The Expendables 2 (2012)

 I’m not entirely sure there’s any reason trying to do a normal review of this film. It defies analysis, or anything remotely approaching how a film critic (even an amateur like me) would deal with a film. But I’ll give it a go.

That caption should read "Back (Problems) For War"

That caption should read “Back (Problems) For War”

This film has literally everyone in it who ever starred in a 1980s action film. Mickey Rourke quit after the first film, but the sequel brings in  – Jean Claude Van Damme (with his co-star from the most recent Universal Soldier film as his sidekick); Chuck Norris (accompanied by the theme music from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, as if the filmmakers really wanted Clint Eastwood but realised the best they could afford was another right-wing nut, but one who’d not worked in a decade); Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis (who both appeared in the first one too, I guess, but had bigger parts here); and of course the main cast – Sylvester “wow, HGH sure changes a person” Stallone, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews.

I was actually wracking my brain and can’t think of a single action star of that era who’s been left out. Maybe Barry Bosworth, star of the amazingly-titled “One Tough Bastard”? Jackie Chan, who was never really a Li-style action star? Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh too, but I guess mature women have no place in this brave new world. I think they got all the main ones.

So, the basic plot of this film is that Stallone, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger are hugely wealthy men who paid a bunch of decent younger action stars to do this super-cool-sounding adventure with them so they can pretend to be young…oh wait, that’s real life, not the plot. The Expendables (who, for their name, lose very few members) have to stop some baddies stealing some Cold War-era nuclear material, and…no, that’s about it.

THE GOOD

The action stuff. This film was directed by Simon West, who made one of my favourite films ever (“Con Air”), a film which should have been awesome but which sucked (the first “Tomb Raider” film) and then apparently alienated a bunch of people in Hollywood and the jobs dried up. Anyway, he did what he could with this one, and the action scenes are decent. There’s also one fantastic fight – the Stath vs. JCVD’s sidekick, which is short but looks like two excellent fighters beating the crap out of each other.

Jason Statham and Terry Crews. Two guys who don’t really need this franchise, and who look suitably ashamed to be reading some of this dialogue out. And JCVD makes a decent villain too.

THE BAD

First up, the banter. Someone told these guys that a bit of playful banter in between scenes of carnage is a good thing, but unfortunately they hired a sexually frustrated teenager with no friends to write these parts. Perhaps it’s some meta joke about how bad dialogue was in those 80s action classics?

The acting mostly sucked too, but then I guess what should we expect? Schwarzenegger and Norris effectively play themselves, Randy Couture isn’t an actor and a lot of other guys were clearly not hired direct from a stint at the RSC.

THE UGLY

gty_sylvester_stallone_jef_120814_wg

BOOM! TAKE THAT YOU GUYS! (high fives imaginary audience)

In conclusion, it’s stupid and only worth bothering with if you suffered some sort of head trauma and forgot about the 80s. Remember these guys as they were – kicking ass in low-budget films in a variety of colourful locales; not as they are, which is sad old men doing the equivalent of 4 different bands all getting together to form one monstrous supergroup, years after fame left them…and trying to write new material.

The Expendables 2 on IMDB
Buy The Expendables 2 [DVD]

Faster (2010)

faster

Directed by: George Tillman Jr.

When a movie’s hero, or in this case anti-hero gets shot in the head twice and yet still survives you’d ordinarily assume that the film isn’t much cop. ‘Farfetched’ would be an apt term to use. I realize I’ve let out a massive spoiler here. But really, who is even curious enough to watch this movie apart from Action Junkies and immature teenage lads with a spare fiver in their pocket who lurk outside CeX?

‘Faster’ undoubtedly contains Dwayne Johnson’s best acting performance, yet still it feels that he has been horribly miscast in his role as the ‘Driver’. The back story of the Driver doesn’t seem to call for a muscle bound behemoth, but instead you’d imagine a cranky, desperate anti-hero fuelled by a desire for vengeance who has suffered and stewed in prison and looks like he hasn’t slept for months or eaten a ninety nine percent protein diet would fit the role better. It is the intriguing story that fuels this film, and keeps you engaged enough to persevere, even after the film’s toe curling opening scene as the Driver leaves prison.

Johnson has now been making movies for a decade, and it could be argued that he has underachieved, not managing to become a break-out action star. It says a great deal that he is nowhere near Stallone’s ‘Expendables’ franchise. When he was known as ‘The Rock’ it was evident during his time with the WWF/WWE that he had enough charisma to make it in Hollywood, and succeed where several other pro wrestlers had failed. However he’s also put his name to a great deal of film fluff which has tainted his reputation. Unfairly considered as nothing more than a lump of moving muscle by most critics, many who’ve reviewed this film have missed Johnson’s new found ability to show some on screen emotion, and the fact that he does should be applauded.

Discounting the opening of the movie because of its share ridiculousness, the Driver turns up at a shady Private Investigators office; he is given a list of several names and addresses. These are significant to the Driver because they are all connected to the murder of his brother. Time has passed whilst the Driver has served his prison sentence, and all of the gang members are now living ‘normal’ lives, working ordinary jobs, or even have retired from work altogether. One by one the Driver pays each of them a visit.

There’s a twist, one of the gang members is now a Cop, and this man played by Billy Bob Thornton knows that the Driver is hell bent on revenge, so he hires a hitman referred to as the ‘Killer’ to intercept the Driver. The Killer is a suave, very wealthy English businessman who kills for sport. The Cop is a flaky drug addict who is trying to rebuild his fractured family.

Each and every one of the key players in ‘Faster’ has issues, except for the investigating officer who partners the crooked Cop who goes by the name as Cicero. It’s hard to believe that this role was very close to going to Salma Hayek, because her dominant bosom distracting acting style would have ruined the film. Carla Gugino instead works well, playing it serious, as the straight laced good cop to Billy Bob Thornton’s bad Cop.

Yes, I acknowledge that this film is flawed, but there is enough weirdness on display to keep the viewer hooked. I was particularly taken with Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s odd turn as Killer. Who appears to be the director’s deus ex machina, his duel with the Driver is a film within a film and I’d like to believe that he’s actually a figment of everybody’s imagination. My theory is that because Driver is delirious, hate filled and irrationally looking to violently kill, everything he experiences is distorted which includes his interactions with the Killer. The Cop is a drug addict and could be seeing things that aren’t really there when under the influence and the young girl who witnesses the Driver kill the old paedo had been drugged, and though she identified two gunmen in the apartment complex when going through her ordeal, she probably only saw one. Nobody is really seeing the Killer because he doesn’t exist. Although, thinking about it, what I’ve just said is probably a load of nonsense.

‘Faster’ is an update of a seventies revenge flick, and though flashy and in many ways an exhibition of style over substance. Johnson’s green shoots of acting ability and a solid supporting cast make ‘Faster’ surpassingly watchable.

– RJW
7/10

Faster on IMDB
Buy Faster [DVD] [2011]

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

Part of the fun of watching a film like this, deep into a series when they’ve abandoned the numbering convention, is trying to figure out how many of these damn films they’ve made. Was there one or two in the middle before Jean-Claude Van Damme was brought back into the fold? Did they make one after that one set in the abandoned factory, but before this?

unisold

Anyway, turns out this is the sixth film in the series, and the fourth starring JCVD. But don’t worry, those of you who’ve yet to be subjected to a minute of this particular cinematic strain, to say there’s little in the way of continuity between them is to imply that there’s any continuity between them, and there’s not. Aside from JCVD’s name being the same in the films he’s appeared in, the rest of the series might as well not exist. I think Dolph Lundgren has died three times in previous “Universal Soldier” films now.

I presume I won a bet with my wife (although I don’t remember doing so), as she voluntarily joined me. I think, rather than going through the intricacies of this film’s plot, I’ll just tell you the films they ripped off to make it – it starts off with a bit of “Memento”, then strays into “Total Recall” territory, briefly moseys through “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” before you giving you, both barrels to the face, a big dose of “Apocalypse Now” at the end. Plus lots of fighting! (although not as much as you were probably expecting).

The star of this film is British actor / martial artist Scott Adkins, and he sees his wife and kids slaughtered before his eyes by Luc Devereaux (JCVD’s character’s name throughout the series). Revenge is in order, and as our hero works his way through the assembled bad guys (including a turn by former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, who does his entire substantial part in the film without uttering a single word of dialogue), he comes to realise he’s a little more than normal himself, and there’s a reason he’s being drawn to JCVD, Dolph and the rest of the Universal Soldier group…

I know giving it any level of analysis is treating it better than it deserves, but there’s probably a good story about the ways this film series has portrayed the Universal Soldiers. In the first film, they were a bright, gleaming, futuristic gang of mercenaries with no free will at all; then I didn’t see the two films without my man Jean Claude in them, because life is too short; then the two newer films have turned them gradually from the baddies of yore to some sort of freedom fighter types, people who operate outside the system. This new film is fascinating in a way because it changes things again, to them being some sort of shadowy group bent on taking over the government.

Anyway, after it ended, I was pleasantly surprised, and that worried me. Have my standards dropped so low that Universal Soldier 6 is going to get a good review? Well, they’ve probably dropped a bit, otherwise my brain would have committed suicide halfway through the second viewing of “After Last Season”, but there’s actual real stuff to praise about this film. Firstly, the plot is decent, and engaging. Okay, there’s bits where you go “oh, come ON”, but not too many. Secondly, the fights looked good. Director Peter Hyams seems to have got his start with the MMA documentary “The Smashing Machine”, and his love for the sport is obvious in his casting choices. The fights look like they hurt, in the most part, and were filmed well.

I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if the current system pretty much guarantees that every major blockbuster will eventually make back its money, and will most often make a profit, that leads to the question “why don’t they just try and make good films?” I think the people who were behind this heard that call. They figured that their low-budget Universal Soldier movie was going to make its money back anyway, so decided to do something interesting with it – give it a plot that holds the attention for more than a few seconds, and make it good.

I was wondering about the facepaint too

I was wondering about the facepaint too

Now, before you art-house types rush off to get the movie on VOD, bear in mind it’s not the highest-budget film of all time, and there’s plenty of wood in the acting ranks. But Jean Claude Van Damme is superb in it, even if he is doing an impression of Colonel Kurtz – makes me sad that he didn’t use the cultural cache he had after “JCVD” and make films that were a bit meatier.

So, enthusiastic thumbs up from me. Fans of the series will love it, non-fans of the series…will probably not bother jumping on at part 6, but those who do will hopefully get a kick out of it too.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Buy Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning [DVD]