Monday, January 31, 2011

Finally Discussing The Expendables and Machete

I took the day off today. I've had a head cold all weekend, and rather than go into work and be a miserable, sniffling, hacking wretch all day, I decided to stay home and write. I used to be one of those tough guys who would go to work rain or shine, thinking that if I wasn't there, something would come up and without me, it'd all fall to shit. As time went on, however, I realize that a) I wasn't that important, b) I loathe being around people when I'm sick, and c) I get over two sick days a MONTH, meaning right now I could probably hack off my leg and still be enjoying paid sick leave by the time Medical Science finds a way to re-attach it and have me dancing a jig.

In order to justify staying home for a day, I do hope to get some serious writing accomplished. I'm going to warm up the keyboard by writing a column this morning on a much neglected subject; my comparison of the two funnest, pulpiest movies to come out in a long time; The Expendables and Machete. I saw The Expendables three times in the theater, each time with a different batch of friends, and I saw Machete twice for the same reason. It certainly wasn't a chore, and that is always a good sign; if I can watch a movie two or even three times in the theater within a month or so and not be bored those repeat visits (Inception, I'm looking at you right now), that is a movie I'll have to add to my collection some day.

I'm not even going to bother talking about the plot of either film. I can't imagine anyone reading this hasn't seen these two movies, and if you're one of those unlucky few...I dunno what to do with you. Go read the wikis on the two movies, or their IMDb entries (I put those hyperlinks in for a reason). I can hear the peanut gallery already piping off, "Those are action movies, there is no plot! Hur hur hur!". Now, that's just being dumb. Of course there is a plot - it's just not the focus of either film. A plot is the road by which your story moves from A to B to C, and the engine is the motivations of the characters involved. I actually think in most action movies, the engine, the character motivations, are more important.

In The Expendables, the initial drive is simple - money. The guys are mercs, here's some cash to go in and bring down a tinpot dictator, have at it. Of course, it's never that easy. A simple recon turns into a bloodbath, there's a beautiful woman involved, and our leading man decides he can't leave the leading lady to her ignoble fate. Despite his protestations to the contrary, the rest of the team mounts up and goes in with him to bring the girl home and give the bad buys the finger; the trigger-finger, that is. I guess this is the sort of dramatic conflict you get when the "Bros Before Hos" rule gets turned on its ear; is it still applicable when you back a Bro because of his love for a Ho? Does the "All's Fair in Love and War" rule kick into effect somewhere in this mess? Am I even making sense?

In the end, it's not about the money, it's about love, pride, and brotherhood. Stallone's character won't leave a courageous young woman to her terrible fate, the team wants to prove that, "Suicide Mission" or no, they can do a job the Agency figured would see them dead, and they go in together as brothers in arms, each fighting for each other more than anything else. At the end of the day, through thick and thin, these are guys who love each other and are willing to die to defend each other, even if sometimes they want to (and try to) kill each other. And, although by the third viewing, Mickey Rourke's speech about the girl on the bridge had me giggling like a little girl, he had a point; if you keep fighting for nothing but money, some day you're going to wake up and discover that you've sold your soul to Ares, so to speak, and there's nothing left inside. Sometimes, you need to feel good about the things you do - you need to feel like you fought for a cause.

This is where we shift gears and look now at Machete. I actually liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. I had seen Rodriguez' Planet Terror and thought it sucked ass. Coupled with a string of "I'm making movies for my kids now! Wheee!", and I'd pretty much written him off. But oh man...Machete. This movie is The Shit, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you've got a scene involving rappelling out a window using another man's small intestine, when you're three minutes into the movie and already you've got a triple beheading accomplished with one swing of a machete, and do I even have to mention the Secret Cell Phone Hiding Place? I didn't think so, but I mentioned it anyways, because it's just that awesome.

Machete is a movie driven by two motivations; the main character's thirst for revenge against those who set him up, and the secondary character's drive to escape persecution at the hands of the Haters. I'm not going to get into the whole Illegal Immigration tar-pit here, but knowing that there really are legions of heavily armed, paramilitary rednecks driving around the border "defending our country from the invaders from the south" makes me queasy on multiple levels. I don't think there's an easy solution to the problem, but I am fairly sure none of those possible solutions involve a drunken hillbilly with a Remington 700 chambered in .300 WinMag sniping at women and children from the back of a Chevy pickup truck at 2 AM. But I digress.

The Expendables and Machete draw from similar, but separate, wells of homage / retro goodness. The Expendables pulls from the action movies of the 80's; Commando, Red Scorpion, Rambo: First Blood Part II, fun shit like that. Stallone has done, in my opinion, an excellent job of going through his film career and putting a quality polish on every franchise he's helped build; I really thought both Rocky Balboa and Rambo were very, very good films. Both took a hard, uncompromising look at these aging characters and how their lives have turned out decades after their filmic journeys began. In a way, The Expendables does the same thing for an entire genre of movies, the Military Action Thriller. None of the guys in this movie are young; the youngest is Jason Statham, and he was born in '72. And I find that critically important.

I always find it interesting that the best action movies are made with actors who are at least in their 30's, which I think stems back, originally, to the Vietnam plot device, which fueled Stallone's Rambo movies and was also the driving motivator behind Lethal Weapon and many other films; by the 1980's, you had a whole crop of actors in their 30's who could play Vietnam vets who were blooded in the 70's. Hell, it's what drove most of the characters in most of the Post Modern Pulps for a good twenty years. At the very least, Stallone and Rourke are both old enough to have fought in Vietnam, and at least Statham was born when the war was winding down. That all of these actors are old enough to have some kind of connection to Vietnam is, I think, important; that war, and the aftermath that followed both historically and culturally, is what drove the PMP genre in film and written fiction for a solid 20+ years. The idea that Barney Ross and Tool could very well be Vietnam vets who've followed the Path of the Mercenary ever since is pretty sobering, and if you read the film from that angle, I think it adds a lot more gravitas to their character's motivations.

Ultimately, I think this movie is, like his other two "end-cap" films, not so much an homage or remake of his earlier works but a way to provide closure. I saw many people pooh-pooh The Expendables for not being "80's enough"; there weren't enough great one-liners that you'll be quipping for months afterward, there was no pointless nudity (hey, is nudity ever pointless?), blah blah blah. Well, I think the point is, you can't go back. The movie was made in 2010, not 1985, and those of us in our 30's who saw those classic action movies in our junior high years (usually taken with a dad or older brother, or edited on TV, or as a rental years after the fact) are viewing the older genre through a lot of lenses. The fact that the paramilitary action movie largely died out by the mid-90's, and hasn't really resurfaced until now, says a lot about the genre and the sentiments of the movie-going audience. That might be a whole other column, since this one is getting a little long in the tooth anyhow.

So let's circle back around to Machete. This movie finds its roots in older films and books, the trashier, pulpier madness of the late 60's and early to mid 70's. I feel that in every measure, this should have been the movie Rodriguez made for Grindhouse, because it is pure, raw, exploitation and Id. The movie is filled with gory violence, it's got full frontal nudity about five minutes in, there's a minigun bolted to a motorcycle, and a machete the size of a 13th century bastard sword. As much as I was cheering and enjoying the great moments in The Expendables, there were moments in Machete; many, many moments, where I found myself clapping and braying like a jackass because it was so wrong, it couldn't have been more right.

If the acting is awkward and wooden in some parts and utterly hyperbolic in others, if there are gaping holes in the plot here and there and in other places, stuff just simply doesn't make any sense, that's okay; a lot of the material this film is based on was written in days, hours even, and shot / edited / produced / delivered like fast food; sloppy but quick. And sometimes, just like you might have a sudden terrible, regrettable, awful craving for a Big Mac and extra large fries, washed down with a large, 1,000 calorie chocolate milkshake, you need the pure insanity that is this film. The reasons people watch a movie like this are the same reasons you might be watching gladiators duke it out circa 100 AD, or why you're up at 3 AM watching gratuitous porn on the internet for no good reason (wait, see pointless nudity comment above...), or why you just ate a whole bag of Doritos in one sitting. You do it because some times you just need to dunk your head in the gutter for a few moments to appreciate the sunny side of the world.

And now, I'm spent. And seriously considering a matinee of The Mechanic today.


Hank Brown said...

I haven't seen Machete. I don't know what to do with me, either. But thanks for the enlightenment.

Good point about the one-liners in action flicks. I'm the type of cat who enjoys a terrible pun even when normal, well-adjusted folks cringe. Arnie's one-liners, however, are just too horrible--even for me.

I was actually expecting a whole lot of campiness in The Expendables, but was pleasantly surprised at how understated the humor was. Sly (the director) didn't go for that so-over-the-top attitude that the flick serves as an IQ test, and I applaud him for it. Also, the little moments between Sly (the actor), Statham and Li really worked for me. I BELIEVED they were friends who would put their lives on the line for each other by their performances. And they didn't have to go through the typical buddy-cop mutual razzing routine to sell it, like lesser flicks do.

Also, Dolph Lundgren's character is probably the most complex of the lot--and arguably more complex than many key characters in non-action flicks. Dolph? Who'da thunk it?

karlos said...

Hi Jack

Glad you dug The Expendables as much as you did.

The people who decried it for "being corny" or "chessy" just didn't get it but I loved the ever-loving crap out of it.

By the way, you MUST find a way to check out the incredibly revealing making of doc, INFERNO - it's on the blu-ray. Alarmingly honest, it endeared me to Stallone even more (if that's possible).

For me, Expendables was almost like the looser, more upbeat cousin of RAMBO. I got the feeling Stallone needed it, after the relentlessness of that earlier film.

And yeah, it's totally a guy's film and he says some genuinely interesting things about war and what it means to be "a man".

MACHETE is great fun, too - my only complaint was there was almost too much going on.

And hey, how awesome is it that Danny Trejo was almost in The Expendables?!

I don't think the world is ready for that shot of pure awesomeness just yet!

Jack Badelaire said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

Henry, I agree 100% with your comments regarding Dolph. A few years ago he "retired" from acting, but picked it back up again, almost exclusively in Europe, and he's had quite a resurgence in recent years. The guy's got a master's degree from MIT; he's no meathead.

Karlos - I'll definitely find a way to check out that making of doc, and I agree that the one problem with Machete was that they seemed to have had a list of what they wanted to see in the movie, and tried too hard to get everything on that list crammed in there. C'est la vie.