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.

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

2014 #72
Rob Minkoff | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Forbidden KingdomJackie Chan and Jet Li co-star for the first time (with shared billing, thanks to the J — on screen as it is on the poster) in this US-produced martial arts epic.

Despite slick modern filming and CGI, it all feels kinda ’80s — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. But there’s something about the setup — which sees teen Michael Angarano find a magic staff in a Chinatown shop and escape a group of thugs by accidentally transporting back to Ancient China, just in time for a Quest — that rings of ’80s US kids/teenage movies to me, though I’m not exactly sure which ones.

Anyway, it’s once he’s in the past that the fun begins. The staff belongs to the immortal Monkey King, imprisoned as a statue by some nastier fellow immortals, and it’s up to our teenage hero and his newly-found companions to return it. Cue trekking across countryside and fighting lots of enemies. It’s a straightforward and well-trodden story, but it’s serviceable enough to link up the action sequences. Those are well-handled by director Rob Minkoff, which you might not expect from a man whose previous experience was mostly limited to The Lion King and Stuart Little.

The big one everyone wants to see, of course, is Chan vs. Li. Rather than engineer it to form part of the climax, they duel halfway through, in an encounter that settles on a victor just as much as that opening credit does. Nonetheless, it’s an epic bout in terms of both scope and length. It’s clearly been lavished with the appropriate attention, and focuses on the pair’s physical skills rather than being cobbled together with editing or brushed over with lashings of CGI.

The forbidden educationWe do get the latter during the climax, which is fine; the former never rears its ugly head. Minkoff knows to hold his camera back, eschewing the fast-cut close-up style of most modern Hollywood action for a more traditional use of long shots and longer takes. It’s a natural fit for the extensive, impressive choreography that’s performed by expert professionals.

Received wisdom seems to be that The Forbidden Kingdom is not very good, but I really enjoyed it. It’s undeniably hokey in places, but no more so than your average genuine martial arts flick (this being a “semi-genuine” affair, with its Hollywood lead actor, writer and director, and primarily English dialogue). Best of all, the fight scenes are uniformly great — the highlight may be midway, but the others didn’t disappoint. Not the best work that either Li or Chan has appeared in, I suppose, but an entertaining martial arts flick all the same.

4 out of 5

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.

Fist of Legend (1994)

aka Jing wu ying xiong

2008 #77
Gordon Chan | 99 mins | TV | 18 / R

Fist of LegendI found myself watching Fist of Legend unintentionally following this year’s Children in Need appeal. The significance of this piece of trivia is that I watched it on TV, which means I had to watch it dubbed. Apparently, “it is regarded as one of the best martial arts films of all time, and almost universally viewed as Jet Li’s best” (thank you Wikipedia), but the dub does its utmost to obscure this.

Putting the audio aside (for the moment), the film has a lot to recommend it — primarily, the fights. At 2am, after seven hours of near-solid TV watching, it was these that drew me in. I’m no expert on martial arts, but I do like a good fight (on film) and Fist of Legend serves up plenty of those. In fact, there’s approximately one every five minutes, an impressively high ratio that consciously — and very pleasingly — fulfills what you want from this kind of film. This quantity doesn’t seem to have damaged quality either: all are generally impressive, but there are some particularly good ideas floating about too, such as a long fight where both participants are blindfolded.

There’s a plot too, which includes a few surprisingly surprising twists and an interesting undercurrent of Japanese/Chinese racial tensions thanks to the setting (1937, during a Japanese occupation of Shanghai). This adds an extra level to what could otherwise be a stock revenge plot.

So, that just leaves the soundtrack. The English audio is at least as bad as you’d imagine, and a reminder — if one were needed — about why dubbing foreign language films is so hated. Whatever the qualities of the film itself, the clichéd dub script and flat voiceover performances, awkwardly delivered to fit the actor’s mouth movements, make the film look cheap and poorly done. On the bright side, the main villain has an amusingly gravelly “I am playing a villain!” voice.

If you can look past the rubbish dub (which I should imagine is even easier on DVD, what with turning it off), Fist of Legend is very enjoyable. However, with the action being the primary source of pleasure, those who don’t like martial arts movies may want to imagine a lower score.

4 out of 5