Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Expendables

Year: 2010
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, David Zayas

What do you get when you put together the most well-known action stars in the last 20 years in the same film? You get The Expendables.

The hype surrounding Sylvester Stallone's huge action epic starring some of the biggest names in action flicks has been building for quite some time now, and I have been curious to see if it can deliver.

The story: a group of mercenaries called The Expendables, led by Barney Ross (Stallone) are hired to do a job, which involves overthrowing a dictator in the fictional island of Vilena. Ross and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham) fly over there to recon the island. But as soon as they land, they get themselves into a load of trouble and barely manage to escape.

They learn that the dictator, General Garza (Zayas) is merely a puppet whose strings are being pulled by James Monroe (Roberts), a rogue CIA agent. Initially, Ross decides against risking his life to save a woman he had left behind on that island, but eventually changes his mind. Christmas and the other team members (played by Li, Crews and Couture)follow suit.

First off, let's talk about what's good. The cast for starters. We get Stallone, Jason 'The Transporter' Statham, Asian kung fu star Jet Li, iconic villain and sometimes hero Dolph Lundgren, former WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, regular bad guy Eric Roberts, tough but aging macho man Mickey Rourke, MMA fighter Randy Couture and NFL star turned actor Terry Crews. Putting all these guys together is a feat in itself, so Stallone deserves plenty of credit for making it happen. Word is that Wesley Snipes, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal would have made it too, but they backed out. How unfortunate. Ah, but that loss is made up by having Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make cameo appearances! Now, for me, seeing those two and Stallone in the same scene was truly epic. Even Arnie's entrance was awesomely done. Too bad they didn't have bigger roles to play here.

It's an action film, so you can expect plenty of that. Like Rambo, Stallone pulls no punches and delivers numerous action sequences that are violent and bloody. Things get blown up, bullets and knives are flying all over the place and the fisticuffs hit hard. But I have to gripe about the camerawork here, especially in the physical fight sequences. Stallone's cinematographer made a mistake in filming them too close, so we can barely see who's punching who or where, and some of the lighting needs improvement, especially in the climax.

And then there's the editing. Despite it being a good move for Stallone to show some heart and drama behind his characters, in order to explain their motives, it drags on for too long at times. Rourke gets a scene where he reminisces his past, which is probably similar to his role in The Wrestler, and I think that although it was nicely done, it carried on a bit too long. Then there are too many pointless exchanges between the General and Monroe, and lots of other scenes that could have been cut out.

In the end, this film is mainly Stallone and Statham's show. Stallone is the star, and Statham becomes his best friend who gives him plenty of support. Their bro-mance is quite entertaining to watch. Li on the other hand becomes the comic relief, as does Crews. But seriously, Li should stick to being serious, he's better at that. Austin pretty much rehashes his Stone Cold persona here as Monroe's right hand man, while Rourke succeeds as The Expendables' mentor. Lundgren surprisingly delivers as Gunnar Jensen, a former team member with issues. I hope he comes back for the sequel.

Verdict: as an action film, it delivers. But with some tighter editing and better camerawork, it would have been phenomenal. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Year: 2010
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski

Other than being a Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie is known for many things, like being Brad Pitt's other half, her large brood of children, daughter to Jon Voight, and her global charity work. Finally now, she's going back to one of her great roles: the action heroine.

In Salt, Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who gets a visit from a Russian defector at her office. The defector, Orlov claims that a Russian sleeper agent, one of many who have been planted in the U.S. since the 70s, is going to kill the President of Russia, who will be in New York the following day.

The clincher is, Orlov names Salt as that very sleeper agent!

Salt promptly proclaims her innocence to her superiors, who are seeking the truth behind her identity. When the defector escapes custody, Salt does the same, trying her best to evade capture, while attempting to save her husband, whom she fears has become a target. Hot on her tail is her boss, Winter (Schreiber) and agent from CIA headquarters Peabody (Ejiofor).

Phillip Noyce, who has given us thrillers like Clear And Present Danger and The Bone Collector, keeps the pace taut and fast here. The action keeps piling up one after another as we watch Jolie jump, run, ride, shoot and basically kick ass all the way. Which is fine of course, since Jolie does all this so well.

But the problem is the plot. Noyce just keeps moving from one action sequence to another without giving much explanation as to why things are happening. Salt works on her own for the most part, much to the audience's disadvantage, because she doesn't have anyone to confide in and thus no one to explain to on her motivations or her next step. So we are forced to watch one jaw dropping action scene after another, some of which make no sense, like how she can walk away from a car crash in broad daylight right in the city without anyone noticing.

However, to her credit, Jolie successfully carries the film mostly by herself. She is the star of the show, and I think had it been anyone else in the role, it would not have worked. I still feel the film deserves a bit more runtime, as some characters aren't fully explored, or they ought to get more attention but may have ended up on the editing room floor. And the supposed surprise in the climax isn't a shock at all, it's quite predictable.

It's a good action film, reminiscent of Knight And Day, except Salt takes itself more seriously and is better executed. Overall, a so-so effort. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Year: 2010
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Cast: John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat, Ken Watanabe, David Morse, Franka Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rinko Kikuchi

With all the big names being in this film, how could I possibly say no to seeing this? Currently Shanghai hasn't been released in the U.S., so we Asians have the honor of seeing John Cusack's latest film first.

It is the year 1941, just before the Pearl Harbor attack. Cusack plays Paul Soames, an American spy arriving in Shanghai to meet his best friend Connor (Morgan). At this time, Shanghai is the only Chinese city that hasn't been taken by the Japanese, and the guerrilla type wars between Chinese rebels and Japanese soldiers run rampant.

Unfortunately for Soames, Connor turns up dead before he could meet him. Connor's superior, Captain Astor (Morse) assigns Soames to find out who killed him. To do so, Soames goes undercover as a journalist for a British newspaper and follows up a lead on Anthony Lan Ting (Chow), the big triad boss in Shanghai. Soames finds himself drawn to Anthony's wife Anna (Gong), and learns she is hiding a secret, a secret so big that she has to hide it from her husband. Through Anthony, Soames meets with Captain Tanaka (Watanabe), a Japanese high ranking officer who has his own motives.

Soames peels off one layer after another to get to the truth behind Connor's death, and as a result he becomes deeply embroiled in something that may not be his concern.

Mikael Hafstrom, who also directed Cusack in the horror film 1408, does a splendid job in making the film look and feel authentic. He tried filming this in China, but permission was revoked by their government at the last second, so he had to rebuild Shanghai in London and Bangkok. And despite that, the film looks amazing. The sets, from indoors to outdoors look very realistic indeed. Hafstrom also succeeds in keeping the pace even and allowing things to unfold as they should. The story is narrated by Cusack, and a majority of the film is seen from Soames' point of view, thereby keeping things focused and grounded.

I've always liked Cusack, because he puts in good performances every time, even if the film isn't executed well. Here, he has a great responsibility of leading the film from start to finish, and he pulls it off. Gong Li provides strong support as Anna while Watanabe brings his familiar screen presence as Tanaka. Sadly, Chow Yun Fat doesn't have that much to do here, though he nearly redeems himself in the film's climax. Too bad, I was hoping for more of him, considering Chow is a legend of Hong Kong cinema for the last 20 years.

The plot gets a tad complicated halfway through when more characters are introduced, so it is a bit hard to keep track of it all. But overall, Shanghai is a fine example of a successful merger between eastern and western cinema. Worth a watch. (3.5/5)


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