Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

2020 #29
Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

She be back

Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

He be back

Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

3 out of 5

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D (1991/2017)

2018 #103
James Cameron | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D

When I’ve previously reviewed 3D versions of films I’d already seen in 2D, I haven’t given them a new number — so why did T2 3D merit one? Partly it’s a ‘feeling’ that comes from it not being the original version. Most of those other re-watches were films that had a 3D release concurrent with their 2D one, but T2’s is a years-later addition. Still, that’s a thin justification. More importantly, however, they chose to perform the 3D conversion on the film’s theatrical cut, which I’m 95% sure I’ve never seen. The extended Special Edition was first released in 1993, which is before I first saw the film, and some of the scenes that have most stuck in my memory are from the longer cut. Is it shorter enough, and therefore different enough, to warrant a new number? Not sure. But combine that with the new 3D and I thought, yeah, that’s pretty different all round.

The film itself… well, it’s an action/sci-fi classic, isn’t it? But I needed to rewatch it to remember how good it is — I left it off my 100 Favourites a couple of years ago because I decided it was on the long-list just because you’d expect it to be there; but, rewatching it, I realise I do agree with the consensus on its greatness. The most interesting ideas in T2 aren’t what it contributes to the series’ sci-fi mythology (though a liquid metal robot is pretty neat), but how it chooses to develop its characters. The T-800 now being a good guy is the obvious one, but check out the humans: sweet innocent Sarah Connor is now a hardened military-vet-type locked up in a mental institution where she rails against the system; and her son, destined to become the great leader of humanity, isn’t a hero in waiting but instead an irritating juvenile delinquent brat. It’s these extra dimensions, not just the sci-fi and the action, that make T2 such a great film.

“Get away from him, you bitch!” ...no, wait, wrong Cameron movie

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that T1 has withstood the test of time better than T2. The original film is a grounded sci-fi thriller, its low budget working in its favour to emphasise those qualities: it’s fuelled by both big SF ideas and the grittiness of its present-day setting. T2, on the other hand, is pitched as an action-and-effects blockbuster — it was the first movie to cost more than $100 million (according to some reports, anyway) — but in that respect it’s been continuously surpassed by numerous other summer spectacles in the intervening decades. As I said, there are other reasons it endures, but I think on balance I might prefer the first movie.

And talking of preferences, I definitely prefer T2’s extended cut to the theatrical one. There are numerous nice grace notes added to the longer cut, but it really comes down to one scene: the sequence where they take the chip out of the T-800’s head and Sarah considers destroying it, which includes the famous mirror shot. For me that’s one of the most memorable scenes from the entire film. It’s both a good scene in its own right and it’s neatly mirrored in the ending, when the Terminator makes Sarah lower him into the molten steel. I’ve always found it an odd idea that it wasn’t always there, and I continue to feel that way. The film seems incomplete without it.

Now, the 3D… As you might expect from a genuine 3D advocate like Cameron, a lot of the effect is quite subtle — it’s aiming for realistic spacing, not an in-your-face exaggeration of depth. That kind of subtlety is arguably a reason a lot of people feel 3D adds little, because its benefit isn’t obvious. Heck, sometimes you don’t even notice it’s there. Ironically, that’s sometimes amongst the best 3D, but you might need a direct comparison with 2D to notice it. Put a good subtle-3D shot against its 2D counterpart and suddenly you’re aware of the natural awareness of shape and depth the extra dimension is adding. Now, T2 3D is not a prime example of this — it’s a film that was originally shot and designed for 2D, after all — but it does have moments that I think demonstrate that kind of effect. And, at other times, the 3D is much more obvious; mostly during big action set pieces, as you’d expect.

Oh, if he only knew how many times he'd be back...

The big downside is that they felt they had to apply a hefty dose of DNR before doing the 3D conversion. I’m sure there are reasons why film grain would get in the way of a conversion, but sometimes the DNR is too heavy-handed. It’s never at the level of the infamous Predator Blu-ray, where everyone looked like a slightly-melted waxwork, but there are times here when people seem to have been formed from smooth plastic rather than the natural pore-covered texture of real skin. How much this matters is a case of personal preference, but there were one or two times I did find it distracting — the meeting between Sarah and Dr Silberman, for instance, where the DNR has smoothed his skin so much that it looks like he’s been de-aged. If this was just on the 3D version then, hey-ho, that’s a side effect of the process, but I believe the same scrubbed version has been put out as the film’s official 4K restoration. That’s very disappointing.

So, this is in no way my preferred version of the movie; but it’s such a great film anyway, and this re-watch has reminded me of that, that it can be nothing but full marks.

5 out of 5

Killing Gunther (2017)

2018 #83
Taran Killam | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English, German & Spanish | 15 / R

Killing Gunther

Do you ever have that feeling where you want to watch a film but you don’t want it to be anything too demanding or important? I do. I’ve watched (and subsequently reviewed) plenty of films with that underlying motivation. Killing Gunther is the latest that absolutely fits that bill. I had paid it absolutely no heed whatsoever until I happened to see a trailer that looked moderately amusing. Bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote that described it as “a very affectionate take on the [hitman action] genre, so it’s much easier to overlook its shortcomings if that happens to be a genre that you’re a fan of,” I decided it was worth a punt.

Framed as a mockumentary, it’s the story of a hitman (Taran Killam) who sets out to kill the world’s greatest hitman, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and assembles a team of oddball fellow hitman to do so. Unfortunately for them, Gunther is so damn good that he’s always several steps ahead.

As a comedy, I thought it was funny. Not always super original or absolutely hilarious, but ticking enough. As an action movie, some of the single-take assassination scenes are done quite well. It was clearly produced on a low budget, so the action sequences don’t really fulfil on an adrenaline-junkie level, but they work decently in context.

Gunther vs... that other guy

For Arnie fans, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t actually turn up until over an hour into the movie. Put another way, he’s not in 72% of the film. Really, it’s just an extended cameo. It would’ve been a neat surprise if his appearance was a secret, but the whole marketing campaign is based around him (which makes sense, but still).

If you hate mockumentaries, or indie comedies with more ambition than budget, or are coming just to see plenty of Arnie, then Killing Gunther is one to skip. If the concept and style appeals, however, it’s a decent 90 minutes for a lazy evening.

3 out of 5

The Terminator (1984)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Terminator

Your future is in its hands.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1984) | 15 (2000)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 1984 (USA)
UK Release: 11th January 1985
Budget: $6.4 million
Worldwide Gross: $78.4 million

Stars
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian, Predator)
Michael Biehn (Aliens, Tombstone)
Linda Hamilton (Children of the Corn, Dante’s Peak)

Director
James Cameron (Piranha Part Two: The Spawning , Avatar)

Screenwriters
James Cameron (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Strange Days)
Gale Anne Hurd

Based on
not Harlan Ellison’s The Outer Limits episode Soldier. (Ellison sued production company Orion, who settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and an acknowledgement in the film’s credits. James Cameron disagreed with this decision, and still does.)


The Story
Two time travellers from a future world beset by a war between ruling robots and a human resistance arrive in Los Angeles 1984 to find the mother of the future human leader, Sarah Connor — one to kill her, one to protect her.

Our Heroes
Sarah Connor is just an ordinary young waitress in ’80s L.A. who suddenly finds herself marked for death by an unstoppable robot from the future. Her only hope is Kyle Reese, a soldier also from the future, sent back in time by Sarah’s unborn son to protect her.

Our Villain
In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of this planet devised the ultimate plan. They would reshape the Future by changing the Past. The plan required something that felt no pity. No pain. No fear. Something unstoppable. They created… the Terminator.

Best Supporting Character
Paul Winfield is the kind, dryly humorous police lieutenant who lands the tough job of protecting Sarah Connor. He thinks Reese’s story makes him mad (who wouldn’t?), but then he comes face-to-face with the Terminator itself…

Memorable Quote
“Come with me if you want to live.” — Kyle Reese

Memorable Scene
Having learnt Sarah Connor is being held at a police station, the Terminator walks in and asks the desk sergeant if he can see her. He’s refused, but told he can wait. Sizing up the room, the Terminator informs the sergeant: “I’ll be back.” And he is — in a car.

Memorable Music
Composer Brad Fiedel’s main theme is surprisingly catchy, I find, as well as now being rather iconic. Some of the rest of his score has dated terribly, though.

Truly Special Effect
Despite being a relatively low budget production, The Terminator is stuffed with memorable effects work. The stop motion and models used to depict the future war look fantastic even when placed alongside live-action elements, but best of all must be the full-size Terminator endoskeleton from the climax. The prop weighed a ton and was hard to manoeuvre on set, but it looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
For all the brilliant effects, the model of Arnie’s head used for when his robot eye is exposed is… less than convincing. Apparently it took six months to create. Maybe during all that time they forgot what Arnie looked like…

Next time…
Seven years later, Cameron revisited the Terminator universe for one of the most acclaimed action movies and sequels of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then Cameron was done, but where there’s a popular film there’s money to be made, and so twelve years later Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines turned up. It was less remarkable. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to exploit the IP: TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles rewrote continuity and was well regarded, but was nonetheless cancelled after two seasons; Terminator Salvation attempted to kickstart a new trilogy but didn’t go down that well (and is probably best remembered for star Christian Bale’s on-set rant); and Terminator Genisys attempted to start another trilogy by bringing back Arnie and revisiting events from the first film. It didn’t do well either. Now, Cameron is about to get the rights back… and intends to start another new trilogy. We’ll see.

Awards
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Make-Up)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Actress (Linda Hamilton), Director, Music)

Verdict

When I published the list for my 100 Favourites back in 2016, I tried to remove anything I felt was being included on autopilot — films that are such accepted greats that I wasn’t considering how much I actually liked them. Eliminated as part of that were the first two Terminator movies. I liked them a lot, but I hadn’t bothered to watch them for years — they seemed a definite case of films I thought should be there rather than ones I was really passionate about. Rewatching the original for the first time in well over a decade, I realised pretty quickly that I’d made a mistake. The more mediocre movies you see, or even just “quite good” ones, the more you realise how perfect the great ones are — and The Terminator is a great movie. It’s full of superb sci-fi ideas, well-directed action sequences, quotable dialogue, and memorable characters — not least the instantly iconic title role.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2015 #185
Alan Taylor | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Terminator GenisysI liked Terminator Salvation. There, I said it. (I also said it in my review, so, y’know, not news.) Not many other people agreed, however, meaning plans for a new wave of Terminator films in its wake were abandoned. Fast-forward a few years, past a load of complex and dull rights wranglings, and we reach this: one of the biggest critical flops of 2015. It also flopped with audiences in the US, taking under $90 million, but fared better internationally, to the tune of $350 million — making it the franchise’s second highest grossing film, in fact. Nonetheless, perception has hewed closer to the critics’ take. Is that vitriol deserved?

The story begins in the future war against the machines, where an army of humans led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) storm a Skynet facility and find a time machine that has recently sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), before she’s given birth to John. Reese volunteers to go back and save her. Now, this is where the film leans on being the series’ fifth — we’re expecting him to land in the first film. And at first he does… until a T-1000 (the one that turns into metal from T2) turns up, and Sarah rocks up to save Reese — accompanied by an aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who arrived decades ago and has been protecting and training Sarah ever since.

At this point, some people will already be predisposed to hate the film. Why mess with a classic, etc. I can see where they’re coming from; at the same time, it’s an interesting idea. Time travel is a key part of the Terminator series, and John grows up with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back to 1984 to save his mother — but what if Skynet knew that too? That would change what both John and the computer did, surely? What are the ramifications of that? (And even if you’re not interested, the original Terminator is still there — they’re not re-editing it or removing it from circulation or something — so if you don’t want it affected, that’s fine.)

Come with me if you want to meet some dragonsNow, a good idea doesn’t guarantee a good execution, and here is where we begin to encounter Genisys’ problems. Time travel is a tricksy thing to engage with in fiction, and is highly prone to creating plot holes — something blockbusters regularly struggle with anyway. Genisys has at least one glaring one. Then there’s the general level of quality — the screenplay, acting, effects, and so on. In this regard, I suspect the reason so many people reacted so badly to it is that it follows, and riffs off of, two of the greatest sci-fi/action movies ever made. In and of itself, Genisys is no worse than any of the other half-dozen-or-so middle-of-the-road $150-million-plus-budgeted blockbusters we’re routinely served every year now. If you instead compare it to its iconic forebears, however, it comes up much shorter.

I think one of the major problems is the direction. Marvel hired Alan Taylor for Thor 2 because of the perception that he knew how to handle fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones. That and because, as a TV director, he would’ve been cheap, and Marvel like their directors cheap (and consequently controllable). Clearly the success of Thor 2, such as it was, was parlayed into this big directing gig. I’m just not sure Taylor has the chops for it. The fight scenes are muddled, riddled with close-ups and too many cuts. Not a unique problem these days, of course, but after, what, a decade of that style being criticised, you’d think they’d’ve finally wised up. Nowadays it looks cheap. Most of the direction looks cheap. This is an expensive movie, with lots of practical stunt work, but it never looks it; and those stunts were mostly done on green screens or with the aid of wires here and there, so they’ve ended up CGI’d too. And the CGI looks surprisingly cheap. The Terminator films used to be right at the cutting edge of effects; now it’s just any old blockbuster.

Ex-TerminatorAnd yet the man who was responsible for those remarkable pictures, James Cameron, was impressed by it. He’s interviewed among the film’s special features, where he explains, “can I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it? No. I just know that I enjoyed the film, you know. But I strongly suspect that… you’re gonna love this movie.” Well, he was way wrong there! You almost feel a bit sorry for everyone in those special features, actually. They’re all so confident that Genisys is a great, well-made movie that everyone’s going to love, and they have big plans for a trilogy which they keep talking up. I would love to see their reactions after the reviews and box office figures came in…

So, Terminator Genisys is not a good movie… but I don’t really think it’s a bad one, either. It just sort of is. The action palaver is passable, the plot at times interesting, the developments and twists on the series’ history… well, your mileage will vary. It didn’t help anyone that they were in the trailer, but I’m not sure people would’ve reacted any better if it hadn’t been spoiled. Still, it shouldn’t’ve been spoiled. Stupid marketing people.

Could Terminator Genisys be a lot better? Definitely. Could it be worse? Definitely. I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Red Sonja (1985)

2015 #64
Richard Fleischer | 85 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & Netherlands / English | 15* / PG-13

Red SonjaFrom the sword and sorcery ‘boom’ of the ’80s, Red Sonja concerns a warrioress going after the evil queen who slaughtered her family and has now seized a magical MacGuffin that will destroy the world or somesuch.

The first remarkable thing about Red Sonja is that I don’t think anyone in it can act. Our heroine is played by model Brigitte Nielsen. Discovered on the cover of a fashion magazine by producer Dino De Laurentiis, that’s more or less the extent of her acting skills. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays her love interest / fellow warrior / big name to go on the poster. He’s hardly renowned for his thespian credentials either, and this won’t do anything to persuade you otherwise. No one else fares any better, though Sandahl Bergman has a degree of entertaining over-the-top campiness as the villainess.

However, the screenplay is surprisingly not bad, provided you accept it’s trying to be funny rather than assuming it’s unintentionally so. The bluntness of Arnie’s character early on is particularly laughable… though I think that one might be unintentional. There are some character and/or plot beats that are very effective — the fate the villainess affords survivors of a temple massacre is chilling, for example. When it tries to be too serious it’s often not much cop, but generally it’s operating in a slightly-wry action-adventure tone, so it earns a cautious pass.

Technical elements are largely up to snuff, including some great production design (the skeleton bridge, for example) and some well-choreographed action scenes, with the Sonja vs. Arnie fight Lovers' tiffbeing a particular highlight. Veteran helmer Richard Fleischer’s direction seems to have come in for criticism from some quarters, but I found it adequately unremarkable. Damning with faint praise, I know, but it doesn’t merit slagging off either.

Red Sonja is by no means a good film, but it’s kind of marvellous in spite of its innumerable flaws. I sort of loved it.

3 out of 5

* Originally cut in the UK to get a PG. References to Sonja being raped and a throwing star were all that had to go, apparently (so not the two beheadings!) The first video release featured the cinema print; subsequent releases are all uncut and rated 15. ^

The Expendables 3: Extended Version (2014)

2015 #77
Patrick Hughes | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15

The Expendables 3Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone continues his examination of masculinity and machismo amongst older men in this trilogy-forming instalment of his Expendables franchise.

You think I’m joking… because I am. But there is actually an element of that in this latest action-fest, as the leader of the titular band of mercenaries, Barney Ross (Stallone), chooses to retire his team of ageing soldiers (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and new re-recruit Wesley Snipes) after one of their number is put in critical condition, and replace them with younger models (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, and Ronda Rousey). It’s all in aid of capturing the team’s latest target, international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Ross thought he’d killed years ago…

That said, if you’re looking for any commentary on… well, anything… you’re going to have to read it in there yourself, because co-writers Stallone, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, and director Patrick Hughes (now attached to The Raid remake, incidentally) are more focused on providing the simple ’80s-throwback action thrills and bad one-liners that genre fans expect from The Expendables. There’s certainly an abundance of both, to varying degrees of success: there are plenty of lines delivered in a knowing way that don’t seem to contain even a trace of humour, while the plot is naturally built to string together the combat scenes.

Fears about the PG-13 rating — lower than the R of the first two, in a misguided attempt to improve the box office — are largely misplaced. Well, unless you really like CGI blood spatters (there are none, not even added in for the ‘unrated’ longer cut) or other such special effects. The action choreography is fairly slick, Mogadishu actionthough occasionally obscured by camerawork and editing that turns it into a cacophony of violence. The Blu-ray release helps expose this: the special features include an extended version of Statham’s main battle from the climax, and in that focused form you can see how it’s been carefully constructed and designed. In the film itself, it’s chopped up into ten-second chunks and intercut with everyone else’s duels. It becomes like an impressionistic painting of shooting, punching, kicking, stabbing, running, jumping… It’s a war, as the now-double-sized team of heroes takes on a literal army, and some will revel in the over-the-top-ness of it all. The sheer excess does have a certain charm.

The best bits come a little earlier on, though. A car/van/truck chase around the Port of Mogadishu is the action highlight, in my opinion; later, the young team attempt to infiltrate an artsy modern building in a sequence that seems to emulate a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film, which is at least a different style for this series. Elsewise, the supporting cast of cameos provide good value — in Harrison Ford’s case, literally, as he replaced Bruce Willis after the latter demanded $4 million for four days’ work. Ford just has to turn up on screen to be cool, though he has his moments beyond that. There’s also Kelsey Grammer as a merc talent scout who seems to have a habit of kicking off whole non sequitur conversations; a bigger role for Arnie, though still on the sidelines; and a pointless appearance by martial arts expert Jet Li, performing no martial arts whatsoever. The new kids are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Parkour-performing blabbermouthThe best addition, unquestionably, is Antonio Banderas. He’s a parkour-performing blabbermouth who keeps pestering Grammer for a job, but no one wants him because he won’t stop talking. And he’s hilarious. Of the 93 changes in the five-minutes-longer extended version (yes, ninety-three), most are split-second action beats, the vast majority during that big final battle, but a handful are more of Banderas just chatting away, and those are welcome. He takes a while to turn up, but when he does it lifts the whole film. His performance is the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. I mean, it’s not a reason to watch the films if you weren’t going to, but if you are anyway…

The Expendables 3 is, for my money, much for muchness with the previous two films. They all have different pros and cons, sliding different elements up and down on the series’ mixing board with various degrees of success, and this third entry is no different. It seems Stallone intends to keep producing Expendables flicks, with talk of who might appear in a fourth outing taking place even before the third was released (Pierce Brosnan, maybe? More recently, ex-wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan), though the box office of this instalment throws that into question: off a $90 million budget, it only made $39 million in the US… but then it did take almost $167 million from everywhere else — surely enough to consider a sequel? Especially if next time they can stop it leaking on the internet several weeks early…

Ageing action actorsI kind of hope they do make more. The Expendables movies aren’t great films — heck, they aren’t even really great action films — and they’re a bit too cheesy and in-joke-y for the own good — and yet, somehow, I can’t resist them, and I’ll be happy to keep watching them for as long as Stallone and co can keep making them. After all, there are an awful lot of ageing action actors who’ve not appeared yet…

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3 is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Last Action Hero (1993)

2014 #108
John McTiernan | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Last Action HeroThe first film to be advertised in space (no, really) sees movie-obsessed schoolboy Danny (Austin O’Brien) acquire a golden ticket that transports him into the latest movie staring his favourite action hero, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). With Danny’s knowledge of the genre’s clichés, Slater can solve the murder of his favourite second cousin and stop the machinations of sharpshooting henchman Benedict (Charles Dance).

Last Action Hero is effectively a spoof of action-thrillers, albeit with a real-world framing device instead of just leaping in Airplane-style. That has distinct pros and cons. In the former’s camp, the film is most alive in the first and third acts, when the two worlds initially collide and, later, when the fictional characters enter our world only to find that not everything’s the same as in the movies.

The downside is that the bulk of the middle is set in movie-world, and it’s simply too long to spend there. The film that Danny jumps in to, Jack Slater IV, deliberately has a highly generic action-thriller plot… but that means Last Action Hero plays like one too. There’s fun stuff centred around Danny’s “impossible” knowledge of what’s going on, as well as a playfulness with genre conventions, but it quickly runs out of ways to be unique, and we’re left having to sit through a terribly rote story with flashes of humour.

Brits make the best villainsThat said, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t a whole movie of “fictional characters in the real world” — you can imagine how that would play out; all the predictable “fish out of water” hijinks. However, at just over two hours, this isn’t a short film, and cutting out some of the middle wouldn’t have hurt.

It’s also a shame it ended up with a 15 certificate over here. It’s very much a PG-13 movie — it’s got that almost-kid-friendly tone, not to mention the pre-teen protagonist. These days it would surely get a 12A, even if changes were needed. I’d argue the disjunct between certificate-based expectations and the reality of the film accounted for some of its poor reception… but as it was a PG-13 in the US and went down badly there too, who knows.

Still, there are many memorable moments, like the (in)famous Arnie-in-Hamlet sequence, and Dance makes for an excellent adversary, both humorous and genuinely villainous. Although it could benefit from numerous tweaks across the board, there’s actually an awful lot to enjoy here, even if the highlights are mainly for fans of the specific genre it’s so accurately spoofing.

3 out of 5

The Running Man (1987)

2014 #116
Paul Michael Glaser | 97 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Running Man25 years before Jennifer Lawrence had to fight for her life on TV, Arnie had to do the same.

In an ever-so-’80s vision of the future (my God, those costumes!), Arnie’s wrongfully-convicted fugitive ends up on TV’s most popular show, where criminals fight for their freedom against a variety of imposing opponents. Secretly, he’s there to try to overthrow the corrupt regime.

The implications of the central concept have been explored better several times since, but, despite dated design, the solid direction from Starsky (yes, as in and Hutch) ensures this is an entertaining SF action movie for genre fans.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

The Expendables 2 (2012)

2014 #66
Simon West | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Bulgaria / English | 15 / R

The Expendables 2Sylvester Stallone’s ragtag collection of former action stars (and some current ones) reassemble for another throwback fight-fest, this time upping the daftness factor, to mixed results.

The story sees Stallone’s team of mercenaries coerced into another mission by Bruce Willis, which goes askew when a gang of villains led by Jean-Claude Van Damme intervene, killing one of Stallone’s team in the process — you’ll guess who well before it happens, because the characters are so constructed from cliché that the doomed one virtually has “Will Die Later” flashing on screen during some early backstory scenes. Anyway, the guys set out for revenge, of course, and in the process seem to wind up liberating an ex-Soviet country from the rule of this evil gang. Bonus.

Whereas the first film was played straight and fairly serious, the sequel has more of the self-awareness that fans expected — and, indeed, wanted — from the franchise: the action sequences are bigger, faster and dafter; the cameos are longer and more knowing. The opening quarter-hour and climactic half-hour are what we’ve come for, a ludicrously OTT explosion of action and too-knowing fourth-wall-shattering dialogue, where the guys get to show off the skills that put them here. In between, there’s a vague kinda story that mainly links the fighting together, alongside cameos airlifted in with little regard to meaning or sense.

Granddads fightingSo is it better? Sometimes. The whole thing is inherently silly — these are (mostly) grandfather-aged chaps kicking ass with the best of ’em — and it plays up to that with sly winks to the audience and implausibly-grand combat choreography. But at times the nudge-nudge factor goes a little far, and the disregard for building a wholly plausible story, especially towards the end, is a shame.

Plus, technically speaking, it’s a mess. Apparently it cost $92 million, which must’ve all gone on salaries because it looks closer to $9.2 million. There’s the worst CGI you’ll see this side of an Asylum movie; the worst cinematography you’ll see this side of a YouTube clip. Seriously: either someone f’ed up the Blu-ray transfer or someone fluffed the technical side further back in the process, and based on comments from those who saw it in cinemas, it’s the latter. Plenty of the film actually looks fine, great even, but there are shots and scenes where the the resolution all but disappears, everything goes kinda smeary-blurry, like someone applied a paint effect… or, more likely, decided they could digitally zoom in during the edit and didn’t think how awful it would look. It’s distractingly ugly.

Time for a little sit downBut you didn’t come for that. You came for classic action stars fighting each other. In that regard, it’s pretty much the definition of brain-off brawny fun. If you don’t care for ridiculous action and cheesy dialogue, both of which are laughable in a way that’s hard to tell if it was intended or not, then this is not a film for you. If that sounds up your street, however, then The Expendables 2 is no classic, but it is a fun time.

3 out of 5

The first Expendables is on 5* tonight at 9pm. The series’ latest instalment, The Expendables 3, is in UK cinemas from today, and US theaters from tomorrow.