R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: Rob’s Way Overdue Expendables Thoughts

Welcome back folks. I know this should have come out last week, but I really wanted to get all my thoughts together on this before putting this column out. Thankfully, after nearly two years, The Expendables has hit theaters and brought its brand of mayhem to the masses. My thoughts on the movie are forthcoming, but I realized recently that Comic-Con had me in such a whirlwind that I forgot to name a Badass of the Month for July, which had a lot of great contenders fighting it out for the title. So without further ado…

Badass of the Month – July 2010

Royce, played by Adrien Brody – Predators

July had a lot of great contenders for this spot, including pretty much every person and creature in the cast of Predators, the awesome dream thieves from Inception, Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander from The Girl Who Played with Fire, and Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt. When it came down to picking the month’s biggest badass though, only one character faced down a Predator and beat it to within an inch of its life, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style, and that belonged to Adrien Brody’s Royce. In a movie that features Predator-dogs, Predator on Predator action, a Predator/Samurai showdown, and more machismo than any 2010 movie this side of The Expendables, Brody ended up getting to slay the beast, which pretty much put him at the head of this illustrious pack. Plus, the dude’s been working out. He’s earned it.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

The Expendables Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, David Zayas, Gary Daniels, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Directed by Sylvester Stallone.

I’ve actually been thinking about this over the last few days, and about why I was so excited about this movie in the first place. I know initially it was just the boyhood fantasy of it all; putting all my favorite stars in one movie has been a dream of mine since I was 8. I remember back then what I really wanted was for Arnold Schwarzenegger to show up as a Rocky villain or for him and Stallone to do some sort of crossover with Commando where John Matrix and Rambo took down the Russians once and for all. Later, when so many of my childhood heroes were getting older or doing what I thought was languishing in the DTV market, I simply wanted to see them all in one movie before it was too late to give them a proper send off. This was despite the fact that when I did get to see one or two stars in the same film, like in War with Jet Li and Jason Statham, the results could be pretty lousy.

Now after seeing The Expendables, on most of those levels that childhood dream has finally come true.

As an action fan growing up in the ‘80s, the Cold Warriors of that era were almost like surrogate fathers. I spent hours and hours watching dictators and scumbags get destroyed by heroes like John Matrix, John McClane, and John Rambo. I watched Rocky defeat communism and a soldier named Dutch take down an intergalactic big game hunter with dreadlocks. If it had a “cop on the edge”, a “one-man army”, a “universal soldier” or a “cyborg assassin from the future” in the movie, I was watching it and most likely adoring it. When I got older, I turned to new heroes from Hong Kong, who in many ways were cut from the same cloth. I also spent plenty of time watching badasses not only on the big screen, but in squared circles and in octagons, their bone-crunching maneuvers standing in for machine guns and bazookas.

Somewhere along the line though, the action movie heroes that I craved weren’t as easy to find as they used to be. Heroes looked more like Shia LaBeouf than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and worse yet, what action that was out in theaters was watered down, killed in a sea of hyper-editing or a PG-13 rating. Even a Die Hard movie hit theater screens where John McClane couldn’t even say his own catchphrase. To find something that really felt like a throwback, you had to get something that most likely went DTV and just hope for the best.

Thankfully, action fans, Sylvester Stallone heard our cries.

After finally giving Rocky and Rambo their rides into the sunset, Stallone decided it was time to make old school action feel new again, and when it comes down to it, The Expendables does just that. It gives you a big, vicious, testosterone-fest with some of the biggest action icons of all time showing why they’ve earned those titles, as well as giving us new faces to cheer for in the future. Like Rocky Balboa and Rambo before it, it’s a movie about men being men and leaving some sort of legacy, only Stallone knows to make this outing as fun as possible, packing it with humor and action in a way that reminded me of summer days watching Commando and Action Jackson on VHS, only with way more brutality. Did I love it? Yes, that’s the short of it. Is it flawless? No, unfortunately it’s not.

While I’m perfectly happy with much of the film’s action, the most high profile fight of the film, the Jet Li Vs. Dolph Lundgren smackdown, is simply shot too close to catch Li’s grace or Lundgren’s ferocity. Choreographed by Corey Yuen, the director of Li’s insanely fun Fong Sai Yuk films, as well as the fight choreographer on The Transporter series and Kiss of the Dragon, the scene should have been one of the movie’s real showcases, but unfortunately it falls short. As a director of four Rocky movies, Stallone should know how to shoot a mano-a-mano scuffle, but doesn’t quite have it here. I think what he was going for in the sequence was a sense of chaos, which does fit in with the rest of the picture’s action. At the same time though, a little bit of finesse would have fit this one scene better, even if it hurt the action’s overall uniformity.

There’s also a problem inherent with making a movie like this, because there are so many actors in the cast that you can’t develop all of them because there simply isn’t enough time. If you really look at it, The Dirty Dozen doesn’t take time to establish all of its characters, mostly just Lee Marvin and a few others like Charles Bronson, then kind of builds its movie around that. Remember Bronson in The Magnificent Seven? Sure you do, he’s the guy chopping wood for his supper. What else is there about him in that movie? Other than bonding with the children of the community they’re protecting, there’s really nothing. He’s just awesome because he’s Charles Bronson on a team of amazing gunfighters.

That’s what’s going on here. Characters such as Terry Crews’ Hale Caesar and Randy Couture’s Toll Road don’t get a lot of character development time because we’ve got a lot of movie to get to and not a lot of time. They each get little character scenes, which I think do an adequate job of establishing how quirky they are, but that’s about as fleshed out as they get. There’s also the issue of a man like Couture, who is in the film because he’s a legit bad-ass, but obviously not a trained actor. Couture looks great when he’s mauling a guy’s face in or breaking an arm in half, but if he says a line it doesn’t exactly come out naturally. Fortunately, most of the time he’s on camera, he’s beating the living crap out of someone and not worrying about emoting. The bottom line is, the only movie like this that manages to do a ton of character work is Seven Samurai, but that movie is three and a half hours long. Stallone obviously knew where his strengths were in this movie, so he sticks with that, even if it’s a bit of a necessary detriment to the overall product.

On the other hand, there are a few in this movie that come up smelling like roses. Manly, manly roses. First and foremost is one Jason Statham, who gets the only established subplot in the movie, dealing with an on again/off again girlfriend. In the overall scheme of things you can look at the subplot as a bit superfluous, but I think it really adds to the film’s thematic sense of these mercenaries trying to hold on to their lives in and out of battle. I think too that this is a bit of an official baton passing to Statham from Stallone to some degree, and I hope it only leads to bigger and better things for him as an action star.

I have to hand it to Statham, because I don’t think he’s ever gotten the giant chances at stardom that guys like Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel have received, and yet I think that he’s been more than deserving of those types of movies and has seemed to. Yes, he’s been in a lot of crap along the way, but I can respect the fact that he’s been so committed to doing nothing but action films, and as far as he goes as a performer, he’s always top notch even if the movie he’s in at the time is not. This guy needs to be the lead in a tentpole summer blockbuster and soon, and not some crappy Death Race or Uwe Boll movie. The Expendables is a film that makes him look like a million bucks and he seizes the opportunity by looking like a totally legitimate ass-kicker every moment he’s onscreen, fitting in nicely with the rest of the legit ass-kickers he’s paired with.

Statham also works extremely well with Stallone, who makes this a bit of a buddy picture for a long portion of the movie. A scouting mission early in the picture has them waxing poetic about their lives, and the banter between theme really works for me, as do the moments when they’re slitting throats and making necks broken. Stallone also has the world-weary warrior down to a science, and makes Barney Ross a really likable team leader. There’s a sincerity that Stallone establishes with his character that’s ever present in his best roles, and while the character’s funny, he never treats the role or the movie like a joke.

I also love getting to see Stallone become a hybrid of his old-school ‘80s hero and an ultramodern, triangle-choke-applying bad-ass. It’s hard to ignore that he looks kind of awkward running at full speed, but there’s a special joy in seeing him plow through bad guys, decapitating dudes with giant knives, Rambo-style, and then watching him unload his bullets into a scumbag with lightning speed. I know there are jokes about him not being fast enough anymore in the movie, and part of the point of the film is that he’s supposed to be more philosophical, but I could stand to see him taking out baddies for years to come.

I do think I could’ve done with more Jet Li in the movie. As always, Li is a charismatic performer, and while his parts in this movie are relegated to short jokes or him asking for more money, he looks like he’s having fun the whole time. As I said before, it’s disappointing that his fight with Dolph isn’t shot as well as it could be, especially considering that Li’s brawls with Gary Daniels toward the end of the movie are really enjoyable and viciously choreographed. In fact, when Daniels vs. Li becomes Daniels vs. Li and Statham, the moment becomes one of my favorite bits of the entire movie.

I just wish that the Li vs. Lundgren ended up all that it should have been, which is made even worse when I think about how terrific I think Lundgren is in his return to the big screen. As the movie’s loose cannon, Lundgren is absolutely terrific, capturing the craziness of his performance in the first Universal Soldier. Considering how quiet and reserved the man can be, it’s a blast to watch him unhinged and taking out pirates, acting like a man not in control of his actions. Watching him smash a man’s face in with his boot is definitely one of film’s highlights, and I hope this marks a return for the big man, and not just a sendoff. “Insect!”

I also hope that Terry Crews becomes a giant star. Though he doesn’t get as much screen time as Jason Statham, you could tell that Crews’ Hale Caesar became a favorite of Stallone’s as the movie came together. Originally written for Wesley Snipes, then Forest Whitaker, then 50 Cent, each of whom dropped out of the movie for various reasons, the role is a smaller one, but an absolute breakout for the Old Spice ad man. Crews and his AA-12 automatic shotgun get some amazing action beats in the film’s final reel. The AA-12 is the new cinematic equivalent of the ‘80s M60 in my opinion, and gets featured here with equal relish, blowing men and buildings apart with equal ferocity, Crews’ muscles flexing in every frame of destruction. Crews also shows off his comedy skills with equal ease and I hope has earned a bigger part in the expected sequel. Someone needs to cast him in an Action Jackson reboot right now.

I wonder if you combined Mickey Rourke and Randy Couture into one actor, would you get the perfect action hero. Sure Couture comes up big in the picture’s final explosive reel, but can’t quite acquit himself otherwise. For Rourke the opposite is true. While he’s not included in any shootouts or fight scenes, he makes one of the biggest impressions in the movie in his scenes as Tool, a former Expendable who owns a tattoo shop and speaks of why he had to quit the lifestyle. His monologue about losing his soul is a powerful moment in the film, similar to the Van Damme’s monologue in J.C.V.D., bringing some needed gravitas to the picture. Even if he never picks up a machine gun in the movie, Mickey makes his presence felt and is an important part of why the film works as a whole.

As for the bad guys, Stone Cold Steve Austin ends up outshining the rest, getting to just look intimidating and brawl with our heroes when necessary. The best thing I could possibly say is that he looks like he deserves to be in this picture with the more veteran action stars, and manages to make a pretty menacing villain overall. Eric Roberts is just slimy enough here as his rogue CIA boss, and like everyone else in the cast, looks like he’s having an absolute blast when he’s onscreen. This is the type of role he was born to play and he lives it up as long as he can. Unfortunately, David Zayas is the weakest link among the major villains, as his character doesn’t get enough to do or any of the movie’s best lines. I know the movie was going for a vibe similar to that of Dan Hedaya in Commando, but just doesn’t quite get there when all is said and done.

That’s a pretty minor gripe in the scheme of things though. This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia or even Raiders of the Lost Ark. All this movie had to do was give me a blast from the past while showing off the skills of a director that has given his career to action cinema, and that’s exactly what I got. From the movie’s action packed, body exploding opening, to its awesome Planet Hollywood-alumni scene, to its bullet-filled final 30 minutes, the movie gave me exactly what I’ve wanted since childhood; an action spectacular with my favorite stars smashing bad guys into nothing. The end of the film is someone doing something amazing and violent every five seconds. Men are blown in half, shot, stabbed, crippled, slammed, kicked to the death, decapitated, and burned alive, and it keeps going and going in the most glorious bit of carnage I’ve seen since Rambo. I know I’ve heard complaints that the movie doesn’t show the team using a plan of action like in The Dirty Dozen or The A-Team, but who needs a plan of action when you can just unleash these men on villainy. We’re talking about five one-man armies that become one. These guys make the 300 Spartans look like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Thankfully, even though the movie has finally come out, there’s no shortage of fun on the horizon. For more retro fun, Machete is right around the corner, and Red looks to be another example in 2010’s obsession with team-up movies that includes this film, The A-Team, The Losers, Predators, and even Inception. Heck, you could even count bad movies like Grown-Ups and the sure to be awful Takers in the mix as well. I’d like to think that Hollywood heard Stallone’s “Men on a Mission” premise, and just decided to run with it, but few of these will probably have the staying power of Stallone’s action epic, at least with me. Sure, I’ll admit that Inception is a way better movie overall, but in a lot of ways The Expendables is already my film of the year.

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