Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Expendables" and "Flight": a two-fer review

"The Expendables"

I just finished watching "The Expendables" tonight. As I suspected it would be, it was good, stupid, physics-defying, 1980s-era fun in the goofy spirit of "Rambo II" and "Commando." As one character in the film says: "Bad Shakespeare." "The Expendables" unites quite a few aging action stars from recent decades: Sylvester Stallone (who also co-wrote and directed the movie), Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mission to assassinate a Latin general who is ostensibly the dictator of the poor island of Vilena. It turns out the general is a puppet: the real villain, played by Eric Roberts, is an ex-CIA agent who has taken over the island to siphon off all the money from its drug production. Stallone plays Ben Ross, the leader of a group of highly trained mercenaries known collectively as The Expendables. They're commissioned by a shady Bruce Willis to take out the Latin general, but once they discover the involvement of the ex-CIA agent, and the fact that the general's daughter wants freedom for her people, plans go out the window and the mission becomes personal.

This is a movie filled with awful dialogue and gleefully nonsensical action, but I have to give credit to both Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke for some truly standout acting. These two men felt almost as if they didn't belong in this movie. Tough-guy Rourke, at one point, is allowed to give a tearful soliloquy about how the mercenary life leads to a destruction of the soul. For his part, Lundgren plays the weak link in The Expendables: he's Gunner, an unstable meth addict who gets kicked off the team for being too violent. Lundgren is scarily convincing as a strung-out, hopeless man who strays to the wrong side, finding himself both bereft of purpose and cruising fast on the road to hell. Along with the perils of mercenary life, the movie deals with themes like friendship and brotherhood in combat, rediscovering one's own idealism, and fighting for something more than money.

On a technical level, "The Expendables," despite its occasional use of CGI, doesn't rise far above the level of 80s action flicks. Still, there are plenty of shots, explosions, amputations, beheadings, joint-snappings, and martial arts to satisfy the viewer's combat jones. One revelation: Stallone knows how to direct an intense car chase. The movie features two such chases; the first, a desperate race through a Latin town, is rather lame; the second, by contrast, is worthy of "The French Connection" and "Ronin." Yes, it's that good. That scene alone may be, arguably, worth the price of admission.

I wouldn't recommend "The Expendables" to anyone but an 80s action-movie fan. The movie's got all the bad macho dialogue (some of which amounted to poorly executed jokes that didn't even make sense), violence, and gore to keep the male half of a date happy. The plot, meanwhile, is thin and full of holes (e.g., does the team get paid at the end? we never find out); the final battle is somewhat confusing, and not enough time is spent on characterization. Terry Crews, who by all rights should have dominated this movie with his huge, humorous presence, mysteriously disappears for minutes at a time until he arrives on scene with a massive, Tommy-gun-style shotgun. That thing was awesome. So: caveat emptor. "The Expendables" isn't for everyone; it's mainly for guys of my age and mindset.


"Flight" is a Robert Zemeckis film starring Denzel Washington as Captain Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot, alcoholic, and drug addict. After a quick establishing shot of a Florida airport, the movie begins with that most lovely of images: a female breast. An alarm clock goes off; the breast glides into view, and we pull back to see Whip, who is divorced, in bed with a gorgeous, gloriously naked woman who turns out to be one of the flight attendants. (Ah, if only they all looked that way...) Having thus stimulated our senses, Zemeckis then takes us on the scariest airplane ride I've ever seen on film.

The day begins in a mundane enough way: Whip wakes up with Katerina Márquez; bleary from a night of many drugs, much sex, and almost no sleep, he gets a call from his ex-wife, who demands extra money to fund their teenaged son's education. Whip snorts a line of coke to regain his edge; he heads off to the plane and meets his by-the-book copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who can sense right away that all is not right with Whip. The plane taxis out, and away we go.

Trouble begins immediately. The flight is only from Orlando to Atlanta—about an hour— but a mere few minutes in, the plane experiences choppy air. Against his frightened copilot's instincts, Whip maneuvers the plane between two storm cells and into a patch of calm air. The passengers applaud the sudden lack of turbulence, and Whip, both high and drunk from some vodka he slipped into his orange juice just before the flight, decides to take a victory nap. The next he knows, there's a horrible bang, and the plane begins to dive. One of the elevators has gotten stuck in the dive position, and there's little Whip can do to pull the plane out of its plunge. So instead of fighting the plane, Whip decides to roll it as a way to level the aircraft out. A few hair-raising minutes are spent upside-down; flight attendant Katerina unbuckles herself and crawls across the cabin to help a child who has fallen out of his seat. She succeeds in re-buckling him into his chair, head dangling downward. Whip manages to complete the roll and right the plane, but both engines flame out and the jet is now gliding. There's a horrible inevitability about that scene that I found utterly gripping: Whip has chosen to glide the plane into a field, and there's little he can do, at this point, except to keep adjusting the trim until impact. After all the banging and roaring, that final, terrifying glide occurs in near-total silence. Katerina, meanwhile, hasn't managed to re-buckle herself in.

The plane crashes, and everything goes black.

And that, folks, is when the movie begins in earnest. Like "Saving Private Ryan," which kicks off with a high-intensity adrenaline rush, "Flight" starts strong then gets quieter, and the viewer is left to figure out just what the movie is fundamentally about.

Whip is initially treated as a hero and a media darling. He has managed to save the lives of 96 people on that flight; only six people, including Katerina, died. Whip's landing is considered nothing short of miraculous. But a toxicology report, done while he was unconscious at the hospital, shows that Whip was both drunk and high on cocaine. Whip has people in his corner: his old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, a.k.a. Captain Pike in the JJ Abrams Star Trek universe), a union rep, is batting for him; and criminal defense attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) is doing what he can to invalidate the toxicology report. While at the hospital, Whip meets fellow patient (and fellow addict) Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly); they bond over their troubles. But after Whip leaves the hospital and starts a relationship with Nicole, it becomes obvious that he is unable to admit his addiction. This pride, and its dire, self-destructive consequences, is the primary focus for most of the rest of the film.

Along the way, we have Whip's friend, Harling Mays (John Goodman), who doubles as his drug dealer. Harling initially sneaks Whip out of the hospital, and later on, when Whip has gotten himself stone drunk right before a crucial hearing about the crash, Harling is there with coke to help bring Whip back to life. Harling is obviously loyal to Whip, and his character serves to remind us of the ridiculous nature of American culture when huge events, like this plane crash, occur. I frequently thought, while watching "Flight," that Zemeckis had succeeded in bringing to the screen a true, Tom Wolfe-sized American satire. Whip Whitaker, with his self-destructive arrogance, could have been the black version of Sherman McCoy. And once I got to thinking along those lines, I began to see "Flight" as a morality play—a story that, on the surface, seems to mock religious sentiment (Whip's copilot, and the copilot's wife, turn out to be big-time Bible-thumpers), but which is, at heart, a film about grace and redemption. Part biblical narrative and part Greek tragedy, "Flight," from its metaphor-rich title on down, is the tale of the arc of a soul. Whip, high on coke, attends the hearing and is told that, since his toxicology report is not admissible as evidence, the only other person on that flight with both access to alcohol and a history of drinking problems was Katerina. At this point, Whip has a choice: he can blame the existence of the empty vodka bottles on Katerina, thereby lying, exonerating himself, and dishonoring his ex-lover's memory; or he can tell the truth and confess that he entered the cockpit both drunk and high. Which does Whip do? Well, I won't spoil that for you... although I may have done so already.

"Flight" wasn't the film I thought it would be. I suppose I went into it expecting the plane crash to occupy most of the story, like those old 1970s-era disaster movies. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. It was, instead, a very gripping, intimate human drama about one man's flight from the truth about himself—his rejection of help from the friends who are trying to support him, the relentless lies he tells everyone around him, and his desperate attempts to avoid the consequences of his actions. It was also, obliquely, a movie about God: much dialogue is devoted to the question of whether everything is meant to happen, whether coincidences exist, and whether we are the masters of our own fate. The movie works as both a character study and a Wolfesque commentary on the more ludicrous aspects of American culture. It's what the movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities should have been.



John from Daejeon said...

Since you liked "24," you will probably love Bruce Greenwood in 1995's Nowhere Man as Joel Surnow had a big part in both. Ff course, Greenwood's claim to fame were his stints on two hit TV shows, "St. Elsewhere" and "Knots Landing" back in the day.

John from Daejeon said...

It's official, 24 is returning in a limited run and an Indian version will be set in Mumbai. However, Kiefer hasn't re-upped yet, so there could be a different actor starring in it this go-round if he doesn't re-sign. I wouldn't mind seeing Jennifer Garner, of "Alias" fame, take over.

It's also only a matter of time before Werner Herzog is making a "Cheetah Woman" documentary to go with his "Grizzly Man" one. Stupid people.