s version of something like Second Life). One gets a strong sense that Neveldine and Taylor have a low opinion of human nature. (I’m inclined to wonder what Castle’s version of Hootoo would look like, but it would probably be in a rather lower-octane movie than this.)

I’m sounding quite negative about this film, and I feel I have to, and yet, and yet… Crank and its sequel were by most civilised standards utterly horrible, but also pieces of bravura film-making and hugely enjoyable in their way. Gamer doesn’t have the same freewheeling absurdity to make it fly, and the plot itself isn’t really anything special once you take away the admittedly striking visuals. The actors all do as well as they can with underwritten parts and the plotline about Castle’s hidden agenda in wanting Kable dead feels very much like an afterthought. The sequences in the Slayers games are surprisingly brief and confusing – the rules of the game are never made entirely clear. I wouldn’t make a very good Rollerball player (to choose a relevant example), but I at least know how to play it – in Slayers I would only have the faintest clue what to do beyond just shooting everyone in sight. The faintest sign of the spectre of Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange wafts through the film, but this may largely simply be due to an eye-catching musical-routine-come-graphic-punch-up near the climax, which surprises more than nearly anything else on offer.

Gamer is a bit too frenetic to pass muster as an actual thriller or piece of SF, but too thematically dense to be dismissible as simply a piece of high-energy fluff. I found myself getting desensitised to its various excesses rather rapidly and the sheer implausibility of the story really stopped me from getting involved in it. Butler and Hall do their considerable best with it, and the direction and visuals are frequently striking, but on the whole, given the talent involved this is a bit of a disappointment.

Speaking of living vicariously through your computer… one of the truisms of proper SF is that it really says more about the time it’s written than the time it’s set in. One of the ways this manifests in movies is that technology just tends to be enormously exaggerated versions of things we’ve already got rather than anything wholly innovative (not many pre-1990 movies saw the internet coming, for example). Unusually, this isn’t quite true of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, a thriller which still shares quite a few similarities with Gamer. In a (different) unspecified near future, life has been transformed by a single new technology developed by a reclusive boffin (James Cromwell this time) and opposed by rebels, the refusenik Luddites being led by a rather hammy Ving Rhames here.

The technology in question is surrogacy, whereby people spend all their time at home with their brains hooked up to an android replica which goes out and lives their life for them. The utopia this has supposedly created (no crime, no accidental deaths, and so on) is disrupted when somebody finds a way to kill people via their link with the androids, liquidising their brains (I caught half an episode of What Katie Did Next recently so I have a good idea how this feels). On the case are FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell (and before you smirk, yes, Bruce’s android does have hair).

Once again improbabilities abound – we’re told ninety-eight percent of the global population routinely uses an extremely sophisticated robotic proxy and the associated high-spec communications network. Ninety-eight percent! Who’s paying for all this stuff? Then again someone at one point implies that the total population is only a shade over one billion so there must be a bit more cash in circulation. Even so, why the fall in the crime rate? (And so on.)

Anything like this would surely utterly transform the world beyond recognition, and to be fair the film runs with the ball as far as it can, showing amongst other neat moments a future where war is almost literally a computer game – armies sprawled in front of massed computer screens, ‘dead’ soldiers simply being issued a new robot and sent back into battle – but it’s beyond the scope (not to mention the budget) of Surrogates to explore the full possibilities of its central idea. So we end up with a world with astoundingly advanced robotics, cybernetics, and data processing systems, but where the cars, guns, and phones are virtually unchanged and people still use USB sticks. That said, the movie does make use of its central idea intelligently in terms of both plot (it soon becomes apparent that you simply can’t be sure who’s connected to a particular android) and character (Willis goes out on the street ‘in the flesh’ for the first time in ages and finds he’s well outside his comfort zone). There’s interesting, if not exactly subtle stuff going on here, although it perhaps does the ‘shocking contrast between inhumanly perfect android and its unexpectedly decrepit operator’ bit once or twice too often.

I must confess I turned up to Surrogates expecting something as bland and mechanical as the titular machines, and to begin with I thought I was right – Mostow’s direction isn’t exactly inspired, while all the actors playing their robotic avatars seem to feel obliged to give blatant ‘I’m really an android’ performances. Add to this the subtle but still intrusive CGI used to create the surrogate characters, and initially at least the film has a rather odd, tranquilised quality. But it improves quite considerably as it goes on. The thriller plot whizzes along cheerfully, it’s neatly played by most of the cast (and Rosamund Pike is probably slightly better than her part deserves as Willis’ traumatised wife), and there are a couple of well-executed if sub-Matrix action sequences where a fleshy mortals pursue or are pursued by souped-up androids.

I’m still not completely convinced about the climax (without wishing to spoil the ending, and despite what the film itself states, I can’t believe Bruce Willis’ character wouldn’t end up in court on charges of multiple manslaughter), and the film never quite rises beyond the level of simply competent at any point, but it focuses on telling an effective and interesting story without getting all in a tizzy about shocking the audience or stuffing every frame with a different kind of directorial razzle-dazzle. In short, it feels like a film made for grown-ups, and of the two films we’ve just discussed it’s Surrogates I’d recommend you went to see.

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