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Creed II (2018)

Technically the eighth movie in a franchise spanning five different decades, I think every ticket buyer knows exactly what they are getting with Creed II. It’s more of the same formula that’s been packing in audiences because it works. Once again Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of the legendary Apollo Creed, climbs high, only to be brought low by a challenger, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. Once more he finds himself with something to prove, a personal score to settle that blinds him as a fighter. I was able to predict every major plot beat from early on, and that’s beside the point. Creed II is at its peak performance when it offers small, well-developed character moments to go along with the training montages and boxing beat downs. Spending more time with the characters is where this movie elevates itself from the formula. There’s a potently dramatic subplot where Adonis’s wife, played by Tessa Thompson, worries that she may have past down her degenerative hearing loss their newborn child. There’s a wordless scene of looks that explains everything over the course of an auditory test, and it’s gut wrenching. I wasn’t expecting the film to humanize the villains as well. Ivan has been living in shame since his loss to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), cast out by the elites of his society, and his own wife walked out on him and his son. They both see this opportunity as a way to prove something to the woman who abandoned them and the country that turned its back. It’s not just a scene either; the Russians (Ukrainians?) get the second biggest storyline of the movie. It made it so that I was genuinely having mixed emotions during the climactic bout, not wanting either side to really lose. That’s solid writing, movie. The performances are uniformly strong (even Lundgren!) and the emotions build and build until it crescendos. Creed II likely won’t be the last in the franchise, and even though I can predict the sequel already, as long as the filmmakers find room to meaningfully flesh out these enjoyable and winning characters, I’m game.

Nate’s Grade: B

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In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds (2011)

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds has a tenuous at best connection to the original 2008 In the Name of the King, noted as the most star-studded Uwe Boll film and the last Boll film to get a theatrical release. I think that highest-profile belly flop, and the revision of the German tax code loopholes, is what banished Boll to the little league of direct-to-DVD movies. I suppose the movie does involve things happening in the name of a king, but that’s being overly generous. There’s barely a mention of Jason Statham’s (The Transporter) character from the first flick, a commoner who arose to become king and who was slain by an enemy that is pathetic and embarrassing. The only meaningful connection lies in the title and the prospect of Boll trying to draft attention to his sequel off the momentum of his pitiful predecessor.

Granger (Dolph Lungren) is a former Special Forces soldier who has retired and runs a karate studio for kids now. Then one day he stumbles upon a mysterious woman being chased by ninjas (Vancouver’s ninja crime rate has skyrocketed since 2008). A portal to another world is opened and Granger gets sucked back to a feudal kingdom. The King (Lochlyn Munro) has awaited for a special visitor who would restore balance to the kingdom, drive away the Dark Lords. The prophecy says that Granger is their man. He’s a little skeptical and even turns down the services of a concubine, though still accepts a little cuddling. Manhatten (Natassia Malthe) is the king’s medic of sorts and accompanies Granger on his journey to defeat the evil sorceress and save the Kingdom of Whatever.

After having viewed 19 different Boll movies, all to certain degrees of willingness, I can safely say that this is the most boring of the bunch, and hopefully those words will still have meaning. The plot never really evolves further than its premise, another rehash of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or to genre fans, a rip-off of Army of Darkness, or to idiots, a rip-off of Black Knight. Granger goes back in time, bumps around some rather stock characters, gets told about prophecies and destiny, and then there’s a fight and a dragon and a jump back to Earth and we’re done. In between is very little to care about. This is the first movie I’ve seen that feels completely constructed as one long saggy middle. Just about every scene takes place in the forests of Vancouver (I mean… whatever the hell the other world is called). It gets repetitious very quickly, never seizing on the fish-out-of-water comedic possibilities or just giving in completely to the genre elements of a medieval sword and sorcery flick. It’s all just irritating blather; a “chosen one” here, a “dark one” there, something something “prophecy.” When people badmouth fantasy, they think of this kind of stuff. I kid you not at one point Malthe’s character says, “You are the villain of this tale” to the said villain. Thanks for clarification, but the third act betrayal was telegraphed well over an hour ago.

The writer, Michael Nachoff, has written exactly one other movie, Bloodrayne 3, and served previously as an office coordinator, post-production assistant, and in material serving. That last one sounds like a made-up job or some kind of finessing that a prostitute would put to make her resume sound more professional. Whatever the case, Nachoff has shown that after two movies he cannot be counted on to deliver anything resembling a competent plot. This is the laziest more yawn-inducing hero’s journey I’ve ever witnessed. The movie literally put me to sleep. There are all sorts of dropped setups and subplots, including the notion that Granger must complete three trials, though we only ever get one. That’s bad sooth-saying, but then again the seer gets murdered so I can’t imagine she was first in her class at prescience. Nachoff keeps using the phrase “time travel,” and so do I, but I think what they really mean is dimensional travel. I’m fairly certain that Granger is not just from the future but an altogether different world. Yet at one point a character says, “Your fear will carry you to the pits of hell.” Ah, I see that Christian missionaries must have visited this alternate dimension. Oh well, the character also seem to keep erroneously saying “biological weapon” when clearly the bad guy assembled it out of various powders and chemicals. They even refer to his skill as alchemy, which of course is all about biology, right?

The action is mirthless and hastily thrown together, often becoming incomprehensible because the villains, the Dark Lords, wear dark cloaks and our heroes too wear dark clothes. Good luck deciphering who’s who on the battlefield. Maybe you’ll be like me and just become crippled by apathy. Granger isn’t a very compelling hero either. Under Nachoff’s compliant attention, he is strictly stock: 1) he is retired, 2) he helps kids, 3) he has a past that haunts him, 4) he drinks to cope, 5) he is entirely boring. If you’re going to go fish-out-of-water, at least have your guy be funny. Granger’s quips just seem too surreal even given the nature of the movie. After killing a baddie and sampling his stew: “Underdone.” On entering the Black Forest: “Given the name, bigger is probably better,” and brings a larger broad sword. Oh boy. Nobody’s gonna miss you, are they?

The production seems to be taking a cue from Lungren (The Expendables), who is unfazed from beginning to end despite some strange goings-ons. The man just sleepwalks through the whole film, cracking wise in the same somnambulant tone. It’s like Lungren swallowed an entire bottle of Quaaludes. Lungren isn’t exactly the most charismatic or expressive actor on the planet given that he’s made a living being tall and beating up smaller men, but I would have hoped for some life in the guy. He’s so straight-laced that it’s absurd. It drains any potential interest from the character, sapping our time-traveling hero of empathy. Who cares if he can’t be bothered to care? Malthe (Bloodrayne: The Third Reich) is just as uninspiring as his sidekick. She’s just so impassive, probably because she doesn’t get to wear a corset in this Boll movie to highlight her assets. Letting her speak medieval vernacular and syntax was a mistake. Usually actors can at least adequately hide their displeasure about their participation in a lousy movie. Either these actors aren’t even good at that or they just don’t care, take your pick.

And now it’s time for my regular reoccurring segment in a Boll film review – who got ripped off this time? Allow me room to pontificate. The concept of a fantasy world mixed with some adult themes, like strong bloody violence, nudity, sex, profanity, and darker themes, would lead me to believe that Boll was inspired by HBO’s hit fantasy reinvention series, Game of Thrones. Then again Boll shot this movie in December 2010, a full four months before Thrones’ aired its excellent pilot episode. Then again who’s to say that Thrones didn’t influence Boll during the editing stage or at least make him itchy for some reshoots to tart up this tedious movie. At least that would give the viewer something worthwhile to look at besides an oft-used castle exterior that LARP-ers would howl at.

In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds just reeks of lethargy and indifference. Devoid of interesting characters, an engaging story, even tasty genre elements, this low-budget fantasy flick would falter in comparison to the cheesiest Sci-Fi Channel original movie. I cannot overstate how boring this movie is. I’m struggling even to effectively communicate how monotonous this movie is; I’m tempted to just write “boring” a thousand times but you, dear reader, deserve better. And so I rack my brain to come up with more specific and sarcastic criticism of what is execrably an awful movie. Boll’s no stranger to awful movies, but In the Name of the King 2 is the first time where I felt like even he didn’t give a damn about his final product in any shape. And it shows.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Expendables (2010)

Casting can make or break a movie, and occasionally the cast is the only advertised reason why the public should give a damn about a movie. Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t sold on its craft plot or cool director, it was the George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts movie. Sylvester Stallone is an actor who?s had some lengthy dry spells but he redeemed his legacy a bit with the modestly affecting Rocky Balboa and his ultra-violent modern Rambo. Now he has set his sights on co-writing and directing The Expendables, a film that gathers as many action movie stars together as possible and dares you not to buy a ticket. There?s Stallone, Jason Statham (Transporter), Jet Li (Unleashed), Dolph Lundgren (Masters of the Universe), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Terry Crews (Gamer), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight), along with wrestler Steve Austin, mixed martial arts champ Randy Couture, and direct-to-video kickboxing ace Gary Daniels. It?s a smorgasbord of testosterone, a group of guys whose median age qualifies them for an AARP membership. The selling point of The Expendables is the cast and the cast alone. The story about some military general (Dexter”s David Zayas) is completely incidental. These men are here to inflict punishment.

The Expendables is ridiculous with a capital R. Whether it’s punching guys in the face while they’re on fire, breaking necks through kickboxing, or, my favorite, hurling an ammunition shell like a shot-put and shooting it in the air, The Expendables exists in that 1980s world of brute and mostly brainless action. It’s a throwback to those halcyon days for the majority of the cast members, back when men were men, women were damsels or temptresses, and action heroes didn’t have to have more than one dimension, and usually that dimension was muscle. The Expendables is enjoyable but much of that enjoyment is because it’s simply enjoyably bad. I have to assume that Stallone had his tongue firmly in cheek when he was designing and executing this film. How else to explain the bizarre moments of action overkill described above, the premise of saving a single girl from a small Latin American military, the fact that the sleazy CIA villain takes off with the damsel, for no personal gain whatsoever, and even gets to deliver the all-important, “You and I are alike” speech villains are always fond of giving.

I was laughing throughout the movie from its excesses and logistical and narrative shortcomings. This is the kind of movie where characters make veiled comments about a family but then we never see the family. This is the kind of movie where the good guys have perfect aim and it never matters how many bad guys there are because they never know how to wield a firearm. This is the kind of movie where Statham’s ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) gets beat up by her new dude, so Statham goes to confront the guy at a basketball court with all his friends. But the weird part is that the guy’s posse of friends shows no regret that their dude struck a woman. They all rally behind the domestic abuser, and Statham promptly hands them their asses. Just look at the character names: Ying Yang, Lee Christmas, Gunner Jensen, Tool, Barney Ross, James Munroe (no relation to the fifth president), Toll Road, Hale Caesar. Those aren’t cagey nick-names, those are the characters honest-to-God real names. You can?t help watching The Expendables without the impression that the whole movie is one big joke. However, I cannot rationalize that Stallone spent time and money to make a satire of the burly action genre.

Throughout The Expendables you quickly realize why these guys are men of action and not men of debate. Their speaking voices are terrible. Some are marble-mouthed mumblers, like Stallone and Rourke. Some are just hard to understand, like Lundgren. Some have pretty bad English, like Li. Some are weirdly whisper-quiet in their intensity, like Statham. And others are just plainly bad actors, like Austin and Couture. The characters they?re given to play are pretty thin, defined by a quirk or two but not much else. Statham’s character is away from his girl too often, that’s why she becomes an ex. The film is basically a contest of machismo. Everyone tries to out-do the competition in glaring and teeth grinding. Also, given the title, (semi-spoiler) is it a little much to think that Stallone’s entire wrecking crew can escape death, even the guy that gets shot inches above his heart? These are men you want to see doing things, preferably painful plural things, and speaking at a minimum. Only Crews seems capable of doing both acting and action. Too bad he gets short supply when it comes to screen time.

And that’s certainly another problem when the selling point of the movie is an all-star collection of action movie badasses — screen time. Everybody has to be juggled around and fight for screen time. As you’d assume, Stallone and Statham rise into the upper character branch while everybody else must be content for a series of moments and one-liners. Part of the fun of seeing this group of actors together is seeing this group of actors together, which is in relatively short supply save for an all-out assault climax. There’s a scene with some great cameos, ruined through TV advertising, where Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appear on screen and playfully jab at one another. For some, it will be a movie moment decades in the making. My response: “Oh my God! The founders of Planet Hollywood are finally together again (minus Demi Moore).”

On the subject of action, the film presents plenty of bloody, macho men-on-a-mission mayhem, but Stallone edits the sequences too quickly. It becomes a rush of images that the brain barely has time to process before moving on to another location and fight. There are a handful of gory money shots to the R-rated spectacle, but I just wish I was able to understand what was happening. I know Stallone was not trying to emulate the hyper-kinetic verite editing style of the Bourne movies, which have influenced much of action cinema for the last five years. Perhaps given the realities of shooting fight sequences around aging superstars, Stallone was forced to rely on quick edits to mask the illusion that these geriatric men are still capable of intense beat downs. The editing is occasionally disorienting but even worse it?s distracting. It’s harder to enjoy the action. Nor are the action sequences really well thought-out or specific to their location. It’s mostly the guys with guns chase other guys with guns variety. There are some impressive knife fights and brawls, but the concluding 30-minutes consists mostly of action chaos. Men with guns run, get shot, people hurl grenades (why does a martial arts guru like Li forced to use guns most of the time?), explosions occur, rather, rinse, repeat. From a fighting standpoint, there are six good guys and three bad guys, though t?s hard to take Roberts seriously. That’s not a good ratio for battles. There needs to be more colorful henchmen.

My friend Eric Muller and I came to an intriguing ending that would have made The Expendables legendary. After the film’s mission is complete, the gang collects back at Rourke’s tattoo parlor/clubhouse. Instead of palling around and talking shop, the gang all of a sudden starts having a giant orgy, and then Stallone looks directly into the camera and says, “It was always leading up to this. You just never wanted to admit it, audience!” The movie is awash in testosterone and nostalgia, naturally gathering an older male audience. Would it not be hilarious to instantaneously make all those men uncomfortable? They love their masculine superheroes when it comes to death but love is too out of bounds. It would be the greatest piece of performance art ever and certainly gives people something to think about (now that you mention it, those character names sound like porn names anyway).

The Expendables is pretty clear in its intentions. It wants to be a gritty, bloody, hard-edged action movie throwback to the 1980s when the world was simpler and all you needed was one man with a gun running through the jungle to solve political disputes. The film’s entire selling point is its cast of action stalwarts from past and present, though many are beefcake past their prime (Statham is only 37, though). The movie works as a casting gimmick but it doesn’t work as a movie. I’d be lying if I said The Expendables wasn’t entertaining and with its moments of silly, mindless fun, but clearly this could have been a much sharper action movie. At times it feels like a winking satire of the genre that helped make these men stars, but perhaps that’s just me projecting onto the film. Perhaps I’m trying to make it more self-aware to excuse its various shortcomings. This is a fairly mediocre action product despite the all-star reunion. Given the film’s relatively warm reception by its core audience, I await future installments of the Equally Expendables to feature Kurt Russell, Wesley Snipes, Rutger Hauer, Patrick Swayze (composed of archival footage), Steven Seagal, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and, naturally, the biggest badass of them all Chuck Norris. As long as Norris roundhouse kicks a live ammunition shell, consider my ticket bought and my sense of dignity put on review.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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