Monday, August 30, 2010

The Expendables: Is It Worth The Spendables?

I've read on a few forums, blogs and sites that it is a travesty that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was trounced in the box office by The Expendables. The argument has been that the former is a cutting edge and innovative film that provides some fresh air to the stagnant Hollywood scene while the latter is an example of Hollywood retreading tiresome film tropes. I haven't seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (but I really want to), but I can safely say there is probably a reason why it didn't fare well against The Expendables. It is the same reason why I went out to see The Expendables with my father rather than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The Expendables was a giant, explosion fueled, blood letting, love letter to 80s action films. Many males (and some females too) hovering around my age or older look back fondly upon the cliche ridden and senselessly violent action films of the 80s. This is who The Expendables marketed their film to, and this is exactly who they ended up getting to cram themselves into cinemas across the continent.

It is obvious that The Expendables was successful in marketing, and getting aging males to part with their sacred cash. The biggest question is, should the person on the fence about the movie take the time and spend the money to see this film?

As I've already clearly established, The Expendables is beyond a shadow of doubt an homage to countless of 80s actions films that I'm sure several of you were raised on in your vital growing years (and what better way to be raised then with Sly and Arnie's bulging biceps and constantly blasting machine guns? It just made the world so much safer). It never tries to deny the fact that it is an 80s action film with 2010's special effects. Though at times, it may be in denial that it's an action film with largely 80s stars with 2010 bodies and age. Then again, despite saying that, this is not a film that ever takes itself too seriously and you get the impression most of the stars are just having fun being in the spotlight with this type of setting again (and budget, in the case of those previously delegated to straight to DVD hell).

The audience ends up having a lot of fun too, especially if they have a large collection of 80 action film DVDs. The plot, setting, dialogue, characters, pacing and almost everything else, is directly transplanted from the 80s. Tell me if you heard this one before. A bunch of heroes for hire need to stop a ruthless dictator, of a (fictional) South American island, who's strings are being pulled by a vile but rich American rogue agent. If you didn't know the plot of The Expendables, you may have spouted off countless of other action films that likely were made in the 80s, and probably chock full with blood and things that go boom. This is further proof that the movie being made was clearly an 80s film with gussied up effects. This isn't a bad thing because nostalgia can be nice, especially when the piece recognizes it is nostalgia (rather than trying to pass it off as a reimagining or fresh).

Before we get any further, it is true this film is littered with iconic action stars. Actually, it is only missing a few that defined the genre such as Norris, Seagal, Van Damme, and Darkwing Duck (though I'd argue it does have all the big stars that were a part of the true blockbuster action films from the decade). It even contains some more modern stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture (UFC stars) and Steve Austin (former WWE icon). But despite the all star cast, this really is a Sylvester Stallone action film. This is made very clear if you read the opening credits which reveal him as the star, co-writer, and director. As someone who loves the Rocky series, the Rambo series, and Cobra, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Though you must be aware that Stallone has a very distinctive style, and it is in abundance here. If you know a Stallone film, then you will undoubtedly be leaving the theatre shaking your head with the knowledge you've seen a production smothered with his 'charm' and 'style'.

Stallone likes his action films to have a 'message'. I put message in quotations because I really think the man believes his films are deeper and more impactful than they ever can be. I am sure this is a side effect of the original Rocky being a legitimate box office mega hit that attracted droves of males (and their kicking and screaming wives), but also being a film that strutted away with the Best Picture in 1976. Ever since, it appears Stallone has tried to make a guy pleasing action flick that also provides profound meaning and life lesson. He wants his films to be deeper than your typical action film. What this usually means is you have a film jammed with awesome action, but then takes about a 5 minute intermission in the film where the main star gives some speech about the law protecting criminals instead of the innocent or how society looks down on a soldier who protected them or how it's awful his wife always yells at him for leaving the toilet seat up (which I believe will be the message for his 2011 mega hit Tough Guys Who Shoot Stuff While Being Ridiculously Cool). The message is always terribly tacked on, but I'd be incredibly devastated if Stallone ever felt it needed to be left out. It is his calling card, and it is very cheesy (and will never earn him another Oscar), but I love it just the same (just like the neighbourhood loon who feels he is fending off the aliens by running around in his undies at 3 in the morning). The Expendables does not disappoint the Stallone film legacy.

Actually, to really define this film properly, it is essentially Rambo again, except with more than just an army of one. It is still a mercenary (and his buddies) going down to an exotic local to bloody up some foreigners and save some peasants along the way. Of course, these are mercenaries who have lost their hope and soul along the way, but this one act is their true chance at redemption. So yeah, it is basically Rambo and several other films from the 80s, but its unoriginality is also the biggest part of its charm. It is like the film equivalent of comfort food. This is something you're familiar with, and you are pretty sure what is going to happy before (and your almost always right), but there is also something very pleasing about that.

There are two things in this film that don't measure up with my memories of 80s action and hurt it partly because of it. The first, is that this film unfortunately is filmed just like almost every other action film that is on the market right now -- or have been on the market ever since movies like Matrix and Bourne Identity became huge. During action scenes, there is the annoying habit of the camera to fly all over the place, and cause half the audience to get nauseous while watching. You know that the two guys are fighting, but you only know this, because you see arms and legs flail all over the place, rather than actually see people fighting. It is a trend that has been going strong for almost 10 years now. I know that Hollywood believes it makes their action films seem super cool and stylistic, but I think it just makes them annoying as hell. I'd really have loved this 80s homage film to do their action scenes closer to the 80s style. You know, where you see the guys actually fighting face to face. This film also has a habit of using their special effects too much, which means when a guy does a charge he is now flying through the air, or men get attacked by cartoon flames. Things like this really took away from the 80s nostalgia vibe, and reminded me, I was watching a film in 2010 (with really old action stars).

The second annoyance was the lack of chemistry between the cast. Now, this isn't with the entire cast, but it was very prevalent between the main good guys. Actions films are at its best when you've got your witty one liners and the interplay between the main good guys (for example, Lethal Weapon's appeal is largely how Gibson and Glover played off each other). Unfortunately, you didn't sense the same type of connection between Stallone and Stathem (the two top billed stars of the film), and you felt it even less with the other guys on the good guys team. There was a lot of one liners that really bombed when I was in the theatre, as you could hear a pin drop while jokes were apparently being cracked on the screen. The buddying around between the stars almost seemed forced rather than natural, which is pretty important when you're trying to make a buddy style action film.

The Expendables
is far from perfect, and definitely has flaws that drag it down by a bit. At the same time, it is probably the most fun I've had with an action film in a long time. It was great being able to see icons like Stallone, Li, Ludgren, and Rourke share the screen. Eric Roberts was a genius decision as the vile, rich, American turncoat, and played the perfect sleazy villain we all remember in 80s films. I think, Austin did a fantastic job as the muscle for the evil Roberts. Without a doubt, one of my favourite scenes in a long time was the interplay between Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger (and any action fan had to appreciate the cameo by Willis and the Governator). In the end, there was way more positives in this film than negatives. I enjoyed my bloody and explosive trip down memory lane. Though, I definitely got my 80s retro fix, which means there would need to be something pretty special for me to be interested in the sequel (which is inevitable considering the cash it raked in)

I definitely encourage all fans of the action filled 80s to give it a peak, and I promise it will be a fun ride. As long as you promise to leave your brain at the door, but as an 80s action fan, obviously you knew that already.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:24 pm

    Well said. This is definately not a movie for everyone. No plot twists (well none that are not telegraphed), no layered stories and messages, short on iconograp, but loaded with all the elements of the past. It is a burger with only meat for toppins. No lettuce (though I enjoy lettuce on burgers), no onions, no tomatoes... only meat.

    Scott

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  2. Yeah but bacon on a burger is delicious too. Sometimes, you just want that extra patty instead of all those watery veggies. Oh, but this burger does have one topping for sure. It had cheese. Lots of cheese.

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  3. I see a lot of comparisons over the net between Bourne's movies and this one. I don't think it's exactly the same genre. This movie is perhaps closer to the Rush Hour Trilogy

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  4. Yeah, this movie is far more 'tongue in cheek' and trying to capture a totally different feel than Bourne Identity. I still think the best description is if Rambo was small army rather than one man (but with a bit more humour tossed in). It attempts to be an 80s style film, while Bourne Identity is clearly trying to be cutting edge and modern.

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