Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Expendables

Public opinion on films could roughly be divided into two groups. One which thinks a film written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, featuring the latter, Jet Lee, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke and Stone Cold Steve Austin, with cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger would genuinely be the best film ever made in the history of cinema, and one which would only go to see The Expendables in order to laugh at how completely absurd and ridiculous it is, and then maybe write a self-important, pretentious review, with an element of self-reference, explaining what was so rubbish about it.

The Expendables is about a group of mercenaries (called the Expendables) who are sent into a small central-American island to assassinate its dictator and the renegade CIA for whom the former is really just a puppet, and everyone else on the island for good measure. There’s also a love-interest sub-plot which is essentially the same as every film of this type – guy (Stallone in this case) meets girl as part of operation, falls in love with her, she doesn’t love him back, but after heroic exploits to save her she eventually realises her love for him as well. Statham also has some kind of love story, but that mostly involves beating the hell out of more people, so it’s not worth talking about.

So as a story, The Expendables is pretty weak, but let’s face it, the film was not created to have a gripping story with compelling characters, it was created because things getting blown up sells to the brainless meatbags who fall into the first category mentioned at the start of this review. As an unsophisticated action movie created for the lowest common denominator, The Expendables is pretty much as good as it gets; a stellar cast of high profile hard men, something thinly resembling a plot, which is easy to understand doesn’t take long to establish, easily identifiable villains with obvious and uncomplicated motives and plenty of big explosions. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t really care about a film being well written, or well acted, or well filmed, if you couldn’t care less about plots and characters, then you are this film’s target audience. Well done for bringing the collective intelligence of the human race down by about 20 IQ points, you moron. Thank you for creating an audience for this kind of drivel. And congratulations for wasting everyone’s oxygen.

I think I need to make one thing clear before we go on. I don’t have a problem with films containing lots of high octane fight scenes, explosions, and ridiculous stunts. They certainly have their place and can make for genuinely exciting and enjoyable cinema. But they should not be the Film’s main selling point. They are decoration, icing and embellishment; they are not the whole cake. A film should be sold on a strong story with interesting characters. Explosions are an enticing and exciting extra, but they are not the core of what really makes a film. A good example of this is Inception. There are chase scenes, gun fights, hand to hand fights around rooms in which the gravity is constantly shifting and a fair few explosions. These things are all really we executed, they are not what makes the film so good – the plot and the characters in that plot are what makes Inception a great movie.

The thing is that the Expendables could have been a much better film that it actually was. The main problem was that Stallone is a terrible writer, director and actor. The script was pretty damn awful, with no suspense, using every cliché and trope available to the genre and so covered in cheese that it would be lethal to a lactose intolerant viewer. Every single close-up was so tight to the actor’s face that you barely even saw the lips moving half of the time; this left almost no room for actual acting and meant that most of the emotion that was desperately trying to fight its way through the tangled and poorly written script failed to make it through to the screen. The basic story is not necessarily a recipe for a terrible, shallow film – it had an element of complexity with the multiplicity of villains with conflicting interests, which was essentially written out of the film early on. It contained a mysterious group of mercenaries who were clearly all battle hardened veterans, whose characters were not explored at all. I want to know how The Expendables started, who they all are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. There’s opportunity for real depth an interest that was squandered in favour of simplicity because the plot and the characters were not as important as blowing stuff up to the mastermind behind the film.

You might be wondering exactly why plot and character are so important to a film and why a film can’t be held up solely on the basis of action sequences. The reason is simple and it’s the same reason why, throughout the climax of The Expendables I couldn’t help feeling that I really did not care what happened to the protagonists. If the entire lot had died painful at the hands of Central American soldiers and Stone Cold Steve Austin, I don’t think I would have cared. I had absolutely no emotional attachment to the characters and, as such, no reason to want them to succeed. Contrast my apathy with the collective groan of anguish that emanated around the cinema at the end of Inception. In the latter everyone wanted Cobb to be able to life happily ever after, in the former I don’t think anyone cared. The reason for this contrast is that the audience was able to form an emotional connection with Cobb and the rest of the characters. We understood why they felt and acted as they did and we felt sympathy for them. We saw the virtue in their characters, despite their flaws and so the plot moved us to care about what happened to them. In The Expendables, no emotional connection with the characters was established because we were never told anything about them. At no point did we know who they were or why they were doing what they were doing. We didn’t sympathise with them because we had nothing with which to sympathise. The film contained no emotion and so there was no emotional connection. At no point did we develop an interest in the plot and so it failed completely to move us. For the audience there was nothing resting on the outcome of the climax, and so there was no tension. The explosions and gunfire were rendered hollow because there was no reason for caring where the bullets went or who got blown up.

The Expendables is a bad film. There is no doubt about that. However it is one of those bad films that you still enjoy watching because it’s just so absurd. If you feel like a few hours of meaningless entertainment then it’s better than most action films, but it will hardly grip you and drag you through an exciting and emotionally exhausting ordeal like a genuinely good film would. If you have plenty of time and money, then go and see it, if not then I suggest you prioritise seeing Scott Pilgrim (which might just be the next review) or Inception again because it actually gets better second time round, whereas I imagine The Expendables would get much worse.

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