The Suicide Squad (2021)
When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?
It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.
The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.
The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.
Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.
Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.
As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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
Creed is a crowd-pleaser, an effective character drama, and a rewarding continuation into the Rocky franchise that brings greater relevancy to Sylvester Stallone’s acting muscles. Thanks to the talents of co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and star Michael B. Jordan, the franchise is given new life by mostly following the same tried-and-true underdog formula that Stallone helped cement long ago. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son to the deceased boxing legend, and he wants to make his way on his own merits. Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and convinces him to be his trainer, and the two build a father-son relationship supplying the half the other was sorely missing. From there the plot is fairly predictable as the media discovers Adonis’ identity and he’s fast-tracked for a high-profile bout with the outgoing champ but the movie still hits the right notes to earn its emotional triumph. I was surprised at the careful attention Coogler gave his supporting characters, providing details to round them out and make them feel like legitimate people rather than stock roles. I enjoyed Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) being an actual character rather than an underdeveloped love interest. Coogler’s fluidity with the camera is also striking, and many of the boxing matches are filmed in long tracking shots that amp up the sports verisimilitude. Jordan gives a strongly felt performance that further confirms his star status. The real surprise is Stallone, whose legendary fighter is starting to break down physically. Rocky’s inability to fight an invisible enemy makes for great drama, and Stallone sinks into the meaty dialogue. He has a few genuinely affecting moments, and I didn’t even know Stallone was still capable of that. Easily the best Rocky sequel, Creed is an uplifting underdog tale that doesn’t reinvent the formula but brings added attention, reverence, and sincerity to a whole lot of punching people in the face.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Expendables 2 (2012)
The Expendables was a surprise hit two years ago. Sylvester Stallone collected an all-star team of aging AARP action stars and they kicked ass, took names, and didn’t apologize. It was a fitfully amusing throwback to the burly, macho action movies of the 1980s and the early 90s, a time where many of these men were kings. The nostalgia trip worked box-office magic for Stallone. A sequel was commissioned and these men of action were put back to work. There was already preliminary talk about the possible stars that could sign up for a third Expendables (Nicolas Cage and Clint Eastwood are on a wish list). Maybe people should see The Expendables 2 before getting too excited plotting out the future of this franchise. This is not a good movie even by Stallone’s standards.
Barney Ross (Stallone) is back with the best team money can hire. No, not the A-Team, the Expendables. There are also the preposterously named team members Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). The over-the-hill gang also has some new blood, namely Bill(y) the Kid (The Hunger Games’ Liam Hemsworth). The gang runs afoul with Vilain (Jean Claude Van Damme), a terrorist mining for plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. Barney swears to thwart Vilain and calls in help from other living action legends like Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What made the first Expendables enjoyable, at least for sustainable spurts, was its over-the-top nature comingled with a lack of irony. The movie felt often like a satire of the genre but you knew that Stallone was never winking at the camera. Stallone was never in on the joke. That changes with The Expendables 2, which often resorts to self-aware humor to poke fun at itself. This approach simply does not work. There’s an entire sequence where Chuck Norris even makes a Chuck Norris Internet joke, merging reality with irony. The bad guys are lousy shots and the good guys are the world’s greatest marksmen, but I don’t even know if this is intentionally self-aware or just par for the genre. Having Arnold repeat other people’s famous one-liners and quips (“Who’s next? Rambo?”) are not funny. The self-awareness never rises to the level of commentary or intentional satire, like say the underrated Last Action Hero. It’s just the same mindless violence but with the slightest of nods, the bare minimum to say, “Hey, we get it.” Except the movie feels shackled to this flawed approach and often the action fails to gestate into something larger than old guys shoot guns and make occasional wisecracks. The action sequences are really disappointing here. Little attention is given to geography, short of a climax set amidst an abandoned airport. I kept hoping for more of the gonzo, hyperbolic touches that the first film had in abundance. The best ridiculous moments this go-round are Van Damme roundhouse kicking a knife into a guy’s heart, and the piece de résistance, Norris shooting a guy onto an airport security conveyer belt where we then see the body full of lead on the x-ray machine.
Most of the Expendables teammates simply have nothing to do. Granted with a large cast the ratios of screen time are not going to be equal across the board, but I’d expect that Stallone and crew would at least give these people some reason to exist in the plot. Jet Li vanishes after the twenty minute mark and never returns. There’s truly no reason that Randy Couture and the great Terry Crews couldn’t have been Guy #5 and Guy #6. Lundgren is setup to be a chemistry genius, and then when trapped inside a mine, it looks like he’s about to utilize his chemistry knowledge to save the day. Nope. Then why would you even set this ability up if you weren’t going to do anything? Even Statham is pretty mitigated and he’s the number two guy. If you’re going to have a team-oriented action movie, then make use of the team and their unique skills. Part of the joy of these kinds of movies is watching the crew work together, like in The Avengers. With this film, we just get rapid-fire shots of the good guys shooting the bad guys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. It gets boring plenty quick.
The plot is fairly bare-bones even more an action movie. It’s a rote revenge movie where Stallone and the boys are out to get Van Dame after he killed one of their guys (the only expendable Expendable, it seems). The plot never gets much more complicated than that. The gang encounters a group of terrorized villagers who want to rescue their husbands from Van Damme’s forced labor. Our bad guy even has a name that is a single letter away from spelling “villain” in case you needed the help. You know how he’s one evil man? He wears his sunglasses at all times even underground inside a mine. Of course this may also be a stylistic choice to hide Van Damme’s horribly Botoxed face. The Muscles from Brussels is actually the second best actor in the movie (Crews easily remains the best), good enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing the older Van Damme in more movies. Sadly his big showdown with Stallone is pretty short, with Van Damme resorting to the same roundhouse kicks before being subdued.
Stallone sat out the director’s chair and instead Simon West (The Mechanic ) takes the reins. I suppose this freed up Stallone to… focus more attention on the script? Emoting more? The visuals are fairly muddy and lack the polish of West’s other hyperactive action movies like Con Air. The opening assault sequence, where Barney and the Expendables roll through an enemy compound, literally busting through walls, is the visual highpoint for the movie. I credit the filmmakers for sticking with the R-rating and not toning down their violence. It would seem like hypocrisy to have a movie about a bunch of crusty old-timers lamenting how soft the world has gotten and then wuss out to a bloodless PG-13 rating. At least this wrecking crew doesn’t hold back when it comes to their specialty: mayhem.
The Expendables 2 should have been more than just Stallone and his peers patting themselves on the back. I’m glad Willis and Schwarzenegger graduated from cameos to supporting roles, but I wish the movie just had something for these men of action to do. There’s far too much repetition with its action, which becomes a formless montage of people shooting guns in slightly varying locations. The self-aware humor kills the development of the action and it’s simply not funny enough. It’s the kind of sad humor of old men trying to still look hip, like they’re in on the joke. Hey, they can make fun of themselves too. It’s just not a fun movie. There are only so many tried wisecracks you can endure, only so much redundant action, plotless excess, and crowbarred cameos. The Expendables 2 takes the little merits of the first film and completely loses touch, all to try and make a joke. In the end, the real joke is still on Stallone and the filmmakers. They wanted to make a movie that knew it was stupid. Instead they just made a stupid movie.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Zookeeper (2011)
A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.
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+
Count me as one of the many who were surprised at how effective Sylvester Stallone was when he dared to make a sixth Rocky movie. That 2006 swan song was an effective and somewhat emotional return for a character that had been dormant for over 15 years. Now Stallone is trying to work his resurrection magic yet again. Rambo was the epitome of the 1980s action star as he laid waste to vast stretches of enemy armies. What few remember is that Rambo’s first film, 1982’s First Blood, is actually more of a psychological drama about a Vietnam War veteran coping with adjusting to life back home. The action only comes at the end and a grand total of four people perish. Stallone had bigger plans for the character, I suppose. Just as he did with Rocky, Stallone has brought back an old character now with an older face.
John Rambo (Stallone) has been living outside the Burma (now known as Myanmar) border in Southeast Asia. He’s commissioned by a group of missionaries, including pretty blonde Sarah (Julie Benz), to transport them upriver into Burma. They want to do aid work, but Rambo says that Bibles cannot help a country overrun by men with guns. Eventually, all those Christian missionaries are kidnapped by a ruthless warlord. Rambo teams up with a group of mercenaries to go back and rescue them. A lot of people die horribly in the process.
Do we need another Rambo movie? The first one was linked to the Vietnam War, the increasingly cartoonish sequels involved John Rambo going back to Vietnam and then going to Afghanistan to help take out the invading Soviets. Perhaps the figure of Rambo should be added as a footnote to Charlie Wilson’s War. But the world has changed and the notion of a one-man army taking out the trash seems a tad ludicrous when a modern enemy isn’t a clear, identifiable source. Stallone wisely returns his scarred soldier to the jungle, back to where atrocities are going down in international lands. In some manner, Rambo becomes like a wishful force for justice, and instead of Vietnamese and Russian soldiers being shot out of jingoistic American glory, it’s Burmese military warlords that meet their makers. Stallone even opens the film with real archival footage of the Burma military junta committing violence acts. The bad guys feel real and relevant, which makes it partially more fulfilling when Rambo meets out his own brand of punishment.
The dialogue is sparse and kept to an expository minimum. This is for good cause. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to perfectly showcase for you why it is a blessing that Rambo is as dialogue-free as possible. This exchange happens early in the film and is a glimpse into the philosophical rumblings of one, John Rambo.
Sarah: Really? If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever change.
John Rambo: Nothing does change.
Sarah: Of course it does! Nothing stays the same.
John Rambo: Live your life cause you’ve got a good one.
Sarah: It’s what I’m trying to do!
John Rambo: No, what you’re trying to do is change what is.
Sarah: And what is?
John Rambo: Go home.
That’s the kind of dialogue you hear during fake audition scenes in movies, where the aspiring actors are saddled with ponderous drivel. There is some discussion over whether it is right to take a life. You get an idea of Stallone’s worldview when he has the pacifist preacher eventually kill his fellow man out of survival. After the twenty-five minute mark or so, Rambo essentially becomes a silent movie with added grunts.
The plot is as thin as possible; it’s essentially a rescue mission stretched to 90 minutes. Of course Rambo is a brutal and bloody action flick, but man is this thing tremendously gory, and it’s war gore so that means bodies being blown to bits. I’m somewhat awed at the sheer variety of ways bad guys have giant holes punched in them and through them. Limbs go flying, blood soaks the ground, heads go rolling, insides spend more time on the outside, and bodies are ripped apart. The blood and guts splatter the screen so much that sometimes even the camera can’t escape. There’s so much carnage that you may be advised to wear a poncho if you sit close to the screen. According to the Internet Movie Database, Rambo has 236 onscreen kills and that averages to 2.59 killings per minute. It’s a viscerally violent flick that can become occasionally entertaining, if you can stomach other people’s stomachs exploding in your face. In the end, though, the violence is just another bloodlust high that completely dissipates once the movie concludes, and you?re left with nothing of value. It’s somewhat fun while it lasts, but once it stops Rambo is an empty exercise. Then again, if you’re hungry for lean, mean action, and only action, then Rambo will certainly provide the gory goods.
Stallone has somewhat re-energized his career by going back to the well. Rambo isn’t as nuanced as that big palooka Rocky, but the taciturn man of action suits Stallone. After a 20-year absence, Stallone eases back into the character and gives him a satisfying weariness, as solitary life has taken its toll. You won’t find me specifying the accomplished feats of acting in this movie because most of the acting is the equivalent of running and falling down, though perhaps not in one whole piece. Credit must be given to the 61-year-old Stallone, who still appears physically agile and spry when he could be cashing a Social Security check. Benz (TV’s Dexter, Saw 5) spends most of her time wailing through tears. It must have been exhausting for her tear ducts and her lungs.
Rambo is a movie that doesn’t pretend it’s anything but a grisly, masculine action flick. The story isn’t anything remotely involving and I doubt that Rambo was a character that needed to be reawakened. However, as a meaty old school action film, it aims to satisfy in the moment. Stallone does what he does well. It should be noted that the Myanmar military government has naturally banned this latest Rambo entry but rebel factions have actually used the film as a source to renew the spirits of the oppressed. They have even taken to using some of the dialogue as rallying cries. To think after all these years Rambo could still have an effect on the world. That’s more amazing than any of the creative carnage within the 90 minutes of Stallone’s rumble in the jungle.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Rocky Balboa (2006)
The idea of another Rocky movie, already 16 years since the last installment, sounded as good an idea as a punch to the face. Sylvester Stallone is an actor bottoming out after tons of high profile shit-for-hire jobs, and it looked like the industry was ready to yawn and put him to bed for a long winter?s nap. The idea of a Rocky 6 seemed like a thinly veiled vanity project for Stallone, going back to his bread and butter to try and resurrect some kind of acting pulse. Well, I reasoned, it couldn’t be any worse than Rocky V. I figured we were entering Godfather III territory and that is a scary place. But then I saw Rocky Balboa and realized what Stallone had in mind, and that is a proper sendoff to wipe the acid taste of Rocky V from the collective mouth of the populace. The great big lug can hang up his gloves and rest easy with a job well done.
Rocky (Stallone) has settled into a comfortable retirement. He owns a restaurant named after his deceased wife Adrian, and he regales diners with boxing tales and poses for pictures. His son (Milo Ventimiglia) is trying to make it as a businessman and distance himself from dad. Rocky rediscovers “Little Marie” (Geraldine Hughes), the same girl in 1976 he advised against smoking. She’s got a kid, a lousy job, and a weary perspective. Rocky reconnects with her and gets her to work in his own restaurant. She’s hesitant but he assures her that good ole Rock isn’t expecting anything in return for his kindness.
Then one day ESPN runs a computer simulation pitting fighters of different eras. Rocky in his prime is paired against the current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver). Computer simulation Rocky KO’s computer simulation Dixon and the debate starts. The knock on Dixon is that he has no heart and the current level of boxing competition is beyond barrel scraping. Could an aging fighter from the past last 10 rounds with the current untested champ? Boxing promoters visit Rocky’s restaurant to convince him to an exhibition bout. Rocky mulls over the decision, not wanting “to get mangled and embarrassed.” Ultimately, he feels that he still has something to prove and decides to step back into the ring one more time.
The story is much like past Rocky installments. He spends a lot of time mulling over whether to fight or not, then trains, then we get the fight, though usually it’s some rematch of a Rocky setback. Rocky Balboa doesn’t stray far from the well-worn formula. The character has actually benefited with time and become an underdog once more, one with all sorts of new issues like calcified joints and arthritis. I would have loved a longer training sequence to show how a, presumably, 60-year-old man gets back into shape and how he plans to utilize his strengths (“hurtin’ bombs”). I agree with my friend George Bailey, somewhere along the line Stallone perfected the montage, and Rocky Balboa has an excellent training montage set to the same bom-bom horn theme that will still get your blood pumping.
The film presents some interesting characters but doesn’t spend much time with them. Rocky’s son has to deal with the long shadow his father casts and the idea that, no matter what he accomplishes, he?ll still be seen more as scion than individual. There’s a lot of meat there but Rocky Jr. only gets to huff at dad and then joins the team. Once everyone officially joins the Rocky team they essentially blend into the background of various faces shouting things like, “Come on!” and “Go Rocky!” The biggest supporting player is Hughes who gives a stirring speech for Rocky to confirm that this old man still matters. She has a great sadness to her and the character is played with non-threatening sexuality. Rocky isn’t about to jump anyone’s bones just yet, even years after Adrian’s passing.
The only reasoning I have for why a so-so plot works as well as it does is because of our warm attachment to Rocky. Arguably the greatest movie figure in the last 30 years, Rocky could do it all, even get a Soviet crowd in Moscow to cheer for the American during the Cold War (don’t neglect to give Rocky his due for the breakup of the Soviet Union). Rocky Balboa, the character, is an old shoe that fits Stallone exceedingly well. Stallone has always been a mumble-heavy droopy dog of an actor, best described like Rocky’s new pet as a “cute ugly.” In short, the man never seemed to fit whatever character he played, and you don’t need to see Stop or My Mom Will Shoot for proof. But Rocky is his masterpiece, and after five sequels and 30 years, America loves its prized prizefighter. When you see the good soul trying to do right you forget all of Stallone’s many cinematic transgressions and you simply fall in love with the character all over again. Old feelings are reawakened and Stallone works his big-hearted, optimistic palooka charm. I watched Rocky Balboa and got swept up. Finally, the great American character can step away with the proper and fitting sendoff he deserves. In some ways, Rocky Balboa feels like a eulogy, as we reflect back on old times and how much these people have meant to us through the years, and the desire to see a lasting legacy intact.
It’s that sense of history that gives this new Rocky movie its heart. It is quite invigorating to see characters in new stations in life when we’ve seen glimpses of these characters for decades. It’s like a high school reunion that can include turtles. Stallone, who also wrote and directed this new movie, really has a strong shopworn affection for his blue-collar characters and a love of Philadelphia. It’s easy to feel the same warm and fuzzy feelings.
Rocky Balboa is a welcomed and surprisingly emotional end for one of American film’s greatest characters. Stallone puts the gloves back on and, like Rocky, still has “stuff in the basement” he needs to get done before he can rest. This is probably the best Rocky movie since the original and time has only made the characters more resonant and endearing. In 1976, Rocky defined the underdog and became well woven into our culture. Who would have guessed that 30 years and countless parodies later Rocky would still pack a punch? Stallone has earned his sendoff. Now about the idea for a Rambo 4.
Nate’s Grade: B
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