16 August 2010

Rambo 5 (And Friends!)- THE EXPENDABLES Review

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
Action fans can scarcely have missed this, because the most anticipated throwback in cinemas this summer is The Expendables. The titular mercenaries are played by Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture, so it's a big old clusterfuck of a team-up. They're dispatched to a somewhat fictional South American island to overthrow a dictatorship. No, really, that's it.

If you've been paying attention to the trailers for this film, you'll have noticed the advertising hasn't been heavy on plot. That could mean that it's not giving anything away, which would be good, or it actually means that there isn't much of a plot. I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm wrong, but I thought this should be to action fans what The Five Doctors is to Doctor Who fans, or what the highly anticipated film version of The Avengers will be to Marvel fans. A plot with a central threat and motivation that no single one of these action heroes could have solved on their own, even in their prime, hence the massive collaboration.

Instead, there's a screenplay that bears more than a passing likeness to Rambo, territory we entered just two years ago. Even with a character we knew very well, that film wasn't all that good. And this new one that reminded me as much of Son of Rambow as of Stallone's last outing- the story is the kind of adolescent flight of fancy played so well in that film, but taken much more seriously and done without a flying dog or evil scarecrow.

The difficulty of reviewing The Expendables is in the fact that I'm not going to use the word "awesome" throughout, and that will already get this film's target audience shaking its head and asking what the hell I know anyway. Yeah, it's pretty much review-proof, but hey- I wanted to like this a lot more, so I'll just explain the parts that brought it down for me, and see how that sounds to you.

The violence, which this 15 certificate film was apparently destined to bring back to cinemas in a big way, is pretty routine. I can't deny that the last half hour is a hardcore head-sploding orgasm for action fans, but that's more in choreography than in the actual gore. The gore is cartoonish and, much to my chagrin, CGI. Certain things are done to hundreds of nameless bad guys that you obviously can't do to an actor just to make the film look cool. When have you ever seen CGI fluid dynamics- particularly when blood is involved- done well in live-action? Don't expect The Expendables to be a game-changer on that score.

As you'd suspect from the under-powered plot, it's better in concept than in execution. The promise of bringing a bunch of big action stars together isn't entirely delivered upon, and in any case, there isn't a villain to match up to their combined might. What this needed was a Vernon Wells in Commando or some other over-the-top crazy bad guy right out of the films this is supposed to homage. Crucially, if this had been made in the 1980s or 1990s, it wouldn't be remembered in much higher regard than say, Nighthawks or The Specialist.

And the list of stars who declined to appear is greater than those who consented- bet you miss Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell here, for starters. The arguable highlight is the union of the three properly important action stars of the 1980s- Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm going to tell you in advance, so you're not disappointed- you've seen the most part of Arnie's cameo in the trailer. What remains isn't special. Never fear though, there's still plenty of Randy Couture! No, me neither. There's  already a sequel mooted, potentially with more action stars along for the ride, but Stallone should really think about utilising them better than he did here before he puts pen to paper.

If you're still shaking your head, you can stop now, because it's really not all bad. Jason Statham is relentlessly watchable in any action film he turns his hand to, and regularly upstages the supposed legends, while Jet Li excels in the position of Stallone's old favourite- the underdog. Any fight scene either of these guys appear in is pretty superb, with Li busting out the martial arts and Statham flinging knives like a man possessed. It's also nice to see Eric Roberts. Not that I want to see him in a film next month, or even next year, but it's good that we get him in small doses, in films like this and The Dark Knight.

Mickey Rourke is the real underused talent in this one too, getting the dialogue that's closest to defining any actual character in this thing. It doesn't help that he shot this at the same time as Iron Man 2 and thus still looks like Whiplash, because it only makes it more obvious that Stallone now looks like someone left Tony Stark out in the sun for too long.

We've seen Stallone act better than this, and he's also written better scripts than this one. Just see how many of the excruciatingly unfunny scenes of camaraderie you can withstand. His direction has its faults, as shaky-cam sits entirely uncomfortably with his brand of action cinema, but I can't fault certain parts of the action choreography. Watch out for the scene that's already being acclaimed as Jason Statham's R2D2 scene.

It's a film where Dolph Lundgren is fourth-billed, showing in cinemas, so to many fans of its stars, the flaws will be the minor part of a gory, hyper-masculine flashback to the films they grew up with. Fewer will notice that Lundgren's character has a patently ridiculous character arc that reaches the absolute apex of stupidity that an action film can reach, with Stallone wanting to feed that character his cake as well as just giving it to him.

For me, The Expendables could have been better. Maybe I just need to quit bitching about a film that's actually pretty substantial and entertaining, but it's a film that I think will suffer from repeat viewings, and which will find a backlash on DVD, once people get over the thrill of seeing violence of this pedigree on the big screen. Especially once they realise there's CG-gore in it.

Then again, the inverse will be true for me. In around three or four years, I'll come in from a night out drinking, complete with takeaway pizza, and this will be on TV. And I bet when that night comes, I'll enjoy the shit out of it.

The Expendables is showing at cinemas nationwide from 18th August.
If and when you see The Expendables, why not leave a comment on the film and/or my review? Why was I so disappointed? Well, because this trailer gets me more excited than the actual film did!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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