Film review – The Expendables (2010)

17 August 2010
The Expendables: Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone)

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone)

The very first kill in The Expendables is a Somali pirate having his entire torso blown to pieces after one of the muscular good guys shoots him with an explosive round. Welcome to The Expendables – an excessively violent and excessively silly throwback to 1980s action films. Co-written, directed and starring Sylvester Stallone, who is clearly now fully embracing his almost parodic action-star persona, The Expendables is ludicrous fun. The characters are an elite team of mercenaries who are tasked with overthrowing a South American dictatorship. In order to avoid any political readings, the dictatorship is being propped up by American investment (boo capitalism) but the investor is an ex-CIA man (boo manipulative government agencies).

The cast of new and old action stars (OK, mostly old) include the core team of Stallone with Jet Li and Jason Statham. While Li doesn’t get to shine nearly as much as he should considering his extraordinary pre-Hollywood roles in Hong Kong martial arts classics, Stallone and Statham bring plenty of tough guy charisma to their roles. Eric Roberts also appears and has a wonderful time as a scenery-chewing bad guy, Mickey Rourke is in there to provide some ‘serious acting’ moments and Dolph Lundgren is also in the mix, possibly to make everybody else’s acting look good by comparison.

The Expendables: Tool (Mickey Rourke) and Barney (Sylvester Stallone)

Tool (Mickey Rourke) and Barney (Sylvester Stallone)

There are also a couple of female characters for the boys to save and fall in love with to remind audiences, in a slightly over-compensatory way, that despite the muscle-rippling, sweaty, intense male-bonding throughout the film, these guys are 100% heterosexual. No really – they are.

While hardly essential viewing, The Expendables does work as a guilty pleasure because it does feel so much like a 1980s boys-own B-grade action film. It operates as a loving homage to a bygone era of filmmaking and while it never out rightly makes fun of itself, it doesn’t take itself too seriously either. It also mostly works better than the similarly plotted The A-Team because its shorter running time and simplicity means that it never feels laboured. Plus, unlike The A-Team, which peaked early, The Expendables saves the best stuff for the end. Both films have similar regressive values but The Expendables, with its cartoonish violence and grotesque hyper masculine bodies, is so clearly a tough guy fantasy film that it really is impossible to take seriously on any level.

The Expendables: Lee Christmas (Jason Statham)

Lee Christmas (Jason Statham)

If you believe that being able to leave your brain at the cinema door is something to be proud of then you may regard The Expendables as a masterpiece. However, if you are a little bit more discerning but are nevertheless happy to appreciate a film simply for what it is then chances are you will find something to enjoy about The Expendables in all its ultra-cheesy glory. It’s a pity that a lot of the blood and destruction is clearly CGIed but otherwise watching The Expendables is like watching professional wrestling but with guns, knives and a whole lot of death.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Iron Man 2 (2010)

5 May 2010
Iron Man 2: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)

The sequel to 2008’s surprise superhero hit film Iron Man, based on the Marvel comics, pretty much serves up more of the same. Once again, Iron Man 2 presents a fairly silly story in a more-or-less convincing way, excellent special effects and a handful of action sequences that range from lackluster to pretty good. However, any drawbacks that the film suffers from are substantially compensated for by the very strong performance by its charismatic and likeable cast. The degree to which you enjoy Iron Man 2 will most likely depend on what expectations you are bringing to it but for those who were underwhelmed by the good-but-not-great first film, Iron Man 2 is surprisingly enjoyable.

Robert Downey Jr. dominates the screen as Tony Stark who is now openly reveling in the public adulation for Iron Man. However, not only is Stark suffering from a severe case of hubris and a growing blood toxicity problem, but Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the Russian son of his father’s ex-business partner, is out for vengeance. Downey Jr. has a distinctive acting style that is often the saving grace of many otherwise forgettable films and his work in both the Iron Man films plays a huge part in what makes them so enjoyable. Stark is a narcissistic hedonist who despite his many failings seems to be unfairly blessed with a fierce intelligence, sex appeal and resourcefulness. We should hate him but Downey Jr., director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux (both actors themselves) make Stark completely loveable and we are never not on his side.

Iron Man 2: Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)

Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)

Sam Rockwell as Stark’s business rival  Justin Hammer is also a lot of fun and Rockwell clearly enjoys reprising the villainous nerd persona that he displayed in the original Charlie’s Angels  film (complete with another geeky bad-guy dance routine). Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, who becomes the CEO of Stark Industries, is also a highlight and she displays considerable comedic restraint playing the straight part in the love/hate relationship against Downey Jr’s far more flamboyant Stark. Unfortunately Mickey Rourke gets little to do of interest other than play a generic Russian bad guy, which is a somewhat embarrassing throwback to Cold War era stereotypes. Scarlett Johansson as the mysterious Natalie Rushman also feels underused.

At first the representation of private industry as the sexy bringers of world peace, while the government is portrayed as clueless meddlers, looks like the film will head in the same ultra conservative direction of the Transformers sequel but Iron Man 2 largely avoids traditional political readings by portraying nearly all characters, institutions and organisations as either highly flawed, misguided or up to no good. The action sequences, which are few and far between, do lack the exhilaration that was to be found in the first two Spider-Man films (which contain the similar light tone to the Iron Man films) but the star power and snappy dialogue keeps the film briskly moving along. Iron Man 2 continues the superhero film trend of being a sequel that is better than its predecessor and although it contains none of the self-reflexivity of Watchmen or Kick-Ass, the darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or the inventiveness of the Hellboy films, Iron Man 2 is fun, unchallenging and inoffensive entertainment.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – JCVD (2008)

7 March 2009
Jean-Claude Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme

JCVD is one of the most unexpected films of the past few years. For a start who would have expected that the 1980s and 1990s martial arts action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme would ever make a comeback? Who would have expected that the comeback would take the form of a Belgian art-house film influenced by Sidney Lumet’s 1975 hostage drama Dog Day Afternoon? Who would have expected that the resulting film would be so good? Finally, who would have honestly thought that Van Damme would give such an amazing performance, making his comeback one to rival Micky Rourke’s in The Wrestler?

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Cinema Autopsy on the 81st Academy Awards ceremony and winners

24 February 2009
Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

Go straight to the list of Award winners

Who would have thought that getting a host who was not a comedian would make such a difference to the Academy Awards ceremony? Hugh Jackman on first glance may not have seemed like an obvious choice but when you realise that he comes from the old-school showman song and dance tradition, it makes perfect sense. Jackman’s funny, warm and self deprecating opening set the tone for a ceremony that was fun, light and mostly free of awkward moments.

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Film review – The Wrestler (2008)

12 January 2009

Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is an aged wrestler, well past his prime, aware of his failings and yet still thrives on past glories. Mickey Rourke fully inhabits the part of Randy who lives on a day-by-day basis, trying to scrape enough money together from his job at a supermarket and the occasional wrestling appearance. Randy is all wheezes, grunts and sighs but he’s a likeable guy who is kind to children and supportive of younger wrestlers who are trying to get a start in the business. Longing to be reunited with his estranged daughter his only real human connection is with a Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a lap dancer at the strip club he frequents when he can afford to.

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