Monday, September 24, 2012

Expendable expectations

Last year, a friend made me sit down and watch The Expendables. I didn't see it in the theaters because it looked like a poorly written excuse for aging action stars to draw a paycheck. After watching it, I discovered that I was right on all counts. Yes, the explosions were awesome, but the cliche "I'm badder than you" dialogue sounded like backstage trash talk at a body building competition (and not just because Arnold was there). So, when I saw the sequel last week, I went with the expectation that it was going to be about the same, just on a slightly larger scale since they added a few more action stars.

I was wrong.

It was better!

Expendables 2 had everything I was hoping for in the first movie (namely, a plot that didn't revolve around everyone whipping out their junk to compare size) and more. Instead of cliche "I'm going to rip your head off and feed it to you" dialogue between explosions, it had gut-wrenching plot twists and the allusion that the Expendables aren't just a band of rogue misfits, but an actual business. The film also didn't take itself too seriously. The witty banter was delightful, the cold war references were perfect, and the Chuck Norris ex machina was awesome!

So, other than a few well executed plot twists and timely comebacks, why was it better? For one, they hired better writers. The first movie was written by Sylvester Stallone and David Callaham. I don't know if Sylvester did any of the writing or if he was more of a consultant, but it's pretty easy to lay the blame for the first Expendables movie's foibles at the door of David Callaham. The most recognizable title in his credits is Doom -- not the game, but the movie that no one wants to admit to have watched because it was that bad. For the second movie, they hired Ken Kaufman, one of the gents responsible for Space Cowboys. If anyone could be trusted to write scenes that cater to the abilities of talented but aging actors and entertain audiences, it's him. He knew exactly what buttons to push and he wasn't afraid to do it.

The second reason was that like a good book, the opening sequence set the stage perfectly. As soon as I saw the team bust into the village A-Team style in vehicles labeled "shock and awe" and "coming soon" with a steel battering ram labeled "knock knock", I had an expectation of what kind of film this was going to be and it was a promise that was fulfilled at every step.The Cold War references gave all of us old enough to remember a shiver while keeping us in the present by pointing out the unforeseen consequences of the fall of the Iron Curtain. If nothing else, this alone makes the film worth studying because that's a difficult balancing act. They had to explain enough for younger viewers to understand the situation, while not boring the rest of us with a deluge of facts that we already know.

However, I think that the best thing that the writers did was not trying to pay homage to the cast's notable past roles by re-creating scenes. Rather, they gave Van Damme a chance to sneak in a round house kick, Chuck Norris got to tell a Chuck Norris joke, and Schwarzenegger and Willis exchanged catch phrases. Each moment was subtly slipped in so that it was a pleasant surprise, full of win, that didn't detract from the scene. (Speaking of win, that shot of Liam Hemsworth running up a hill with a fully loaded pack = drool!) They didn't insult our intelligence and while there were more gun fights than fist fights, the pacing was fast enough that you didn't mind the imbalance.

The writers knew what we expected and realized that even though the title was expendable, our expectations weren't. They knew that ultimately this wasn't a movie for the twenty-something college crowd. Yes, a lot of twenty-somethings saw and liked the film. Guys like Couture and Statham are (in my opinion) in there for them, but at the end of the day, this movie was for the people of my generation and my parents' generation. This was for the moms and dads that ate JiffyPop while they watched rented VHS tapes of Die Hard and The Terminator after the kids were in bed. It was for the big brothers that ran around the back yard with red bandanas tied around their foreheads. It was for the little boys that broke a lamp trying to imitate their favorite scenes from Bloodsport and The Way of the Dragon. Expendables 2 was the dream match that we would have paid a fortune to see in the 80s and for one reason or another, didn't get until now. As a girl that grew up watching these kick-ass action films, I must say that it was worth the wait.

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