The Expendables

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★☆☆☆

Summary: Unoriginal and unfullfilling, this movie is a jumbled and confusing mess.

At least this is a cool poster.

At least this is a cool poster.

Review: I think it’s become apparant though the films that James and I have reviewed that we aren’t just men, we’re guys. We like things like smoke, fire, guns, and brawls. And between the two of us we’ve given our opinions on quite a few action movies on The Silver Mirror. My point is that we have no problems with action movies as a legitimate genre of film and harbor no snobbish predjuce against them. We don’t have issues with them being a little cheesy, a little testosterone pumped, or having sightly ridiculous plots. That said, Sylvester Stallone’s latest picture, The Expendables, is an embarrassment to the very genre to which it claims to pay tribute.

I had mixed feelings about this film before it came out. I liked the idea of an ensemble cast of action stars joining together for one last Hurrah of machine guns and explosions. And when Stallone promised that Schwarzenneger and Willis would be a part of it, I found myself pretty excited. After all, Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenneger encompass the Holy Trinity of action stars. Still, I was skeptical about two things: What Schwarzenegger’s role would be, since he is still serving as governor of California, and how much over the top the actions scenes in these movies could get. Stallone’s last film, Rambo, set the bar pretty high for how ridiculous and chaotic and bullet ridden a film could get.

And after seeing The Expendables, I probably should have been more skeptical. The plot is paper thin and confusing. The main cast is one dimensional and unmemorable, uttering one-liners that are so cheesy you could use them as a dip for a party. In an attempt to top Rambo’s action, Stallone fills his movies to the brim with seemingly every kind of firearm, explosive, punch, and blade known to man. But that’s the problem, there was just so much of it that it numbed me up. It’s like getting beaten in the head: eventually you stop feeling anything. I actually found myself bored in the middle of the supposedly epic battle at the end. It’s a bad sign when even the action in an action film is boring.

But the worst part is, Willis and Schwarzenneger’s “roles” (literally 2 minute cameos if that long) were worthless and unfilling. They just kind of show up so that the audience can say, “Hey! Its Arnold and Willis!” and then leave. Few ripoffs have stung more for me.

In short, The Expendables is not the culmination of the best that action films have to offer. Rather, it’s the bottom of the barrel refuse that reminds audiences why a lot of them were so bad. Banging together pieces of metal, lighting off fireworks, firing a machine gun, and sticking a cardboard cut out of Sly’s face in the middle of it all for an hour and a half has the same effect, if not a better one, as watching this movie. It’s going to be a while before I can watch another action movie again.

Classic Review: First Blood

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  While not revolutionary on a visual level, ‘First Blood’ brought a deep, heartfelt performance from Sylvester Stallone on par with ‘Rocky’, a great musical score from Jerry Goldsmith, and a very iconic character into cinema history.

Guess whos coming to dinner...

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Review:  A dusty road in a backwoods part of the country is unveiled to us, the audience, as Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic music fills our ears with a mournful, slightly adventurous tune.  Enter John J. Rambo, a Vietnam veteran turned drifter, as played by Sylvester Stallone.

And action movies would never be the same.

Based on the novel of the same name by David Morrell, ‘First Blood’ confronts the mistreatment of soldiers who had returned from Vietnam, while providing constant, gripping action.  Unlike the many imitators and sequels that followed, this film focuses on the character’s internal drama, which in turn fuels the action, rather than the inverse.  The idea of Rambo being a dumb killing machine is actually a misconception fueled by the sequels, since in this film he is very conscientious and obviously intelligent.  Stallone doesn’t play him like a generic antihero.  Arguably, he puts the same amount of emotional depth into the character that he does in his similarly iconic role as Rocky Balboa.

Along with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Die Hard’, and ‘Lethal Weapon’, this film framed the modern action film.  In this case, it inspired the common trope of the misunderstood soldier and his inability to adjust after being exposed to the horrors of war.  I can see inspiration from ‘First Blood’ in films ranging from the ridiculous (‘Commando’) to the surprisingly emotional (‘The Bourne Identity’ and its sequels).  Films like ‘Commando’ capitalized on the allure of the “super-soldier”, while ‘The Bourne Identity’ captured the same dramatic depth of character that is evident in ‘First Blood’.  Having not seen any of the ‘Rambo’ pictures until recently, I was very pleasantly surprised by the first installment.  One major element that contributed to this reaction is the movie’s restraint.

Unlike, say, the fourth ‘Rambo’ movie, this is a film that knows when to pull punches and when to throw them, hard.  Arguably the goriest moment is a man accidentally killed by John Rambo, the man being a deputy who tumbles out a low-flying helicopter to a bone-crushing death on a riverbed below.  Even then, no blood splatters, we simply see his heavily bruised remains afterward.  The second goriest moment is when another deputy is hit with a brutal trap set by Rambo, which impales his legs, but leaves him painfully alive.  Much ado is made of Rambo’s unwillingness to hurt innocents, or even misguided enemies.  What traps Rambo in this fight-or-flight situation in the first place is simple mistrust and prejudice from a small town’s sheriff.  Rambo even lets the deputies mistreat him without lashing out, until his post-traumatic stress disorder forces him to.  Though obviously having elements of a hero, while I was watching ‘First Blood’ I was convinced that Rambo was more the victim than the strict protagonist.  To me, the protagonist is his former CO, Colonel Samuel Trautman.  Trautman represents the moral ground zero, and, is the intellectual foil of the corrupt sheriff.  Trautman does his best to bring Rambo back from the edge of possible insanity, and when Rambo refuses, the question is, should Trautman give him up to the law or not?

Contrasted with the modern action film, this film is actually surprisingly tame, as noted above.  Were it not for several instances of the F-word, it would be a shoe-in for a PG-13 nowadays.  That said, the action is kept realistic and gritty enough that we feel its impact.  Speaking of impact, the film seems to owe one of its action scenes to another redefining action film, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Rambo hijacks a truck and gets involved in a brief chase, pushing a police vehicle off the road and crashing through barriers, with cinematography that is strikingly similar to the now famous truck chase in ‘Raiders’.  Considering that ‘Raiders’ came out a year before this film, it is plausible that the filmmakers wanted at least a nod to the previous year’s megahit.

The ending- which I will not spoil, as is tradition -is down/up.  Something is very clearly lost, yet something is very clearly gained.  It was unexpected and cathartic, so I wouldn’t want to say exactly what happens, only that Stallone pulls off a very difficult performance at a critical moment.

The technical aspects of the film are solid.  It doesn’t feel as dynamic in cinematography as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  The special effects, which are still impressive today, thanks to the lack of CGI trickery, have body and are quite memorable, similar to the previously mentioned films.  The music, which I mentioned at the beginning of this review, is pitch-perfect.  The late Jerry Goldsmith, echoing the film’s story, took what could have been a generic thriller and gave it dimension.

That said, the film is not as complete an emotional ride, to me, as ‘Raiders’ or ‘Die Hard’.  Both of those films I give higher star ratings.  ‘Raiders’ is such a revolutionary film, which managed to succeed by using tropes establish near the very beginning of commercial film, that it has more artistic and visual merit.  ‘Die Hard’ takes the action hero, which was fast becoming a cookie-cutter character (and usually is, anyway), and lets him doubt himself, which is actually very similar to the character of Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders’.  ‘Die Hard’ is more entertaining than ‘First Blood’, to be completely frank.  The key flaw to ‘First Blood’, then, isn’t in general a flaw; it isn’t a film that manages to deliver on entertainment and spectacle quite as well.  Conversely, ‘First Blood’ is a great deal more serious than both of the former, and isn’t about spectacle or entertainment to the same degree. Nevertheless, as this article is about my subjective opinion, I give it a solid three stars.

Hopefully, action films will take a turn back in this direction, coupling restraint with a solid internal logic, and a compelling, iconic character.  There are still movies that deliver on this level, but as has always been the problem with cinema, and with art in general, it is far easier to find the bad than the great.  Until the day we get another icon like Rambo, “It’s a long road…

Classic Review: Die Hard

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie.

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Review:  By the mid-1980’s the quality of the modern action movie had reached its all time low.  Whatever sense of the pacing and suspense that had had coated the genre in such classics as ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Great Escape’, or even ‘Apocalypse Now’ had given into a conglomeration of senseless explosions, bare-chested macho-men, and boring plots subservient to the action.  In short, they sucked.  Thus it was truly a surprise, I imagine, in 1988, that people felt when they went to see the modern classic of ‘Die Hard’.

‘Die Hard’ tells the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York police officer who flies out to L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife, Holly, at a party in the 30-plus-story main building of Nakatomi Plaza.  Sadly, however, a group of dissident Eastern European terrorists, led by the cunning Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) have the same idea, as they take the whole building hostage in an epic attempt to steal the half billion or so dollars locked away in its vault.  Luckily though, John McClane manages to escape to an unoccupied floor and, armed with only small weapons and his intuition, wages a one-man war.

So what makes this movie such a revival for the action genre?  Well, the script for one thing.  It takes time to actually build a plot before the action begins.  In many ways, it almost doesn’t try to be an action movie at all in the beginning.  The first fifteen minutes of the film consist of John and his wife having a serious talk on their separation and their mutual frustrations with each other.  This could just as easily be the beginning of a romantic comedy.  This makes it all the more exciting and surprising when the terrorists show up and we, the audience, are reminded that this is an action movie.

This sense of pacing is seen in other parts of the film as well.  Take the famed explosion on the roof.  In other action movies, there have been bigger explosions, but the brilliance of this movie as that there is a great build up to it, starting early on in the movie.  We aren’t quite sure when there is going to be an explosion, but we are given clues that it’s coming, and our anticipation only grows.  Thus, when the explosion finally does occur, it does not seem random or stupid, but satisfying.  These are just a couple examples of how excellently this film paces itself.  The location helps as well.  By setting it in a building in Los Angeles and not, say, the jungle, it adds to the believability and helps bring the action closer to home for the viewer.

The casting in this film is perfect.  Bruce Willis gives his most memorable performance as John McClane.  Unlike “Arnie” or “Sly” in their movies, Willis is the common man here.  He is not some highly trained special-forces commander, bulging with muscles and a kick-ass attitude.  He is un-muscular, foul mouthed, and in many ways very scared in this movie.  This makes him all the more genuine and identifiable.  The audience roots for him unquestionably.  Equally great as McClane’s foil is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  As a villain, he isn’t some perfect mastermind.  He isn’t always calm and cool.  He becomes angry and frustrated when his plans don’t work, and at times he makes noticeable blunders.  In short, the characters are allowed to be human, as opposed to stereotypes in other action movies.  The only true criticisms for any of the characters in this movie are when they are given bits of corny dialogue.  This movie does have its fair share of one-liners, but they are spaced far enough apart that they don’t really detract from it.

Lastly, though this film benefits most from its plot and acting, its technical aspects helped to bolster the film well.  The cinematography is truly impressive.  A lot of quick cuts and hand held camera work add to the action, as does the relatively dark lighting and frequent low angle shots.  An often over looked part of the cinematography is that almost every shot shows intersecting walls, a key to creating a claustrophobic feeling for the viewer, which is the desired affect when all the action takes place in a building.  The music for this movie is done well.  As opposed to lame pop songs and corny techno-beats, this movie goes old school with classic orchestration.  Michael Kamen, the composer, mixes classic Beethoven with his own brand of brass driven melodies and fast beats to create music fitting for the action.

In short, this movie helped bring the action movie out of its rut and reinvented it for a newer generation.  Its influence is still felt today.  Almost every action movie made after ‘Die Hard’ takes something from it, and they are all the better for it.  If you haven’t seen this one, give it a watch, it’s worth at least that.