Friday 31 August 2012

The Expendables 2

If The Dirty Dozen and Cocoon had ever had a drunken one-night stand, this is what the baby would have looked like.

The Expendables 2 (2012) is such a bizarre mash-up of styles and demographics – oh-my-aching-sides oldie gags and uber-violence – that it frequently leaves the viewer perplexed: “Aw, look at all the old people, still so sprightly and full of zest. Wait no, what’s he doing? Oh god no, he just shot somebody in the face!”

Following the respectable box office of The Expendables (which proved the adage: it’s never too late to put old dogs through exactly the same tricks), old stroke-features Stallone here rounds up the boys again.

Eschewing a state pension, the 66-year-old has gathered Schwarzeneger (65), Willis (57), Lundgren (55), Van Damme (52) and junior partner the Stath for another medley of tongue-in-cheek heroics and stomach-churning blood spillage.

(To fully appreciate just how downright weird all this is, just consider that cameo assassin Chuck Norris, at a coffin-brushing 72-years-old, is a full 20 years older than Cocoon actor Wilford Brimley was when he starred as a pensioner in that film.)

The ‘plot’, in which the team rescues some plutonium, blasts the baddies and saves the obligatory village, is so by-the-numbers we need not go into detail here. What really impresses is the gusto with which the screenplay (co-written by Sly) embraces every possible action movie cliché.

What, the team has to do an impossible mission or GO TO JAIL? You mean, the young buck who’s doing ‘one last job’ to raise enough money to marry his sweetheart ACTUALLY DIES? You’re kidding me: the glamorous female who’s foisted on the reluctant team turns out to be so kick ass and gutsy she eventually WINS THEIR RESPECT?

It sounds awful, but it actually works. The whole movie is essentially one gigantic wink to the audience, a cinematic karaoke of old action movie favourites. This can become wearing when the action pensioners repeatedly blurt out self-reverential soundbites (‘I’m back’, ‘Yippee-ki-yay’ etc) but it’s mostly cartoonish good fun.

In fact, the film only really falters when it tries to up the drama and get serious. Chief villain Jean Claude Van Damme’s opening soliloquy – a rambling, four-minute homily to ‘respect’ – is literally incomprehensible, and there’s a palpable sense of relief when he finally shuts up and kung-fu kicks a dagger into someone’s chest. (Yes, he really does.)

Despite all the guns, bombs and crashing planes, the most fascinating view on display – especially on the big screen – is the cast themselves. Stallone, arrested several years ago for smuggling his personal supply of human growth hormone into Australia, scarcely even looks human anymore.

He alternately wears a thick, black woollen beret and his own hair, but you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The bulging veins on his forearms are just terrifying, and those HGH injections haven’t quite reached down to his legs, which are now comically old man skinny. It’s like there’s two different bodies waddling across the screen – Tom Hardy on top and Steptoe at the bottom.

Arnie, meanwhile, looks like a semi-melted waxwork of his younger self, his face tight and surgical-shiny in places, but hanging off his jowls at the sides. Van Damme wears sunglasses for 95 per cent of the time – even while underground – presumably because there are bags under his eyes you could carry your shopping in.

Of the others, Bruce Willis merely looks even more like a smug testicle, while septuagenarian Chuck Norris – with his magnificently white teeth and lustrous brown beard/hairdo combo looks like a human beaver. It’s like he’s accidentally strayed into the action from an Island of Dr Moreau set next door.

At a sprightly 45-years-old, it’s left exclusively to the Stath to provide all the actual action in this action movie. Director Simon West shows a good sense of the ridiculous for the most part with this movie (he made Con Air, after all), but his choreography of the fight scenes is lamentable. The clunky edits make abundantly clear that the baddies are obediently queuing to get biffed one at a time; I’ve seen queues in Lidl’s with more sense of danger.

Still, that’s a minor gripe about a largely entertaining yarn which, in its eagerness to please, throws us an exploding helicopter in the very first scene. Our crew, armed with all kinds of armoured vehicles, bust into a walled compound to rescue Arnie.

Before you can say human growth hormone injections, Sly’s somehow on a low rooftop with his tanky vehicle, which has a motorbike strapped to the back. A chopper swings low, ready to fire, so Sly revs up the bike and sends it blasting into the helicopter cockpit, causing an inevitable crash and, yes, explosion.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The driving-a-moving-automobile-into-a-chopper gambit has been used before (Willis in Die Hard 4 provides a worthy demonstration of the form) but the good thing about this example is that it doesn’t make a meal out of things. There’s no Michael Bay multiple-cut, slo-mo, shite CGI business going on: it just happens. One minute Sly’s shooting someone repeatedly in the chest, then he throws a motorbike at a helicopter, then he punches someone else to death. Simple.


I love how, with each movie, less and less of what Sly says is comprehensible, especially when he’s angry. There’s a whole scene where he castigates Bruce Willis down a walkie talkie that I didn’t catch a word of.

You can picture the director asking him to go through it seven times before just throwing his hands into the air. In the latest Batman film, Tom Hardy often can’t be understood because he’s wearing a big mask: Sly now achieves much the same effect with just the burden of his own slopey mouth.


The gutsy woman character is – probably deliberately – neither that young nor that glamorous, presumably to avoid providing too sharp a contrast with her doddering co-stars. However, she is one cack actress. When you’re in a scene with Sly where he’s stutteringly growling out some half-baked ‘backstory’ and YOU’RE the one whose acting is noticeably bad, it’s time to start worrying.

Favourite quote

Van Damme’s colossally nonsensical: “Without respect, we are just people.” What?

Interesting fact

The collective age of the main cast a very high figure indeed that would have impressed you if I could have been bothered to work it out.

Review by: Chopper

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Monday 20 August 2012

12 Rounds

12 Rounds (2009) could have been a contender. After all, it’s a high concept thriller with relentless action sequences that are kinetically propelled along. With a top heavyweight in the cast, we could have maybe had a contender for minor classic status. Unfortunately, with bantam weight John Cena in the leading role, this remains a strictly amateur affair.

Cena plays Danny Fisher, a New Orleans cop whose life is turned upside down when a ghost from his past returns. Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen), a dangerous terrorist Cena once arrested, busts out of prison intent on exacting an elaborate revenge.

So it’s gloves off, and Gillen kidnaps our hero’s girlfriend (Ashley Scott) before un-sportingly setting him 12 death-defying tasks (or ‘rounds’, geddit?) to complete if he wants to save her life. So much for Queensbury rules.

If the plot rings a distant bell in the punch-drunk recesses of your mind, it’s probably because it’s largely a reprise of Die Hard With A Vengeance. This comparison comes into even sharper focus when 12 Rounds inevitably delivers the same it’s-all-a-big-diversion-for-a-bank-heist plot ‘twist’ in the final round.

Now, it’s below the belt to criticise a film just for being unoriginal – I love too many formulaic films to even dream of doing that. But if you aren’t going to deliver a knockout blow with your plot, then the acting ring-craft on display needs to be first rate.

Unfortunately, 12 Rounds stars wrestler-turned-actor John Cena, a charisma-free presence whose performance makes you ache for a someone with real acting chops, such as The Rock. He utterly fails to sell the jeopardy or urgency of the film’s premise to the viewer. Other significant roles are equally ill-cast, with acting lightweights struggling to punch above their weight.

Aidan Gillen, left as the only decent actor in the ring, swings at his role in a half-hearted manner, seemingly unable to remember whether he’s meant to be attempting an Irish or American accent. ‘Hey, yoose guys, so it is, begorrah…’ etc. He also literally phones in his performance, since his role maroons him on the end of a mobile phone dishing out the instructions for each task. 12 Rounds, two accents.

In fairness, none of the actors are helped by a horrendous script which, when it isn’t jabbing you with cliché, pins you against the ropes and pummels you with ‘hurt bombs’ of exposition until you‘re almost begging to throw in the towel.

In one clunking early scene, we’re introduced to Gillen’s character as he’s being covertly tracked by the FBI. Despite being mid-operation, the FBI commander suddenly decides to explain to everyone, for no earthly reason, exactly who Gillen is. Presumably no-one involved in this massive, sophisticated surveillance operation quite knew who they were following until this point. D’oh.

That said, 12 Rounds does earn some points on this judge’s scorecard. Director Renny Harlin – a favourite bête noire of this blog – comes out swinging and doesn’t let the pace drop throughout. This is crucial, since in terms of logic the entire movie has a glass jaw.

Commendably, the film also doesn’t pull any punches with its stunt work. Genuinely exciting, its thrills, spills, crashes and smashes seem to have been shot for real, without the use of CGI.

All told, though, 12 Rounds ultimately blows its shot at the title. It’s a shame since, if they’d given the script more of a work-out and put a better class of fighter in the cinematic ring, we might have had a worthy (albeit unoriginal) champion.

Still, that’s enough blethering on about the under-card – let’s have a blow-by-blow account of the main bout: the helicopter explosion.

Still holding Scott hostage, Gillen attempts to make his getaway in a helicopter. Earlier in the film, it was revealed Scott earns her living as an air ambulance pilot. Hands up if you didn’t think that was going to turn out to be significant later on?

Having made it to the hospital’s roof where the helicopter is parked, Gillen and Scott are about to take off. Cena, in hot pursuit, only manages to board the chopper by making a daring leap onto one of its skid rails. I say daring, but given how frequently people in films successfully make this jump, it may actually be quite easy to pull off.

A struggle for control of the helicopter follows, during which a gun is fired several times into the chopper’s engine, causing Scott to lose control as Cena finally prevails in his brawl with Gillen.

Slumped at the back of the chopper seemingly down for the count, Gillen activates the timer on a bomb he‘s hidden away. With only a few seconds left before it explodes, and no hope of landing the chopper in time, our heroes appear doomed.

Until, that is, Cena spots a roof-top swimming pool. With only moments to spare, the pair jump to safety, landing with the dead-eyed accuracy of an Olympic high-diver in the centre of the swimming pool.
Meanwhile, Gillen the villain has a brief moment to wonder why he didn’t come up with an altogether simpler plan – or pick a film with a better script and co-stars –before the helicopter explodes.

Artistic merit

What’s not to love about a film that builds its entire climax around an extended helicopter sequence?

Having commended the film for it’s commitment to CGI-free stunts, one must concede computer chicanery is used to render the helicopter explosion. It’s not a particularly fine example of the art, as the chopper unconvincing splits in half.

Exploding helicopter innovation

No great innovation in the detonation but, ludicrous as it was, I enjoyed the aquatic escape from the helicopter. I’ve not seen that done before – though surely, someone, somewhere, has.

Do passengers survive?

Yes, the bland John Cena and anonymous auto-moppet Ashley Scott both survive – though the viewer is half hoping they’ll miss the pool and smack into hard, unforgiving, concrete.


During 12 Rounds denouement, there’s one superb moment of unintended hilarity.

At the start of the film, the scriptwriters establish that Cena and Scott’s relationship isn’t one of happy domestic bliss. “I’ve got to know I can trust you!” demands Scott, in what would’ve been a moment of high drama had she been talking about anything other than the fact Cena has forgotten to phone the plumber.

Having set-up this ‘trust issues’ story arc, we duly get the pay-off in the final reel. With Scott reluctant to jump from the helicopter, Cena barks: “Do you trust me?” We can only guess at the thoughts rushing through Scott’s mind at this moment: “Well, he did remember to pick up some milk last night, but then he did forget to pay the gas bill. Oh, and there was that time he left his wallet in the car.”

Fortunately, Scott decides that her certain and imminent death in a helicopter explosion trump any residual doubts she has about whether Cena is the kind of guy who always remembers to switch the iron off at the plug. She jumps.


Just in case Harlin was in danger of giving his film a puncher’s chance, he shoots the film in that jerky, hand-held, camera style so beloved of directors who want to add an edgy, pseudo-documentary style.

This is fine during the action sequences – it adds to the sense of fast-moving chaos. But when, for instance, you’re simply watching two people talking it just starts to feel like the cameraman must have Parkinson’s.

The whole effect is intrusive and leaves the viewer feeling nauseous, almost like they’ve taken a couple of haymakers to the chin.

Favourite quote

The ball-achingly obvious: “Knockout, Danny! This time you’re not going to be saved by the bell.” I know, that really was the best they could come up with.

Review by: Jafo

Saturday 11 August 2012

Mission Impossible

Given that the Cruiser, now half a century old, recently creaked his weary bones back into gear one last time for MI4: Ghost Protocol, now seems an apt time to look at the movie that started the whole wire-dangling, face-swapping franchise.

This original revamp of the Sixties telly series sees Tiny Tom playing Ethan Hunt, agent of the top secret Impossible Missions Force. Just how impossible these missions can be is amply demonstrated in the first ten minutes, when the team’s opening jaunt in Prague goes absolutely tits up.

Plainly, it’s not a good day at the office.

Almost everyone gets killed, a secret list naming covert agents is nicked and Tom gets blamed for everything. Going underground, he recruits two blacklisted, ‘disavowed’ agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno) to help discover the truth.

Surrounded by a parade of esoteric characters – grumpy Ving, creepy Jon Voight, pouty Emanuelle Beart, the inexcusably French Reno – Tom as ever plays the straight man. (Hey, no laughing at the back there).

Stern-jawed and po-faced, he bounces through the movie like a superhuman over-achiever. Multi-lingual, computer expert, impossibly tough and endlessly resourceful, it often seems there’s nothing he can’t do. Except act, obviously.

Tom Cruise: There's nothing he can't do. Except act.
Still, it’s an entertaining rollercoaster of a movie. The justly-famous scene where Tom dangles horizontally on wires inches above an alarmed floor is wonderfully executed. In the space of ten minutes, it steadily builds tension and throws everything into the mix: scary rats, slipped wires, dripping sweat on touch-sensitive floors and even dropped knives. So expertly does it cause one’s buttocks to be clenched, they could market it as a sit-down aerobics exercise.

Shockingly, it turns out that Tom’s boss, the-slippery-lizard-made-man Jon Voight, is in fact a double dealing traitor. I know, who would have thunk? Finally revealed as an utter git while on a speeding train, Voight shoots his own girlfriend (for kicks, apparently) then – following the Golden Hollywood Rulebook of Questionable Baddie Behaviour – doesn’t just shoot the defenceless Tom square in the forehead.

Jean Reno: traitor, coward and French, naturally.
No, instead he escapes to the train’s roof, where Tom’s supposed colleague Jean Reno is waiting for him in a hovering helicopter, snickering away like a garlic-scented Mutley. (Note: I did not pass out with shock at this point. As a French person in an American movie made in the Nineties, the odds that Jean was going to end up being a back-stabbing, nasty, cheese-eating surrender monkey were always fairly high. And so it turned out.)

What happens next is sublime. Ethan follows Voight and uses a dangling winch-line to tether the chopper to the train as it speeds into the Channel Tunnel. Somehow, both the chopper and Reno’s massive conk squeeze into the tunnel as Ethan – after two hours of almost superhuman prowess – suddenly struggles to land a punch on an overweight sexagenarian. The climactic ‘fight’ is on.

It all comes thick and fast. Voight untethers the chopper and jumps onto one of its landing skids: Ethan jumps onto the other one then sticks explosive gum to the windshield. Bam! Inevitably, the blast kills the baddies but just propels Ethan onto the slanted back of the slowing train. The blazing chopper crashes on behind him and its sharp rotor blades stop just short of his neck. Phew.

Exploding helicopter innovation

This is pretty much top drawer stuff: innovative, original and well executed. Over and above the special effects, the whole scenario is simply a very good idea.


This is stomping good fun, with some classic set-pieces and more twists than Beyonce’s weave. For some reason, exploding helicopters often seem to reside in the lower quality, straight to DVD end of the market (I’m looking at you, Steven Seagal) so it’s good to see a chopper fireball in such good company.


Clearly, there’s no arguing with his 30-year stellar status, but I’ve always found Tom a very limited actor capable of only two expressions: ‘shit-eating grin’ and ‘worried’. Obviously, the grin is regularly wheeled out (you don’t spend so much on a new set of gnashers without wanting to flash them on occasion) but the Cruise ‘worried’ look has become his hallmark, seemingly applicable to any situation.

Jon Voight: slippery lizard-made-man
Confronted by deadly aliens? Sacked from dream job? Faced with estranged paedophile dad? Whatever the scenario, Tom will – without exception – furrow his brow, tighten his mouth and dart his eyes about in a confused manner. There really is something of the Zoolander about him.

More worryingly, I saw the Cruiser being interviewed by Wossy a couple of years back and realised he can’t even really act being himself. The meaningful pauses, the cloying sincerity, the sudden, barking laughs: it all spoke of someone playing a role. Badly.

Favourite quote

“This message will self-destruct…”

Interesting fact

Jean Reno has the most schizophrenic CV in Hollywood. For every Big Blue, there’s a Godzilla. For every Leon, there’s a stomach-churning Pink Panther re-make. Ye gods, he even went back for Pink Panther 2.

Review by: Chopper

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Monday 6 August 2012

Spy Hard

Spy Hard (1996) marks the moment where the joke wore thin, very thin, with Leslie Nielsen’s comedy career.

Formerly a stolid, patrician screen presence, Nielsen’s reinvention as dead-pan comic genius kicked off in 1980 with a film-stealing cameo in Airplane. It then followed a rather circuitous route – via the short-lived Police Squad TV series (now hailed as a classic) – to the box office bonanza of The Naked Gun trilogy.

Bizarrely, Nielsen found his greatest success by making a virtue of his inherent woodenness as an actor. With fame bestowed on him seemingly by accident, Nielsen understandably didn’t want to rock the money boat, and thus gamely churned out increasingly middling genre-spoofs for the next 20 years.

Of course, the trouble with any joke is that there’s only so many times you can hear the punchline before it stops being funny. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the point we reach with this lamentable secret agent parody.

An early indicator of the risible comedy level comes when we’re introduced to Nielsen’s character. He plays a former secret agent named Dick Steele - gedditt? - codenamed WD40. Oh, my aching sides.

The notional plot sees Nielsen recalled to service when his old foe General Rancor (ho, ho) threatens to destroy the world unless he gets one of those new-fangled, all-powerful computer chips that villainous megalomaniacs always seem to covet. Naturally, it’s a wee gizmo that – by some never-explained mechanism – will allow the owner to control the world. Or something.

Anyway, with the world facing destruction or enslavement, Nielsen’s job is to stop the crazed General’s wicked scheme.

None of it makes much sense. The ‘plot’ – such as it is – is merely a vehicle for a conveyer belt of sight gags, dumb puns and slapstick. And if some of the jokes leave you with a sense of déjà vu, it’s probably because they’re thinly rewritten variants on ones you’d previously enjoyed in the Airplane or Naked Gun films.

Curiously, given the title, the film scarcely even attempts to parody the spy genre. Apart from lamely mimicking True Lies and the 007 films, the film relies on haphazardly spoofing contemporaneous films of whatever ilk. This results in a series of feeble skits based on scenes in Speed, Pulp Fiction, Home Alone, Sister Act, In The Line Of Fire and that well known spy classic Jurassic Park.

Quite why the scriptwriters adopted this scattergun approach is bemusing. As Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movie hilariously demonstrated, just a year after Spy Hard, there’s plenty of laughs to be had sending up the spy genre.

Hardly sophisticated fare, Austin Powers comes across as a comedy Citizen Kane, a work of rare comedic subtlety, in comparison with Spy Hard. The way in which it repeatedly and brutally clubs the viewer with a succession of crass and arse-clenchingly dreary gags quickly becomes unbearable.

This is never more true than in the film’s only stand-out sequence – one which is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Nielsen has a hand-to-hand combat showdown with double agent Desiree More, played by former Bond girl Talisa Soto. In a woefully misconceived martial arts parody, Nielsen slits his eyes and repeatedly cries “Aiiiiiiiiiieeeeeee”, demonstrating the sort of toe-curling racial stereotyping you thought had disappeared with Seventies sitcoms and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

It’s a jaw-dropping comic misjudgement: one that makes the very marrow of your bones turn cold, leaving you with the kind of deadpan expression Nielsen wears throughout the film.

Anyway, let us turn away from such uncomfortable moments to the good, clean, uncontroversial fun of a helicopter explosion.

In flashback, we see when Nielsen and General Rancor first locked horns. Rancor tries to make a getaway from his hideout in a helicopter, but Nielsen secretly plants an explosive on its side, before detonating it with a remote control device.

When he spots Neilsen waving benignly at him from the ground, Rancor realises – in one of those karmic moments cinema so often treats us to – what’s about to happen. Boom! It’s a chopper villain fireball.

Artistic merit

Much like the rest of the film, it’s a middling spectacle. Very brief, and the explosion looks like it was done with model work rather than CGI.

Number of exploding helicopters

One. Or maybe two. Yes, in keeping with the half-arsed nature of this film, there may in fact be a second chopper fireball but we’re not sure. An explanation is needed, methinks.

At the very start of the film, we see Nielsen being flown in a helicopter by Mr T, where he receives a Mission Impossible-style briefing via an explosive tape recorded message.

Having accepted the mission, Nielsen skydives out the helicopter. Unfortunately for Mr T, Nielsen leaves behind the tape recording, which in the time-honoured fashion self destructs. We see a close-up of Mr T yelling, but we never find out if the explosion was enough to destroy the helicopter. Budgetry constraints, presumably.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Negative. Nope.

Do passengers survive?

Yes. General Rancor miraculously survives, albeit minus both his arms.


Spy Hard actually opens quite promisingly with a funny pastiche of a Bond film title sequence.
Sung by Weird Al Yankovic, and with a classic brassy orchestra-score, the visuals send-up the expensively produced sequences which are a hallmark of the 007 franchise.

It’s never a good sign when the best joke occurs before the film has even actually begun.

During a lame parody of In The Line Of Fire, we witness Nielsen running down a road in slow motion. While watching the sequence you can’t but help but notice the unsightly flapping of Nielsen’s unusually large ear lobes.

They bounce around much like I’d imagine a startled elephant’s. It’s quite one of the most extraordinary sequences ever committed to celluloid.

Favourite quote

“General Rancor wants the world, but he wants to kill you first. That may give us valuable time.”

Review by: Jafo