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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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Creed (2015)

creedpostersmallCreed 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 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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