Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Expendables 2 (2012)

I've been operating the very blog you're reading right now for nine years this month, and it should be no secret by now that I really like horror movies and stuff with superheroes. But while I might be pigeonholing myself as a guy who writes reviews of just those two particular genres, I do in fact enjoy other types of movies. Like, for example, action movies. I really dig action movies. If there's a new Jason Statham movie coming out or I've heard Liam Neeson made a new movie similar to Taken, I'm going to be first in line to see them. And that's why, two years ago, I was super-excited to see The Expendables. It was the basic equivalent of an action movie all-star game, with almost every big action star of the '80s and '90s (with a few exceptions) having been assembled to kick some ass.

The Expendables was an awesome throwback to those old-school action movies, but if those movies it paid homage to knew anything, it was that bigger is better. That philosophy was strictly adhered to when the usual suspects got back together to make another Expendables movie. More explosions, more fast-paced action, more humor, and more famous faces are the name of the game in The Expendables 2, a move that only makes things a hell of a lot more fun.

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his merry band of mercenaries known as "The Expendables" are still up to their old tricks, chasing paychecks and causing general mischief and mayhem wherever they go. But their relaxation between jobs will be short-lived, because the enigmatic CIA operative Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) is still quite unhappy with how they handled the job he'd given them in the first movie. He offers to forgive their debt and keep them out of federal prison if they'll merely retrieve an item from a helicopter that crashed in the Albanian mountains.

Accompanied by technical wizard Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), the Expendables successfully retrieve their quarry. They're intercepted, however, a gang of thugs led by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), an international arms dealer and all-around monster. Vilain forcibly wrests the item away from their custody and absconds with it, but not before mercilessly killing one of the Expendables in cold blood.

This is a tremendously bad turn of events, as it turns out the item is a computer loaded with the coordinates of five tons of refined plutonium that had been abandoned by the Soviet Union after the Cold War ended. And with that much plutonium, Vilain could create more nuclear weapons than military superpower could ever want. Swearing revenge for the death of their comrade and unwilling to allow that plutonium to fall into the wrong hands, the Expendables ― with a little backup from fellow mercenaries Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Booker (Chuck Norris) ― must prepare themselves for an all-out war.

The Expendables 2 provides practically everything I could possibly want in an action movie. It's full of over-the-top action, corny one-liners, and an overall feeling of fun. The movie never once tries to do anything more than entertain its audience with the best thrill ride it could build. And I honestly wouldn't expect or desire anything more out of it. It does exactly what it needs to do, and that's to simply be fun. I'm not kidding when I say that The Expendables 2 was one of the most purely fun movies I've seen in a theater all year.

Sylvester Stallone steps away from the director's chair he occupied during the first movie and lets Simon West take the reins this time around. Considering that West has movies like Con Air and the remake of The Mechanic under his belt, he's not that bad a choice to make when looking for someone to direct an Expendables sequel. And West actually does a great job behind the camera, keeping the movie fast-paced and never once letting it slow down. The movie's adrenaline stays high from the first frames of the movie to the end of the closing credits.

The first ten minutes alone are worth the price of admission, starting the movie with the most high-octane opening sequence I've seen in an incredibly long time. I'd dare go as far as to say that if the movie had ended as soon as this sequence did, it would have been the greatest action movie of all time. Between West's direction (which thankfully uses none of that shaky-cam crap whatsoever) and the well-done efforts of the cast and crew, it's the perfect way to open the movie. It sets the proper tone and really establishes just what kind of movie we're in for.

And usually I'll move along from the direction to the script, but in the case of movies like this one, there's really no serious need to. Credited to Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, the script has precious little in the way of character development or thought-provoking storytelling. But nobody will be watching the movie for anything like that. All they really give us, all the movie really needs, are a bunch of badass characters and a few shy winks at the audience. These little nods to the audience are full of veiled (and not-so-veiled) references to the past work of some of the movie's stars, and though a couple of the jokes are a little hokey, I never felt like they were forced. The fact that they actually worked a "Chuck Norris Fact" into the dialogue is a little weird, but it was still a tremendously funny gag to throw in.

Last but not least is the cast, which ― like the first Expendables ― is full of big-name action stars and a few lesser-known actors. The entire ensemble is great together, each of whom get their own moments to shine in their own ways. Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham have an amusing chemistry together, making their characters' constant friendly bickering a lot of fun to watch. There are also some charming performances from Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren, while Yu Nan and Randy Couture are pretty good in their parts. Liam Hemsworth is also quite likable and sympathetic in his role as the new guy on the team.

And while the brief appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Chuck Norris are some of the best parts of the movie, my favorite performance comes from Jean-Claude Van Damme. He plays one hell of an awesome villain, portraying the character as a heartless monster who's cold as ice. Van Damme is playing way against type here, something he should do more often because he's a great bad guy.

So as you've probably guessed by now, I really dug The Expendables 2. I'd actually go as far as to say it's better than the first one. The movie is everything an action movie should be: fun, exciting, entertaining, and action-packed. And I know I said this about the first Expendables, but the only thing that could have made the movie better is if it had been a Golan-Globus production from Cannon Films. That would have made it perfect. Alas, that didn't happen, but the movie is still awesome and gets four stars on my usual scale. I actually heard that they're trying to get Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal, and Clint Eastwood to appear in a third Expendables movie. If they could accomplish that and find a way to resurrect Charles Bronson, that would be the most awesome thing ever.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Total Recall (2012)

The practice is nearly as old as cinema itself, but it seems like remakes have grown more and more prevalent over the last ten years. I guess Hollywood figures that if singers can find success covering songs, why can't studios cover movies? The majority of recent remakes have been adapted from movies released during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, which allows enough time to have passed for these new takes to seem fresh.

But then along came a remake of a movie made during the '90s. Remakes of more recent movies are nothing new, but they've mostly been relegated to movies made in non-English speaking countries in Asia and Europe. They wouldn't have any real name recognition in America to begin with, so they're fair game. But Sony and Columbia Pictures chose to remake Total Recall, a movie that if it were a person would be barely old enough to drink. But I guess I shouldn't be complaining too much, since I have a hard time putting anything past Hollywood anymore. But what worries me the most is just how they'd handle the movie, especially considering that the original is one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time. I guess there's only one way to find out, so let's dig into the 2012 iteration of Total Recall and see if they can do any better than Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By the end of the twenty-first century, Earth will have been devastated by chemical warfare. Much of the planet is uninhabitable, with only two regions left able to comfortably support life. Political superpowers have divvied up these regions; the affluent United Federation of Britain encompasses the British Isles and parts of northern France, while Australia has become "The Colony," home to the majority of the world's working class.

Among the Colony's blue-collar workers is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker who's grown weary of his mundane day-to-day life. Against the wishes of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) and the advice of his friends, Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a business that specializes in implanting fake memories into the minds of their customers. The only catch, as Rekall's director (John Cho) explains it to Quaid, is that the implanted memories cannot resemble one's real life experiences or it could risk causing a mental breakdown.

Quaid opts for a "secret agent" scenario to be implanted, but the procedure immediately goes awry as the memories of having been a secret agent are already in his brain. He instinctively kills a team of commandoes that kick down Rekall's door, amazed and horrified that he was actually capable of such a thing. He returns home and confesses the whole thing to Lori, who doesn't exactly take the news of his trip to Rekall well. Even she tries to kill him, revealing in the process that she's not really his wife, but an undercover government agent assigned to monitor him six weeks earlier.

With Lori leading every commando, mercenary, and police officer she can assemble in a manhunt for Quaid, he only finds a little safety when he's rescued by a mysterious woman named Melina (Jessica Biel). She explains to Quaid that he's really Carl Hauser, a spy who answered only to UFB Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). After he developed sympathies for an anti-UFB resistance movement in the Colony, he was captured and had his mind wiped, with his life as "Doug Quaid" implanted as a suppressive measure. Unsure of his own identity, Quaid now finds himself in the middle of a war between Cohaagan and Lori's soldiers and the Colony's freedom fighters, with both sides fighting to find a piece of crucial information locked deep within the recesses of Quaid's mind.

While I entered Total Recall with some slight trepidation because of my affection for the original movie, I left the theater pleasantly surprised. I honestly liked the movie a lot more than I thought I would. The movie provides not only a lot of fun moments for people familiar with the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, but it goes its own way in some aspects, which I respected. If it had been just a carbon copy of the 1990 movie, then I probably would have resented and disliked it. But I did indeed enjoy the new Total Recall, even if it did have a few flaws.

The movie was directed by Len Wiseman, who'd previously helmed the first two Underworld movies and Live Free or Die Hard. His work with flashy action movies certainly made him seem like a decent enough choice to make a Total Recall remake, and I don't think he disappointed. For starters, it's nice to see that Wiseman didn't go overboard with the shaky, jittery camerawork that a lot of action movies utilize nowadays. I will, however, concede that he probably went a little overboard with the slow-motion "somebody jumps from one ledge to another" shot. He uses that bit almost to the point of abusing it, so much so that you could turn it into one of the rules in a Total Recall drinking game.

But yeah, I thought Wiseman did a great job directing the movie. He never lets it become dull or boring, and the action scenes were exciting and well-orchestrated. (That lack of shaky-cam I mentioned helped out a lot, in that aspect.) His work is bolstered by the slick CGI effects and some moments of very nice cinematography. If anything, at least Wiseman and his crew make Total Recall nice to look at.

Next up to bat is the script penned by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback. While the story they tell is awfully familiar, it's different enough that it still feels relatively new too. The lack of Mars is a start, but it goes beyond that. He big thing is that outside of a couple of scenes, the remake is a lot less ambiguous in regards to whether or not the whole thing could be part of Rekall's implanted memories. Wimmer and Bomback still run with the internal conflict, though, playing it up as Quaid having his entire world turned upside down and struggling to comprehend it. It's an interesting way to approach this aspect, and I thought Wimmer and Bomback actually pulled it off well enough.

And this brings us to the cast, who all do fine jobs in their respective roles. Colin Farrell is great as our hero, bringing Quaid's confusion to the forefront with his vulnerable performance. For all I thought Schwarzenegger did with the character in 1990, Farrell makes Quaid feel more real. He draws you in and makes you actually care about Quaid, a nice bit of acting that adds a lot to the movie.

I also enjoyed Jessica Biel, but it felt like there wasn't a whole lot for her to do. There wasn't a lot of acting required for her, just action and stunts. She's far outshined by Kate Beckinsale, who is really fun in as her total bitch of a character. I guess I'm too used to seeing her play the heroic vampire of the Underworld franchise, but watching Beckinsale skillfully play an amalgam of Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside's characters from the 1990 movie was really cool. And she practically steals the whole movie, to tell you the truth.

So my final thoughts on the Total Recall remake? It's perfectly acceptable entertainment. Time will tell if it'll age as well and be as revered as the original movie, but as of this moment, me and the remake are cool. It's a fun ride from beginning to end, with enough fun moments to please both fans of the old Total Recall and those who are unfamiliar with it. And thus, I'll give the movie three and a half stars and a hearty recommendation. Check it out if you have the opportunity, because it's totally worth it. (But watch the Schwarzenegger version first, okay? You'll thank me afterwards.)

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, August 3, 2012

Total Recall (1990)

What if your entire life was a lie? What if everything you thought you knew was based upon falsities implanted into your mind by external forces? Such was the setup for famed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1966, the short story told the tale of a man who cannot trust his own memories. It's become one of Dick's more notable works over the years, due in part to the movie it inspired in 1990. That movie, Total Recall, has become one of the most popular sci-fi movies of the '90s, and for good reason: because it kicks ass.

Welcome to the year 2084, where we're quickly introduced to construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Quaid has been having recurring dreams about Mars, dreams that have made him long for a vacation on the red planet. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) talks him out of it, though, citing the civil unrest and conflict amongst the Martian colonists. Disappointed with the rejection, Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting fake memories of fabulous vacations into the minds of their customers. The price is a bit steep, but Quaid signs up for a Martian adventure with a "secret agent" theme.

But just as the procedure begins, something goes wrong and Quaid awakens to discover that he actually is a secret agent. His entire life as Douglas Quaid has been manufactured as a cover story to protect him from his enemies on Mars. With a team of assassins led by the sadistic Richter (Michael Ironside) after him, Quaid quickly finds himself in the middle of a war between Martian governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and a band of rebels seeking to overthrow him. His only assistance comes from Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a friend who knew him before he assumed his new life as Quaid. But as he becomes more embroiled in the battle for Mars's freedom, it will become harder and harder for Quaid to deduce what is reality and what was implanted by Rekall.

Nobody is ever going to accuse Total Recall of being high art, but it doesn't need to be. Some movies are made just so the audience can have fun, and Total Recall is exactly that. It's one of those movies that you could watch over and over without it ever getting stale or worn out. While it bears many of the hallmarks of your typical cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, it's still a thrilling adventure that is both smart and a ton of fun. And besides, what's wrong with the occasional cheesy Schwarzenegger movie, anyway?

Helming the movie is Paul Verhoeven, directing his first effort following his 1987 classic RoboCop. Though Verhoeven is more well-known nowadays as the guy that made Showgirls, Verhoeven directed some absolutely awesome movies before that particular disaster. Total Recall is one of those, and his efforts here are really, really good. Verhoeven's efforts in the sci-fi genre have a distinct visual style, and Total Recall isn't any different. The special effects look outstanding (though I'd expect nothing less from effects designed by Rob Bottin), and the cinematography pulls you right into the story. Verhoeven keeps the movie going at a steady pace too, keeping the movie going and only slowing down enough to let us catch our breath after each big, genuinely exciting action sequence.

It also helps that Verhoeven is working from a great script. The concept of a cinematic adaptation of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" bounced around from writer to writer for years, the final screenplay ― credited to Ronald Schusett, Dan O'Bannon, and Gary Goldman ― is a very well-done piece of work. It successfully blends all the typical Schwarzenegger movie clichés (over-the-top violence, corny one-liners, et cetera) with an intelligence that a lot of these old-school action movies lack.

The movie consistently leaves us questioning whether or not the whole movie is all in Quaid's head, bringing something of an existential crisis to what would be an otherwise typical futuristic action movie. It's not a wholly cerebral movie, not one that'll challenge its viewers. But the fact that its writers actually played up the science fiction aspect in the midst of all the macho bravado of the action going on makes the movie that much cooler.

The only thing left for me to talk about is the movie's cast, who all put forth some fine work. And you might call me crazy for saying this, but I thought the best performance came from our leading man. Nobody will ever make a serious argument that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a master thespian, but when a movie plays to his strengths, he can be a lot of fun. Total Recall does just that, putting things together in such a way that Schwarzenegger can grab the movie by the reins and run off with it. He's great in the role, playing the typical macho character you expect from him but adding a sense of confusion to the role. You really got the sense that Quaid is really unsure if he's experiencing fantasy or reality, thanks to the vulnerability Schwarzenegger allows to creep into the role. Sure, he's still playing "Action Hero Extraordinaire," but Total Recall is up there as one of the better performances of his career.

But the supporting cast contributes some respectable work as well. Playing the movie's resident "big bad" is Ronny Cox, who played a similarly sleazy villain for Verhoeven three years earlier in RoboCop Cox plays the role absolutely perfectly; he's a total slimeball that, if I may use a tired cliché, the kind of guy you'll love hating. The guy is a great actor and although RoboCop is my favorite of Cox's performances, this movie's pretty high up there too.

I also really liked Sharon Stone and I thought Rachel Ticotin was likable and charismatic in her role. But beyond Schwarzenegger and Cox, my favorite performance came from Michael Ironside, who plays Cohaagen's enforcer and chief lieutenant. I've never seen a movie where Ironside wasn't awesome, and Total Recall proves to be no different. He's a mean, sadistic, ruthless jerk, and every second he's on the screen is awesome.

And that's actually what Total Recall is: awesome. I wouldn't call it one of the best sci-fi movies of the '90s if I didn't feel it deserved that label. It's a fun, exciting, and truly entertaining movie that lives up to every positive thing that's been said about it over the last twenty years. You've probably already seen Total Recall a hundred times if you're a fan of science fiction or Schwarzenegger's brand of action movies, but if you haven't yet, it's definitely worth it. I'm just hoping that the remake can do it justice, because otherwise, I'll be really disappointed.

Final Rating: ****