Wherein a cast of mega action stars get together to aid the continuing destruction of their own genre.
Over the last two decades, a new status quo has established itself regarding action scenes: the more incoherent and confusing, the better. Nevermind the mise en scène, nevermind the carefully timed blood squibs, nevermind the steadicam — just tell the cameramen to film two actors flopping about with as much zoom as possible, then hand the footage to the editors, who will proceed to slice it like a cucumber and put the pieces in a blender. This style of filming is nowadays often applied to entire films (such as THE KINGDOM), for the sake of some illusion of realism or intensity that could be obtained by less superficial, more story-driven means. Experienced directors such as Ridley Scott — once a visionary — help perpetuate this stupidity, while less experienced directors such as Marc Forster, when in doubt, go for it as well (such as in QUANTUM OF SOLACE).
Sylvester Stallone not only adopts this style — he makes it worse thanks to his incompetence and lack of ambition. THE EXPENDABLES is supposed to be a homage to 80s action films, yet it looks very much like an aughties one: a visual mess incapable of causing even a hint of excitement, no matter how desperately composer Brian Tyler tries to convince us otherwise with his insistent pulse-pounding action score.
The problems start with the script, since screenwriters Stallone and Dave Callaham don’t even try to craft any interesting set-pieces. Probably assuming nostalgia would be enough, Stallone and Callaham sketch a simplistic plot about a Latin-American dictator manipulated by a CIA bastard and ruining a small Latin-American country of blah blah blah oh look a squirrel. Stallone has a team, comprised of Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren, because if you want to ensure your action film will rock, you call Dolph Lundgren. It worked for THE PUNISHER, didn’t it? Oh, wait.
There’s other action stars scattered around the film as well, including quick participations from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger — and I must say, their scene with Stallone is the one scene in the film that truly works (especially what Stallone says as Schwarzenegger is leaving). It’s good to see The Governator back onscreen. Say what you want about his acting, the man has charisma. And he was in a film that kicks this one’s ass: it was called TRUE LIES, it was directed by James Cameron and it was insanely clever in its stupidity. Now that’s a brilliantly-scripted and ingeniously-directed stupid action film, and Stallone, with the cast he was working with, should have set his standards as high. Instead, they don’t even reach direct-to-rental ambitions.
Take, for example, the scene where Stallone and Statham (you don’t seriously expect me to call them by their character names, right?), piloting a plane, fly over a dock and blow it to pieces along with the soldiers and vehicles on it. If Stallone had any creativity and ambition, he would have done a tracking shot that went from the beginning of the dock to the end of it, following the path of the bullets as they rip the soldiers and their vehicles apart in one single, glorious camera movement (think, for example, that brilliant scene in SHUTTER ISLAND where several men are executed in a flashback). Instead, Stallone and his coked-up editors cut the footage into so many shaky-camera pieces that it gets boring to watch. Let me repeat that, to further emphasize the disaster: Stallone actually manages to make a flyby with Jason Statham ripping a dock to shreds boring. Jason Statham, a rare breed of modern action star (i.e. a competent modern action star), an actor who is always interesting to watch, is rendered dull by Stallone’s complete lack of inspiration.
I should also emphasize that all the action scenes are like this, and they have horrible special effects. No, seriously. This part is so absurd I’m almost willing to believe they’re not and it’s me who’s going blind, but no, the special effects are horrendous. The one thing you can actually see in this film’s chaotic action scenes is how shitty the special effects are. There is a moment when a man is consumed by flames that are so obviously digital I cringed, not because I could see a man burning, but because I couldn’t actually see a man burning, just pretending to be burned. Not to mention Stallone’s dreadful use of CGI blood — yeah, you know what? I give up. I should have simply said that THE EXPENDABLES, a major motion picture in the same year IRON MAN 2 came out, manages to fuck up CGI blood and it would be enough said about the special effects department. It’s a red liquid, you clueless cunts. What’s so difficult to get right about that?
In fact, let me apply this kind of “it can’t get worse than this” logic to the entire film: THE EXPENDABLES has Mickey Rourke, and not even him can save this pathetic, bland and incompetent piece of shit. I’m tired of this new action movie status quo, and when even this film — which was supposed to be a homage to a time when keeping a camera still was okay — is consumed by it, I can’t be expected to have a tolerance level above zero.
There’s an action film playing in theathers right now that is much smarter, much more exciting and a much better use of your time than this one. It’s called INCEPTION, and the seventeen-second action scene with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a hotel hallway is, alone, worth a hundred THE EXPENDABLES.
Originally written on March 10th 2008.
May 14th 2009 commentary: oh, whoops. I had almost forgotten that I had to compile my old reviews from Whitechapel into this blog.
This one is short, but gets the point across — a bit too enthusiastically, though. I like Planet Terror a lot, but not enough to have multiple orgasms over it as this review implies I did.
I fucking loved “Grindhouse”. It was a box office failure, but a high quality one. Tarantino is usually great at paying homage to old stuff, but when he tried to bring it to real life, the result was this: two great films, this one and the exceptional “Death Proof”, being watched by practically no-one in the movies. A man with Tarantino’s vision should have foreseen it wouldn’t work and released the two movies separately.
One of the two “Grindhouse” attractions, “Planet Terror” is a clear homage to trash films. With a zombie story that involves gas and hot chicks, director-screenwriter-composer-younameit Robert Rodriguez has created one of the most entertainingly funny films I’ve seen this year and the previous.
The story is about a gas that leaks, turns everyone into zombies except a group of people who reveal themselves immune to it and a group of military soldiers, who have a container with a gas that counter-acts the zombie gas. Unless they’re inhaling the antidote gas constantly, they’ll turn into zombies too. This being a trash film, obviously it doesn’t take long until all the immune-to-the-zombie-gas characters get together and cause a zombie-killing mayhem.
“Planet Terror” is filled to the brim with elements from trash films: the unbelievably huge sprays of blood after each shot, the ridiculous story, the absurd characters… the difference lies in Robert Rodriguez’ direction. While the screenplay is as trash (and funny) as it can possibly be, Rodriguez refuses to do a purposely bad directing job as well and adds his visual flair to the film, fortunately without calling attention to himself. Directing the action scenes with energy, he’s one of the main reasons this movie’s so fun.
Another reason is the cast. Bruce Willis doesn’t need to do anything, all he has to do is show up in a movie like this and you’ll start laughing already. Naveen Andrews, one of my favorite actors in “Lost” (he plays Sayid Jarrah), is clearly having loads of fun, and his comedy timing is impeccable. Josh Brolin is fucking fantastic, hands down the best in the whole cast. Rose McGowan is beautiful and funny. Freddy Rodriguez is the perfect b-movie action hero. Marley Shelton is brilliant (“Don’t point it at your face, it might go off”). And it’s great to see Michael Biehn again, doing a good job. Quentin Tarantino makes an hilarious appearance and Michael Parks once again plays Sheriff Earl McGraw, a character who shows up constantly in Tarantino’s films.
Not only Rodriguez directs and writes this wonderful piece of shit, he also does loads of other stuff: he has a hand in the special effects, he cuts the whole film, the cinematography is entirely done by him and he even composes the music. The main theme of this film is simply spectacular. The special effects are also surprisingly good, some are bad in purpose, others are excellent (Rose McGowan’s leg, for example).
Filled with hilarious moments and performances and plenty of exaggerated action and gore, “Planet Terror” is an incredibly entertaining homage to trash films. It’s not as good as “Death Proof”, but it’s definitely good.