500 Words Or Less: JACK REACHER (2012) and THE LAST STAND (2013)

Jack:Arnold

There’s a quote by David Foster Wallace where he theorizes that, in an age of irony and cynicism are the sword and shield of ‘rebellion,’ perhaps true rebellion comes from earnestness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, and grace. While neither one is a masterpiece, Jack Reacher and The Last Stand remain entertaining on those merits alone. Or perhaps it’s because you can watch the fight sequences and understand what’s going on.

Reacher and Last Stand’s similarities go beyond those virtues. Both feature eighties icons who are now reaching middle age. In fact, were it not for things like cell phones and GPS playing a large role, these films could have been unearthed by some nostalgic start-up and released on DVD with a reunion in the special features. Both are contemporary updates of Western tropes — Reacher telling the tale of a man (Tom Cruise) who rides into town, restores order, and then rides out again, Last Stand focuses on a town and its sheriff (Arnold Schwartzenegger) under siege from outsiders. Both know how to employ humor and both get assists from capable supporting casts. And both suffer from the same flaws — each is about ten minutes two long, and littered with excessive violence.

Jack Reacher, despite its PG-13 rating, feels like the more violent of the two. Based on one of the many novels by Lee Child, the film focuses on Reacher’s hunt for a sniper in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to see why the film was delayed in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. There’s one flashback to the murders in particular that’s quite unsettling when viewed through this lens. However, Cruise’s Reacher prefers to solve his problems with his hands — and while he’s not the hulking brute from the books, the intelligence and swiftness of the character are given capable menace by the actor. As a character, Reacher falls somewhere between the movie star roles of The Firm and Top Gun and the weird menace of Magnolia and Rock of Ages.  Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie makes effective use of Pittsburgh as a location, and for a writer known for his verbal brilliance, the film’s best sequences are wordless. Except when Werner Herzog appears to give audiences his take on The Greek from The Wire.

The Last Stand also knows how to quickly establish its location and simple plot: a fugitive is racing towards the border in a very fast car, and only the sleepy town of Sommerton Junction and its sheriff stand in its way. That sheriff has a name, but to audiences, it’s just Arnie, back on the screen after years in political life. The actor surprises in his nearly full-throated embrace of his age while occasionally reminding viewers that he can act when he wants to. Loud, fast-paced, and funnier than expected with a wonderful score, the film features several thrilling action sequences — a chase through a cornfield stands out — that make it preferable to Jack Reacher.

But Blood and Bone beats them both.

Jack Reacher. Dir./Wr. Christopher McQuarrie, based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child. Perf. Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney, David Oyelowo. 130 minutes. Paramount, 2012.

The Last Stand. Dir. Kim Ji-woon. Wr. Andrew Knauer. Perf. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Forrest Whitaker, Jamie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford. 107 minutes. Lionsgate, 2013.

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>The Expendables (2010)

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I started this week with Centurion, which I really loved. I ended it with a late-night showing of The Expendables with the special lady friend. It was nice to be out with the SLF, but in retrospect…I wish I’d taken her to see Centurion. Because Expendables wasn’t very good at all.

I mean, it was bad, but it wasn’t bad-bad. It’s simply “eh,” but I think when you have a movie like this with a cast like that, being simply “eh” is even worse, somehow. On our walk home, the SLF mentioned that she has three expectations for any action movie in order to be satisfied:

1. Stuff blowing up real good
2. Breasty chicks in slow-motion or wet/sweaty t-shirts, who can look sexy while being dragged at gunpoint. She also defines this as “lack of bust-itude.”
3. Funny jokes/quick one-liners you don’t have to think too hard about.

She later added:

4. A literally ass-kicking soundtrack. If you can’t kick in the door to the first line, then you shouldn’t use it on the soundtrack.

I’m gonna put that shit on a tea-cozy, or at least a notecard above my desk. How did The Expendables fare on this now-patented SLF Action Movie Code?

1. Yes, stuff did blow up real good, and with some frequency. There are a few sequences that stood out and had me laughing and giggling in my chair like a fourteen-year-old. Sure, it’s fun to see Terry Crews mow people down with the world’s biggest shotgun or Jason Statham be Jason Statham, because he’s one of the few action guys working today who is reminiscent of the Willis/Stallone mode. Statham works in these types of movies because he never winks at the camera. He’s authentic. You believe him, and thus, you buy the movie.

But the problem, if you can believe it, is in The Expendables, stuff blows up with too much frequency, and by the end of the movie, I didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on. Besides that, it lacked the emotional satisfaction that you get when a movie saved its stuff blowing up real good for the last act. That’s one of the reasons why Crews’ shotgun opera works, because he doesn’t really get to DO anything for the entire movie, and you’re just waiting for him to show what a bad dude he is. And when he does, you realize that, if President Ronnie were kidnapped by ninjas, he would, in fact, be a bad enough dude to rescue the President.

2. For a movie that is meant to harken back to the glory days of the 80s, there was a surprising lack of hot chicks in this movie. SLF is watching old-school Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like back before Charisma Carpenter did Playboy, and Carpenter is in this. But her part is booooooring, and only seems to exist to allow Jason Statham some more cool stuff to do. Beyond that, the entire movie hinges on Sylvester Stallone’s kind of sort of thing with a female rebel of an unnamed Latin American country that’s not the fake Latin American country from The West Wing. As the SLF says, “if she had gotten killed, nobody would have cared, and that is no way for your helpless female character to be.”

SLF continues with the very good point that if you’re not going to resolve anything re: her relationship with Sly, you should make her fourteen or fifteen and make it a father-daughter thing. Give Stallone’s Barney Ross a backstory with a wife and daughter who left him while he was off capping dudes with Mickey Rourke…or even the regret that he never had a family at all because of his aformentioned penchant for cappin’ dudes. That would cover the lack of brestitude and make the scenes where the female character is tortured more despicable and make you want to see Eric Roberts get his comeuppance.

(SLF has this whole thing about movie villains and it’s pretty awesome, but I don’t really have the time to transcribe what she’s saying. So maybe later.) Thus, Expendables fails on the lack of breastitude, and I apologize to my female readership for harping on that. I’m really a male feminist, I swear.

(By the way, as I write this, SLF is basically rewriting The Expendables in the apartment while she is sewing, and her version of the movie is way better than the movie we just saw.)

3. Funny jokes/one-liners. This where the movie fails, and fails HARD. I found one joke in this movie funny, and that’s a dick-sucking one-liner delivered by Bruce Willis in the infamous Bruce-Arnie-Sly scene. Other than that, it’s the most surface shit imaginable. Randy Couture has a fucked-up ear. Jet Li is short. Let’s make jokes about these for 90 minutes. I mean, there are funny parts. Eric Roberts is very funny, but come on, it’s Eric Roberts. He had some of the worst jokes in the movie, and he delivered them better than anyone else. Like Statham, he knows how to stick the landing with some of these bits — as the SLF says, “if you don’t commit, it’s gonna be shit.”

I think this is the longest review I’ve written for this little blog, and I could go on about the parts of The Expendables I did like, such as Mr. Mickey Rourke. I remember the story about Rourke basically demanding that he have a cockatoo and do all this outrageous shit on the set of Iron Man 2, and it’s clear that he got away with much the same stuff here: A pipe. Low-rider jeans with a beer gut. A touching, nonsensical monologue about Bosnia that is actually somewhat touching, because IT’S MICKEY ROURKE. (SLF: “I don’t think it was about Bosnia, but there was pain there.”) Hell, he basically drives off the cover of Low Rider magazine for his first appearance, with random hot chick on the back of his bike.

Oh, and 4: The movie has a classic rock soundtrack, but it doesn’t use it very well, it chooses the most obvious songs imaginable (and so expensive-sounding!), and there is not one rock song used as the soundtrack to any of the action sequences. Please see the winner of the 2007 Palm D’Or, Shoot ‘Em Up, for a better example of this.

I didn’t really dig it. Neither did the SLF. I’d probably watch it again on tv, though. I kind of wish we’d gone to a midnight screening of Face/Off instead. Because even while Face/Off‘s plot is far more ridiculous and outlandish than The Expendables, its actors hold that shit together.

“I’m ready…ready for the BIG RIDE, BABY.”

Good night.

>Centurion (2010)

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I’m a pretty old-school guy, which is why I see a majority of movies at Film Forum here in New York. I appreciate film is an art that is ever-moving forward, ever growing and changing and adapting to trends in the culture…but sometimes you just want to see Jimmy McNulty fight a chick with a giant fucking spear.

That’s not the entire plot of Centurion, the new film from Neil Marshall, but it’s one standout scene in a film filled with them. Centurion is a lean-and-mean, meat-and-potatoes, masculine movie that is one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had in a theater this year. The plot is this: In 2nd Century Britain, while travelling to battle the Picts’ guerilla army, the Roman 9th Legion (commanded by Dominic “McNulty” West) is betrayed and slaughtered, leaving only a few survivors, including an ex-POW, played by Michael Fassbender. You may know Michael Fassbender from his part as Arch in Inglorious Basterds, where he was excellent. Centurion cements him as a leading-man, in that he spends most of the movie with his shirt off (for the ladies) and is a manly-man doing all kinds of manly-man things and being a leader of men (for you dudes in the audience).

It’s not all about Fassbender, though — at the Q&A after this movie, Marshall said “We don’t get to make Westerns in Britain, so this is my Western” — and it very much is, with gorgeous sweeping helicopter shots and horses framed in silhouette against an expansive sky. The cast is made up of lots of “hey, it’s that guy,” including David Morrissey, who I like a lot, and Noel Clarke, from Dr. Who. There’s even a character who is the “token Middle Eastern dude.” Not really sure why they put him in there, but it works. Also great is Dominic West, who’s more of a supporting role than the name above the title would lead you to belive, but he has some awesome action and character moments, especially with Fassbender. It’s a good part for him, and I hope he takes more like this one, because he’s great at it. Also, there’s a scene where he gets drunk and sleeps with a wench bent over the back of a Roman column.

What I really liked about Centurion was the feeling. During the Q&A a guy complained that he didn’t really like any of the Roman characters because they were, essentially, an invading force. I disagree — Marshall paints these guys with a very broad brush — the guy on his last tour, the eternal soldier, the cook, the guy who you know is going to turn out to be bad news — but first and foremost, they’re soldiers. They talk like soldiers (“fuck” is used quite often and the dialogue is very modern-sounding, which I liked a lot and reminded me of Milch’s work on Deadwood), they act like soldiers (fighting and drinking), and it makes what they go through as characters, both in their arcs and in the challenges they face, resonate. It’s hard to look at any modern movie about a historical empire battling a small yet determined guerilla force and not think of what’s going in other parts of the world, but Marshall never beats you over the head with it. There’s a little talk about dying empires and the like and that’s about it. It’s not like “hai guies this is Afghanistan lol.”

I’m not sure if this movie is as much batshit crazy fun as Doomsday, but it might be Marshall’s best movie to date. I dug it, and I’d see it again. Good stuff, this movie.