When Michel Gondry was hired to helm Columbia Pictures’ The Green Hornet I became immediately more enthusiastic about the project than I was before. Even after all the publicized production woes I was sure that his avant-garde aesthetic and bittersweet style of storytelling would put a fresh spin on the standard superhero flick. However sandwiched between the frat-house comedic sensibilities of Seth Rogen and the energetic guidance of explosion-savvy producer Neal Moritz there just wasn’t enough room for the artist to conjure his movie magic.
That’s why the film though not frustratingly formulaic feels incredibly manufactured: more a product of convenience for its stars and studio than a standalone piece of entertainment. Perhaps it’s just because superhero cinema is so commonplace today I’m beginning to feel jaded about movies like this but while watching the film I wondered whether or not Rogen and Co. consciously adhered to the tried-and-true checklist of the genre’s conventions. Tragic motives for fighting crime? Check. Maniacal villain? Check. Flipping SUV’s? Check? Predictable plot? Unfortunately check. Every element of the movie from jokes to pacing is easy to foresee but that doesn’t mean it’s not somewhat entertaining.
Rogen who co-wrote the picture with his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg will continue to amuse audiences with his every-man persona even when miscast as a billionaire playboy turned masked vigilante. The Green Hornet doesn’t sound like anything he has written before; the limitations of language in a broad blockbuster result in less laughs than the raunchy R-rated comedies he’s best known for but the delivery of the dialogue is his best weapon against tonal conformity. Still post-modern humor is abundant throughout the film with plenty of pop-culture references that are good for a grin or two.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Jay Chou. A hugely successful pop singer in his native Taiwan (as well as other Chinese-speaking regions of the world) his charisma transcends language barriers in the iconic role of Kato created by the legendary Bruce Lee. Though technically the sidekick Chou displays more depth than Rogen ever has and outshines his co-star in nearly every creative department. Christoph Waltz as the violent villain Chudnofsky doesn’t generate the electricity he did in his career-defining role in Inglourious Basterds but had significantly lower-brow material to work with. He goes through the motions with a smile on his face that suggests he’s not quite sure how (or why) he got into this picture in the first place. On the other hand I’m sure that Cameron Diaz knew exactly why she was hired to portray Britt Reid’s sexy secretary Lenore Case. Between her performances in 2010’s Knight and Day and this Ms. Diaz has hit a new career low. The only difference is that her character was central to the story in the Tom Cruise summer vehicle; here she’s nothing more than eye-candy.
As stated before if I’ve got one regret above all regarding The Green Hornet it’s that director Gondry wasn’t allowed to make the movie his own. His stamp is present in only a handful of sequences where visually inventive special effects serve the story and in many cases enhance it. He makes the most of the adequate 3D conversion in these select scenes (including a revelatory summation of the events that lead to the films climax and the closing credits both which are very cool) whereas in the rest of the picture it’s just unnecessary. I had hoped his involvement meant that the narrative was going down an unconventional path but in the end his contributions to the film amount to little more than rainbow sprinkles atop a very vanilla piece of cinema.
If you grew up on a steady diet of action movies if your bones hardened every time a muscle-bound guy dove away from an explosion in slow motion if you hit puberty the first time you saw the hero of the hour bed his scantily clad damsel in distress then it’s impossible to resist the allure of a movie like The Expendables. It’s the superband version of an action movie. It was created by an action star its cast consists almost exclusively of action stars and the only reason it exists is to put a smile on the face of action fans. And invariably it will do just that.
The question is how wide one’s smile will be. The answer depends on how forgiving one is willing to be of The Expendables' faults and there are many. It’s a little slow-going at first the characters are very thinly defined some of the acting is spotty and on the production front Sylvester Stallone’s knack for action scenes is thrown under the bus by a ton of visual shortcuts (CGI blood being perhaps the most egregious) that belie the film’s obvious low budget. That said Stallone’s knack for gory ultraviolent action is indeed so strong his mind so tuned to the quirks and cliches that make action movies beloved despite their faults that The Expendables kicks more than enough ass by the time credits roll to be worthwhile beyond just the novelty of seeing Stallone Statham Li Lundgren Austin Rourke Couture Crews Willis and Schwarzenegger all under one explosion-filled roof.
That was actually my biggest concern at the offset of the film that the only ace up star/co-writer/director Stallone’s ripped sleeve was his cast but the best thing about The Expendables is that it could have worked with a roster composed entirely of no-name actors. It’s fantastic to see some of these action movie titans go head to head (particularly so in the case of Lundgren) but the headliners surprisingly neither make nor break the movie. The script which involves a gang of mercenaries overthrowing a South American dictator who has become a puppet of a rogue CIA agent isn’t particularly strong but no one goes to an action movie expecting it to be a David Mamet-scripted battle of wits. The story just needs a firm enough framework to allow for enough scenarios for our heroes to punch kick stab shoot and explode an army of bad guys. To that end Expendables could have been given to a cast and crew of newcomers and still stomped in tons of face.
What actually hurts the film the most is that it is filled with veterans and promises of a return to old-school action an era where the only thing bigger than the heroes’ muscles was the body count left in his wake. The only thing wrong with the body count in The Expendables is that it takes too long to begin piling up whereas the rest of the movie feels too small too amateur hour considering its cast of pros. Nu Image the chief studio financing Stallone’s grand endeavor is known primarily for making low-budget straight-to-video movies; sadly The Expendables isn’t going to shake that image any time soon.
There is a disappointing amount of poorly-rendered CGI blood and flames throughout the film which completely goes against the “do it old-school” mindset one expects from all involved. It’s hardly unwatchable but there are times where the look of the film brings to mind the Syfy channel and as any brave soul who has ever wandered into a Syfy Original Movie knows all too well that is rarely ever a good thing.
However even with lackluster production values The Expendables still manages to be a wild throat-slashing elbow-dropping grenade-throwing trigger-pulling and limb-dismembering good time. The last forty-five minutes alone are packed with more carnage than most action movies today can dream of delivering throughout their entire run time. The slow beginning gives way to a glorious orgy of death that generates a body count that would warrant UN intervention were it to have occurred in the real world. And since fictional armies getting absolutely obliterated by a fictional team of the manliest men on the planet is all anyone really requires from The Expendables it’s easy to turn your back on the few obstacles that stand in the way of that holy goal.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”