(Crackle Streaming, April 2017) Some things are difficult to appreciate until they’re gone, and as a cinephile I do rather miss the steady stream of Asian-influenced martial arts action movies of the early 2000s. Following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (exploiting a trend a decade in the making through the home video market), American theatres received a steady stream of Asian action movies for a few years, and it was easy to believe that it would go on forever. Except that it didn’t, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those movies at the multiplex. Interestingly, this may make then-overlooked movies more interesting to watch today. I’d given a miss to Unleashed at the time, but seeing it today probably makes it look a bit better than I would have felt back then. Not that the movie is particularly bad in itself: Jet Li stars as a gifted fighter raised like an attack dog by a London criminal, and Unleashed predictably follows what happens once he’s adopted by a kindly blind man and his daughter. You can write the rest of the story yourself and wouldn’t be far off from the result (Luc Besson actually scripted the movie and it’s a slightly above average script for him). But the point of the film (despite a performance by Morgan Freeman as the blind man) isn’t the story or the action as much as it’s the action sequences directed by Louis Leterrier and performed by Jet Li. The camera moves well, captures the action nicely and does allow for the grittiness of the premise to be counter-balanced by the comfort found by the hero with his new family. Bob Hoskins also turns up in a memorable loan shark role. While Unleashed isn’t a classic for the ages, it holds up generally well. Twelver years later, it also has the advantage of looking more original than it did back then.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.