Monday, 27 August 2012

New(ish) Review: 'The Expendables 2'

Following an explosive opening sequence that matches just about anything from the first Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of mercenaries are sent to a dark corner of Europe by the enigmatic Church (Bruce Willis) to recover crucial data from a crashed plane that could pinpoint the location of abandoned Cold War-era plutonium. But what should have been a routine mission soon turns sour after they are ambushed by a ruthless arms dealer known as Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Now, with the data stolen and one of their own murdered in cold blood, the Expendables set out after Vilain on a personal vendetta to avenge their comrade and, purely as a bonus, prevent worldwide anarchy.

Directed by Simon West (friggen’ Con Air), there’s an assured sense of cosy familiarity to The Expendables 2. With its central cast of likeable beefcakes now settled into a firm groove and a simplistic revenge story there to keep things running smoothly, we’re past the teething pains encountered during the original. The chemistry between Ross and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) feels more natural than before, while screen time is more evenly spread throughout the cast (it never turns into The Stallone & Statham Show).

Though it could be argued that Expendables 2 delivers too much too soon. That aforementioned opening packs enough vehicular carnage, knife battles, exploding heads, pyrotechnics, bad one-liners and Schwarzenegger to make Michael Bay go take a cold shower. But from then on, it’s a while before we even begin to approach those same giddy heights of carnage. Despite being thrown a pacing curveball, so to type, this does give all those supporting characters room to breathe.

It might be the He-Man fan in me, but I was particularly pleased to see how expanded Dolph Lundgren’s role was. He’s great as the deeply unhinged Gunner Jensen, though he’s seemingly lightened up since their 2010 shenanigans, and so gets to add a surprising amount of comic relief. The addition of Lundgren’s own real-life background in chemical engineering (the dude’s apparently a genius) to the character adds a welcome extra layer of depth, even if it does jar somewhat with his penchant for killing while bellowing “INSECT!            

Like before, Terry Crews and Randy Couture are given the least to work with, though they make the best of what they get. Crews gets by on crowd-pleasing enthusiasm alone, anyway, and his exploding doom shotgun makes a brief return (though sadly no concrete watch towers get blown up this time). Elsewhere, Jet Li’s early exit from the plot may come off as abrupt, but at least he got a proper send off, rather than one of those typical “Oh, uh, he moved back home to retire” variations of throwaway exposition.  

But what of the new recruits? Liam Hemsworth may be Botox-free, but he fits in nicely amongst the grizzled veterans as Billy ‘the Kid’, and gets to prove his acting chops (clearly being handsome with perfect stubble isn’t enough). Providing the necessary influx of girl power is Yu Nan as Maggie – a company agent proficient in everything from hacking to torture. In other words, she's no Willie Scott, and doesn't feel like pointless female fan service either. Hey, maybe they can get Sigourney Weaver in on the fun next time.

As for Van Damme, I’ve got three mind-boggling nouns for you: Belgian Mola Ram. No, really, that’s what he is! In his search for the buried plutonium, Vilain has assumed a dictatorship over a nearby village and enslaved its male population to work as miners. At one point, he plans to round up the remaining women and children and force them into labour too! How any of this is even possible in 2012 Europe, I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. All this guy needs is a horned headpiece and the ability to rip hearts out, and you’ve got one round-house kicking Thuggee high priest!

The Muscles from Brussels might well be the highlight of this ensemble piece. As an actor, he’s only improved with age. I know his direct-to-video output in the past decade might be lacking in budget, but he’s always given those roles his best (check out Until Death if you don’t believe me). As Vilain, he delivers a suave and threatening performance that made me question if this was really the same goofball from Street Fighter. We knew he was on a comeback trail after the dramatic JCVD, and Universal Soldier: Regeneration proved the man was by no means out of the action game, so it’s great to finally see Van Damme back in a major production – hopefully the first of many.

Oh yeah, and Chuck Norris shows up too. As ex-Expendable Booker, he juggles the role of dues ex machina personified and the exposition fairy rather well, it must be said. But I can’t fault his entrance – appearing right outta nowhere amidst a heap of corpses like the bearded angel of awesome he is to help our heroes on their quest to Vilain’s mountain lair. It is pretty creepy how he hasn’t aged a day since 1985, mind you...

You might recall a great brouhaha surrounding Expendables 2’s rating several months ago. Less-than-manly tears were shed when Stallone himself declared this would be a PG-13 affair, rather than the hard R that fans were hoping for. But then the news broke that it would be R-rated after all (receiving a 15 here), and all those tears were quickly sucked right back up.

Watching it now... you can tell they filmed this with a lower rating in mind. If the notable lack of foul language in this manly man-fest doesn’t strike you as even a little odd, then the abundance of computer generated blood should. In fairness, these effects don’t look dreadful, and mark a big step up from the first film’s digital squibs (remember the giant knife penetrating Eric Roberts’ sternum? Good Christ, that looked bad). Regardless, you can tell this was doctored in post-production to keep the internet in a good mood.  

To be honest, I think Expendables 2 would be oodles of awesome whatever the rating. Remember that brief scene in the original between Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis? It seemed to be hinting at greater things to come. After two years, such greatness has finally come to pass. I know I, a 90s kid, was excited when those latter two stars commandeered a Smart Car to perpetrate their own little drive-by massacre, but I can only imagine how anyone old enough to clearly remember these guys in their prime felt during that scene.  

Topping it all off is one final, brutal duel between Ross and Vilain. The thought of two middle-aged men in a no holds barred death battle may sound grimly hilarious, but this is anything but. There’s nothing fancy between these two action legends – just raw violence. The only way it could be better is if it took place in another abandoned steel factory. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of time before Van Damme faces off with fellow DTV overlord Seagal. If that did happen, Jean-Claude should fight sans shirt, and Big Steve gets a sword. It would occur in the Jamaican nightclub from Marked for Death, or maybe the ice rink from Sudden Death... sorry, bit of a weird digression.

Okay, so Expendables 2 isn’t quite ‘high art’. Indeed, ‘high crap’ might be a more fitting summarisation. But hey, I went in expecting one hundred minutes of cheese, and that’s exactly what I got. I’m trying not to think about the threadbare (read: Zoe Saldana anorexic) story, because I know such stupidity will give me an aneurism (or worse). Luckily the memorable characters, playful tone and satisfying action is enough of a distraction. If you want a fun time that successfully harks back to the Golden Age of cinematic violence, then do give this a try.

Since it’s got me in the appropriate mood, I’m gonna go watch Timecop... or maybe Tango and Cash... ooh, The Last Boy Scout’s on.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

20 Years Later: 'Alien 3'

Technically, this is for the UK anniversary, as its original burstday in late May was just a tad overshadowed by that whole Prometheus thingummy. So if you’ll excuse me...

 Alien3 is the closest thing this franchise has to a “cult film”. Though it certainly made enough money in 1992 to warrant a sequel (eh), it was greeted with an almost universal shrug of adequacy. The original Alien may have seen its fair share of unconvinced critics, but that didn’t stop it going down a storm with audiences the world over. Then Aliens came along and blew an even larger quantity of socks off.

This particular sequel has always jostled with Resurrection for the position of ‘Black Sheep’ in the Alien legacy. But while its successor was less warmly received due to the combination of a confused tone, Dan Hedaya’s shoulder hair and that inescapable sense of sequel fatigue, Alien3 became infamous for much more interesting reasons, with the scripting process being a biggie.

Plenty of films have a tough time getting off the ground... and then there’s Alien3. A number of early drafts were produced, including one from William Gibson that would have featured Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) battling Aliens on the Anchorpoint space station (it sounded so cool), while another written by Vincent Ward saw Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash landing on a wooden planetoid populated by monks (space monks!). Somewhere in between, David Twohy produced a draft that introduced the prison planet concept. Ultimately, producers Walter Hill and David Giler took matters into their own hands, and cannibalised elements from previous scripts (particularly those by Twohy and Ward), resulting in the finished product.

Well, not quite finished. Filming began without a complete script and a sizable chunk of the budget already spent. Not what you’d call ideal conditions for then-first time director David Fincher. Though his cinematic style is clearly apparent throughout (check out that camerawork), Alien3 was a studio production; and with a severe lack of creative control within such gruelling shooting conditions, Fincher has since gone out of his way to distance the film from his life, effectively disowning it.           

And that was only the beginning. Straight away, Alien3 incurs the wrath of long-time fans. James Cameron himself described the deaths of Hicks and Newt as a slap in the face, while Michael Biehn demanded a significant amount of dough just for the use of his likeness. This negative reaction to the opening was quite understandable (and don’t ask me how the stowaway egg/Facehugger(s) conundrum works), but I’ve always approved of how it fatally kicks Aliens’ happy ending in the face, Seagal style, and reasserts that grim, hopeless tone which made the later scenes of Alien so affective.

Adding to the atmosphere is some powerhouse acting. Alien worked because it was about seven real people – you could easily relate to its characters. With Aliens, you had gung ho Sphess Mahreens ramping up the entertainment with their enduringly quotable dialogue. Now, with a borderline apocalyptic tone, characters are grander. Weaver is as strong as ever, but it’s those who surround her that steal the show. Charles S. Dutton is particularly memorable, delivering rousing speeches with deadly gusto. Brian Glover gets to be slimy in a convincingly authoritarian manner as Andrews, the prison warden, while Ralph Brown provides some much-needed comic relief as his beleaguered assistant, Aaron. Elsewhere, Paul McGann is delightfully unhinged as the psychopathic Golic, and as you’d expect, Lance Henriksen remains on fine form in his limited role as Bishop, and even gets to bring out that sinister side which would serve him so well in Hard Target.

But it’s Charles Dance who shines the brightest. Clemens provides the prison’s only source of relatable humanity (unless you’re a death row inmate, I guess), and the gentle scenes spent between Ripley and Dance’s tragic doctor act as a sort of calm before the storm. His all-too sudden death marks a turning point in the story, as we’re thrust into the violent nightmare of Alien3’s second half, and Ripley is once again faced with the horror she calls her life.      

Even with such moving performances, there’s no escaping the fact that ninety percent of Alien3’s characters are bald, white males spurting expletives. And this is a big cast. Outside of those few aforementioned cases, character development isn’t exactly a factor. It’s not long before the inmates of Fury 161 all start to blend together in one enormous cockney mass. Off the top of my head, I can remember Morse, Murphy, erm, rape goggles guy... Pete... Postlethwaite...  

So there’s a large amount of almost nameless victims; and it does not end well for most of them. Alien3 is by far the most brutal saga entry. Throats are slashed to ribbons, skulls are split open, and there’s even a full-body explosion courtesy of one giant ventilation fan. As a result, events play out like a slasher movie. At its heart, Alien was always Halloween in space, but now we’re in full on The Burning territory thanks to the level of Alien3’s bloodletting.

Most of this carnage is brought about, of course, by the titular creature. Original Alien designer H.R. Giger was once again brought on board for creative input. Not all his new ideas made it to the end design (he, uh, wanted it to have feminine lips), but the resultant quadruped beast breathed new life into a familiar foe. Less biomechanical than before, and with a streamlined appearance (those dorsal tubes were a notable omission), this Alien attacks the inmates of Fury 161 like a battering ram covered in sharp sticks. Tom Woodruff Jr. performs well in the suit, and barring a few dodgy shots, the animatronic effects are expertly handled. While not as scary as the stealthy monstrosity that stalked the Nostromo’s crew, it’s still great to see the “Xenomorph” back in full head-biting force after being largely relegated to cannon fodder in Aliens.

The film’s whole visual style certainly draws attention as well. The grim setting of Fury 161 is a perpetual blend of dull colours and harsh environments. The worlds of Alien and Aliens weren’t exactly sparkling clean, but they sure look a whole lot nicer next to this collection of dank tunnels and raging furnaces. All the while, Elliot Goldenthal’s beautiful score lends the film a melancholic quality that clashes appropriately with all the unkempt surroundings in a manner previously unheard of in the Alien universe. If nothing else, it’s hard not to view Alien3 as the most aesthetically gripping series instalment.

Above all, I can’t shower the ending with enough praise. Ellen Ripley’s final act in defiance of Weyland-Yutani is a perfect curtain call charged with over a decade of build-up. It’s not just the end of Alien3 – it’s the climax to a whole trilogy! Outside of William Gibson’s awesome pipedream draft, I couldn’t possibly imagine a better way to finish this series... which in retrospect, it really should have been.

Much of what I’ve mentioned is subject to change, however, depending on what cut of the film you watch. Each Alien movie has been revisited at some point for a Special Edition. Normally, this would be an excuse for the studio to re-insert deleted scenes that were likely deleted for a good reason, but as we know, Alien3 is a special case. The “Assembly Cut” was introduced for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, and it managed to salvage a significant amount of previously unseen material, and presented something (supposedly) more in line with Fincher’s original vision by filling in certain plot holes and adding a degree of extra character development. Even though there is NO “Director’s Cut”, this is the closest we’re ever likely to get. Changes include the Alien bursting from an ox instead of a dog, proper closure to the character of Golic (who just disappeared from the original cut), along with a more subtle take on Ripley’s final scene.

Those are just a few differences. More await, and they all add up to create quite a different beast from the cut audiences first saw in 1992. If you remain unconvinced by Alien3’s theatrical version, then the Assembly Cut comes highly recommended. It won’t automatically make Alien3 perfect – it’s always been and always will be a flawed work of art – but it should at least shed some light on why many consider this to be such an underrated gem.

It may sit in the shadow of its two more successful prequels, but Alien3 has enough memorable characters, dark storytelling, unique stylistic touches and good old fashioned ultra-violence to firmly hold its own after twenty years... and counting.