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The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2

I come to The Expendables 2 (2012) as an innocent. For reasons that currently escape me, I neglected to see the first instalment. The idea that Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) should therefore get the team back together again is not something that fills me with excitement. Rather it’s apprehension. Forgive my literal mind but the whole point of people being expendable is that their lives are sacrificed for the greater good. This can be heroic or stupid depending on the mission, but ever since Odysseus persuaded those suckers to get inside the wooden horse and wait for pick-up outside the walls of Troy, there’s been a tradition for soldiers to take suicidal risks. Obviously they hope to come back alive but, more often than not, they don’t. So there’s something faintly suspicious about the title because it suggests the core performers are bulletproof. Once you accept the star actors are not going to die, whatever tension there might have been in the plot evaporates and all you are left with is carnage on an industrial scale for everyone else, explosions and silly jokes about death and destruction.

Sylvester Stallone still acting the tough guy

Sylvester Stallone still acting the tough guy

 

So where are we on this? It starts with the mandatory high action sequence as the cavalry rolls into a random position controlled by vast numbers of rebels/terrorists/armed insurrectionists. They rescue Arnold Schwarzenegger and a hostage, then fly out with everyone smiling. Once safely back home, the young Billy (Liam Hemsworth) announces he’s going to quit. This, of course, immediately marks him down for death (being Australian seals the deal). We’re given a backstory and, after we’ve wiped away the tears over the death of his dog, he has the good fortune to be killed by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). If you’re going to go early in a film, at least ensure you’re offed by someone notable. Van Damme is notable even if it’s only for being over the hill like many of the others who appear in this parade of 1980s talent. This includes Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Booker (Chuck Norris) who are all still amazingly wooden when it comes to acting. Still having star power, there’s Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Yin Yang (Jet Li — sadly only a cameo fight). Filling out the cast is Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) — notice the mandatory silly nicknames. Having meandered for half-an-hour, the plot comes down to two elements. The villain of the piece is out to steal some five tons of plutonium — not the easiest of loads to move around the countryside but, if it gets into the right hands, it can make lots of big dirty explosions. The rest of the team want revenge for the death of Billy. This fulfills the basic requirement that plots for films like this should be easy to understand.

Jason Statham the go-to-guy for a fight

Jason Statham the go-to-guy for a fight

 

In between the shooting and the conventional explosions, there’s some truly terrible dialogue veering wildly between mawkish sentimentality, silly jokes and suggestions on how to kill or avoid being killed. It’s better to nibble whatever’s to hand and take a pull on a stiff drink to get you through these filler scenes to the next action set-piece. That said, the arrival of the team in the mine where the plutonium has been stored must rank as one of the most absurd scenes of the last decade. I can imagine this being a sequence of images in a comic and fanboys thinking it was cool but, on the big screen, it just looks stupid. Everything else is standard shoot ’em up stuff except the personal fights at the end. I can understand Sylvester Stallone not wanting to risk himself, even in a fight with a pussycat like Van Damme, but it’s disappointing so much of it is shot in semi-darkness. That goes double for the final contribution from Jason Statham. When you keep losing the man in the shadows, there’s something seriously wrong. We pay good money for something vaguely credible. When corners are cut with the fight choreography, it’s a major disappointment.

 

Taken overall, I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything special from a film like this. It’s made to a formula and looking at the box office takings of about $300 million on a $100 million budget, it drew big audiences around the world. To me it’s not unenjoyable, but obviously I’m out of step with this niche in the market. This audience likes the action stars of yesteryear coming back and making fun of themselves (or not as the case may be). If your taste is action films, I guess The Expendables 2 is as good as it gets.

 

Safe (2012)

So let’s put ourselves into the hot seat occupied by Boaz Yakin as he sits down, first to write the screenplay and then to direct an action film. From this distance, it’s hard to know which is the chicken and which the egg. It’s entirely possible he writes a script and then tries to cast it. When he comes up with his “star”, he may tweak the script so that it’s a better fit to the star’s audience. Alternatively, he may write the script with a specific star in mind and then sell it to him. Either way, Safe (2012) is a classic Jason Statham film. Hmmm. So what exactly does that mean?

 

The first thing to recognise about this man is his athleticism. When young, he trained to World Championship level as a diver and it shows both in the general way he moves and in his capacity to flex, twist and turn in simulation of fighting. Even though he’s advancing into middle age, he manages to retain a quite amazing level of physicality on screen. Then he achieves a rare likeability even though he’s unusually laconic. Most actors establish their screen personalities through their “acting”, i.e. through their delivery of words. Jason Statham is prone to silences and stares. Despite this, he contrives to project qualities of honesty and humour, sadness and honour. Paradoxically, he achieves likeability even though he proves to be ruthless whether in disabling an opponent or killing him without a second thought. It’s a very neat trick and it has built a major niche audience, predominantly young male, who want to see him unleashed and dispensing righteous justice to anyone who gets in his way. If you add up the worldwide grosses of his films, he’s carried more than one billion dollars worth of ticket sales on his name — no mean achievement.

Jason Statham and Catherine Chan wonder if they are finally safe

 

However, there are “good” and “bad” Jason Statham films, the difference lying not in the performance or the fighing, but in whether there’s a decent underlying story. When he has a part in a broad narrative which makes sense, he’s very effective. So I give Boaz Yakin some kudos. The initial set-up of this film is one of the best we’ve seen for a while. As part of moving the cultural centre of films out of the Hollywood comfort zone and into world markets where tastes are more universal, we have an American-made film, mostly set in Manhattan, but with quite significant portions shot in Mandarin and Russian with subtitles. Under normal circumstances, any foreign language element in US cinemas is the kiss of death. Americans will not sit still and read subtitles. Yet here’s Lionsgate fearing nothing and betting it will earn its money in foreign markets.

James Hong and Catherine Chan discuss numbers

 

We have a twin narrative thread. We start with Jason Statham’s character as a failing cage fighter who, by mistake, wins a bout he’s suppose to lose. The Russian mob punish him by murdering his wife and hounding him over a long period of time in the expectation that, sooner or later, he will commit suicide. In China, Mei (Catherine Chan) is demonstrating that she’s a maths prodigy backed up with an eidetic memory. This makes her attractive to the old school Chinese triads led by Han Jiao (James Hong) who prefer human accountants to computers. They send her to New York to keep the books for the Chinatown operation run by Quan Chang (Reggie Lee). He begins the process of teaching her good from bad business. This involves hardening her to the consequences of her book-keeping. For example, when she detects losses in the casino, she must watch the beating and execution of the manager. All is going well for her until Han Jiao comes to New York to oversee a major financial transaction. Mei is to become the literal key to open doors. She’s to collect two very long numbers and then move to different locations where the significance of these numbers will be revealed and the transaction completed. Unfortunately, after Mei has received the first number from Han Jiao, she’s kidnapped by the Russian mob. At this point, a group of corrupt New York cops instigate a raid on the Russian base, allowing Mei to escape into the subway. Naturally, Jason Statham is just about to throw himself under a train when he sees the girl being pursued by mobsters he knows all too well. Somehow this kicks life back into him and the rest of the film is about how he tries to protect her.

Reggie Lee taking action to recover the missing girl

 

This makes the first half of the film outstanding. So long as we keep this relatively small scale and see our hero sequentially fighting the Russians, the Chinese and corrupt New York officers, it all stays credible and very engaging. But there’s a problem that Boaz Yakin creates for himself and fails to solve. He gives the parties involved a major financial transaction worth millions. It doesn’t actually matter what it is. But, when you are dealing with so much money, all the interested parties and the Russian gatecrashers are going to want a piece of the pie. One man cannot cope unless he has rather more impressive skills than those of a failed cage fighter and people he can call on for help. So Boaz wheels out the backstory and this means he has superskills and, ironically, a team of killers to call on to help him. So, at one bound he goes from tragic hero to Jason Statham overdrive. While this remains reasonably entertaining, it seems to be an opportunity missed. It would have been far more interesting if the brains of the little girl could match the brawn and figure out ways of winning without quite such a high body count.

 

Nevertheless, it’s great fun to see Jason Statham playing off Catherine Chan, our new young actress from Los Angeles, while James Hong is given a real chance to be menacing as the Triad boss. Even Reggie Lee comes out looking good as the businessman trying to make a living in New York’s Chinatown. Everyone else gets a few minutes of screen-time and acquits themselves well. So the end result is that Safe is one of the better Jason Statham films and worth seeing if you enjoy action-thrillers with lots of fighting.

 

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)

 

Killer Elite (2011)

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

There’s a thin line between a bearable action adventure and action that’s so brainless no-one cares what’s going on nor why it’s going on. In this field, my yardstick is Spartan, written and directed by David Mamet and staring Val Kilmer. In the last decade, I don’t think there’s been a better film detailing the lies and deceptions upon which rest much of the work done by secret government agencies. More importantly, in Val Kilmer’s Scott, we have the ultimate professional who takes the time to work through all the chaos around him until he arrives at what passes for the truth in such films. It’s a kind of Sherlockian approach. When you have eliminated the impossible. . . So, here we go again with another of these conspiracy, wheels-within-wheels, spies fighting each other stories. Killer Elite has one of these overcomplicated plots with freelance assassins led by Robert De Niro as the cliché-named Hunter with Jason Statham as his loyal lieutenant on one side, the SAS in the middle, and a secretive group employing Clive Owen on the other.

Jason Statham and De Niro killing many people to escape and then being allowed to leave

 

I can honestly put my hand on my heart and swear I understood every part of the plot. This is not praise for the screenwriter, Matt Sherring or Ranulph Fiennes the original author of the supposedly truthful book The Feather Men. With an iron will and the help of the loud music, I simply managed to stay awake while the film was running. Whether you believe this true story, the Feather Men as an organisation is supposedly so secretive and so delicate in its interventions, its touch is as soft as a feather. Given this, it’s rather surprising to see how many bodies we have when we’re finished. Indeed, if there’s any common thread throughout this film, it’s the pervasive level of amateurishness. On all sides, no-one seems to sit back and appraise the situation. Hunter gets sold a job that no-one with any ethics should take, but he wants/needs the money (a mere $6 million) so takes it sight-unseen. When he later turns it down, Jason Statham is brought out of retirement. To free his ex-boss, he must complete the job. Yeh, yeh, where have we not seen this plot before.

 

He recruits two helpers. Davies (Dominic Purcell) whose English accent doesn’t fool anyone when he tries to wheedle information out of SAS men in pubs. He’s the ultimate klutz, getting noticed everywhere and eventually killing a few people before doing the ultimately stupid thing — going to a high-end brothel to celebrate the “official” kill. This is like a bank robber going out and spending money like it’s going out of fashion. It’s like sending up a flare to show where you are. The other elite killer (I’ll stop laughing soon, I promise) is Meier (Aden Young) whose hand shakes when he’s trying to use his electronic system to control a lorry from a moving car. Not surprisingly, he can’t defend himself properly when attacked and gets shot by his own driver who proves even more amateurish than him. Believe me, you couldn’t hope to find two more Keystone Cop helpers.

Clive Owen is particularly colourless with only shades and a mustache to hide his good looks

 

The SAS are variously shown as being crazed and, not surprisingly, paranoid. Offhand, I can’t think of anything less flattering. That they get mown down so easily by the clowns working for Jason Statham is the ultimate indignity. Playing point for the Feather Men is Clive Owen. He’s partially blind thanks to an accident on a mission. This has left him angry as his career with the SAS is ended. He does not display a stable personality and, frankly, it’s not credible he would be employed by an organisation favouring discretion. At every possible point, this man demonstrates his talent as a loose canon. Needless to say, he would be fired (and probably in a terminal way). That all this committee does for most of the film is to tell him not to interfere is ludicrous. Except, of course, that could be part of the conspiracy.

 

All of which leaves us with Jason Statham. His stubble is much in evidence again as he looks menacingly into the camera and then wades into another life-and-death situation. Those who know and love Mr. Statham will know it’s always death for the other guy(s). Except, this time, with Clive Owen getting equal billing, their two fights come out as a draw. Yet, here’s the thing. Quite early on, Mr. Statham follows Mr. Owen back to his cheap and scruffy flat. He knows his name and could, at any time, either talk to him as one professional to another to find out exactly what’s going on, or simply kill him. It’s not rational for Mr. Statham to leave Mr. Owen as a potential threat. Indeed, if they ever did try to talk properly, Mr. Statham would immediately recognise an unstable personality in his opponent and kill him to avoid complications. The only conversations they have are towards the end and are nothing more than an exchange of clichés.

Even long hair can't conceal Dominic Purcell's bad English accent

 

So there we have it — a mess from start to finish. Yet, does anyone go to see a Jason Statham film for the plot or the witty dialogue. I suspect not. The target audience is likely to be male. Give them a little psychobabble background showing their hero as having a love interest to offset his attack of conscience when he finds himself pointing a gun at a young girl in the back of a car, and they’ll be happy with the fights even though, sad to say, they are not the best I’ve seen him do. There are the usual close-camera tricks in the hand-to-hand fights to cover up the likely problems in Clive Owen’s relative inexperience. There’s quite a lot of running and some driving in an attempt keep the action going. It’s the usual uninspiring stuff by numbers from Gary McKendry, who’s not the most experienced director in the pack. One final note: perhaps out of desperation, the love interest is Yvonne Strahovski who’s considered a “hot” babe — eye-candy for the young male audience to absorb. This leaves Robert De Niro as the only good thing in the film. He does at least have a little class and is not afraid to show it. More to the point, even at his more advanced age, he manages to fight well and look menacing if asked politely by the director. So this is not not a patch on Spartan, but if all you want is brainless action and a hot babe to ogle, Killer Elite is for you.

 

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

Blitz (2011)

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently began the review of a film based on a novelette by criticising the scriptwriters and director for failing to ditch the poor-quality source material and put together a decent film for a modern audience. This film is the mirror image being a really good version of an even better short novel. Welcome to the world of the police procedural as seen through the eyes of Ken Bruen. He’s an Irish writer, more often in the old school style we call hardboiled. In some senses, he also throws in noirish elements. Yes, this combination usually refers to PI stories of an American ilk but, with the Jack Taylor series, we’re somewhat improbably transplanted to Galway where, it turns out, people are just as violent and dangerous as on the mean streets of a random US city.

Jason Statham as Brant attends the funeral of his "boss"

 

Another series considers the working partnership of DS Tom Brant and CI James Roberts in London. After the so-called While Trilogy — A White Arrest, Taming the Alien and The McDeadBlitz appeared in 2002. This is the second of Ken Bruen’s books to be turned into a film, the first being London Boulevard starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightly. This is a free-standing novel, the film being in a similar spirit to, but rather better than, The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.

Aidan Gillen as Blitz getting into the mood before the second shooting

 

This version of Blitz stays more or less faithful to the novel in that the sociopathic Barry Weiss (Aidan Gillen) takes it into his head to start killing police officers, and our team of Brant and Roberts are given the task of tracking him down. It’s interesting to watch Jason Statham without the usual flamboyance. He’s as violent as in the majority of his other films, but this has a more naturalistic feel with the script giving him the chance to show how and why he has ended up as lethal as the man he’s chasing. In many ways, this is an impressive performance and it’s a nice counterpart to Paddy Considine who rather plays against type as the gay Chief Inspector. Thus, for different reasons, both officers are the subject of disapproval: Brant because his violent exploits get written up in the local newspapers and give the police a bad name, and Roberts because of his sexuality. There’s real on-screen chemistry between the pair and this helps lift the film above the merely average British police procedural level. The other impressive element is the subplot involving the young Elizabeth Falls played by Zawe Ashton. This character came out of the White Trilogy in something of a mess. Having worked undercover, she’s just out of rehab for a serious addiction problem, and is struggling to cope with life. I’m not wholly convinced by the behaviour of DI Craig Stokes (Luke Evans), but with the only help coming from Stokes and Brant, her isolation in the community is entirely realistic.

Paddy Considine as Roberts trying to keep Brant under control

 

Aidan Gillen, more recently seen in Game of Thrones as Petyr Baelish, is wonderfully narcissistic as the killer — he names himself Blitz, strutting and preening when given the chance, but also displaying a pleasing malevolence when called to violence. Without a strong performance, the film would have lacked balance. With him and the venal informer Radnor (Ned Dennehy) dancing attendance, even with his slightly damaged knee, we have a credible threat for our detectives to confront.

Zawe Ashton as Falls encourages her unsung hero

 

As to the plot, the first half of the film is nicely constructed and flows in a believable way. The second half, however, is riddled with unexplainable moments. Like once the detectives focus on Weiss as a suspect, why does it take so long for someone to read through his past criminal record? I suppose we can later guess who telephones Brant while he’s attending the funeral of CI James Robert (Mark Rylance), but everything that follows just becomes increasingly improbable. This is not to say the ending makes the film unsatisfactory. Once the police accept they have nothing more than circumstantial evidence and must let Weiss go, the ending is inevitable and emotionally satisfying. No-one would want a cold-blooded killer like Weiss left out on the streets. Yet, why is the evidence only circumstantial? There’s no proper attempt to search his flat for the bag that later turns up there, no voice print from the telephone recording they have of Blitz, no attempt to trace the money in his possession and whose fingerprints were on the envelope? Worse, the manner of the ending raises far more questions than the film chooses to answer. How could any police force cover this up? That said, this is a different ending from the novel and, on balance, I prefer the novel’s rather more understated but entirely understandable conclusion. Bruen’s ending certainly would be an unsolved crime.

 

Overall, the book is better because it deals with more of the politics of policing, describing the infighting between the officers in management and those at the sharp end who must go out and do the work. Nevertheless, this cuts down to the bare essentials of the plot and, with considerable verve from first-time director Elliott Lester, it carries through to the end, not allowing much time for thought (a good thing, in a way, given the film’s ending). There’s some verbal humour to leaven what would otherwise have been rather too grim — the knowing inclusion of several behavioural and action clichés also adds to the amusement. If you are offended by crude language and some explicit violence, then this is probably not for you. Otherwise, Blitz is a slightly obvious story told in a somewhat kinetic way. It’s worth seeing if you enjoy the British style of police procedurals/thrillers and can stop yourself analysing the film as you go along.

 

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

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Since this is a film brought to fruition by the partnership between Elton John and David Furnish, and they have also just announced a new addition to their family, I suppose I should start this review with the shout, “It’s a gnome!”

Gnomeo and Juliet has been eleven years in the making with still some bad feeling between Elton John and Disney which was originally slated to animate the script. As I sit down to write this review, it has already taken $120 million at the world’s box offices which, by any standards, is a reasonable amount since its release on the 11th February. All of which begs the question: is it any good?

David Furnish, Emily Blunt, Elton John and James McAvoy at the premier

There’s always a risk when a project has been so long in the pipeline that it loses something vital. People have too much time. They overthink. The developing work ends up lacking spontaneity. . . Not, of course, that an animated film is ever really spontaneous given the amount of effort that has to go into physically making it and then getting the voices synched in. But. . .

Early action from Gnomeo and Juliet

I’m put in mind of an old joke. Lost in the Irish countryside, the English driver asks a local, “If you were going to Dublin from here, which way would you go?” The local thinks for a moment and relies,”Well, if I was going to Dublin, I certainly wouldn’t start from here.” There comes a moment with a concept when the author has a decision to make. He’s planning a parody of a Shakespeare classic and he’s asking himself, “Can I get to Romeo and Juliet if I start with garden gnomes?” At this point, he should have remembered the joke. There have been some, and probably will be more, brilliant re-imaginings of Shakespearean plays. There have been some remarkably inventive animated films staring all manner of animals, creatures and “beings”. There even was a BBC TV show called the Gnomes of Dulwich in which Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd played out a conflict between their own garden paradise populated by original stone gnomes, and the new plastic gnomes next door. Since Elton John is old enough to remember this short series, it may have influenced his choice. Except the Dulwich gnomes were intended as a comedic exploration of more serious issues like race relations, whereas this is apparently worth nothing more than cheap shots at Shakespeare. There’s always scope for using rats or pandas to say something interesting about the human condition. . .

Tybalt hanging tough

So the first sign of impending disaster is the metafictional opening. We have the camera in a theatre awaiting the curtain rising on a production of Romeo and Juliet as played by gnomes. We have a gnome begin the Prologue dodging the hook to pull him into the wings. My heart sinks. We can have great fun with Shakespeare, or we can have an original story with gnomes, but not both together. So here’s the set-up. In semi-detached gardens, we have Blue and Red hatted gnomes. They come to life when no humans are watching and freeze if they are about to be noticed — if this sounds like Toy Story. . . The metafiction continues with Shakespeare putting in an appearance and the entire cast (including a partly reconstituted Tybalt), taking a curtain call at the end.

There are some good things to say. The quality of the animation is good and I always enjoy listening to Elton John’s music. Indeed, on one or two occasions, the use of the music is very clever to those of us who remember the lyrics. It was fun to hear some of the voices with Jason Statham and Hulk Hogan typecast as the violent bad guys. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are adequate as our star-crossed lovers. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Michael Caine back in action. While the rest of the top-class professionals are all pitch perfect with whatever thankless words they’re given. But the sad reality is that the first half drags. There’s no emotional set up. We get pitched into set-pieces like the lawnmower race before we’ve been given a chance to identify with the various characters and understand their relationships. Although it does improve slightly towards the end as we move away from the strict line of Shakespeare and get into the acquisition of the Terrafirmator, it remains strangely uninvolving. I really didn’t care that much who survived with merely a chip and who got pulverised.

It’s all a bit of a shame. I wanted it to be better than it is. So, if you have children, it’s easy on the eye and will probably hold their attention. But for parents, I’m afraid there’s little for you other than the thought that it’s relatively short, being a mere 84 minutes long. Then, there’s just the post-film ritual of a burger or whatever else your children demand, and a stiff drink waiting for you when you get home.

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

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