“The Expendables 2” (2012) Review

The problem with the first Expendables movie is its premise is inconsistent with what we actually got. It’s funny, action-packed, and very entertaining overall, but it simply doesn’t feel big enough. In other words, it’s not “80s big”. The Expendables was intended to be a throwback to the action blockbusters of the mid-to-late 1980s that feature impossibly excessive action sequences with insane amounts of carnage, all topped off with a few one-liners to kill the tension. Yes they’re implausible and corny, but that’s what makes them so much fun to watch. You’d think a film that features Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Bruce Willis in an oversimplified mercenary story that practically screams “high body count” would inevitably cause you to leave the cinema with your eyes bugged out and hair blown back due to the sheer epicness of what you just witnessed.

Bingo!

But no. Unfortunately, The Expendables feels more like a gritty modern-era action flick that takes itself way too seriously considering its purpose. It’s a good film, but not what we had expected. When The Expendables 2 was announced, it felt like the sequel that no one wanted, but got stuck with anyways. Then I saw it.

“Holy tap-dancing cows!” is a phrase that comes to mind. The Expendables 2 is a dramatic change in gears, to say the least. Everything it does well in its predecessor is simply made bigger and everything else is changed to ensure you couldn’t possibly take this movie seriously at all, but still love every second of it. The cast has grown (introducing other 80s stars Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and giving larger roles to Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger), the action is insane to the point of parody, the arsenal of weapons and vehicles is jaw-dropping, and the whole thing is caked in a thick layer of 80s action movie tropes. To name a few: the dialogue is cheesy and riddled with one-liners, everything explodes, the bad guys have the aim of drunk Stormtroopers while the heroes can fire directly into the sky and still mow down a row of enemies, and the word “subtlety” is nowhere to be found. The antagonist is actually named “Villain”, for crying out loud.

This was his concept art.

It’s what the first movie was supposed to be and succeeds across the board in this sense. For a movie that’s so undeniably 80s, however, the burning question is why release a film like this today? It’s one thing to pay tribute to a previous era of film history (such as Scorsese’s Hugo), but another to actually include the stars of that era. As I’ve already gone over in greater length in my review of Total Recall, the action movies of the mid-to-late 80s were supposed to showcase a tough America: one that could not only stand up to then-pressing threats such as the Soviet Union or the aftermath of Vietnam, but eliminate them completely. People like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were America’s “hard bodies”, who defined the American male and his seemingly non-existent limits of hypermasculine power. When the Cold War ended and Reagan left the White House, these films naturally stopped serving a purpose and went away while America’s onscreen saviours would go on to do movies like Batman & Robin and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

America!

The Expendables 2 is a fascinating film to read politically. While it carries over the stars and tropes of 80s action, it doesn’t carry over its themes. America’s Cold War heroes have fundamentally changed. They’ve aged considerably and are more aware of their vulnerabilities, but more importantly, they’re acting independent of the US Government. They’ve gone from saviours to a team of mercenaries-for-hire, who often find themselves clashing with America (here embodied by Willis, reprising his role as CIA Agent Church) or acting in defiance of it. There’s an especially telling scene where Stallone introduces the team as “Americans” and Jason Statham turns to him and says in his thickest, most Stathamiest accent, “Since when?” Even when the Expendables and the Government unite towards the end of the film, Stallone makes it crystal clear that his team is still calling the shots. The Expendables 2 is significant because it shows us that America’s hard bodies are still active, but find themselves in a world where they’re not wanted. As a result, they no longer seek to prove anything about America so much as they simply want to prove something to themselves. They’ve become (dare I say?) expendable.

I give the film 3.5/5.

“Rock of Ages” (2012) Review

Unfortunately, I missed the 80s by a hair, but thanks to period pieces like Rock of Ages, I now have highly accurate insight into the hustle and bustle that was life in 1987 Los Angeles. I had no idea that Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” and Extreme’s “More Than Words” were huge hits back then despite neither song being released until the 90s. Or that behind the Hollywood sign was the “it” place to take a girl on a date, completely ignoring the fact that besides the Moon, the Hollywood sign is the most common place for supervillains to hide their secret lairs. Who knew that many of the decade’s biggest hits were in fact written and recorded by Tom Cruise? Though I wouldn’t put it past a man who can also fly and eat planets.

Do NOT underestimate this man’s powers.

All kidding aside, Rock of Ages is incredibly entertaining with an energetic cast, some memorable laughs, and a soundtrack that somehow managed to not instantly spark Nam-level flashbacks of the one time I watched Glee. The acting, while over-the-top, is consistently enthusiastic with extra credit going to Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand for their hilarious performances.  The musical numbers, which are largely popular rock songs from the 80s, are big and enjoyable, despite being highly manufactured covers performed mostly by non-singers.

Oh great, now I’m having that flashback.

But for all its entertainment value, Rock of Ages struggles with major fundamental flaws. As most of you already know, it’s based on the Tony-nominated stage musical of the same name. As much as I don’t want this review to be a comparison of the film to its stage counterpart, I don’t think you can effectively talk about the problems with Rock of Ages without discussing the problems of its source material.

I saw Rock of Ages on stage a couple of months ago in Vancouver and while I commend it for the same energy and humour I commend the film for, I didn’t feel like it worked. In my experience, I’ve noted the existence of two types of musicals. The first is a story with original numbers tailored specifically to compliment it. The songs exist for the sole purpose of making the story stronger, notable examples are in the bajillions, but think Oliver, Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors, etc. The second type of musical takes an already existing list of songs and attempts to craft a story around them. Sometimes these two elements are very compatible as is the case in musicals such as Mamma Mia. Other times the result is a weak, disjointed plot that awkwardly tries to accommodate a plethora of unrelated songs, forcibly altering many of their meanings and contexts in the process. Rock of Ages is an example of the latter case. Sure, the music is great, but everything in between is almost unwatchable.

Replace “music” with “action” and I just reviewed Spider-man 3.

Basically, because Rock of Ages doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as a film either. Yes, the film does make some improvements, most notably cutting back significantly on the number of songs in its soundtrack. This allows for less characters, more development of the remaining characters, and an overall more simplified plot, which has its upsides. Rocker Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), for example, gets a total facelift from being an unlikeable, one-dimensional minor character in the play to being a large focus of the film with more dialogue, in-depth exposition, and some redeeming qualities. He turns out to be a highlight of the film. There’s also more room to experiment with the antagonists, which I found interesting. Unfortunately, these changes don’t amount to much for the film doesn’t correct or even address the basic problems with the musical. The story continues to take a backseat to the musical numbers, which still feel awkwardly shoe-horned in much of the time. The stage version is actually very self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, often breaking the fourth wall and making constant meta jokes. This partially compensates for the weak, convoluted relationship between the plot and the songs it accommodates because the cast is basically throwing up their hands and saying, “We know it’s messed up too.” The film, on the other hand, plays the whole thing pretty straight, which makes the song/story incompatibility even more glaring.

The film also adopts the pacing of a stage musical, which leads to some problems. It’s a whirlwind of actions and events that often have little build-up or resolution. It’s forgivable on stage because it’s a small group of people confined to a few hundred square feet and the audience has to use their imagination a little bit. On film, however, there exists the resources to show the audience everything they need to see. Unfortunately, Rock of Ages doesn’t do a good enough job with this. As a result, a lot of what occurs in the film seems to come out of nowhere, feels rushed when it arrives, and then leaves without being followed up on. The film also can’t seem to decide at times whether or not it is a musical. What I mean by this is there’s an inconsistency as to whether this is a world where everyone randomly breaks into song and then goes back to their daily lives without so much as a blink or if these big musical numbers are infrequent occurrences and something to be marveled at. Sometimes, the characters do a song like it’s just another day at the office and other times they’ll go into this huge, energetic number and at the end, all have this look on their faces like “Holy crap, did we all really just do that?”

Rock of Ages is fast-paced, energized, and worth a few good laughs, which overall makes it a very fun film, but anything beyond that falls flat. Rock of Ages is already an incredibly flawed stage musical and while the film makes some positive changes, it ultimately just draws more attention to already-existing problems. It doesn’t work on stage and it doesn’t work on film.

It gets 2.5/5.

PS. No review next week for I will be away on holidays. Check-in around July 5th, for my review of The Amazing Spider-man.