Recently I experienced a two-fisted pummeling to the cranium from a pair of films promising goofiness, violence, and good-old-fashioned retro exploitation. A pair of films drenched in sweat and testosterone. A pair of films crammed with kinetic action and dumb fun. Unfortunately, The Expendables and Machete broke their promises, leaving me shattered, shaken and about 30 bucks poorer. Granted, Machete succeeds more often than it fails, but ultimately it is as empty an experience as The Expendables.
Both films employ loosely constructed (and convoluted) narratives, whose sole purpose is to stitch together disparate scenes in order to advance to the next implausible action sequence. Since Machete is supposed to be terrible, it does not have to bother with, you know, good acting or character development. You would be surprised by how much you will let slide when a film only concerns itself with badass posturing. The Expendables, on the other hand, could have benefited from some of Machete’s swagger.
If there is one thing I enjoy, it is explosions. Just about any film that is in danger of losing my interest has a way of reeling me back in, as long as a couple of well-timed explosions make their way across the screen. The Expendables has many explosions. In fact, it has so many explosions that I will, from here on out, refer to them as “’splosions.” While this would normally send me into an orgiastic state of pleasure, The Expendables, dare I say it, falters in the “story” department and fails to live up to my (admittedly) high expectations. Now, it says quite a lot when the storyline and lame one-liners prevents me from enjoying a good ‘splosion or two (or hundred).
Sylvester Stallone heads up a cast crammed full of martial artists (Jet Li, Gary Daniels), a UFC champ (Randy Couture), has-been 80’s action stars (Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts), an ex-football player (Terry Crews) and a professional wrestler (Steve Austin). Oh yeah…and Mickey Rourke. None of these characters are fully fleshed out (Randy Couture talks about his cauliflower ear at one point…and that’s about it. Jet Li talks about wanting more money for his “family” and complains about people making fun of his vertically-challenged stature…and that’s about it. And Terry Crews isn’t even afforded this minimal of attention; his only function in the film is to show up with a big fucking gun and blow away hordes of flunkies, stacking their bodies up like a plate of half-eaten flapjacks).
These sweaty, mush-mouthed, jaw-clenching, and muscle-flexing men are a band of mercenaries who are paid to infiltrate foreign countries and blow non-Americans in half with big guns. Sometimes they’ll crack jokes before blowing people in half and sometimes they’ll crack jokes after blowing people in half. Oh yeah, and sometimes they’ll crack jokes while blowing people in half. Anyway, you get the idea.
A rote, by-the-numbers exercise in ludicrous “twists” and (mostly) uninspired violence, The Expendables grinds its gears for most of its running time and fails to inspire any kind of surprises (each plot point is telegraphed ahead of time). Plus, a significant portion of the film is devoted to Jason Statham’s love life (his girlfriend leaves him for an abusive prick), which consistently had me rolling my eyes. It also sports some high profile cameos (by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis) that, while cute, never really add much to the overall film. Basically, the lone scene involving Sly and these action icons goes nowhere and, more than anything, comes off as a cheap gimmick.
Anyway, the main storyline involves a mission to knock a crazy dictator from power, and, oddly enough, this madman goes by the name of “General Garza,” so the film actually garnered a genuine smile from me…albeit briefly. As expected, the shit hits the fan and Sly and Co. are forced to deal with double-crosses and hidden agendas. Despite the massive amounts of ‘splosions, The Expendables ultimately proves too tedious and predictable, never truly harnessing its exploitation roots. A diverting moviegoing experience, The Expendables can be fun in chunks, but as a whole the film is a mess.
There are some high points though, like an exceptional fight scene between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren that utilizes the environment by playing to Li’s strengths (his dexterity and miniature size), while diffusing Lundgren’s brawn and imposing figure. There is also a nifty sequence involving Gary Daniels as he puts the beatdown on most of Sly’s crew.
These high points are few and far between though. Cartoonish and logically bereft, The Expendables had me questioning whether the film was too stupid for its own good…or not stupid enough. I mean, a guy is lit on fire and has the shit beat out of him! Not only is that stupid, but it is also cool in a “what the fuck am I watching?” kind of way. I just wish that the rest of the film had embraced this type of ridiculousness.
I laughed several times throughout the film…but I was laughing at it, not with it. On the opposite side of the coin, I found myself laughing with Machete; especially during every absurd and bizarre action scene. Have you ever witnessed a man getting disemboweled and his unspooling intestines utilized as a makeshift bungee cord? Well, now you can!
I had infinitely more fun with Machete. For one thing, it stars Danny Trejo! There is character and personality etched in his granite-carved/battle-scared face and it is refreshing to finally see him headlining a movie. With that being said, Machete, despite displaying exploitation-genre staples (tits, gore, bad acting, odd musical cues), tends to lose steam at various points during its running time.
Machete revolves around the titular character (Danny Trejo), who gets roped into an assassination conspiracy involving a corrupt businessman (Jeff Fahey), a Senator (Robert DeNiro!), and a drug lord (Steven Seagal!!). Mixed in with this madness is an Immigration Officer (Jessica Alba), a revolutionary posing as a taco-truck lady (Michelle Rodriguez), and the businessman’s drunk and drug-addled daughter (Lindsay Lohan!!!). Also, Cheech Marin shows up as an ass-kicking priest with a small arsenal and, on top of this, the film “introduces” Don Johnson as an anti-immigration nutjob who leads a border-controlling militia.
The film has an annoying propensity of trotting out all the money shots from the previous Grindhouse faux-trailer; no matter how arbitrary or out of place these scenes come across (like the mother/daughter nude team-up in the pool or the gattling-gun-on-top-of-the-motorcycle sequence…which is extremely brief in the finished product). It’s like the filmmaker’s desperately tried to shoehorn these shots into the film…and it shows. Basically, if you have seen the aforementioned trailer, then you pretty much have seen the whole movie (it even appears that scenes were recycled from the trailer and spliced into the final film).
Machete attempts to mix social commentary with satire and occasionally hits its targets. While these ambitions are admirable, they tend to clash wildly with the grindhouse aesthetic. Characters frequently launch into speeches that are designed to stir up emotions (like anger or inspiration), but they did nothing for me except stir up apathy. And much like The Expendables, Machete overstays its welcome. While I enjoyed the wacky action scenes; the busy storyline left me cold.
Co-director Robert Rodriguez ran into this same problem when he helmed Once Upon a Time in Mexico. There are just too many characters and too much shit going on, and none of it is engaging or interesting (except the action scenes).
What saves the film from becoming a complete letdown are the over-the-top action scenes and the wildly divergent actors (even though I was disappointed with the cameo by Tom Savini, who momentarily shows up as a hitman and quickly disappears). Some actors are better than others, but the film is so nuts that it adds to the exploitation elements. And this is the first instance where I actually enjoyed Michelle Rodriguez in a role…and found her to be quite attractive. Trust me, that’s saying something. Also surprising is Steven Seagal as the sword-wielding druglord (hearing him speak in a Hispanic accent is something to behold…it’s even worse than the Italian accent he butchered in Out for Justice!) He always looks like he’s one minute away from sinking into a narcoleptic coma or about to hijack a donut truck. Strangely enough, this seems to work. I actually got quite a kick out of his performance and got the distinct feeling that he was in on the joke. The climactic fight scene between him and Trejo is something to behold. It ends on a “man, this is fucking bonkers” note. Overall, it appears that the actors are having a good time (DeNiro loosens up a bit and doesn’t take himself seriously), but the mishmash of characters never truly gels.
Anyway, if you’re itchin’ for some action, go see Machete (catch a matinee or hit up one of those dollar theaters in a week or two) and hold off on The Expendables until it arrives on DVD in a few months.