Coming back to the Smack is always a pleasure — sometimes eye opening, often inspiring. So what do I get now upon my latest return match? The summer rot. Juvenile comedies, more people biting my neck, or killing me some other way. In a way, it’s like I never left.
Two summer action releases prove my point. Takers just opened, showing there’s no honor among thieves but yes, a sense of fashion. And very messy. It’s bound to do strong business in this summer’s soft box office. The Expendables arrived earlier with lots of advance word about its well-known, if not well-acting, cast of movie tough guys.
Both films are what they are, without apology or distinction. It presents a different kind of Smackdown: Are these movie retreads worth leaving the house?
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In This Corner
A crew of LA desperados steals big and apparently well enough to afford a glossy high-rise life and a closetful of great clothing. A pal rejoins the takers after a stretch in prison. He has an idea for a big “take” and a personal score to settle. Does this spell trouble? Your spelling needs no help, but the crew does when the high-caliber heist goes sideways. Think Ocean’s Eleven. Think Heat and Scarface. And there’s Officer Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) on the chase and being chased by the internal affairs people at the station house. How does this play out? Remember those movies I just mentioned? John Leussenhop directed these movie leftovers from a script he pieced together with Peter Allen and Gabriel Casseus.
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In That Corner
The Expendables must be the latest stop on the tour of overripe action stars, and the producers pull no punches. Seasoned mercenary Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is recruited by a mystery man (Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo. Smart man) to eliminate a dictator and a rogue CIA man (Eric Roberts) who control a South American island. You know where this is going: Bang. Crash. Flames. Gunplay, knifeplay and body parts served up with relentless ugly gusto. The good guys and the bad guys (if there are such things here) include people you’ve seen before:
- Jason Statham
- Jet Li
- Dolph Lundgren
- Steve Austin and Randy Couture (from the wrestling arenas)
- Mickey Rourke
- Terry Crews
The Expendables even features Arnold Schwarzenneger in a brief, uncredited speaking role. Doesn’t he have a state to run? This movie inserts a pair of arbitrary story diversions: Statham’s character strikes a blow against domestic abuse (huh?); a woman on the island attracts Stallone’s momentary attention. These subplots make you scratch your head. Sylvester Stallone directed a script co-written with Dave Callaham.
The best human moment in Takers comes early on: Hayden Christensen’s gang character plays a snippet of that old delight from Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington, “The Nearness of You.” From that point on, it’s pretty much downhill. The violence — and there’s lots of it — comes in bloody tones and choreographed in slow motion meant to pass as artiness.
By contrast, The Expendables makes no such claims. I wondered about this cast as I watched. Did these guys lose their money to Bernie Madoff? The lure of sweat and testosterone? I don’t care enough to find out.
Why this dialogue?
Paine: Who sent you?
Barney Ross: Your hairdresser.
Indeed, why was I sitting in the theater? I’d rather be in a cool dark room with someone lovely and fun, listening as the songbooks of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter tell us better stories about being special and alive. That experience offers meaning and possibility. This ghastly movie? Not even close.
Since this is a Smackdown, someone must lose apart from the audience.
Every film is an achievement just getting made, and that’s true here, barely.
The Expendables is well-named. Diverting for a moment, low value, disposable. Our winner — Takers — lingers awhile longer and it should. You’ll wonder just where you’ve seen the fractured direction, staccato editing and story cues before. Nice outfits, though.
Honestly, I can’t imagine spending an evening with either film. That darkened room and music seem more attractive by the minute — better surroundings, much better company, and a chance to learn how honest, imperfect lives might align.