Sunday, August 26, 2012

Expendables 2: Revenge of the action hero 'has beens'

The '80's was the golden age of action hero B-movie franchises, featuring 'one-man armies' like Sylvester Stallone in 'Rambo,' Chuck Norris in 'Delta Force' and 'Missing in Action,' and Dolph Lundgren in 'Red Scorpion.'  In the Ronald Reagan era of tough talking anti-Soviet rhetoric, I must admit I watched more than my fair share of these disposable action movies released by companies like the aptly named 'Cannon Films,' with lots of explosions and high body count factors.  It was great, bloody, over-the-top fun for a teenager who simply didn't know better.
'The Expendables 2' is the much anticipated, bigger follow-up to the inexplicably successful but ultimately disappointing 'The Expendables,' which brought back some of these '80's action staples as well as contemporary stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Jet Li.  Since I thought the first movie sucked, I really can't say why I saw this sequel, other than that I was curious and wanted to see how JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme) fared as the villain in the movie.  Suffice to say, I felt a bit like a cat afterward.
So how was 'The Expendables 2'?  I thought it was marginally better than its predecessor, but then my expectations weren't exactly very high.  The movie followed the same formula as the big and dumb '80's action movies it paid homage to.  You know, the heroes always prevail against overwhelming odds and win the day, making war seem like fun and games in the process.  Just don't forget to take your thinking cap off when you watch the movie's countless 'realistic' action sequences.
Here are but some examples of the movie's cartoon-like high jinks: Sly Stallone flies this big lumbering transport plane (not a C-130 'Herky Bird' but like it) with a big gun mounted in the nose toward a bridge with lots of bad guys on it, and co-pilot Jason Statham fires it and hits the bridge with one shot.  They hoot and high-five each other like a couple of kids.  Nice.  Oh, and there's the scene where our heroes get pinned down by superior numbers in a small town, and then you see a T-72 tank get knocked out as if by magic and the baddies start dropping like flies, then of course out of the smoke Chuck Norris strides into the picture, even though you don't see anything resembling even a LAW rocket tube on him.  People in the theatre hoot and holler like adolescent boys.  Very nice. 
The movie isn't entirely without any redeeming feature.  It is at its best during the slower and lighter moments, especially those 'wink-wink' moments in which our heroes trade classic one-liners from their old movies.  The best example is when during a shoot-out with Van Damme's goons at an airport, Arnold ran out of ammo and said "I'll be back!" and next to him Bruce Willis replied "You've been back enough, I'll be back!" and runs off.  Arnold then shook his head and uttered "Yippie ki yay."  And in a rare moment of cleverness, Dolph Lundgren's 'big dumb brute' character recounts his real life, of how he was an MIT-educated engineer and a Fulbright scholar who later worked at a night club (before becoming part of Grace Jones's entourage and coming to Hollywood).
And when it's time for the final face-off between Stallone and Van Damme, the scene can't escape looking overly 'set up' and anti-climactic.  I so wanted Van Damme to kick Stallone's butt, but there's no way that was going to happen.  The good guys ALWAYS win, after all.
5 out of 10

Monday, August 20, 2012

Legacy Re-Bourne

So, what can I say?  I love this movie.  Okay, there you have it.  No need to keep reading below and just go see it now.  What, you can't just take my word for it and would like to know why?  Alrighty then, here goes.

'The Bourne Legacy' is the fourth installment of the popular Bourne franchise based on the novels of Robert Ludlum, and the first not featuring its titular hero Jason Bourne, portrayed by Matt Damon, who in the previous three movies foiled numerous assassination attempts on his life by being 'better, stronger, faster' and succeeded in his quest to expose the black heart of the covert CIA black ops programs Operation Blackbriar and Project Treadstone to the public.

Failing to stop Bourne, the CIA went into full-on crisis damage control mode and tried to cover up everything, which includes liquidating everyone involved in these programs, whether they're highly trained field 'assets' like Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross or brilliant civilian scientists such as Rachel Weisz's Dr. Marta Shearing.  The lengths to which these 'deep black' agencies with no accountability are prepared to go in order to cover their asses under the pretext of national security and 'plausible deniability' is staggering to the extreme. 

While 'The Bourne Legacy' has a decidedly familiar feel to fans of previous Bourne installments, what really set it apart are its two main protagonists played by Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, whose paths cross as they came to depend upon one another for their mutual survival against the evil machinations of 'big bad brother.'  Their actions and decisions are authentic and believable in their desperate context, giving this film an emotional depth I haven't seen in the first three movies.  As the movie's villain, Edward Norton is quietly ruthless in the role previously filled by Joan Allen as the 'chaser,' determined in his single-mindedness to hunt down and terminate Renner and Weisz with 'extreme prejudice.'

Like its predecessors, I love 'The Bourne Legacy' the most when it 'cuts to the chase.'  There is an extended chase scene at the end that will leave you breathless and set your heart racing, starting on the rooftops parkour style (yes, I know there was the one in Tangiers in the last movie but this one's even better!) and ending with an exhilarating motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila. 

Quite simply, 'The Bourne Legacy' delivered the goods and then some.  It is gritty and intelligent, and packed with the tightly wound tension and suspense we've come to expect from the franchise.  Some people doubted the viability of a Bourne movie without its title character, but Renner's Aaron Cross filled in quite nicely, fulfilling the movie's promise with its tagline that "there was never just one."  The chemistry between Renner and Weisz is utterly riveting, and I would love to see a follow-up sequel that's left as a possibility at the end of this movie.

9 out of 10


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Total Recall of vintage '80's (and '90's) sci-fi

'Total Recall' is one of three sci-fi masterpieces from the '80's and '90's by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven that are getting the reboot treatment, the other two being 'Robocop' and 'Starship Troopers.'  Based on the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the original 'Total Recall' is among my favorite sci-fi movies of all time, starring the biggest action hero of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming off the heels of such blockbusters as 'Terminator' and 'Predator.'  Bristling with great action, cutting-edge FX (for its time) and a good dose of dark humor, 'Total Recall' was sheer campy fun.

So how did 'Total Recall' (2012) compare to the 1990 version?  Not badly, considering.  The basic premise of a Jason Bourne-like operative who slowly regains lost memories and uncovers a sinister government conspiracy remained the same, but many details are quite different to make this movie stand on its own.  Rather than setting part of the story on Mars (warning, minor spoiler ahead), everything took place on earth this time around, albeit an earth rendered inhospitable by chemical weapons with only the 'United Federation of Britain' and 'The Colony' (what looks like present day Australia) populated.  Sharon Stone's character from the original movie, Lori, figured more prominently in this one, playing not only herself but wearing the hat of Michael Ironside's 'Richter' as well.  Kate Beckinsale was simply deliciously devilish in this role, and her no-holds-barred catfight with Melinda (played by Jessica Biel) in the elevator, like the one between Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin in the original, is the highlight of the movie.  Other major departures are the elimination of Benny the taxi-driver and the inclusion of an army of synthetic supersoldiers equally reminiscent of Star Wars Stormtroopers and 'I, Robots.'  The movie kept the one memorable scene that it absolutely couldn't do without, however, when a three-breasted alien prostitute displayed her well endowed wares to our hero.  Speaking of which, Colin Farrell did a fairly good job reprising the role of Doug Quaid/Carl Hauser.  His version of the movie's hero is more akin to Jason Bourne, a brooding and serious ass-kicker whose action speaks louder than any Austrian-accented words, but that's fine because the overall tone of the movie is darker and heavier than its predecessor's. 

The visuals and FX of this movie are breathtaking, and remind me of another movie based on one of Philip K. Dick's stories, 'Blade Runner,' filled with neon lights, Chinese characters, hovercars and giant billboard television screens on the sides of high rises.  While 'Blade Runner' ruminated on such philosophical questions as existentialism and sentience, 'Total Recall' offered us nothing more than the well worn but time-honored theme of class struggle and social justice, which also underpinned movies as recently as 'The Dark Knight Rises.'  A popular theme during our uncertain economic times, perhaps, when the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' seems to be growing wider?

8 out of 10