Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
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.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!