Friday, December 12, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Through the Mud, Sh-t, and Blood

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Cody strong-arms the Expendables trilogy.


THE EXPENDABLES (2010)

In the years between the time when Quentin Tarantino first announced that he was going to be making a World War II "men on a mission" film and when that film, Inglourious Basterds, finally went into production, there were a lot of rumors spreading around that Tarantino was going to use his war movie's cast to unite the action heroes of the '80s. It was going to be something like an Ocean's Eleven of action. Sylvester Stallone might finally be sharing the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger! The first actor to be cast as one of the men on Tarantino's mission was Brad Pitt. Okay, that works, now what superstars are going to be surrounding him? Well... no offense to the likes of Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and Paul Rust, but they just weren't the sort of names the years of anticipation had led us to expect. Inglourious Basterds turned out just fine without the '80s action stars, but thankfully Stallone himself picked up the slack and decided to pursue the approach that ultimately didn't serve Tarantino's story. Stallone embarked on making his own "men on a mission" movie, one which could be sold on the last names of its stars alone.

The Expendables began its life as a spec script written by David Callaham, screenwriter on the cinematic adaptation of the Doom video game. Stallone took that spec script and rewrote it as a directing project for himself, one which could be the start of a new franchise for him now that Rocky and Rambo were in their last days.


Stallone stars as Barney Ross, leader of the titular Expendables, a team of mercenaries who travel the world in Ross's personal plane, a customized Grumman HU-16 Albatross, doing whatever dangerous job they're getting paid handsomely to do. For example, the opening sequence of the film shows the team working for an unnamed company to rescue a boatload of hostages from Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The Expendables have been operating for quite a while and have gone through different line-ups, but the team currently consists of Ross, Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (MMA fighter Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Ross's right hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham). Movies like The Magnificent Seven and Young Guns have shown us that any group of protagonists needs a knife thrower, and Christmas fills that requirement for this group.


The mission in Somalia does not go as planned, thanks to the erratic behavior of the drug-addled and burnt out Gunnar. Gunnar's issues and his dislike for Yin Yang continue to be a problem throughout the film, even after (especially after) he gets booted from the team.

The team is based in New Orleans, where a former member called Tool (Mickey Rourke), who was the group's knife guy before Christmas, receives their job offers at the tattoo parlor he runs. Three offers come in soon after the Expendables are back in New Orleans, two "a walk in the park" and one "to hell and back". Of course, Ross is most interested in the latter.

Ross's interest in the job takes him to a meeting with a government agent in a small church. This agent doesn't give his name, telling Ross to simply call him Mr. Church, and Ross isn't the only mercenary up for the gig. His rival and former teammate Trench Mauser is also meeting with Church at the same time... This scene was heavily featured in the film's promotional materials due to the fact that Church and Trench are portrayed by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, respectively. Willis and Schwarzenegger don't get involved with the action in this film, this dialogue scene in the church is their only appearance, but it is a momentous occasion. Three of the biggest action stars of all time, the guys behind Planet Hollywood, finally sharing the screen.

It's a special scene, it was a major selling point, and yet the Stallone-Willis-Schwarzenegger scene could also be used as an example of my biggest issue with the film. The way it was shot is absolutely maddening to me. Stallone was way too fond of extreme close-ups during the making of this. Even though these three titans are in the same room, there is no clear shot of all three of them on the screen at the same time. Instead, there's an overabundance of shots featuring individual talking heads. Pull the camera back!

The job, which Ross gets when Trench turns it down for being too crazy, is to travel to the island of Vilena in the Gulf of Mexico and assassinate its ruthless dictator, General Garza (David Zayas), getting him out of the way so Church and "his people" can have free access to Vilena and its resources.

If the mission goes wrong, it will mean the Expendables taking on the Vilena military, which numbers a couple hundred men, on their own. And there's more going on here than meets the eye. There always is. The true power on the island isn't Garza but former CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who with his henchmen Paine ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels) watching his back and enforcing his will has bought out the dictator with the intention of producing cocaine on the island.


Realizing the breadth of the situation while on a recon mission, Ross and Christmas are tempted to follow Trench's example and give up on Vilena. Problem is, during their time on the island they met Garza's daughter Sandra (Giselle ItiƩ), who wants to see her home go back to the way it was before Munroe's arrival. It's Ross's soft spot for her that eventually brings the Expendables back to Vilena to wage a small war on its military forces in an attempt to drive Munroe out and save the island's people.

Amid all the testosterone, there are also some attempts at character development: the Gunnar storyline, mentions that Toll Road goes to therapy for avoidant personality disorder and Yin Yang needs money to support his family, Christmas is hurt and shocked when the girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) he hasn't bothered to get in contact with for a month dumps him. The strongest dramatic moment belongs to Mickey Rourke as Tool, who delivers a monologue about a life-changing event he experienced in Bosnia. For my money, that monologue is the best scene in the movie.


The story written out by Callaham and Stallone is a perfectly simple and straightforward set-up for the '80s action throwback that The Expendables is, one which allows for copious amounts of gunfire, explosions, physical altercations, and chase sequences. Bodies are pummeled with fists and feet and blown to pieces with high-powered artillery (aided by CGI) as our heroes save the day in entertaining and exciting fashion.

The aggravating shooting style Stallone chose for this film continues through its action sequences, but they still manage to serve their exhilarating purpose well enough.

When I first saw The Expendables four years ago, I was a bit disappointed with it, because I had been riding too high on the hype of it bringing all these big names together. I wanted a better, more well-shot movie to be built around them, one that didn't have such groan-worthy lines in it. The Expendables has a sense of humor, but it's not a clever one. With some distance, looking at it as the first entry in an ongoing franchise, I get more enjoyment out of it as a minor distraction of an action flick, and the more I think of it, the more appropriate it seems that it has such groan-inducing dialogue. Of course an '80s throwback action movie would have bad laugh lines, everyone was telling bad jokes back in the '80s.

If The Expendables series actually had come out in the '80s, it's not hard to imagine that there would have been a Saturday morning Expendables cartoon as well. Even Rambo got his own cartoon back then, and this property is ripe to be adapted for animation. A team of action heroes with their own logo (a raven perched atop a human skull) and dopey codenames flying around from place to place in a plane equipped with machine guns? The Expendables is essentially Stallone being given a healthy budget to play G.I. Joe.



THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012)

The secret of the band of mercenaries at the core of the Sylvester Stallone-led Expendables franchise is that they are actually total dweebs. This is clear in their interactions with each other, their dorky dialogue, the fact that they think it's cool to have things like "Bad Attitude" stenciled on the side of their armored vehicles. Despite the fact that the series is carried by a bunch of uncool middle-aged characters, it's still fun to watch them crack skulls, mow down bad guys, and splatter CGI blood all over the place... Well, I'm not really fond of CGI blood, but the rest is neat.

Mickey Rourke's character Tool from the first movie, the former Expendable who now fields the group's job offers, didn't come back for the sequel, but all the rest returned for part 2 - Sylvester Stallone as top dog Barney Ross, Jason Statham as his knife-throwing sidekick Lee Christmas, Terry Crews as Hale Caesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road, Dolph Lundgren as Gunnar Jensen, and Jet Li as Yin Yang. The film drops them right into the action with a mission in the Sindhupalchowk district of Nepal that's full of gunfire and explosions. The team is in Nepal to rescue a Chinese billionaire from heavily armed forces, and in the process they also save rival mercenary Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who got captured during his own attempt to save the billionaire.


During this sequence, Jet Li is given a fight scene to perform in that's better than anything he had to do in the original film... and it's a good thing that he was given such a scene, because he exits the picture after this, parachuting with the rescued billionaire into China from Ross's personal plane (between movies he switched from a Grumman HU-16 Albatross to a Canadair CL-215).

New to the Expendables is Liam Hemsworth as sniper Billy the Kid, whose ability is also showcased during the opening action. After having to kill a whole bunch of people, Billy starts to question whether this whole mercenary thing is really for him. He's just trying to make money so he can be with his girlfriend in France. Billy won't be around for long, but he doesn't get a graceful exit like Yin Yang did.

Billy the Kid's fate plays an important role in the inciting incident for this film's story, which was crafted by Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys), David Agosto (whose only previous credit is a 1999 short film) and Richard Wenk (16 Blocks) and fleshed out into a screenplay by Wenk and Stallone.

The primary mission begins when the shady government agent known as Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) comes back into Ross's life with a complaint that makes no sense - even though the Expendables accomplished exactly what Church wanted them to in the original film, he's upset with them for it, claiming they stole five million dollars from him, which is what he paid them to do what they did. He wants the group to make it up to him by flying to Albania's Gasak Mountains to retrieve something from a safe in a downed aircraft. Church sends along another operative to help gain access to the safe - Nan Yu as Maggie.

Arriving at the aircraft, the team discovers that the safe contains a hot item, a device that reveals the location of five tons of plutonium that was stored away at the end of the Cold War, and the Expendables aren't the only ones there to get it. Another group of mercenaries are also on the scene.


The name of the leader of the second group makes it very clear what his part is in this story and who the role was written for. His name is Jean Vilain. Played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, he is indeed the villain of this piece, and Van Damme is a delight in the role. Backed up by his mercenary henchmen and with his right hand man Hector (Scott Adkins) at his side, Vilain threatens Billy the Kid's life to force the Expendables to hand over the device, then kills him anyway once he has it.

At that point, The Expendables 2 officially becomes a revenge tale. Ross and his men pursue Vilain and his men to Bulgaria to stop him from selling off the plutonium but mainly to avenge the murder of Billy the Kid. More gunfire, explosions, fisticuffs ensue.

The Expendables had been a disappointment to me upon my initial viewing of it in 2010, but I was still on board to check out the sequel when it was released two years later, and I'm glad I did. The Expendables 2 is much closer to being the movie I was hoping the first would be, and it's an improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way.

The improvement starts with the screenplay, which is actually more well written, with a great flow and less painful dialogue. The improvement continues on with the choice of director - Stallone had directed part 1, and the close-up filled shooting style he had chosen for it annoyed me deeply. He decided to sit this one out, with Simon West (Con Air, the When a Stranger Calls remake) replacing him at the helm. West's career hasn't appealed too much to me overall, but he certainly did a better job on this film than Stallone did on the previous one. From dramatic scenes to the action scenes, The Expendables 2 is shot better and more stylishly.


The sequel also does even more to fulfill the "action stars united" promise of the franchise. Although their presence in the first movie had been a selling point, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger had only been featured in one short, poorly shot dialogue scene. This time around they get to take part in the action, joining the Expendables for their climactic battle with Vilain's forces. And when Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger share a scene in this one, you even get to see all three of them on the screen at once! Thank you, Simon West!

Also joining in is Chuck Norris as legendary mercenary Booker, a.k.a. the Lone Wolf, who just happens to be lurking around in Bulgaria so he can show up at just the right moments when he's needed to pull the Expendables out of the fire. Buying into the internet's "Chuck Norris facts" view of the man, the film treats Norris with such reverence that he's lifted to a near mythological level.

A highly entertaining throwback to '80s action and the heyday of most of the actors involved, The Expendables 2 isn't quite on the level of the classics some of its stars had in theatres thirty or so years ago, but it is a great movie to put on when you're in the mood for some shoot 'em up excitement.



THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

While heading into development on the third installment in his old school action hero team-up franchise, Sylvester Stallone talked of the need for a part 3 to shake things up, and even hinted that he was considering dropping the titular group of mercenaries into a different genre. However, the finished film, written by Stallone in collaboration with Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, the husband and wife screenwriting pair behind Olympus Has Fallen (in my opinion, by far the better of last year's competing "Die Hard in the White House" projects), is pretty much business as usual.

The movie opens with back-to-back action sequences, the first of which sees Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) and the team's current roster - Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture returning as Lee Christmas, Gunnar Jensen, and Toll Road respectively - pulling off an explosive side mission realized with dodgy CG effects to rescue Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), one of the original Expendables, from the prison he's been stuck in for the last eight years.

Other than Ross, none of the current Expendables have ever met Doctor Death before, but he gets right back into the swing of things when they meet up with the other current member of the group, Terry Crews reprising the role of Hale Caesar, for a mission in Somalia. His time behind bars hasn't slowed him down any.

The job is to stop an arms dealer who's delivering a shipment of thermobaric bombs, but Ross is shocked when he gets a look at the guy. It's someone he and Doctor Death know very well: Expendables co-founder Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). A man long thought dead, killed by Ross after he went rogue. Apparently Ross messed that one up.

The second action sequence is, unlike the awkward first one, intense and exciting, and the revelation that the villain is a man with intimate knowledge of the workings of the Expendables and a history with Ross, Doctor Death, and, as we soon find out, rival mercenary Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is an intriguing set-up. The drive to bring Stonebacks to justice is further intensified by the fact that he very nearly kills the Expendables during their first encounter and manages to severely injure Hale Caesar. This could have led into a much more powerful action revenge tale than what follows. Instead, Stallone and his collaborators take this build-up and immediately let the air out of the balloon.


Rather than go to battle with Stonebacks with men who have passion, determination, and a personal reason to bring the arms dealer down, Ross disbands the Expendables and goes off on a talent scout with a man called Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) so he can assemble a team of new, younger members. Ross's reasoning for this is highly questionable - he openly states that he doesn't want to see his buddies die in the line of duty and is gathering these youngsters for what he believes is a suicide mission. Thanks, jerk.

The next generation of Expendables consists of Thorn (Glen Powell), an expert hacker and rock climbing enthusiast; undefeated UFC fighter Ronda Rousey as close quarters combatant Luna; boxer Victor Oriz as weapons developer Mars; and Smilee (Kellan Lutz), a professional soldier.

Using intel provided by CIA agent Drummer (Harrison Ford as a character who replaces Ross's former CIA contact, Bruce Willis as Mr. Church, after Willis was, as Stallone famously said, "greedy and lazy" and demanded too much money), the new Expendables track Stonebanks down in Bucharest and, utilizing their modern skills, manage to capture him.

With an arms dealer in the custody of their heroes, the filmmakers reveal themselves to be big fans of Mission: Impossible III, as there's a scene with Stonebanks and the Expendables in a van that is very reminiscent of a scene in an airplane in the M:I movie, although during it neither the lines Mel Gibson is given to speak nor his delivery of them is as memorable as anything Philip Seymour Hoffman did eight years ago. Setting the scene in a van allows the movie to segue into a version of another sequence from M:I III, which ends with Barney Ross enduring something similar to what happened to James Bond at the end of Skyfall's opening title sequence. I guess this was the homage portion of the film.

The newbies are held captive by Stonebacks, setting the stage for a fantastic third act rescue mission action sequence that lasts for approximately 25 minutes and sees all of the heroic characters joining together to take on Stonebanks and the military forces of a fictional country, with Trench, Drummer, a cameoing Jet Li as former Expendable Yin Yang, and Antonio Banderas as exuberantly enthusiastic Expendables hopeful Galgo joining in for good measure.

Unfortunately, the ball is further dropped in the final confrontation with Stonebanks and the only person who knows him who ever comes face-to-face with him is Ross. Stallone fighting Gibson is neat, but wouldn't it have been much cooler to see Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Snipes take Gibson on together?


Another issue I have is that, despite the title, despite the fact that the hunt for Stonebanks was presented as a suicide mission, despite attention being drawn throughout to the dog tags of previous fallen Expendables that Ross keeps hanging in his personal airplane, the movie, like its predecessors, never lets the team suffer casualties. (Billy the Kid in part 2 being the exception.) Hale Caesar could've died instead of being injured. The new batch of members easily could have been wiped out. But The Expendables movies always hold back. Only the bad guys fall in the field and the Expendables live happily ever after.

I wouldn't have batted an eye to see the new recruits get killed, because they barely registered as characters at all to me. An attempt is made to present Smilee as something of a standout, but there's just nothing there. It doesn't help that he spends most of his action screen time with a motorcycle helmet on, so he could be anybody. The only one who really makes an impression is Luna, simply because the movie showcases Rousey's fighting skills a couple times, and because of her interactions with Galgo, who takes a shine to her.

It's Galgo who is the best new addition to the roster, thanks to Banderas's incredibly entertaining and humorous performance.

The concept of bringing in new blood extended behind the scenes with the hiring of Patrick Hughes to direct. Before The Expendables 3, Hughes had nothing but a few shorts and the 2010 Australian thriller Red Hill under his belt, but with this film he proves that he is quite capable at making a stylish, action-packed crowd-pleaser. He was handed a project full of issues, but he brought it to the screen the best way he could.

There were some odd choices made in the making of The Expendables 3, it has some awkward pacing and empty characters, but the action is cool when it's happening, the gunfights and fisticuffs are fun and things blow up real good, which is the most important thing in this type of movie.

If you enjoyed the previous Expendables, you'll almost certainly enjoy part 3. If they're not your thing, this one isn't going to change your mind. I've sort of been on neutral ground with the franchise - the first one disappointed me, the second was closer to what I hoped such a movie would be. The third installment falls in the middle for me. Better than the first, not as good as the second.

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