(On Cable TV, June 2015) Given my less-than-favorable reactions to the first two films of The Expendables series, I’m not overly surprised to find out that the third installment isn’t any better. It’s different in that the directing duties are handled in an unexceptional fashion by Patrick Hughes, that it thankfully abandons the R-rated CGI gore for a PG-13 rating that doesn’t change much and that it features even more veteran actors in small roles. Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer both seem to have fun, but Mel Gibson steals the spotlight as the film’s antagonist –although it would have been more impressive had he not done almost exactly the same villain shtick in an even more grandiose fashion in Machete Kills. Sylvester Stallone is his usual smarmy self-indulgent self in the lead role, although he has the decency to play father-figure rather than romantic partner to women thirty years younger. There are plenty of meta-textual winks and nods (Wesley Snipes’ “tax evasion”, “out of the picture”, etc.), which is fortunate given how the only thing The Expendables series has going for it is the constant fan-service. The plot is dull, the action sequences are average (none more so than the final exasperating hand-to-hand showdown) and the actors are usually past their prime. There will be a sequel, but I don’t expect it to be any better either.
(In French, On TV, March 2015) I’m surprised to find out that I don’t dislike Rocky Balboa as much as I expected to. After all, I went in the film with a number of prejudices and shortcomings: I don’t particularly like Sylvester Stallone, I don’t have any special affection for boxing, my memories of the Rocky series (of which this is the sixth entry) are fuzzy to the point of uselessness, I dislike the trend of reviving old franchises and couldn’t make sense of this film’s premise, in which Rocky is brought out of retirement and improbably goes head-to-head with a top-notch boxer. What’s the point of this Rocky Balboa, then? But as it turns out, the result is decently entertaining without being overly compelling. The premise is still far-fetched, asking us to believe in a quasi-sixtysomething boxer holding his own against a much younger opponent. But the film acknowledges its own absurdity, dwells on the age of its protagonist and doesn’t exactly hand him anything but a moral victory. There’s a little bit of thematic depth regarding the irresistible lull that drives men out of retirement, and reconciliation between father and son. So it is that, even with everything running against it, Rocky Balboa ends up being a decent film firmly in the underdog tradition of the series. Viewers watching the European-French dub may get some extra entertainment value in hearing how some familiar English idioms are translated.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) Once upon a time, in the early nineties, a film featuring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone would have been An Event fit to explode all box-office records, fannish expectations and critical snark. Now, more than twenty years later, Escape Plan is… just another action B-movie, anchored by familiar faces but not nearly as earth-shattering as it could have been. It probably doesn’t help that the film revolves around Stallone (rarely a good actor, now increasingly ridiculous in his mumbling old age) and a rather hum-drum plot the likes of which we’ve seen a few times already. The action sequences are limp (although two of the fight scenes offer the expected pleasure of seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger trade a few body-blows), the villains are bland and the film doesn’t build up to much more than the obvious conclusion. Sure, there’s a few twists and turns and flashy “here’s how I did it” explanations… but the film simply has the feel of a low-budget action movie that just happens to feature two of the biggest box-office stars of two decades ago. Escape Plan has the merit of not being actively bad or unpleasant, just not as distinctive as it should have been considering the past caliber of its stars.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) The problem with making a movie that consciously call back to a sub-genre fallen in disfavor is that, well, there’s usually a reason why the sub-genre has gone away. With Bullet to the Head, veteran director Walter Hill clearly tries to model his movie after the countless buddy-cop action thrillers of the eighties, a fraction of which he himself directed. And to a certain extent, there’s an interesting clash-of-the-eras in pitting Sylvester Stallone against action upstart Jason Momoa. But the final result doesn’t do much more than string along a passable action thriller: Bullet to the Head is generic to a degree that would be almost laughable if it wasn’t for the suspicion that it’s actually trying to be as generic as it can be. While the dynamic between good-cop Sung Kang and secretly-nice-assassin Stallone can be fitfully amusing, there really isn’t anything new here. Stallone looks tired in yet another self-satisfied mumbling performance, and the dialogue that the script gives him really isn’t anything worth remembering. The plot is familiar, and while the various incidents along the way often try to make Stallone’s assassin character look far cooler than he is, he simply isn’t as interesting as the script believes him to be. There’s some value to the film, one supposes, in filling late-night slots, much like its 1980s predecessors once did. But if this is old-school, then it must be remedial class.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(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.
(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.