15 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Let's Be Expendables. And the Giver

We've still got a couple weeks left of Summer, but I think we've officially made it to the dregs of the season. Late August releases are usually either off-season horror reboots, action flicks that couldn't carry a weekend earlier in Summer, or comedies, which actually tend to do well. I mean, just check it out. But the point of all this griping is that we have two films premiering this weekend that fit this bill exactly, and one that's a little more curious.
AKA a Depend ad with Guns

Oh, Expendables...where do I begin with this one? Maybe you should just read impressions from the first one, and then the much better second one before moving on. The Expendables III (2014) is a movie where you have already made up your opinion as to whether or not you like it. You have. I have some big problems with these flicks that extend beyond the obvious (its inherent misogynism, stupidity, and absence of plot or story), but I still do get sort of excited for them.

The Expendables landed in 2010 and promised this epic team-up between old and new action stars that were all still pretty old. But, Lundgren, Li, Statham, and Stallone on screen was still a pretty sweet draw. And no, I don't really give a shit about Crews and Couture. Even if Crews is probably actually the most talented one of the group who is just hitting his prime (hello, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) instead of far past it, he's not the point in seeing this film. You see The Expendables to try to pretend it's the 80's and this team-up would actually be awesome. Instead it's this masturbatory function: sound and fury signifying nothing. These are reactionary films trying desperately to hearken back to a simpler day when movie stars were action heroes who meant something, not interchangeable superhero space fillers.

What is most at work here in building anticipation, though, is that initial chill you get up your spine when you hear all these guys are teaming up. It's the same feeling that makes The Avengers (2012) seem awesome, that also bled into X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) but as I've been wont to point out before, we first saw in fucking Fast Five (2011) that mashed up characters from every individual entry in its franchise and made a ridiculous amount of money as a result. The Expendables keenly created actual fictional characters out of the action personas of its principal actors and in its own way, serves as the giant franchise-colliding team-up movie of every big bloody star of screen of the past thirty years. It's like the 80's action version of ?This is The End (2013).

So why haven't these flicks exactly lit up the Box Office? Well, there are a hundred reasons. The simplest is that times have changed and no one wants to see movies like these anymore where a black ops team will go and kill a bunch of evil brown people for no reason. Maybe it's because at this point everyone on screen is more of a has been than in their prime. Again - this would have been an exciting idea maybe twenty years ago at best. Or frankly, it could simply be that The Expendables straight up didn't deliver what it promised - the action isn't exciting and none of it feels fun or loose in the way a dumb Stallone-ego fueling film like this should feel.

The Expendables 2 (2012) rectified this to some extent. Stallone and company are still taking themselves far too seriously, but the additions of Schwarzenegger and Willis in expanded roles along with Chuck Norris made the film more of that "Legendary Team-Up of 80's Icons" that the first one promised to be. The real star, though, was JCVD, who constantly acts like he's the only one who actually knows what kind of shitty silly film he's starring in. But with films like this there will always be gaps in the roster, so The Expendables III will try to make for that by adding Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, and Kelsey Grammer.

Alright, Grammer makes no sense here, although he was just appropriately menacing in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). He looks full on Frasier here. I can't imagine that Ford is much more than a cameo, but I have some issue with Gibson. Sure it's tough to promote any film from a dude like Gibson, but he's supposedly going to be the film's main villain. This A) isn't really riffing on his 80's persona at all and B) was already done (horribly) in Machete Kills (2013). Finally, how can you look at a poster like this and not feel some sort of shame? Harrison Ford next to Victor Ortiz? Schwarzenegger next to Kellan Lutz? What are these legends doing next to these MMA fighters and terrible young stars? Obviously these young unknowns are just there so that someone can actually do some fighting, but it also defeats that core promise of the movie which is seeing all these screen legends up there in one movie. Again, this promise is faulty at its heart because they can't really do anything anymore besides shoot big guns. And do roids.

So what does all this mean? I'm excited for The Expendables III, beyond all reason to feel differently. It's like a trainwreck that you can't look away from. Or moreover you want to be justified in the simple fact that so much of this film seems like such a bad call. But it's still more of a try to get all these legends together than anyone else has ever done and there's something special in that. But no, I don't think any one will really care about this one. No JCVD, for one thing. Or Seagal. Even Seagal was in Machete (2010).
AKA 22 1/2 Jump Street

Who's next? Let's Be Cops (2014). I liked it better when it was called 21 Jump Street (2012)...but seriously - Jake Johnston and Rob Riggle were in 21 Jump as well - how can they so obviously be riffing on its success? Well, I suppose everyone likes making money. Johnston and Damon Wayans, Jr tend to kill it as co-stars on New Girl and hoping really really hard that Let's Be Cops will make them into movie stars. Wayans is everything his father was, especially on joints like Happy Endings, and he's appeared here and there in flicks (like The Other Guys [2010] with...Rob Riggle again...) but hasn't really broke out the way his dad did yet.

Don't get me wrong, Let's Be Cops looks pretty funny, and for some reason this summer has hardly had any other comedies to contend with, so my bet is it does pretty well and could even win this weekend, but something about it seems a little shallow to me. Maybe it's the hollow premise or the implication that these two TV star buddies are trying too hard, but I get this weird vibe from the flick. Am I completely crazy here or does anyone else out there in Internet-land think it has a bit too gimmicky of a high concept and not enough character work to be a great August Comedy? Maybe I'm nuts, but it's hard to articulate why I distrust this thing.

Lastly we have The Giver (2014), which I have no idea what this thing is about. I remember the book existing and people reading it in when I was in Middle School, and I remember the cover with that old dude's face, but I never read the thing or cared to learn a synopsis. So the trailer launched all Pleasantville (1998)-style a few weeks ago and there seems to be a lot of stuff pulling this film in different directions. There's Jeff Bridges apparently playing the same role he did on TRON: Legacy (2010), creepy anti-emotional dystopian 1984 tropes, and finally, what looks to be a good amount of YA adaptation melodrama. It'll be a fun basket.
AKA ugh I don't care anymore.

Young Adult adaptations seem to be crazily boom or bust properties. There's your Harry Potters, Twilights, Hunger Games, and Divergents as Box Office Champions for sure, but also your Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), The Host (2013), and Beautiful Creatures (2013) that just bomb horribly. It ought to be a good sign to Hollywood that you can't just adapt whatever the kids are reading this week and pump it full of love triangles and secret world melodrama and expect the cheddar to flow. Films still do need to be good films. Or at least appealing films that accomplish what they set out to accomplish, no matter where that bar is set. My bet is that The Giver is well known enough to be a bit above these last three trainwrecks, but nothing about it seems as cool or as interesting or loaded with the right combination of star power, relatability, timing, freshness, and a built-in audience as The Hunger Games (2012).

So, obviously this week I talked a ton more about The Expendables III than Let's Be Cops or The Giver, so that probably betrays where my loyalties lie. As far as culture goes, the pathetic desperate attempts at late late career resurgences of over-the-hill action heroes contrasted with the attempted jump-starts of its young MMA fighters-turned-actors is pretty interesting to me. From what the first reviews say, it may even be a shot in the arm for Wesley Snipes' career - apparently his turn here is pretty good. Let's Be Cops seems like a toothless comedy that won't rise above itself, like so many other recent summer flicks like Bad Teacher (2011) or We're the Millers (2013). It's the kind of comedy that is funny but not really impactful or meaningful. And The Giver just doesn't look special at all. I'm excited for the remake, The Maze Runner (2014) to come out next month.

What do you think? Are you going dated action movie, lame comedy, or young adult this weekend? Or are you going to see Guardians again?

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