Sunday, September 12, 2010

Here's the Beef

The following column is reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Smack dab, three quarters of the way through the 2010 summer movie season, and the current weekend film openings pose the ongoing quandary of the contempo filmgoer. On one side of the movie-movie box, a little high and towards the center is Eat Pray Love, a boutique chick flick based on the Elisabeth Gilbert memoir and cultural phenomenon, featuring the ever radiant Julia Roberts, a must-see post-30 date movie. Over to the left and just above the center is the much buzzed about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, an off center comic book movie, translated from a series of spiffy comics created by Bryan Lee O’Malley, starring the anti-macho post-teen bundle of nerdiness Michael Cera, an under-20 date movie-must and potential geek fest. Holding down the foggy bottom, poised a few inches from the odoriferous lower regions is the Sylvester Stallone written and directed actioneer The Expendables, spotlighting ol’ Sly himself, plus a bunch of redoubtable manly men. Alas dear readers, despite your continued faith, this nitcrit took the low road, the one less traveled and more trampled upon.

The Expendables offers not Julia Roberts, but older brother Eric, doing one of his patented lip-licking villainous turns, and that should be enough to convey to any wizened film buff what the texture and content of this big screen vehicle will be. Director Stallone has carved himself up a true Meat Movie, of the band-of-outsiders on a mission variety, one that is not concerned with incisive plotting, political messaging, overall meaningfulness, or potentially furthering the iconography of the action film. By the same token don’t expect cutting edge visuals, computer generated imagery, or dizzying editing technique. The Expendables is about body count, bulbous biceps, bashing fists, sharpened knifes, phallic guns, and more body count, all of them in the service of a stolid flow of lumbering mayhem, all of it peppered further by a full corral of on screen meaty men tossing out meaty asides, meaty grimaces, meaty glances, topped off by meaty battle whoops and war cry’s, and a whole lot (unintended?) homoerotic subtext.

Despite the above reference, Stallone the Meat King’s directorial style does not seem particularly influenced by French visionary Jean-Luc Godard, nor action masters like Robert Aldrich (whose The Dirty Dozen remains a men-on-a-mission film template) or Sam Peckinpah (whose The Wild Bunch remains a men-on-a-mission film classic). Instead, this stubbornly old school specimen seems to follow the lead of a journeyman talent like former Stallone main man George Cosmatos , the traffic director behind Cobra or First Blood: Rambo II. The movie also liberally borrows from the not-so-storied playbook of the Cannon films of the 80’s, those grainy, bone-crackling, mug-fests like Missing in Action, Bloodsport, Death Wish II, or Enter the Ninja. Like those fondly recalled destroy-everything-that-moves beef fests, Stallone erects his potboiler with the purposefully throwback tools of hammer, nails, and glue, so much so that the movie ought to contain a warning that none of the legion of stunt men employed were injured in the making, and the explosives budget was somewhere below the cost of those utilized at the Battle of the Bulge.

Sly the Meat King deserves some credit, since his recent efforts, which included a revisited Rocky movie in 2006 and another run at a Rambo romp in 2008, seem to acknowledge that, ala Clint Eastwood, he’s at least contemplating his the inherent ridiculousness of continuing to make a mark as a meaty action guy, and maybe (possibly) sticking a popcult fork into action star ageism. The Expendables meta-nudge (who would have thought one could evoke both Godard and meta-anything when it comes not-always-sly Sly) comes directly from its casting. Glazed ham Eric Roberts gets wrestling kingpin Steve Austen as a fellow baddie, while Stallone’s on-screen dream team consists of his own coadjutant, named Christmas ( Brit beefster Jason Statham), plus other beef patties like Ying Yang (chop- sockey NNW superstar Jet Li), Hale Ceasar (NFL bruiser Terry Crews), Toll Road(UFC brawler Randy Couture) and Gunner (double-wink now, ex-enemy of all things Balboa, Dolph Lundgren). (C’mon, what kinda indie or mumblecore outing is gonna give you character names like that?) Adding a further element of braised beef are the brief appearances of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger), in a meeting-of-the-meaty-minds between those two action lions and the Meat King himself. (Remember, when dealing with this particular style and model of actioneer, women---in this case Charisma Carpenter and Giselle Itie—never get to register much beyond the bloody blades or the explosion around the next corner, and filmmaker Stallone makes sure to stick to those unwritten guidelines.)

If the vapors emanating from that steamy meat pie aren’t intoxicating enough there is the added sprinkling of wild but spicy game that is Mickey Rourke, weirdly over the top as always. Mickey’s hair (and Mickey’s sartorial choices must always been rolled into his performance choices) is striped boldly black-and-white, plus he smokes a long stemmed pipe, and while never allowed to participate in the action two-step, he gets to portentously muse on, basically expounding a whole cracked meat-cutting philosophy, while director Sly cuts to actor Sly looking on ever-so-sagely. (When’s the last time the newest European art house buzz movie offered anything like that?)

Sly the actor is more leaden than ever, and my lower lip hurt by the end of the movie, as I was sympathetically moving it, somehow hoping that maybe his would move occasionally too. You have to figure that maybe that’s all part of Sly the Meat King’s bigger plan, allowing all of the other meat team member’s group acting to rise at least to his lowered levels. The Expendables is one of those infrequent good bad movies, reaching its own limited expectations, and carving out a notch in the testosterone Hall of Shame. Although the burning question remains—were Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and (especially) Jean-Claude Van Damme all too busy fondling their royalties to participate?