Macho mania in Stallone’s The Expendables, and another shot of Girl power

by Mark Burger

The Expendables is entertainingly awful, and awfully entertaining. No one’s life is likely to be enriched watching it, but as a mindless, macho action blow-out, the film certainly delivers what it promises. This is one of those “takeit-or-leave-it” movies: You know exactly what you’re getting into before it even begins.

At the helm, in more ways than one, is Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and directed and stars as Barney Ross, a veteran mercenary and leader of the title team, a group of tenacious tough guys devoted to solving political problems the old-fashioned way: warfare. It’s a dirty job — and don’t they know it — but somebody’s got to do it.

Along with fellow tough guys Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Coutoure and Dolph Lundgren (whose character undergoes a few shifts in loyalty throughout the proceedings), Maestro Stallone treads through the comic-book proceedings with as much beefy aplomb as he can muster.

Stallone is clearly having fun riffing on the rudiments of latter-day action cinema, and everyone in the cast is in on the joke. Eric Roberts has a high old time as the preening, sharp-dressed Munroe, the rogue CIA spook who’s been masterminding all the meanness in Vilena, the South American nation in question, using resident dictator Gen. Garza (David Zayas) as his toady. Steve Austin, forgoing the “Stone Cold” moniker here, plays Munroe’s right-hand man with an amusing scowl. He’s the guy who handles the dirty work so Munroe’s suits won’t get messy.

Stallone the director is also fortunate to have second-unit director Terry Leonard and stunt coordinator Noon Orsatti on his team, as both are themselves veterans of creating big-screen mayhem — and there’s plenty of it here. Cars crash, bombs detonate, bullets fly and bodies fall (sometimes in pieces) with regularity.

The only time The Expendables slows to a halt is when the story tries to get “serious,” as in the scenes involving Sandra (Giselle Itie), the firebrand revolutionary who happens to be Gen. Garza’s daughter. It’s Sandra who provides a “cause” for Barney to fight for. She’s the reason he takes the job… as if the money offered by the CIA wasn’t enough. (Barney is a mercenary, after all.)

Stallone attempts to give each actor his moment to shine, although a few get lost in the barrage of non-stop firepower. Li manages to work in a few of his patented martial-arts moves and bears the brunt of jokes about his height, but he doesn’t have all that much to do. Nor do Coutoure and Crews, although the latter provides a bit of comic relief. The advertising has been hyping the presence of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but theirs are cameo roles. Amusing, to be sure, but the time they spent on the set could likely be counted in hours.

Mickey Rourke drops in from time to time as a former member of Barney’s team, now running existential advice about “the life.” Attempting to interpret Rourke’s dialogue in these scenes adds some unintentional humor to the proceedings, which are as jokey as a film like this can be.

In the end, of course, the mission is accomplished and the Expendables (all) live to fight another day. Stallone’s no dummy. Like everyone else in Hollywood, he’s thinking franchise.

Consider that his screen image is primarily based on the two he’s already fronted. After all, this is the man who changed the ending of First Blood (1982) so that Rambo lived, a concession to commerce, not art, that nevertheless yielded big bucks at the box-office — more than once. Sly is sly, you’ve got to say that for him.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (In Swedish with English subtitles), is the second in the Swedish film franchise based on the enormously popular series of novels written by the late Stieg Larsson, following the international box-office hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

There’s a new screenwriter (Jonas Frykberg) and director (Daniel Alfredson) on board this time — and next time, as they’ll be adapting the next installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — but returning are the film’s leads: Noomi Rapace as “The Girl,” mysterious computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and Michael Nyqvist as journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

It’s been about a year since the events of the first film, and things are about to heat up for them once again — in ways that will prove much more personal to Lisbeth, whose tormented (and mysterious) past has a direct bearing on the story.

Unlike the earlier film, in which Lisbeth and Mikael operated as a team, they’re mostly on their own here, although working toward a common solution — attempting to crack an international sex-trafficking ring whose clientele includes high-ranking politicians and police officials. Needless to say, there are some powerful (and nefarious) forces at work, determined to kill the story — and anyone connected with it.

Although The Girl Who Played With Fire can be enjoyed as a standalone entity, the story does contain a number of important characters and plot points that were introduced in the earlier film, so a level of familiarity wouldn’t hurt.

Yet there’s an almost seamless transition between the two films, which goes a long way toward making this installment as enjoyable and exciting as it is. If the first film set the standard, this one strives — successfully so — to reach the same level. Rapace and Nyqvist have settled into their roles very comfortably, and are again empathetic underdog heroes, encountering adversity and danger at every turn, yet determined to see justice done no matter the cost.

The characters have also grown since the first film. Blomkvist is a little more blunt and Lisbeth is a little more reflective — although still quite capable of beating up a pair of tough bikers when the need calls for it.

The upcoming “Americanized” version of the franchise, to be directed by David Fincher and to star Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and the recently-announced Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, will have much to live up to. Indeed, these films have set a standard of their own.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is now playing exclusively at the a/perture cinemas in Winston Salem.