Friday, 27 August 2010

The Expendables; why we moved out of the eighties

I am working my way painfully toward a theory that the movie industry uses the same budget line to pay for writers and explosions, since the explodier a film is, the less writing it seems to have. It's a half hearted effort to explain how completely unsatisfying 2010's summer blockbusters have been, and half a heart is about as much as they collectively deserve.

In the Expendables, Sly Stallone leads a motley crew of killers who clean stuff up for no apparent reason. And actually, they don't clean stuff up. They make an absolutely incredible amount of mess. We're introduced to them rescuing some hostages being held by Somali pirates, sorry, I meant Somali Fisheries Protection Officers. Anyhow all they have to do is hand over the ransom and escort the pirates, sorry SFPOs, back off the ship. Instead they shoot the pirates to bits. How they didn't slaughter the hostages to the last man and sink the ship I'm not sure, since their preferred method of shooting people seems to involve the kind of ammunition which doesn't so much put a hole in the target as turn it into a red splash. Anyhow, they do their manly deeds and then fly back to their US urban base in a Grumman Albatross amphibian which DOES NOT have the range to travel from the Red Sea to the US. It's a cool ride, I admit, but it doesn't have the range to cross the Atlantic. Still, this is a 1980s movie, and it's got a waiver from having to make sense or be remotely realistic.

The real mission for the movie is for them to get rid of the corrupt general in charge of the peaceful island of Vilena. Since this is in principle an entirely manly audience, they must have discounted the risk that anyone would think Hm, isn't that a brand-name for an interlining fabric that's used in dressmaking? Vilena, we learn, in Bruce Willis' throwaway cameo, is rich in resources which the CIA want to control. (I was astonished to learn that it took a whole six hours to shoot this scene, which features a micro-cameo from Arnold, a man who never needs retakes if only because he acts so woodenly there's never going to be any chance that a second take will be better than the first). Based on subsequent events, we're supposed to think the resource is cocaine, but it's clear that Vilena is actually the location of the world's explodium mine, since literally everything in Vilena appears to explode if it's given so much as a harsh glance from a passing macho-man.

Given that Sly and the lads are more or less invincible, the movie has to go to fairly absurd lengths to prevent them from just flying over to Vilena and flexing the general to death with their concentrated essence of manliness. So in a move straight out of the Dogs of War, Sly and the Stath go recon in Vilena, and get into all kinds of trouble, which allows us to see just how deadly they are, and which in plot terms is I think designed to get them emotionally invested in the crusade to free Vilena. They kill a literal truckload of soldiers with their bare hands, and then, amped up on roid rage or something (seriously, check out the veins on Sly's arms) they take to the air and strafe the crap out of the harbour, killing another couple of truckloads of soldiers between the machine gun fire and the Stath's decision to dump the contents of the fuel tanks on the area and fire a distress flare into the mess. For once, a distress flare actually delivers distress - no, wait, when I come to think about it, I can't remember the last time I saw a distress flare being used for any other purpose in a movie. Anyhow, the Albatross apparently runs on high-test nitroglycerine, because it just immolates the whole wharf area. Oddly enough, the corrupt government has enough time and resources to rebuild the wharf in time for the eventual return of our heroes, which does leave me wondering if the corruption was perhaps being overstated by the CIA.

The Albatross, by the way, is not factory fitted with four heavy machine guns in the nose; that seems to be an after market addition. Which somehow can only be fired if the Stath crawls into the nose and sits in a little tonneau seat in front of the cockpit to fire them. Since they're fixed in place, I'm putting that design decision down to Sly thinking it would look cooler than the simpler approach of having a gun button on the dasboard.

Whee. Anyhow, there's some action back in whatever city holds the Expendables combination urban HQ, tattoo parlour bar and motorcycle hangar. It doesn't really have anything even half way rational to do with the plot, but it gives Jet Li an opportunity to try to beat up Dolph Lundgren in an abandoned warehouse (80s movies are an unheralded documentation of the decline of American manufacturing in the 1980s; if America's industry had been working at full capacity, there would have been absolutely nowhere for action movie fights to happen). Then the Expendables set out to blow up the explodium factory in Vilena. I was tremendously distracted from the righteousness of their cause by the fact that the corrupt general was being played by the guy who does Angel Batista in Dexter. He does such a convincing well meaning idiot in Dexter that it's become impossible for me to buy into him being anything else in any other role. Anyhow, the Expendables rig the general's headquarters to explode, and then a gunfight breaks out. The last twenty minutes or so of the movie are just one long mess of explosions in darkness. The whole of the military compound explodes, repeatedly, until there's nothing left but rubble. The entire Vilena army gets killed to the last man, along with their corrupt general and all their evil CIA trained mercenary scoundrel bosses.

John pointed out the climactic bit of dumb; the mercenary leader is making his escape to the waiting helicopter, and to stop him, Sly has a colleague hurl an unexploded artillery shell into the air so that Sly can shoot it in the fuse and make it explode over the helicopter. Given that dropping a breeze block into the rotors of an idling helicopter will turn it into a lawn sculpture, why bother with the artillery shell, or with trying to make it explode? (I often wonder how they recruit waiting helicopter pilots, because they have the life expectancy of snow flakes in an oil rig disaster. After a while you'd think the word would get out).

Anyhow, it's all tiresomely explodey, and so much so that they don't really have any opportunities for cute one-liners as people get eviscerated and otherwise discommoded. My dominant emotion at the end was "Thank goodness that's over".

I don't care how many people call this Sex and the City for boys or ramp on about how it's a camp pleasure; it's actually a betrayal of all the cheesy stupid values of the 1980s movies it's trying to revive. And not least because for all the fuss about how expendable these guys are, not one of them gets killed. EVERYONE else who's in the movie, pretty much, gets blown to bits, but the one thing the expendables turn out not to be is expendable.

So once again, The Losers is head and shoulders the contender for best stupid movie of the summer. Next week, we'll see if Salt can beat it.

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