That’s right, I went out and saw the two epic new releases for geeks like me who grew up with gritty, over-the-top action movies and surreal, jaunty 8- and 16-bit video games– Eat, Pray, Love and Charlie St. Cloud! Hold on, that’s not right. Where are my notes?
Right, right. Some friends and I treated ourselves to a double feature of what we assumed would be relentless awesomeness. I had begun writing my review before ever setting my eyes on the screen, a letter to my future wife apologizing for our mutual loss due to being rocked so hard by this film onslaught that my John Thomas exploded. However, when it was all said and done, I escaped with genitals unscathed. Which film failed the all-important testicular trauma test? Find out under the cut!
No film this year– hell, no film this century– exhibits such a complete commitment to its visual aesthetic as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does, evident from the arcade start-up version of the Universal logo that opens the movie. Director Edgar Wright’s previous works– the TV show Spaced, the films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz– portray him as keenly aware of pop culture, not just in his ability to reference it, but also in his ability to transcend the genres he works within. Spaced featured characters whose lives were defined by how they processed pop culture, past and present, incorporating absurd homages to the kind of entertainment characters Tim and Daisy (and writers/stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson/Hynes) had absorbed over the years. The exact same thing happens to Scott Pilgrim in this film, as his reality filters through his own pop culture sensibilities– video games. What this allows Wright to do is fill every frame of the movie with the visual grammar of video games, as well as the comics from which the film is based: sound effects, on-screen text, speed lines, 1-Ups, even pee bars. It feels as if every shot of this movie features clever onscreen graphics or Raimi-inspired whip pans. Edgar Wright’s visual style is second to none. It really is a gorgeous looking musical, but with fights– except for the bits that are also musical numbers. Every fight brings something clever and different, whether it’s a Bollywood number, a bass-off, or a gigantic spectral gorilla.
Of course, there are also people in this movie, people like Michael Cera, who plays charmingly awkward better than anyone, but knows when to bring some backbone. The character of Scott Pilgrim begins as a twentysomething slacker, looking for the safest path of least resistance, until a girl literally rollerblades through his dreams, and lo, there comes a quest. Is this a story of young love, or a story of a screw-up learning to take responsibility for his actions? Yes, Virginia, there is story here, it’s not just cool graphics, though the graphics are cool, and the jokes are very funny. You won’t see a better cast in anything all year; reports have it that Kieran Kulkin steals the show as Wallace Wells, but really, Ellen Wong walks away with this picture as Knives Chau, Scott’s 17-year old sort-of-girlfriend-or-whatever, an adorable heartstring-tugger who gets the second-biggest character arc of the flick. Then there’s, well, everybody else, from Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s laconic Ramona Flowers to Jason Schwartzman’s final boss; there’s a lot of characters in this thing, but even the li’l bittiest roles nail their parts, and everyone gets defining traits and moments.
Basically, I’m in lesbians with this movie. A mighty backlash has arisen, however, and the paltry box office seems to reflect that. Personally, I cannot fathom why this movie isn’t universally praised. I admit, however, that the target demographic is probably small, but I fall so perfectly within it that it feels like they made this movie just for me. It’s my life, on the screen, but with fight scenes and musical numbers and stuff. Go see this film. It is essential viewing, an ingenious, relentlessly entertaining masterpiece that doesn’t waste a scrap of celluloid.
I should probably read the comics, then.
Meanwhile, we have The Expendables, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, who also stars in it about thirteen times over. Oh, wait, no, those are other people! My mistake. Yes, this picture does feature 90% of your favorite action stars from the past 30 years. Yes, that makes this an “event” picture, a talky the masses want to see! It’s a veritable high school reunion of action stars, a throwback to the action movies we loved back in the 1980s– except 80s movies had actual plots, remember? Stallone doesn’t.
Thematically, this is a movie about ugliness. Ugly men (except Jason Statham), aging and past their prime (except Jason Statham), fight uglier men, and try not to be ugly on the inside. The actors look like meat robots, with skin like melting plastic– fitting for their characters, mercenary killers for hire who live by a vague code of honor but mostly blow people up and hang out at a tattoo parlor. Yet, for some reason, Barney Ross (that’s Stallone’s character, with the least ridiculous name in the entire thing), feels pangs within his chest– no, not angina, but the need for justice, the need to do the right thing. It leads him and his team down to a fictional South American island country, where they try to save a girl, free the people from General Angel-from-Dexter’s Castro-esque iron fist, and stop Eric Roberts’ evil rogue CIA agent from doing something vague with drugs and stuff.
Like I said, there’s no story here. The title of the film apparently has no significance whatsoever, but metatextually, it surely refers to how blatantly unnecessary most of the characters are. The only one with any sort of character arc is Stallone. Lee Christmas (played by Jason Statham) wants to do right by his lady, so halfway through the movie he beats up a guy who hit her and then we never see or hear from her again for the rest of the runtime. The remaining characters get even shorter shrift. Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner Jensen, the traitor who liked hurting people a little too much, and apparently has a smack problem; Randy Couture’s character “Toll Road” is based entirely around the guy’s cauliflower ear and love of good therapy; Jet Li (“Yin Yang”) is short (yes, that is his sole defining trait for all 103 minutes); Terry Crews (“Hale Caesar”) has three lines and a ridiculous gun; Eric Roberts (“Eric Roberts”– wait a minute) is evil and controlling. Whereas Scott Pilgrim makes the most of even its smallest characters, The Expendables has no idea what to do with its cast, besides parading them out for a festival of violence in the third act, in which everything that could possibly explode does, as well as a few things that probably shouldn’t be exploding. The script doesn’t even bother to serve up silly quips and zingers for these guys; every line is a dud.
Mickey Rourke appears as former Expendable and wise mentor figure “Tool,” the guy who owns the tattoo parlor where all these killer frat boys hang out. Looking like he filmed his part on weekends off from Iron Man 2, complete with metal teeth, bizarre hair, silly tattoos, gross fingernails, and an absurd pipe instead of a parrot as his quirky affectation, Rourke shows everybody else up by doing some legitimate acting. Roberts might be the runner-up, chewing the scenery like Matter-Eater Lad; Stallone gives it his all in the emoting department, and this man can only move half his face. The worst actors? Most surely Randy Couture, out of his league in a movie where half the cast might as well be cardboard cutouts, but an honorable mention goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who doesn’t seem to be trying at all in his painful cameo, his worst performance since Junior.
I don’t begrudge Stallone his new career resurgence– Lord knows I loved Rambo 4– but The Expendables lacks the mania that movie had. People getting shot with arrows and then exploding into chunky red bits felt refreshing two years ago, but this movie feels tired and half-assed, much like this review.