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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvester Stallone’

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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Context is important when you write about films. Writing about a new movie is different to covering an old classic; as you may have noticed if you’ve read around this blog, when I’m writing about an older film, especially a slightly dubious genre movie, I cover the plot in much more detail and am much less bothered about spoiling the end. There’s also the issue that with an older film, there’s often some sort of consensus, which I’m either agreeing with or kicking against (not that this isn’t often the case with new films too). Hindsight can often give you a whole new perspective on a film – I imagine it would be quite interesting to go back and read the original reviews of The Fast and the Furious from 2001, given this mildly credible crime drama has since gone on to spawn a ridiculous, world-conquering action movie franchise.

Speaking of mighty franchises, I see that a sequel to Creed is on the cards – currently trading under the imaginative title of Creed II. I don’t know, Creed II just doesn’t do it for me – and if you’re going to go with the whole Roman numerals thing, just bite the bullet and call it Rocky VIII, for that is really what we’re talking about, after all.

I imagine that the original Rocky, directed by John G Avildsen, got rather favourable reviews back in 1976 – this was a movie which won the Best Picture Oscar, after all – but anyone suggesting they would still be making sequels to it 40 years later would surely have been laughed out of their job. Five or ten years later, with an increasingly ridiculous sequel appearing every few years, that might not have seemed quite so improbable, but at the same time you possibly wouldn’t have predicted that the most recent films (thinking mainly here of Creed and Rocky Balboa) would turn out to be quite as accomplished as was the case.

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This is, of course, the film which is the foundation stone of Sylvester Stallone’s career, following a slightly chequered past as a walk-on and in low-budget genre films (he was in the original Death Race 2000, for instance). Stallone plays Rocky (duh), a thirty-year old journeyman boxer, living in Philadelphia, whose career in the ring has never really taken off. He is, putting it frankly, going nowhere, and has been forced to take a job as a debt-collector for a small-time local mobster just to pay the rent and feed his pet tortoises. His attempts to romance the timid sister (Talia Shire) of his boozy friend (Burt Young) are meeting with equally unimpressive results.

But everything changes for Rocky when the incumbent world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), finds himself with a big fight scheduled but no-one willing to fight him. Mainly for the publicity (and also, if we’re honest, because the plot demands it) Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer instead, and naturally his people decide his opponent, or victim, will be Rocky.

Looking at the original Rocky again now, it’s hard not to conclude that, for all his success, Sylvester Stallone has spent most of the intervening forty years essentially slumming it, as both an actor and in other roles. Whether or not Rocky actually deserved its Best Picture win is a moot point nowadays, but it is still a well-made and engaging story, powered by a strong performance by Stallone himself – Rocky may not be too bright, and makes his living by beating people half to death, but he is essentially a nice guy and a human being whom it is possible to relate to. The fact that he created this character indicates that Stallone is a cut above people like Arnie, whose performances usually struggle to maintain one dimension, let alone anything more challenging. And yet Stallone has spent a disproportionate amount of time appearing in knuckle-dragging action movies (is it worth mentioning that Expendables 4 is due to appear before Creed II?).

I suppose that’s just where the money has been, but it’s a shame, for Rocky shows the big man can do proper drama – I suppose Rocky is technically a sports movie, but it doesn’t feel at all generic, being more of a character study, and a carefully naturalistic one at that – there are many scenes of Rocky hanging around in his rather grotty neighbourhood, a long sequence depicting his first date with Adrian, some ever-so-slightly melodramatic stuff with Burt Young and also Burgess Meredith (playing Rocky’s trainer), and so on. (One piece of trivia in wide circulation is that this film marks the screen debut of most-credited-man-in-Star Trek Michael Dorn, who plays one of Apollo Creed’s bodyguards. Not that he’s exactly easy to spot. He isn’t even wearing the prosthetic forehead.)

There isn’t actually a huge amount of your actual fisticuffs in Rocky, beyond a brief glimpse of Rocky in action right at the start of the film, and of course the climactic bout between him and Creed which makes up the third act. (There isn’t actually much Creed in the film, and the failure to establish more of a personal relationship between the two men strikes me as the film missing a trick – Carl Weathers makes the most of what he’s given, though.) I’m not quite sure why, but for me the concluding battle in the ring felt just a little bit perfunctory and underdeveloped – it felt like there should have been a few more peaks and troughs before the final bell.

Still, like I said, it isn’t really about the boxing, it’s about character (in every sense), whether that’s expressed by being a nice guy about the neighbourhood, refusing to break someone’s thumbs despite your boss telling you to, being resolute in pursuit of the girl of your dreams, running up a flight of steps a lot, or just being punched in the head two hundred and thirty times and still refusing to fall over. It may be that the reason why the Rocky series has retained the ability to keep bouncing back and producing surprisingly credible entries is simply because it started off as a straightforward, seriously-intended drama, rather than anything more brash or generic. I honestly thought Creed would mark the end of the road for this particular story, but as this original reminds us, you should never assume Rocky is out for the count.

 

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‘You’re the first person who’s called it Rocky VII,’ said the guy at the sweetshop, looking amused. (The larger city centre Odeon has undergone yet another refurb to abolish its actual ticket desk entirely, which only confirms the subliminal message the place gives off: namely, that it’s a place which is mainly in the business of selling drinks and snacks of various kinds, with the showing of the odd film an occasional sideline.) Well, look, it’s about characters from the Rocky series, it has ‘The Rocky Legacy‘ prominently on the poster, and – fercryinoutloud – it even features a very prominent appearance from Sylvester Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa. Calling the damn thing Rocky VII strikes me as entirely reasonable.

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However, the name on the title card is Creed. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, and you might initially be a bit wary of the whole enterprise, given the current tendency for every once-profitable franchise to be disinterred and returned to theatres via some kind of cinematic necromancy. Frankly, I thought they were pushing it with the release of Rocky Balboa (aka, you guessed it, Rocky VI), nearly ten years ago. At the time a friend asked me what I thought that movie was going to be like, quality-wise. ‘Depends on whether or not he gets beaten to death,’ I said, because you can only suspend disbelief so far, and a movie about a pushing-60 restauranteur taking on the world heavyweight boxing champion and lasting more than 30 seconds is already making unreasonable demands of the audience, I would say.

But back to Creed, which concerns the illegitimate posthumous progeny of Rocky’s opponent/rival/friend Apollo Creed from the first four movies, played by Carl Weathers (not appearing here, for obvious reasons). Said child’s name is Adonis, or Donnie, and the lad has something of a rough childhood – having your father beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in a crude piece of Reaganite propaganda can have that effect on you, I suppose.

Anyway, having been adopted by Mrs Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Donnie grows up to be Michael B Jordan, who must be terribly relieved he already had this movie in the pipeline following his participation in the catastrophic Fantastic Four adaptation last year. Donnie decides to pack in his job and have a go at being a boxer like his dad was, but no-one in his native Los Angeles will train him. What else has an aspiring pugilist to do but head off to Philadelphia and persuade his father’s great rival to be his trainer…?

Twist my arm and I will admit that I have perhaps been a bit glib and flippant about this movie so far, perhaps even more than usual, and that this is largely because of its connection with the six (extremely variable) previous Rocky films. But to suggest that Creed should be treated as a standalone film, solely on its own merits, strikes me as being a mite disingenuous: the film trades heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original characters and their stories, and it’s the contrast between the day-to-day naturalism of Donnie’s life and the almost mythic backstory of the film that gives it much of its traction.

On a more technical level, you could certainly argue that the early section of the film is very contrived – just why does Donnie decide to pack in a very good job in favour of getting beaten half to death on a regular basis? Just why is it that no-one will train someone with his obvious talent? The film doesn’t quite work hard enough to explain these things, preferring to just get on with it. You could, I suppose, also have a go at some parts of the film for their excessive sentimentality, but then if you’re going to criticise a Rocky film for being sentimental you clearly haven’t quite worked out the rules of engagement here.

The fact is that, once you accept it’s going to be sentimental in places and the story is going to be an archetypal journey featuring no real surprises, Creed is actually an extremely effective film. The sillier excesses of past films in the series are discreetly passed over (the exact circumstances of Apollo Creed’s death are passed over, we just hear that he died in the ring), and this is a sensible, serious drama about a young man following his dream, pursuing a largely convincing romance (Tessa Thompson plays his love interest), and forging a quasi-paternal relationship. That this prompts Rocky himself to reconnect with the world is handled pleasingly, and Stallone’s performance is extremely creditable, although the script does seem tailored to his strengths.

Of course, every Rocky film has to conclude with a bruising encounter in the ring, and Creed is no exception, as Donnie, Rocky, and their team jet off to Liverpool to take on the world champion. (I suppose you could write a thesis on how the different Rocky movies reflect changes in real-world boxing – Apollo Creed in the first film was a charismatic showman, clearly based on Ali, while the main opponent here is an unpleasant, heavily-tattooed thug.) The film does just enough to make it plausible that a tyro fighter like Donnie would be taking on such a prominent figure.

And the actual fight sequences in this film are excellent – Coogler opts to depict an early fight via what appears to be a single unbroken take, but the climactic battle is a bit more traditional in every sense, and would be very much at home in any of the other films (for a long time I was convinced we weren’t going to get to hear the famous Rocky fanfare at all, but it shows up at a key moment here, with the kind of impact you’d expect). I must confess by this point the film had completely won me over and I was really caught up in the story, which, if nothing else, shows that this is a very good film that does everything it sets out to.

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it. This film has less of a valedictory feel to it than Rocky Balboa, but even so I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the final round for this particular franchise (an extraordinarily unwise prediction, given the state of modern cinema, I know). If so, it is finishing on a definite high.

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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.

The-Expendables-3-wallpaper

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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Well, as you may have noticed, the awards season is in full swing and the Oscars themselves are nearly upon us. One of the main contenders, in terms of some of the acting categories at least, is Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest film. Of course, whenever the spotlight settles upon Allen these days one is inevitably reminded of the uncomfortable blot on his biography (and I’m not talking about Everyone Says I Love You). Even looking back into the most distant recesses of Allen’s back catalogue, you can’t quite dismiss from your mind the allegations made against the film-maker by his ex-wife, and it surely behooves any self-respecting, serious writer to make some comment on this matter, even if only to make their own position clear.

bananas

But anyway, off to those distant recesses for 1971’s Bananas, only Woody Allen’s second film as director, which finds him firmly in Early, Funny mode. Allen is playing his usual nebbish New Yorker, on this occasion named Fielding Mellish (not that it really matters: it’s Allen doing his standard schtick throughout). Fielding’s life as a tester of new inventions for a big corporation goes through a bit of a change when he gets involved with Nancy (Louise Lasser, another of Allen’s exes), a committed political activist. In an attempt to impress her he gets mixed up in the political travails of the small Latin American country of San Marcos, even joining the revolutionary forces attempting to overthrow the government there. Wacky antics ensue.

For anyone only familiar with Allen’s work from, say, the late 1970s onwards, watching Bananas would probably constitute a bracing slap in the face, for only the smallest signs of Allen’s distinctive style are present here. This isn’t just a straightforward comedy film – it’s a comedy film that is clearly prepared to leave no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored, no depth unplumbed in order to secure its laughs. Characterisation and plot are very secondary concerns, and let’s not even contemplate realism. From the pre-credits sequence, in which the assassination of San Marcos’ president is televised in the style of a sporting event (there is even a cameo by someone called Howard Cosell, who I am assured was a famous commentator at the time), to the – er- climax, when the consummation of Fielding and Nancy’s relationship is given the same treatment, this often feels more like a string of comedy sketches than a narrative film.

And, as a result, the film feels a bit all over the place – on paper it looks like Allen doing an attempt at political satire, but much of it barely qualifies as such. There is, for example, a droll slapstick sequence poking fun at the way people are prepared to ignore street crime as long as they are not personally threatened, which is simply in there because it’s funny. This sequence, by the way, is the one ensuring Bananas‘ existence as the subject of many a trivia question, simply because it features Allen on-screen alongside a 25-year-old, and uncredited, Sylvester Stallone. (Neither of them, at this point, is showing much sign of developing into a screen icon.)

There’s a lot of slapstick in Bananas, and a lot of sight gags of varying quality too. Allen’s trademark one-liners are thinner on the ground than you’d expect, too: in fact, the general tone of the humour in Bananas is so broad that it barely feels like an Allen movie at all. I know that Sleeper is supposedly Allen’s tribute to the work of Benny Hill, but it’s this film that features his least-discriminating, most dubious material – told to learn jungle camouflage, Allen disguises himself as a shrub, which someone else promptly comes and pees on, while after being told that the correct response to a snakebite is to suck out the poison, Allen encounters a distressed female rebel whom a snake has bitten upon the breasts – she is, of course, pursued around the camp by Allen and every other man there. Least comfortable of all is the punchline to a sketch where Allen pretends to be reading Time magazine while actually checking out the porno mag next to it on the shelf – buying it, he claims ‘It’s for research purposes – I’m studying perversion. I’m up to Advanced Child Molesting.’ By any standards, this is a dubious line, but in this case… well, let’s just say I’m prepared to bet it’s not on the Oscar tribute showreel.

The temptation, therefore, is to dismiss Bananas as not much more than juvenilia, someone still in the very early stages of discovering themselves as a film-maker. But this is still a film which is highly-regarded simply as a piece of comedy, and one could certainly argue that in its historical context it’s much less incongruous. The patchy mixture of wit and absurd slapstick isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing that the Monty Python team were producing in the UK at exactly the same time (their first movie was released in 1971, as well), while you could equally well say that it’s in the same tradition as Duck Soup and other Marx brothers movies.

So, I think the best thing you can say about Bananas is that it shows Woody Allen trying his hardest to be a comedian rather than a film-maker. In comparison to even the next few films he would make, it’s inevitably a little disappointing, but this just speaks to their quality and Allen’s success in finding a more naturalistic outlet for his humour. Bananas is often a bit too silly to be really funny – as an Early, Funny film, it’s more the former than the latter.

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Ah, the film career of Jason Statham: or as I always think of it, the gift that keeps on giving. While there is inevitably a shadow over the prospects of Mr Statham’s highest-profile release for 2014, Fast and Furious 7, this year has been a good one for Shirebrook’s most famous son – by which I mean that none of his films has been an Expendables, and one of them (Hummingbird) was genuinely really good. Now, with the Christmas season upon us, we have one last treat featuring the great man (and a supporting cast of actors whom, it must said, once looked set for better things than secondary roles in mid-budget genre movies).

This is not to say that Gary Fleder’s Homefront is by any stretch of the imagination a family-friendly Christmas movie. As you might expect, it is rather too high both in terms of its people-beaten-to-a-pulp quotient and effing-and-jeffing-o-meter for that. A higher-minded friend of mine might even find himself moved to describe it as another ‘dystopian opera of urban pain’ were it not for the fact that much of it takes place in the countryside.

Homefront_Poster

Jason Statham plays, as ever, the Jason Statham Character, who in this film is in his maverick cop incarnation: an uproariously silly opening sequence sees him working undercover with a gang of meth-dealing bikers (crystal meth is so modish these days), before taking them down in a shootout and bike chase that leaves the substance of his wig wholly unruffled.

Thankfully, at this point the film calms down and the action relocates to rural Louisiana, two years later. Following the unelaborated-upon death of his wife, the Jason Statham Character has retired to the remote countryside to raise his young daughter and renovate a rattly old house. Louisiana looks beautiful and for most of the movie, the direction is moody and effective, picking up on the details of small-town life.

One of the neater twists in the script is the way that what looks like a minor character moment actually turns out to be the inciting incident for the entire plot of the film: the local school bully tries to pick on Statham’s daughter and, being her father’s girl, she promptly lamps him. Statham is called in for a meeting with the school counsellor (Rachelle Lefevre), following which the other kid’s parents confront him, so he promptly goes in for a spot of lamping himself.

This does not sit well with the mother of the bully (an almost unrecognisable Kate Bosworth, whose A-list career was a casualty of the great Superman Returns disaster), who realises that her useless husband is not up to the task of restoring the family honour. So she gets on the phone to her brother Gator (James Franco). Gator is the local drugs manufacturer, but it’s his credentials as a general headcase that she’s more interested in. Through his girlfriend (Winona Ryder) he happens to have connections with some of the gangs that Statham, in his former life, was such a nuisance to, which may prove pertinent to the unfolding plot…

Now, it would really be stretching a point to claim that Homefront is anything more than a competently-made mid-range genre movie, but it does a very effective job of balancing the action and thriller beats this kind of film requires with a clever and coherent script that – for the most part – departs from the planet Earth no more than is absolutely necessary. I see the actual screenplay is based on a novel by Chuck Logan, but written for the screen by and up-and-coming young talent named… hang on a minute, let me check my notes… Sylvester Stallone. (Sylvester, huh? Sounds like a bookish, sensitive young chap.) Well, young Stallone me laddo, if you’re reading this, the script for Homefront is really quite good, and you have a great future ahead of you as a screenwriter – but I would still be careful not to get stuck in the action movie ghetto.

The film tries especially hard to make the escalation from playground clash of egos to full-auto matter of life and death seem half-way credible, and it succeeds up to a point. Unfortunately the story not only requires Statham to keep a massive personal arsenal under his bed (somewhat at odds with the careful nature of the character on this occasion), but also to have detailed files on all his past cases lying unsecured around the house, so this is at most rather qualified success.

Anyone hoping for another instance of Mr Statham really stretching himself as a performer, a la Hummingbird, is probably going to be disappointed, too. The closest thing to an innovation in his characterisation here is making him a single parent, and even here one is inevitably reminded of his relationship with Catherine Chan in last year’s Safe. This is yet another movie which ducks the possibility of giving Statham an actual on-screen romance, although there are hints of something potentially on the cards with Lefevre’s character. In the end it really just boils down to Statham doing his usual thing with his usual facility – the hard-man-code-of-honour-soft-side-no-nonsense-wise-cracking-one-liner thing. The fights are good this time, as are the one-liners (the best one comes at the end of a three-against-one fight and goes: ‘When I get home tonight, I’m going to tell my daughter a story. And this is how it ends:‘ *KER-THWOK*).

A definite plus to the movie, however, is the presence of James Franco as the chief antagonist. Franco’s not the most obvious choice of opponent for Statham, and I’ve been fairly rude about his acting on occasion in the past, but he manages to give Gator a dead-pan quirkiness that lifts him above the level of the stereotyped bad guy he could very easily have been. He’s an oddly likeable character, initially at least, even though the film also makes it quite clear that in many ways he’s an irredeemable scumbag.

But there isn’t anything particularly outstanding about Homefront – it’s a film of extremely modest ambitions that manages to hit the targets it sets itself in a highly polished and competent way. It’s a Jason Statham action thriller. It’s a pretty good Jason Statham action thriller, with a relatively sensible plot and decent performances. But it still doesn’t transcend the limits of the genre in any meaningful sense worth mentioning. I had a good time watching it, but then I would – and I suspect that in a few years time I’ll struggle to remember which scenes were in this one, as opposed to The Mechanic or Parker. A solid movie, but basically meat-and-potatoes stuff for Mr Statham and his fans.

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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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