The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables 2 by Simon West

The Expendables undertake a seemingly simple mission that evolves into a quest for revenge against Jean Vilain, a rival mercenary who has murdered one of their own, and who threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

I enjoyed the first Expendables movie. It was great fun. It was very thin on story terms but the fact that all those action stars grouped together made it a fun guilty pleasure. When it wasn’t delivering action scenes, it was giving male banter, which I have a very big soft spot for. Even though I liked it, I would never recommend The Expendables to somebody else. I assume other people excited for the first Expendables movie would already rushed to see it. People going to see The Expendables coming out disappointed complaining about mindless action only have themselves to blame, right?

No, I have been proven wrong.

The Expendables 2 is bigger in scale and budget, but it’s not a better movie than the first.  The writing is fairly lazy, much lazier than the first movie. It relies too heavily that the audience is coming in with pre-existing knowledge of the 80’s and 90’s action era. There’s too much of a void that the audience needs to fill in their own heads. There’s no sense of who these characters are, instead we are meant to supplant them with their action hero personas.

One thing that really took me out was I was becoming very aware of the production schedule of the movie from seeing which actor was onscreen at different points throughout the story. I was disappointed how little Jet Li was in it, he may as well have just said no to reprising his part. I knew they shot his portion of the film in Hong Kong. The film was not interesting enough to take me away from that thought.

There’s some really key about henchmen in action movies that I was always want to bring up. There’s this one gag in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in Dr. Evil’s lair dies, and then we got a cut scene where there’s a birthday party in a suburban house where the family members of that henchman are told that the henchman is dead. Suffice to say, the family’s day is ruined. In The Expendables 2, as little as there already is that clearly establishes the enemy, we’re never really clearly see visually who these henchmen are. In the action scenes, the camera is focused on showing the heroes delivering the blows. This shifts how the audience experiences the fight because we’re watching the action movie star firing a huge weapon as opposed to the character in the movie shooting a henchmen to get over an obstacle in the story. There’s a pornographic sensibility within that hurts the film. At the finale, it gets to a Last Action Hero level of ridiculous self-parody, as there is a “line-o-rama” sequence where the heroes take turns sputtering their famous action catchphrases in a row. I laughed, but it was a cheap one-off laugh.

The fight between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone was pretty disappointing. It wouldn’t even have been hard to do. Only if there were more kicks… there’s really no excuse for this. That’s what I learned from watching The Expendables 2: there’s “dumb fun” ,which I would define as the first Expendables movie, and then there’s “way-too-dumb”, which is its sequel.

On a side note, Arnold Schwarzenegger can still deliver lines. Watching Schwarzenegger on screen really made me think about what a movie star he was and how odd that he is a movie star. It was a combination of the kitschy taste of the 80’s combined with the audience loving the presence of this hulking Austrian muscle man. Think about it, we do not think of him as a trained thespian and in his 80’s films we’re never really asked to buy him as anything but Arnold Schwarzenegger. Usually the things that are happening in his films are pretty far-fetched and insane, whether it’s him playing a machine, shooting an alligator in the face or teaching kindergarten. But whatever it was, we let it slide as an audience, he ultimately remains a very watchable screen presence. He’s also hilarious because he’s given these crazy lines to say and part of the fun is watching him deliver them with his thick Austrian accent.

Call me crazy, but I do not see a new action star rising to stardom the same way in 2012. That thought alone makes me miss the 80’s action era more than what The Expendables 2 managed to evoke. I really look forward to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic return.

NOTE: I’ve been away for a while. The movie I worked on is now officially in the can. It’s in post-production now and my part is currently over. I’ve drafted a lot of reviews that I intend to finish. So bear with me as I catch up.

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?