Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Love is Strange

Alternate Title:  Hunting for Apartments and Plot

One sentence synopsis:  An elderly gay couple in New York lose their condo in Manhattan and must separately move in with friends and family.

Things Havoc liked: You can't see as many movies as I do without getting familiar with the work of particular directors or screenwriters, yet despite my best efforts to indulge in Indie cinema whenever practicable, Ira Sachs is one I've missed, his most mainstream film to-date being a 2007 Chris Cooper/Rachel McAdams romantic comedy by the name of "Married Life", which I had strictly never heard of until about two minutes ago. Openly gay, Jewish, and a proud New Yorker, Sachs has introduced himself to me by means of a film that has been raking in the critical acclaim from every critic known to man, a labor of love he both wrote and directed starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an elderly gay couple whose lives fall apart after they get married.

I haven't seen John Lithgow in the better part of a decade, though he's been around, on television and in the occasional film. I've always liked him, even when he's chosen not-so-good things to appear in, such as the awesomely-terrible Sylvester Stallone action flick Cliffhanger. Alfred Molina meanwhile, whom I have seen recently in roles as varied as Spiderman 2, The Da Vinci Code, and the voice-cast for Elder Scrolls Online, is an excellent actor I always enjoy watching. It should not, therefore, be any surprise that the best moments in this film come when these two are on the screen together. They don't play stereotypes, nor even the standard stereotypical non-stereotype gay guys (yes, that exists), but an elderly couple who have been together for nearly forty years, and have nothing, any longer, to hide. Now elderly, and both maintaining as much of a quiet dignity as their strained circumstances afford them, both of them (particularly Lithgow) are absolutely at home in these characters, be it the fussy nervousness of their everyday morning routines on a day that is anything but routine, to a night on the town livened by Lithgow lying his way shamelessly into free drinks, to a sequence midway through the film when Molina's character, pushed to the breaking point by the dislocation his life has suffered, appears on the doorstep of Lithgow's family at the point of tears, desperate simply to see his husband after their enforced separation.

And why are they separated? Because of a series of circumstances stemming from Molina's character losing his job at a Catholic high school for being openly gay, a situation the Church was willing to ignore until the two of them officially married, and then suddenly decided was unacceptable (I believe this instantly). Unable to afford their Chelsea condo any longer, the two of them are forced to move separately into the houses of friends (Molina) and family (Lithgow), with all the awkwardness and irritation that entails. Molina's character winds up moving in with a pair of younger, gay cops, whose apartment is the hub of a never-ending party (a sequence midway through where an exasperated Molina walks in on them all playing tabletop role-playing games is awesome, though it would be more awesome if, instead of being driven out in a tearful huff, he were made to join in and roll up a character). Lithgow meanwhile winds up with his niece-in-law, played by Marissa Tomei (in a decent role at last) and her family, including his rebellious grand-nephew played by Charlie Tahan (the kid from I am Legend). Tomei is a writer who works from home while her workaholic husband is absent, and her teenage son is surly and makes trouble in the manner that all teenagers of that age do. The awkwardness that ensues as Lithgow tries his best not to interfere in the affairs of the family, despite the fact that he has no choice but to do so given his very presence, is very true-to-life, almost to the point of being hard to watch. I cite this as a positive because that is plainly the intention of the filmmaker.

Things Havoc disliked: I cite what follows as a negative because the rest of his intentions make no sense to me.

This film works, when it works, because the two leads are compelling and well-acted characters whom we care about. It stops working when the director, who is also the scriptwriter and one of the producers (VANITY PROJECT ALERT!), decides to trip himself up by failing to actually tell us a story about these characters. The problem isn't that the director wants to tell us a different, unrelated story, for that at least could have potentially worked if the other story was compelling enough. The problem is that the director has nothing whatsoever to tell us except that he seems to regard the very concept of "story" with unbridled contempt.

Everything, everything this movie brings up, be it plot-lines or character arcs or whatnot, every single narrative element in this film is a red herring, left without even the most cursory nods towards a resolution. Bad enough that that Sachs decides to leave our two headlining main characters aside in favor of focusing on the troubles of young Charlie Tahan, whose relationship with his friend Ivan is ambiguous (the film hints towards them both being gay before suddenly backing off of that), and who seems to be acting up at school (stealing books on French Literature, of all things). He then compounds the issue by not resolving any of those things. We never learn whether Tahan or his friend Ivan are gay (or rather, while we learn they are not, we never learn what they were up to together). We never learn why he stole the French Literature books. We never learn how, if at all, Marissa Tomei's problems with her absent husband are resolved. We never learn anything, and given that the entire film is comprised of us watching the characters dealing with these issues, this is something of a problem.

Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the entire film is one huge bait-and-switch after another. Early on, we are introduced to an abrasive relative of Lithgow's (I think), who lives upstate in Poughkeepsie, and who violently insults anyone who suggests that Lithgow and Molina might not want to live upstate with her. The film shines a prominent spotlight on this character, lets her behave abominably to a number of other characters, and then drops her entirely as soon as they decide to live elsewhere. In the back of my mind I was assuming that this character's offer to take them in would be brought up as at least a possible solution to the tension at Tomei's house, but the film seemingly forgets that any of that happened or that this character ever existed. Similarly the loud and obnoxious party-cops, the best friend Ivan, the workaholic father, all of these people are introduced, set up for a storyline, and then dropped seemingly at random when the movie gets distracted. Worst of all is the one bit of payoff we do get, the ultimate resolution for the primary plot of the film, which is such a Deus Ex Machina resolution that the movie practically calls our attention to that fact, dropping a heaven-sent solution on the heads of the characters by pure chance, only to then turn around and turn the film on another right angle spontaneously, deciding with ten minutes to go that the movie was actually about something else entirely. This is not a plot twist, but an incoherent swerve of focus, a distinction I maintain if only because, in order to have a plot twist, you must first have a plot.

Final thoughts:   One is tempted, at this juncture, to chalk up the foibles of Love is Strange as simply being the product of a (forgive me) strange writer and director, and judging from the universal acclaim this film has been garnering, that's precisely what most critics did. Not me. The subject matter here is very contemporary, extremely well-acted, and handled well, when it's handled at all, but the problem is that it simply isn't handled very much. Rather than tell us a story, or many stories, or even a broken, fragmented story, this director and writer has decided to tell us the beginning third of about six stories in turn, then write an abrupt, almost laughably anticlimactic ending just to wrap things up, and run out the door before anyone can question him on it. Perhaps my taste is bad, or perhaps no other critic was willing to criticize a film about gay men, of which there are very few, but the rightness of a subject does not excuse one from the need to actually tell a freaking story. And no excuses to the contrary, not pithy explanations about how life is unstructured or artful protestations about the purity of unstructured thought, can erase the fact that film, as a narrative medium, does not reward those who have no use for narrative as a concept.

Four times now, with Boyhood, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Under the Skin and now this, I went to see an indie film purely on the strength of absolutely universal acclaim it was generating, and three times now I have been fantastically underwhelmed as to the result (a dramatic understatement in the case of Under the Skin. It's tempting, upon further reflection, to decide that the problem is with me, and not with the other critics, for they are legion, and professional, and I am neither. But ultimately, I do not accept that I am wrong about these films, as I suspect there is something else, perhaps self-censorship, or perhaps simply the jadedness that comes from seeing 300 films a year instead of 50, that renders the major critics unable to accurately judge a movie like this one, or other indie darlings such as those above.

Ultimately, I don't mind a movie that takes risks or chances, and I don't even mind one that does so and fails. But I really don't like it when a movie decides, whether because its subject matter is so pure and right, or because life has some ineffable quality that cannot be reproduced accurately in narrative form, that it's therefore okay to waste my time with incoherent rambling instead of telling me the story I asked, and in fact paid them to tell.

Final Score:  5/10

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Alternate Title:  Miller Time

One sentence synopsis:  Three tales of betrayal, sin, and revenge intertwine within a stylized noir city.

Things Havoc liked: I adored the original Sin City, 2005's sordid, stylized tale of cops and dames and hoods and giant, lumbering psychotics doling out bloody retribution to a host of worthy targets. It was gritty and uncompromising, striking and bold in style and horrifically violent in execution, and while it was something of a mess at points, I was, and remain, convinced that it was a beautiful mess, buttressed by the many, many fine actors who joined its cast, and I enjoyed it considerably more than I expected I would. I knew that the film was based on a series of comic books that legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller created in the early 90s, and I wondered, then and as the years went by, when we might see another installment.

They say that good things come to those who wait. Nine years after their first success, Miller and director Robert Rodriguez have come together to give us more violence, more stylization, and more noir, with a fresh set of adventures in the eponymous Sin City. With much of the original cast returning, and those not being replaced by actors of equal skill, I had high hopes for this one.

Let's start with the positives then, shall we?

A Dame to Kill for, like Sin City before it, is a masterpiece of style and cinematic artistry. The trademark black-and-white-and-color-burst palate is still intact here, complete with gorgeous shots of such mundane things as the light reflecting in the lenses of someone's glasses, or a skylight casting a pool of illumination down on someone's bed. The sax-heavy score, also by Rodriguez casts exactly the right tone as well, a pastiche of hard-boiled noir detective and crime stories from the 30s through the 50s, the sorts of things that Dashiell Hammett and his imitators might have imagined after an all-night bender. Through the relentless voiceover narration, a staple of noir from German Expressionism to Max Payne, we get a sense of a massive, sprawling city, each corner of which contains its dirty secrets, where heroes and villains are much of the same, and people flow through one another's stories with impunity and total disregard for such things as a reasonable continuity. Combined with the Pulp Fiction-like temporal dislocation, the film obtains an almost timeless, ethereal feel to it, much as the first one did, as the narratives wind around one another, coming into and out of focus before moving on to another, unrelated tale.

Based on a fresh series of stories, both from the original 90s run and new material created specially for the movie by Miller himself, A Dame to Kill for, as I mentioned, uses a combination of new and old actors for its purposes. Many of these are excellent, such as small roles for Ray Liotta and Christopher Meloni, as respectively a businessman and a cop undone by their irresistible attraction to one of the many dangerous dames to be found in the city. Dennis Haysbert, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan, evokes casual menace with the same facility that his predecessor did. But one of the standouts is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor I've finally decided I was wrong about and embraced, and who here plays Johnny, a young gambler and cardsharp who manages to get himself in a heap of trouble with returning arch-villain Senator Roarke, played as before by the inimitable Powers Boothe. Boothe's role is substantially increased this time 'round, an excellent decision as it allows him to do what he does best, play a snarling, growling villain of ferocious presence, a perfect match for the cast of over-the-top characters that surround him. I've been an immense fan of Boothe's since 1993's underrated Tombstone. The same can't be said of Gordon-Levitt, but his character, a cocky smart-ass who gets in way over his head, also strikes just the right cord. A dextrous, preternaturally-lucky gambler, he and his story of hubris and revenge fit into the overall look and feel of Sin City like a hand in a glove, to the point where this story could easily have come from the original film.

Things Havoc disliked: The rest of it, though...

I had some sense that something like this might happen, as this project was the lovechild of Miller and Rodriguez, neither one of whom has had a particularly good run of things lately. Miller, who was always something of a fringe character in comics, has spent the last two decades going progressively more insane (Holy Terror and All Star Batman & Robin proved that much), while Rodriguez, once a fiery young director who created such brilliant blood operas as El Mariachi, Desperado, or the gleefully schlocky From Dusk Till Dawn (to say nothing of the original Sin City), has recently gotten into the habit of badly aping his own material in disasters as varied as Machete Kills, the endless parade of Spy Kids sequels, or, it must be said, here.

Indeed, the parallels to Machete 2 are disturbing here (as they are to Miller's 300: Rise of an Empire, but that's another story), and not simply because this is another movie with over-the-top violence. Rodriguez is a director with no sense of restraint, it's something I've always admired from him, but that lack can only be justified if combined with the skill to pull off the absurdities you choose to put on screen, and while Rodriguez used to have that skill, I'm becoming increasingly hard-pressed to find it. Like with Machete 2, wherein he somehow got the idea that the popularity of his first film was due to its plot, Rodriguez seems to have missed, somehow, what it was about the first Sin City that made it so popular. It wasn't because we were engrossed in the labyrinthine plot (or rather plots), but because of the style and the characters that he populated his world with. And while Rodriguez does make an attempt to conjure lightning a second time for this installment, the results are simply not up to par.

Consider Eva Green, who is fast becoming my favorite actress in otherwise bad movies (Rise of an Empire again). Her character, Ava Lord (word to the wise, never name a character after the actor playing them, it's distracting), is a femme fatale who manipulates and discards men like a spider devouring her mates. Good idea in theory, and yet Green is allowed to play the character so far over the top that even Sin City's stylized format can't handle it. Sin City worked, despite wooden dialogue, because the stiffness of the characters fit in perfectly with the style of the film. Green seems to be constantly winking at the audience, as though acknowledging that her character makes no sense, which of course means that it does not, and that we don't have the attractive pull of the world at large to cover for it.

Green isn't the only one. Josh Brolin, reprising a role originally played by Clive Owen, is simply not up to the task of emulating his predecessor. Owen's character looked and felt special, a noble killer who partnered with the heavily-armed whores of Old Town to destroy corrupt cops and mobsters out of principle. Brolin feels all wrong for this task, a tired, old, weatherbeaten paparazzo who gets roped into a situation far beyond his control. Not a problem were the character a new one, but not only is this supposedly a returning character, but his story is heavily tied into the original. So is Jessica Alba, whose damsel-in-distress is elevated this time around to a booze-soaked killer, seeking to revenge herself and Bruce Willis' deceased Sgt. Hartigan on the aforementioned Senator Roarke. The issue here is that Jessica Alba is incapable of taking on a role like this, something Rodriguez was unaware of in Machete and remains unaware of here. But the worst of it is Marv, the centerpiece of the original film, played to absolute perfection by a barely-recognizable Mickey Roarke. Marv was a fascination in the first film, an unstoppable, psychotic murder-machine, whose internal monologue revealed depth, vulnerability, and unbending self-awareness as he tried to do what he thought was right in a world of violence and sleaze. He's here in this movie, as unflappable as he was in the previous one, but as a side character, he gets no internal monologue, no insight into his motivations or character. We only see the exterior, which is that of a comic book pastiche of a hero, invincible and wisecracking, denying us everything that made the character unique and interesting in the first place. This is a catastrophically bad decision, one which robs the original film's most memorable creation of its nuance, leading me, once again, to wonder if Rodriguez even understood what he was doing in the first place.

Final thoughts:   Looking back at A Dame to Kill for, I am left with the question of why? Why was this movie made? I know the literal answer (to make money), and that's fine, but I mean the artistic one, which must exist, even if alongside the financial one, for any movie to be good. The first film existed to be awesome and stylish, which is its own justification, but this movie exists because... because the first one did, I guess. Unfortunately, neither Rodriguez nor Miller, at this point in their careers, are up to the task of making something as great as their original film, Rodriguez because he has lost the plot, and Miller because his latent tendencies towards angry misogyny (not an accusation I make lightly) have been getting the best of him for more than a decade. It's no co-incidence, I suspect, that none of the characters I liked in this film are female, not even Rosario Dawson's Gail, a valkyrie mother-hen/warleader in the first film, reduced here to stripperific eye candy.

But I'm not here to heap yet more scorn on the already marginalized Frank Miller. I'm here to review a film based on his work. And that film, I'm sad to report, is simply not as good as its predecessor, not by a wide margin. Flashes of the original shine through, in the style, in the tone, in a handful of scenes or characters who retain the sensibilities of the first film. But by and large, those of us who appreciated the original Sin City are reduced to watching the antics of characters that resemble those we remember, but are not them.

Perhaps, expectations and memories being what they are, you can simply never go back to something like Sin City. But in that case, it might behoove someone to warn Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller before they decide to try their luck at re-inventing another one of their classics from long ago. Trust me, the world does not need a Planet Terror 2.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Admiral: Roaring Currents

Alternate Title:  Zerg Rush!

One sentence synopsis:  Admiral Yi Sun-Sin leads a hopelessly outnumbered fleet in a desperate battle against a massive Japanese armada. 

Things Havoc liked: In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Shogun of Japan, launched a massive invasion of the Korean Kingdom of Josoen, intent on conquering the peninsula, and using it as a base with which to invade and conquer Ming China. For seven years, this war raged on and off, as Japanese forces sought to subjugate Korea, and the Koreans, with their Chinese allies, sought to drive them back. Locally called the Seven-Years-War (a name which would be used for a different conflict in the West), this war remains almost completely unknown in Europe and the United States, but not in Korea, where it is justly regarded as one of the finest hours of the Korean nation. And front and center in the midst of this epic conflict is one of the towering figures in the annals of naval warfare, the legendary Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, a man who, despite a lowly background and no formal training in warfare or sailing, fought twenty-three major naval battles without once suffering defeat, almost single-handedly turning the tide of the war against Japan, and becoming in the process, along with Horatio Nelson himself, one of the greatest Admirals in all of history. It was therefore probably inevitable that a Korean film studio, in this case the Korean media giant CJ Entertainment, would seek to make a blockbuster film about Admiral Yi, choosing for a subject, as was also probably inevitable, his most famous and awe-inspiring victory, the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang, in which Yi, with thirteen battle-worthy ships, stood against a fleet of a hundred and thirty three Japanese warships, and defeated them.

This is history, guys. Spoilers are gonna happen.

The highest-grossing film in Korean history, the Admiral is clearly a product of a culture simultaneously nothing like Hollywood, and yet exposed nonetheless to a century of Hollywood's works. It is a big, sweeping epic, in the vein of recent Chinese films such as Red Cliffs or more standard (to us westerners) Hollywood fare like Kingdom of Heaven or The Last Samurai. Historical epics are a particularly favorite genre of mine, and this is a good one, bright and colorful, with a cast of dozens and swarms of extras and warships filmed with lush camerawork and painstaking detail. East Asia in the sixteenth century was a flamboyant place, and this film captures every loving detail of it all, from military uniforms that approach superhero costumes in their levels of complexity and symbolism, to banners, temples, statuary and architecture, reveling in a time when even the design of warships and cannons was rife with artistic touches. Entire pagodas tower above lumbering flagships, rifle barrels and sword blades bear engraved calligraphy and religious iconography, and the styles of armor seem to grow more extravagant by the hour, including embossed masks, plumed helmets, woven inscriptions, and bright streamers. How much of all this is actually true to life, I don't know. My guess is most of it. But even if not, the film thereby earns a richness that ensures there's never a moment when we're not staring at something beautiful, even as people die by the tens of thousands.

And oh boy do they die. Battle sequences in this film are where director Kim Han-Min, whose previous credits include other historical war epics, shows off his Hollywood influences, for they are as frenetic, chaotic, and violent as anything from Ridley Scott or Oliver Stone. Warships thunder with broadsides of cannons (yes, cannons, Korea was arguably the most advanced cannon-using power in the world in 1597), volleys of musketfire, and clashes of sword, polearm, and more outlandish weapons. Ships smash through one another with bone-shattering impact, as masses of soldiers and marines engage in bitter combat until the blood runs freely through the gunwales. And yet unlike some action films that go so far beyond the point of reason that the military-connoisseur in me begins choking on my own tongue, this film manages to push riiiiiiight up to the limit of what's plausible without pushing past it. Epic battles are sanguinary affairs for all sides, and do not consist of the virile armies of right and good slaughtering wave after wave of incompetent foes without taking a scratch (yes, 300 did that, but 300 was a different movie). Instead the battle comes visibly down to tactics, strategy, misdirection, and a whole heap of backs-to-the-wall last-stand bravery on the part of our heroes, as they face down legions of Samurai warriors, all of whom are allowed to be just as lethal as we've all come to expect Samurai to be.

But what of the acting and plot, the things with which I usually start my reviews? The difficulty with foreign films, even for those unafraid of subtitles, is that cultural conventions in Korea (or wherever) are completely alien to those in the US, which can render it difficult to follow complex narratives, as things that a Korean audience would pick up on automatically are opaque, or even completely invisible to us. Yet this film manages well, telling a straightforward military story of an Admiral on his last legs with a fleet falling to pieces, standing against an overwhelming force and trying to best it by any means necessary. The Admiral himself, played by Oldboy's Choi Min-Suk, is very well-characterized, a driven, calculating man, ruthless when he needs to be, yet self-sacrificing when the occasion demands it, who recognizes the exact position he is in with a faultless eye, and constructs a plan to give himself the finest possible chance of emerging victorious. He is not portrayed as some divinely-inspired super-human genius of faultless calculation, nor a Xanatos-style ultra-schemer, whose every failure turns out to be actually all according to plan. Instead the film portrays him as a man who is simply very, very good at what he does, and utterly committed to doing just that, come what may. Surrounded by lieutenants of greater or lesser ability and loyalty, and sailors and soldiers who vary from the brave to the cowardly, he sets out to do battle in a fight he knows he has done everything to prepare for, and leaves the outcome to the designs of fate. There's more than one director of Hollywood epics who could stand to take a lesson here.

Things Havoc disliked: At the risk of sounding racist, watching a film starring an ensemble cast of hundreds of Korean actors I've never seen before playing characters whose names I do not know can get... unavoidably confusing. Several times I got lost as to just who was doing what and what relationship a given character had to whom. This is not helped by several characters who would appear to be major ones suddenly disappearing from the film for the duration while others come to prominence. When one follows history, this is the sort of thing that can happen, but it did leave me wishing that Kim had tightened things a bit around the main story.

Indeed, The Admiral is not a long film (a hair over two hours), but it definitely feels like one. The battle sequences are relentless, with lengthy crowd shots of killing and beginning-middle-end structures that give us hope of a false dawn before the Japanese send in the next wave of forces. Three separate times, I thought admiral Yi had finally won the battle, only to discover that everything that had so-far happened was merely a pre-battle skirmish and that the real meat of the fighting was about to start. This unfortunately robs the film of some of its epic feel, as it gets a bit ridiculous when you have five consecutive "shocking turning points that suddenly enable our heroes to win" within forty-five minutes. I grant that the real battle of Myeongnyang was such an insane upset victory that it may well have involved this sort of thing, but we're here to watch a movie, and even if you wanted to keep all of the various hinge points in the battle, structuring the film such that not every one of them is treated like the climax to Return of the King might be a good idea.

There's also the issue of Melodrama, something that I've noticed happens with fair regularity in Korean film and television. There are moments in the film when the director lets the reins slip a bit, and allows characters to vent full reign of their most King Lear-like emotions. These can be fun, but some of them go so far over the top that we start to question whether they make any sense at all. A moment midway through the film when Admiral Yi's turtle ship unexpectedly catches fire and burns to the waterline involves him running screaming into the night in a nightgown, tearing his hair and crying to all and sundry that he will crush the Japanese with the very ship being reduced to ashes in front of his face. That the ship is a loss and the admiral distraught at its destruction, I understand, but the reaction is so over the top one might expect that his entire family was aboard, plunging wild-eyed into the water and being held back by his loyal subordinates from hurling himself into the flames. And yet the next morning he is sober and controlled again, prepared to revise his battle plan to account for the ship's loss, a change so stark that I suspected his performance the night before would eventually be revealed as a cunning act of theater designed to misdirect his enemies or somehow inspire his own men. There are a handful of such scenes, where the tight logic and control of the film suddenly deserts it in favor of Gone-With-the-Wind melodrama, each time dragging me back out of the film and into reality. Perhaps Korean audiences have a better tolerance for such things.

Final thoughts:  The Admiral is a wonderful film, not an epochal triumph along the lines of Marvel's outings, but a great movie in its own way, the biggest ever in Korean history, and justly so. Sweeping, epic, and beautiful, it sheds light on a period even I knew almost nothing about, highlighting one of the greatest captains in history in the way he deserves to be highlighted. A foreign film in limited release stateside is obviously only going to be available to a select audience, but insofar as it is on offer, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to war, history, and foreign cinema buffs alike.

After all, with the September slump upon us, your alternatives are not encouraging...

Final Score:  7/10

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Expendables 3

Alternate Title:  The Dying of the Light

One sentence synopsis:    A group of elite mercenaries must defeat the private army of an arms-dealing madman who once helped found their organization.

Things Havoc liked: There's a certain innocence to the Expendables project, a series of films that cobbles together all the great action stars of yesteryear for one massive blockbuster extravaganza. Seeing all of the greats from the 80s and 90s and today mashed into one film under the flimsiest of pretexts for the purposes of action, action, action, is exactly the sort of thing I go to the movies to see. And since damned few people are willing to go with me to see Indie flicks anymore (despite my assurances that we probably won't wind up sucked back into the temporal vortex of Under the Skin), once in a while it's good to drag everyone into a big-time film that the whole family can enjoy.

Once again, the Expendables are back, with Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham and Dolph Lungren and Terry Crews and Randy Couture shooting, hacking, and blasting it up in the accustomed manner, and as before, with a host of new classic action stars added in, along with some newcomers of unproven talent. As with the last film, which included Jean-Claude Van Damme as a scenery-chewing camp villain and Chuck Norris as a Sergio-Leone-style man-with-no-name whose appearances were complete with theme music, the new additions of classic stars are the best things in the film. Wesley Snipes, a man I've not seen since he was arrested and jailed for Tax Evasion some time ago, plays, appropriately enough, a psychotic escaped convict whose performance seems like an over-inflated pastiche of his classic turns in movies like New Jack City or Passenger 57. Harrison Ford, who starred in many action movies in his day, but different ones, takes on the role of a stern CIA chief-turned Helicopter pilot with the gruff, seen-it-all grumpiness that he has so often used as a replacement for giving a damn turned up another five notches. Better still is Antonio Banderas, an actor I can never see enough of, who this time is playing a hyperkenetic over-talkative wannabe ladies' man whose desperation and patheticness is clearly visible. Banderas is incredibly awesome in this movie, slaughtering hordes of faceless mooks in what looks like rapturous glee at having been allowed to come along on the adventure, striking exactly the right note for a film like this one.

But the best thing about this movie, unquestionably, is Mel Gibson, who may be insane, but whom we should not ever forget is a talented and immensely entertaining actor. Since his well-publicized foibles in the news and tabloids, Gibson has taken to playing camp, scenery-chewing villains in various movies, including the otherwise underwhelming Machete Kills. Here he doubles down, playing a ranting, screaming, maniacal mercenary arms-dealer who, of course, has personal history with the Expendables and intends to see it resolved violently and through the most ridiculous manner possible. This is clearly an excuse for Mel to play a Bond villain, but that's not exactly a bad idea, as GIbson's strong point has always been playing characters on the edge of psychotic breaks (Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, Mad Max). That he does the same thing here in a movie designed to be over the top and absurd is precisely the correct choice.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, it's nearly the only one.

Let's get this out of the way right now, the Expendables is the male equivalent of a chick flick, a film series designed to appeal to the nostalgia primarily of adult men (and some women, I suppose) who remember the glory days of pure action movies in the 80s and early 90s and wish to revisit such things along with the icons of the day. They have, up until this point, satisfactorily aped the conventions, foibles, tropes, and feel of these films of yesteryear, in no small part because they were made by the same men responsible for the above matters. And yet whether because the success of the previous two installments went to Stallone's head or because someone else interfered, this time round, the filmmakers decided they had to "modernize" things, not merely with a new cast (we'll get there), but by making the movie PG-13.

Yes that's right, The Expendables 3 is PG-freaking-13, something I had considered so unthinkable I didn't even bother to check ahead of time. And like the tired Die Hard movie sequels of the past decade, the result of this is to completely neuter a film series whose entire purpose for existing is to be completely over-the-top and absurd. No blood. No cursing. No moments of "Oooooooh" as a villain is dispatched in a particularly inventive manner, in short no artistry whatsoever is permitted to enter this film, and if you dare respond to me that artistry is impossible in an action movie, I will never let you read one of my reviews again. The film feels castrated without its R rating, eschewing all of the elements that made the first movie good and the second one very good in favor of tired dialogue, boring exposition, bad acting, and lazy stuntwork. There are simply only so many times that you can watch the heroes shooting bloodless mooks from long range without becoming bored, which is the whole reason why the classic action movies existed in the first place.

Oh and speaking of the above dialogue, exposition, and acting, I give you the "new" generation of Expendables, shoehorned into the plot for reasons so stupid that I won't recount them here. With ONE exception, all of these people are both entirely unknown, being drawn variously from the UFC (which at least makes sense) to the stars of romantic teen dramas and even cast members from Twilight, and with that same one exception every one of them is WRETCHED. It's not that they're wooden and unable to emote, that's a requirement to get into this film after all, but it's that they don't know how to recite bad dialogue well, which like it or not, was always a strong suit for the action stars of the 80s and 90s. Particularly bad honors go to Rhonda Rousey, an MMA champion in her first role who, based on this performance, has a long career ahead of her as an MMA champion. She may actually be the worst actress I've ever seen, but reflecting on that list is likely to lead to madness, so let's leave it at that. Rousy however can at least walk the necessary walk. Kellan Lutz, of freaking Twilight, can neither act nor fight, and is so bland that I forgot which character he was supposed to be playing. The rest of them are also unremittingly awful, save only for the slight exception of, of all people, championship Welterweight boxer David Ortiz, whose performance and fighting skills are actually about on par with that of the rest of the cast. It's not that Ortiz is a good actor, mind you, but he knows at least how to act well in a bad movie, and be entertaining. Action careers have been made on less than this.

But there are simply no action careers to be made here, for this film is simply incompetent. After a pair of reasonably interesting action sequences on a train and in Mogadishu (?), the film applies the brakes for about an hour as Kelsey Grammar (?!?) shows up for an extended "let's go recruit the team" sequence. Grammar has no action credentials behind him, but he does a fine job and is not the problem. The problem is that the movie seems to want to pack ALL the action into a single ludicrous fight scene at the end of the film, which would be at least a defensible choice if we weren't all half-asleep by that point. And when the action comes, it is boring. Waves of mooks, each unable to shoot straight to save their lives, which I recognize to be a staple of the genre but not to this extent and not to this length. This isn't over-the-top, this is a parody of over-the-top action, until we enter what I call "XXX" territory, wherein characters start doing stunts and "radical" things not because it makes any sense in the fight, nor even because it looks awesome, but because it will provide a nice trailer shot. Without recourse to the creative freedom offered by an R-rating, this film is therefore reduced to spending damn near an hour-long action fight just watching our heroes mow waves of soldiers down with automatic weapons with the occasional grenade thrown in to liven things up. How Stallone, who made the originals and dozens of other action films in his day, could possibly have produced something this boring, this bland, this tired from his once-vibrant franchise boggles the mind.

Final thoughts:   I assume that nobody is shocked to learn that Expendables 3 is a bad movie. I wasn't. But what astonishes me is how tired it is, how unlike its predecessors, how brittle the fun and hollow the laughter is that it engenders. Coming at the tail end of a series of action films I was highly eager to see, this movie is a shattering disappointment, and may, I fear, draw closed the last moments of the era of the great Action movie. A failure like this cannot help but make me nostalgic for the loss of such a titanic genre, in the way that other critics lamented the death of the Western, for this film, moreso even than such futile efforts as Escape Plan or Machete Kills, indicates to me that this genre, at long last, may be finally dead.

But then, movie genres have their day, as directors and actors do. And if we have lost the action film of yesteryear, perhaps it was only to replace it with the Superhero film of today. The tastes and whim of Hollywood evolve, and leave us with new sights and memories of the old. Perhaps it's simply time to let this genre go, and look to what lies ahead. Perhaps next time, when Stallone or Schwarzenegger or whoever else declares they're going to beat on, paddling against the tide, in some effort to recapture the spirit of a bygone age, it might serve us better to curl up in a chair at home, pop in Aliens or Rambo or Terminator 2, and as Fitzgerald would put it, bear ourselves back ceaselessly into the past.

Final Score:  4/10

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