The Big Dumb Action Movie
I know I must be talking about Spoony an awful lot recently, but a funny thing happened over the last week or two.
Spoony didn't like The Expendables. Another favourite reviewer, The Cinema Snob, loved it. What's interesting is they're both entirely right. Spoony is right when he considers it poorly edited, the fight scenes are difficult to follow (though I don't think they were that difficult) and it's hard to root for the characters in the same way one would root for the likes of Rambo. Yet it was also a bucket of fun, in spite of those notable flaws. Nobody was quite as surprised as me on that score: I had worried I was going to be spending the film wondering what fun Arnie's character was getting up to, or imagining Chuck Norris coming in to save the day.
I don't think I can really add anything that the above two haven't already brought up, or what I said on Facebook. Some of the character names are terrible puns - the only form of humour which is funnier the worse it is - like Toll Road, Hale Caesar and Yin yang. I'm a bit concerned with Stallone's face, which is so ravaged by plastic surgery it's starting to approach Joan Rivers level: that said, he's commanding and leads the film admirably. Jason Statham is incredibly likeable and charismatic here: there's a definite sense of "passing the torch" from Stallone to Statham, and well done at that. Jet Li is really good at emoting and facial acting, but there's something about his line delivery that's just bad, a bit like a more sombre Jackie Chan. Randy Couture is the weak link in terms of acting ability - and considering his company that's rather staggering - though is a serviceable badass. Terry Crews is... there, though he has an awesome (if utterly preposterous, the best kind of awesome) set piece late in the film. Mickey Rourke has an odd part, and contributes a bizarrely incongruous level of gravitas to the film. Perhaps most surprising to me was Dolph Lundgren, whose troubled warrior Gunnar was played with... subtlety. Subtlety? From Dolph Lundgren?
The non-Expendables were largely expendable (... does that even deserve a "ho ho"?) though some were memorable. I can't believe how massive Stone Cold Steve Austin looks in the film compared to the others, having remembered seeing him dwarfed by near 7-foot behemoths Undertaker and Kane as a lad watchin' the wrasslin' - but then, guys like Stallone are actually rather short, so the 6'2" Austin looked like a veritable colossus. At first, I didn't realise where I recognized Gary Daniels from, but now that I know he was in the live action First of the North Star - one of my favourite terrible films - I lament not enjoying the scenes he was in more. Aside from those two, Batista from Dexter was a most entertainingly brooding, passionate dictator, Eric Roberts was Eric Roberts, while the girl - who plays the protagonist in the Brazilian version of Yo Soy Bett, la fea/Ugly Betty (jings, if she's meant to be ugly, what do the pretty Brazillians look like?) - is rather bland and uninteresting despite being central to the film's events. Oh, and Charisma Carpenter looks like she's hardly aged a day since capturing my heart on Angel.
Could it have been better? Sure. There were only a few moments of Sheer Unadulterated Awesome before the cacophonous final act, with some surprisingly funny (intentional!) humour among the duds, and even some rather potent dramatic scenes. The oft-cited scene with Mickey Rourke was very impressive, but extremely jarring. I get the impression they were going for something like the Indianapolis Monologue - the single greatest thing John Milius has ever accomplished, by the way - but it didn't gel with the rest of the film, and came off as disjointed and ajar rather than a natural part of the film.
Going into the film, I was worried this was going to be a shameless exercise in machismo posturing - that sort of insecure, laughable hypermasculinity which seeks only to caricature the gender's excesses. Luckily, the film was commendably in touch with its sensitive side, so that you'd see they do have some sort of vulnerabilities, and the hypermasculinity isn't just a front for major insecurity issues. Couture's self-consciousness about his cauliflower ear was rather endearing, as were Stallone and Statham's own troubles, and poor Lundgren struggling with addiction and self-control. An appreciated improvement over the swaggering, childish posturing of so many other films.
As an aside, I would love to see female Expendables. Let's see classic heroines like Sigourney Weaver, Pam Grier and Linda Hamilton in the sequel: kickass action roles were not the exclusive domain of men in the '80s. Get Jenette Goldstein too: I've always wanted to see Vasquez vs Michelle Rodriguez. Hell, make an all-female Expendables type movie while you're at it: mix the legends with Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Lawless, Angelina Jolie, and even some of the new blood like Lucy Liu, Claudia Black, Daryl Hannah and Kate Beckinsale. That'd be awesome.
I can see it now: Weaver, Grier, Hamilton, Goldstein, Yeoh, Beckinsale and Lawless are a team of all-female mercenaries who've had many adventures together. One day, Lynda Carter gives them a mission to infiltrate a small country in the Levant not-so-subtly based on a melange of Gadaffi's Libya (with his bodyguard of painted warrior-women) and Israel (with their infamous female soldiers). Their nemesis is Jolie, chief of the president's guard, with Rodriguez, Hannah, Liu (Yeoh's estranged daughter) and Black forming the deadliest assassins. They have to deal with the reality of being over the hill, insecurity over their age, and proving they can still take on the up-and-comers - all while dealing with legitimate personal problems like family, relationships and health. Throw a newbie or two from Jennifer Garner, Summer Glau, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Rachel Nichols, Jessica Alba or Jessica Biel and we'll have a grand old time. Oh the fun they shall have blowing stuff up.
What More Do You Want?
I'm not a fan of Frank Cho's Conan. Sure, it's nicely drawn technically, but there's only so many times you can draw Conan pitching a scantily-clad babe over his shoulder before it gets somewhat tiresome.
Well that's the problem, isn't it? All people wanted from The Expendables was action. Guys fighting each other hand-to-hand, mowing down waves of infantry with the military budget of Tesco, a feisty attractive heroine to drool over in various compromising scenes, and loads and loads of explosions. Frankly, the film would be a failure if it didn't deliver on those promises. So why should we settle for what should, in all frankness, be the base standard?
I already talked about this problem on The Cimmerian. As long as Conan kills a lot of dudes, gets the girl & treasure, and defeats the Evil Sorcerer, that's all you or anyone could ask for, right? The Base Standard of Conan - Gore, Girls and Grog. That's all anybody wants with Conan, eh?
Well, the thing is, most of these stories adhering to this ridiculous Base Standard of Conan - a standard that not all Howard stories bother with, by the way - are languishing out of print. Out of the pastiches, only Robert Jordans' appears to still be in print, likely due to the author's later fame and the fact that he's passed away. The only Conan stories still in print today are those by Robert Jordan... and Robert E. Howard, whose stories have been printed across multiple formats in multiple imprints. Oh... and reprints of the Marvel comics, which recently entered the Michael Fleischer/Bruce Jones era. Oh dear. There goes that theory.
Nonetheless, I maintain that Gore, Girls and Grog is far from what makes Conan special - it's what makes Conan the same as the hordes of imitators and coat-tail hangers. Pick a godawful Sword-and-Sorcery film from the '80s - Red Sonja, Deathstalker, Beastmaster, The Warrior and the Sorceress, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Ator, Yor, - and they all, or nearly all, have a fair amount of blood, violence and nudity in them. Even those without much sex like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawk and Hawk the Slayer have gallons of blood and violence. Thus, why do people insist that it's the blood, violence and nudity that makes Conan special?
No, what makes Conan special is everything else. The tempering of cosmic tragedy against humanity's desire to make its mark, the turmoil between barbarism and civilization, the state of mankind in the dark inscrutable universe, man's inhumanity to man, and at the very core, the story of a young man who encounters a new world and masters it through hard work. And to make a decent Conan movie, you're going to have to do better than Gore, Girls and Grog.