Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Movie - The expendables

Just watched the Expendables.  While its a fun genre flick that cameos a number of old school action stars, its also very carefully crafted.
Its a study in being very respectful of the key genre conventions while addressing the flaws that plagued the previous movies and defined the worst of the genre. Shall we list them?

* Pithy catch phrases. 

These have been a staple of action movies for the past two decades. Although I would have to say that Stalones movies have been free of them, so perhaps its simply his integrity that is at play. 

* Disposable friends

One of the common conventions has always been the death of some 2 dimensional friend of the lead character as a pretext for the mayhem and retribution in the movie.  As a pleasant suprise, in this movie the friendships are complicated and not cheapened by being used as cannon fodder by the lazy script writers.

* Traitors

A common theme has often been that of the friendship gone bad.  While there is a rivalry in this movie between stalone and schwarzenneger, its presented as a rivalry between mature adults rather than petulant teenagers. These people may not like each other but they are not malicious about it. 

* Cameos

The appearance of actors from old school movies is both a homage and a different touch.  Its a feature of comedy movies not action movies. Usually its only the star of the movie who has a name while all the others (except perhaps the archvillan) are nameless in terms of their careers. 

* No character development

Even though there was not a huge amount in this movie and it was far from deep, each character got to present a little set piece at some point to give a tiny little bit of dimension.  There was no effort to explain motivation or expectations, the characters are still directionless and aimless in their lives but they are far from the paper thin super soldiers so common in most action movies.

* Frailty

Even though it was a little staged, the man on man fight between stalone and Austin was unconventional because the hero did not get the upper hand. As this was the traditional confrontation where the hero was beaten but not broken, this was fairly conventional but still to voice the fact that the character feels like they were beaten is unusual.  Stalone still took the traditional shoulder wound at the end. Its almost a signature.


There was a token BFG, in the shape of an automatic shotgun firing some kind of mini-missile.  There was very little posing with it and virtually no other posing in the movie.  There were a couple of stylalised moved but this was probably more from habit. They are probably in the dna of holywood by now, to the extent that most of the actors probably pose in their sleep.  I can forgive a couple of low key ones as there has to be a certain amount of genre material, it cant all be convention breaking. The very fact that there was so few momemts where they symbolically "got out their guns" turned it from the usual cock fest into almost a narrative.

I think the scene where stalone was hanging out the door of the aircraft as they escaped Vilena after their first visit was a little homage to the scene in the second rambo movie where he is dropped from the aircraft and gets hung up with his chute cable. (What would be the actual odds of that happening??) While there are not really that many possible angles to shoot it from, it was very similar.  Not the same but just similar. 

* minimal gore

The amount of gore was light.  Not absent as in some strange movies but basic and just used for set dressing rather than spattered everywhere. 

* competent effects

There was really only one effect that I found weak. It was the clean and neat placement of bullet holes in the door of the little truck that stalone was driving when they were ambushed in the street.  While it may have been realistic, it was too neat and tidy.  The only other bit was the neatness of the fire effects in the final battle.  This was just too "neat" but the function was fairly specific so there wasn't a great deal of opportunity for other presentations.

* No token mercy

Another refreshing change was the convention that the hero cannot kill the villan without some sort of token "fair fight" and the villan pulling a secret gun and "cheating". (where apon the hero is ethically free to kill them in self defense) I have always found that particular ethical convolution particularly disturbing.  If you follow the logical conclusion, the hero needs to be in a state where they are ready and willing to kill the villan, and are waiting for any excuse, which the script writer then provides for that final cathartic guilt free release of vengence, retribution or whatever justifiable rage has motivated the honerable hero.  ( The fact that the hero has guiltlessly slaughtered their way through countless faceless henchmen prior to that point is glossed over in the ethical rationalisation fest)

* Pointless monologues

There were a couple of small monologues but thankfully the script writer as skilled enough to avoid them.  There was enough development of the villan characters and enough conflict between them to explain sufficiently what was going on and present the characters without resorting to exposition from the villan on their motivations.  There was a small one at the final showdown, but it was short and fairly hard to hear so I will let it pass.

* Ham fisted exposition

While there were a couple of minor points of exposition, they were not painful.  At some point the audience needs to pick up enough background to understand the key relationships and motivations, so while its effective, thankfully it was in very small does.The conflict between the villans served as a useful device to develop those characters. I twas an interesting scenario to have two villain characters openly conflicting and having their relationship moving toward a showdown.  This is an interesting technique. Usually the villian only has a couple of henchmen to act as foils for exposition to defiine their character. 

* endless bullets

One of the chronic problems with this genre is the shear amount of ammo that the hero can not only chew through but apparently carry and fit into one magazine.  This movie was fairly good about sticking to the bullet limit and not testing the credibility of people who can count. 

* weapon choice

The wild mix of armlaments made the usual mistakes of all movie armorers who go for variety rather than consistnecy.  Just about every weapon used by the "heros" was of a different type. Some of the pistols were similar but the larger weapons where a wild mix. No wonder when they ran out of rounds, they had to stop, simpy because they could not scavange amo.   The henchmen has the standard issue AK-47's The favorite of every amourer in holywood apparently. The selection of knives was fairly competent however the choice of loose holsters for the throwing knives was just amature. 

More later.  All in all, I think there was a great deal of subtly in the movie, as a Genre flick and as a very well crafted movie by a cleaver and mature director.  They were not trying to make high art, but they were definitly masters of the craft and understood how to speak the genre language and say something new.

It will be interesting to see the followup movie.  I think its obvious that the stage has been set for a series. ( I should probably check IMDB if I really wanted to know, but I'm happy to speculate)  without being nasty, its like a retirement home for action stars. A warm familiar genre that they call all come back to, but done by a master script writer and competent cinematographer.  For a movie buff, its a gift that keeps on giving.

No comments:

Post a Comment