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Posts Tagged ‘Simon West’

(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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Looking back through the collected works, it occurs to me that I may, on occasion, have come across as just a bit snarky and oh-ho-ho about the life and works of Jason Statham – ‘my kitchen can act better’ (about The Transporter), ‘a nuanced performer he is not’ (Transporter 2), ‘Statham in genuinely good movie shocker’ (Killer Elite), and so on. I think I am guilty of misrepresenting myself, as I’ve never seen a Statham-led movie I haven’t enjoyed on some level, but more importantly doing the man himself a disservice: Statham is clearly aware of his own range as a performer and operates inside it exceedingly well. He hasn’t quite made a gilt-edged classic yet, but neither has he put his name to a complete dog (it’s just occurred to me that I should watch Revolver before throwing that kind of assertion about).

On the other hand, it might not go amiss were he to stretch himself just a little more in his choice of roles – because long stretches of Simon West’s The Mechanic are virtually interchangeable with bits from other Statham movies, or other recent action movies generally. It has the same colour-saturated cinematography, the same kind of graphic design, the same aesthetic, the same sensibility – with the insertion of a bare minimum of new material I suspect you could edit The Mechanic, Colombiana, either of the first two Transporters and Haywire together into one sprawling six-hour epic, so very similar are all of these movies.

In The Mechanic Jason Statham plays… well, officially, someone called Arthur Bishop, but really he’s just playing his standard Jason Statham Character. (There’s a broad unity between most of his roles, moreso even than with the average action movie star.) For the benefit of newcomers, the Jason Statham Character is a highly skilled and extremely dangerous mercenary, who is also either blessed or saddled with a strict code of personal honour which he does his best to abide by at all times. He has feelings, but most of the time he knows better than to show or act upon them – except when the plot demands it, of course. In this movie the Jason Statham Character is a professional assassin who specialises in invisible killings (making it look like an accident, in other words).

The Jason Statham Character’s code is stretched, however, when he is called upon to terminate his own mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who has apparently gone bad. He initially demurs from this, but the client – another member of the same nebulous organisation – is insistent and makes the point that surely the Jason Statham Character would prefer to do it himself, and be sure that Harry doesn’t suffer unnecessarily. Harry himself expresses relief on the same point when the deed is actually done – there’s a strange commingling of sentiment and brutality here which I found rather creepy, to be honest.

Anyway, motivated largely by guilt, the Jason Statham Character takes on Harry’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster) as an apprentice – not bothering to tell him that he killed his father, of course. Needless to say, Steve has issues of all kinds, which perhaps mean he’s not the best person for this line of work. And what will happen if he ever finds out the truth about his father’s demise…?

Well, The Mechanic is a solidly competent action thriller which should satisfy fans of both the genre and Statham himself. That it isn’t anything more is a shame, because West has previously shown himself to be a superior director and there are flashes here of what could have been a rather more accomplished movie.

Part of the problem is that the movie could really use another fifteen or twenty minutes to add onto the relatively brief running time: for most of its length the film is building up the relationship between Bishop and Steve, and at the same time increasing one’s expectations of what will kick off when – inevitably – Steve learns the truth about his father’s death. One kind of expects the climax of the movie to be an extended battle of wits and skill between master and apprentice. Suffice to say it’s nothing of the sort; the bulk of the movie turns out to revolve around a seen-this-before hero-is-screwed-over-by-his-own-employers plot, with the stuff you’ve been expecting handled in a very cursory way almost as an afterthought.

So the plot is a bit lopsided and doesn’t deliver on what it appears to be promising. On the other hand, what it delivers instead is a series of effective action sequences and character bits, slickly assembled and presented. Some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s a fairly big ask to have as total a professional as Bishop decide to take a loose cannon like Steve on as a trainee – but the script and (to be fair to him) Statham both work hard to make Bishop’s guilt (and thus his desire to help Harry’s son) plausible. As I mentioned, there’s nothing really very new going on here, but what does happen is playing to the strengths of the performers.

And, as I mentioned, there are moments that lift the film briefly above the average – early on we see Bishop meeting a woman in a bar, they dance, it then transpires they’re lovers – and you think, ah ha, she’s the girlfriend who doesn’t know what his job is, she’s going to get caught in the middle of this and force him to reappraise his lifestyle. But almost instantly the film kicks all this out from under you: she’s simply a prostitute Bishop regularly uses, and for all that she’s the top-billed woman she’s barely in the film (no pun intended). Your expectation of the worst kind of cliches is, refreshingly, not met. This kind of intelligence in a genre movie is welcome no matter how fleetingly it manifests itself.

This is a movie with a slightly harder edge than many action films, but not to the point where it ever becomes too gruelling or realistic to be entertaining. That said, there’s a slightly lurid flavour to it in a couple of places – a couple of incidental victims of the two hitmen both turn out to be sex offenders, for no other reason than to reassure the audience that they really do deserve to be executed. I can really do without this kind of material, to be honest: a dumb action movie it may be, but this just struck me as salacious and unnecessary.

Apart from this there was very little in The Mechanic I found myself taking exception to and a lot that I rather enjoyed. I must confess that a little more of Statham himself, properly in action, wouldn’t have gone amiss, but his actual performances these days are more than competent enough to lead a movie with the minimum of martial arts nonsense being required. This movie doesn’t quite give you exactly what it suggests it will, but it comes close enough to be satisfying.

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