MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

Frenzy on the Wall: Everything Old is Old Again

I had no interest in seeing The Expendables this summer. I loved ’80s action movies as much as the next person; hell, I grew up watching movies like Commando over and over again. Even now, if I catch an old Schwarzenegger or Stallone flick on cable, I find I still have a sentimental attachment to those “classics.” Of course now I understand that they aren’t actually “good” movies, but I can overlook those flaws and enjoy them as a reminder of how much I enjoyed them when I was younger.

But I’m not crazy about the idea of seeing a throwback to a time when Hollywood movies were ruled by stars that could barely act – although I do think Schwarzenegger and Stallone have done good work – in outlandish films that barely made sense. Films have evolved past those kinds of action movies for a reason.

The Expendables was supposed to be a punch in the gut to these newfangled action films like the Bourne series or Batman Begins; you know, movies that have good actors in smart scripts made by intelligent filmmakers. Jeez, who wants that, right? We want washed-up, aging movie stars starring in dumb films with lots of gore and violence!

Actually, apparently that is what “we” want, since The Expendables did big business and now RED is doing similarly well at the box office. And after seeing RED this weekend, I find myself once again at odds with the movie-going public and certain film critics who have given the film a pass. I decided to see RED because it’s got an excellent cast and the idea seemed fun enough; besides, I felt with all of those excellent actors, there’s no way they could all be doing it for the paycheck. But I guess Helen Mirren needed a summer home and I don’t blame her or most of the other actors.

But, can someone wake up Bruce Willis? Other than the few scenes where he’s shooting a gun or punching somebody in the face, Willis seems utterly unfazed by everything in the movie. I don’t even know if it’s a bad performance, maybe he’s researched retired CIA agents thoroughly and found that this is truly how they act, but it’s not just a lack of emotion in every line or action, it’s a lack of energy. Everyone else in the film is chewing scenery like crazy, mugging constantly, meanwhile Willis is just shrugging. Karl Urban has the most straight-laced, buttoned-up role in the film and yet he still somehow is able to do everything with conviction.

I’m worried about Bruce Willis. If you look at the last five years, there isn’t a single performance where you’d say, “yes, that’s the Bruce Willis I love.” The strange thing is that he keeps picking films that should be right in his wheelhouse; it’s just that most of them are terrible films where he doesn’t seem particularly motivated. When Willis is great (see: 12 Monkeys, Sin City, Unbreakable, Pulp Fiction, Death Becomes Her), he is one of the most interesting and charismatic actors out there, but when he’s bad he’s just boring. The last time I saw Willis in a film where he really hit it out of the park is in his one scene in Fast Food Nation. Since then it’s been a string of mostly disappointments. And between RED and Cop Out, this has been one of the sorriest years in Willis’ career.

The real problem with RED, though, is not Willis’ performance. The issues with RED run much deeper than his casting. While the script is your standard fare about conspiracies and CIA agents, a throwaway plot that mostly has to get our heroes from one set piece to the next, it’s adequate enough. But director Robert Schwentke has made a film that lacks momentum and progression and it starts with the first scene. This is an action film and we spend the first five minutes of the film on various conversations that Willis has, over the phone, with Mary Louise Parker.

It’s not that it’s boring, it’s just shrug-inducing. Of course the problem starts with the script, but the editor should have been figuring out a way to juggle things around and cut out non-essential business. In fact, you could easily cut those scenes in the beginning right out of the movie and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference in terms of character-building or plot progression.

And there are a lot of issues like that throughout the film. This is a film that begs to be 80 minutes long and move like a freight train. Instead it’s 110 minutes and moves like … well, a slower train. And the look of the film isn’t very interesting, either, and that rests on Schwentke’s shoulders more than the DP; it just doesn’t seem like he figured out what the look of the film should be. I actually wonder what Michael Bay would have done with this material (but of course he’d probably make everyone thirty years younger and played by models).

There’s always an element of fun in the “let’s build the team” but it takes too long for the team to get assembled and by the time they do, they don’t stay together very long. The joy in the idea of this film is to watch these cool actors interact with one another for as long as possible, but there are very few scenes in which the whole glorious cast gets to play together. And there are too many tangents so that another cameo can be shoe-horned in. It’s fun to see Ernest Borgnine for a scene, but did we really need more than one appearance from the man? There’s too much re-hashing.

There is a way to make a film fun while also being silly. For example, look at a previous Willis film, The Fifth Element. That’s a film that has a kind of deranged logic to it as it careens through outer-space at warp speed with quick cuts and vivid colors. But the reason it works is that it gets committed performances from its cast members, who take their ridiculous lines seriously – thereby making them even funnier – and because of those aforementioned quick cuts, which leads to a frenetic pace. In making films of this nature, nothing is more important than pacing and commitment, two things RED sorely lacks. It doesn’t make it a film any more original or intelligent, but it makes an audience give a crap.

Look, the bottom line is that people are going to see this movie and say, “well, as long as you turn your brain off, it’ll be a good time!” This is one of my least favorite phrases. Perhaps I’m not as highly evolved, but I don’t know how to turn my brain off. Mine always seems to stay on and tell me when something is stupid. It’s not that the film is completely devoid of pleasure, it’s not flat-out awful, it’s just uninspired.

Yeah, I enjoyed Malkovich playing unhinged for a few scenes, but it’s a joke that wears thin really quickly. And that’s what’s true of everything in this film. The action scenes are not exciting and the jokes are mostly lame. Everything about the film feels recycled and repackaged. It’s the same movie you’ve seen countless times except…everyone’s retirement age! I’m just sick of filmmakers trotting out the same old crap and putting some silly twist on that crap and calling it original. And it’s even more disappointing when critics can’t even sniff out a crappy film just because it’s gussied up with award-winning older actors.

Ultimately, RED is not a film that should inspire great hatred or great affection because it’s really just disposable. And that’s when the defenders of the film will say, “yes, but it’s meant to be disposable!” Listen, if you can enjoy a film that proudly wears its uselessness on its sleeve, then more power to you. Call me crazy, but I think we should hold our art to a slightly higher standard than that.

3 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Everything Old is Old Again”

  1. Greg B. says:

    “I guess Helen Mirren needed a summer home”

    LOL: It’s not about what SHE needs, dude! It’s about what WE need – which is to see this high-mileage hottie blasting off huge automatic weaponry!

  2. EthanG says:

    I agree for the most part, though there is something deeply enjoyable for me in watching Mirren at work in this movie, and there are a few good scenes…but yes it could have been better.

    I think the larger point is not old vs young though. It has been an historically shitty year for action movies. Is “Red” much worse than The Expendables, Salt, Predators, Jonah Hex, The A-Team, Prince of Persia, Robin Hood, Knight & Day, Killers, Machete, The Book of Eli, Clash of the Titans, or Repo Men?

    My favorite released action movies of the year are “Kick-Ass,” “Centurion,” “Valhalla Rising” (far from a true action movie) & “The Losers”…the last of which I can’t really explain, and none of which were more than maybe a B+ for me. The best action movie of the year for me is Christopher Smith’s (Triangle, Severance, Creep) excellent “Black Death,” likely a direct-to DVD affair here.

    Last year was no bonanza either but we had “Inglourious Basterds.” And it sure makes me appreciate “Avatar.”….

  3. Keil Shults says:

    I consider Die Hard to be possibly the greatest action movie of all time, and even if it’s not, I certainly would give it an A on the A+ to F rating scale. But I’ve also seen the films countless times over the years, since first seeing it in the late 1980s, probably when I was 11 years old. So I was wondering if a film just like it came out today, would I really dig it, or am I such a different person now that I’d no longer find such a movie to be great? The same can be said for some other 1980s movies that I’ve always loved and still watch to this day: Wargames, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. There are others that I watched then that I have grown out of favor with over the years, but those I just named (including Die Hard) seem to be as brilliant today as they were back then (and in some cases I’ve found new things to love about them).

    I’ve never considered myself a fan of any particular genre, including action films. I simply like a movie or I don’t, though I suppose I’m more reluctant to exploring new musicals, westerns, romantic comedies, etc. But your article got me thinking about what action movies I’ve discovered as an adult (let’s say 1999 to the present) that I consider really great movies. The first titles that come to mind without doing any research are Bourne 2 and 3 and Casino Royale. I’d also include The Matrix, the first two Spider-Mans, the two new Batmans, and Iron Man if those can be considered part of the genre. Would Death Proof and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and/or 2 be considered action? I don’t even know. Maybe I no longer get sucked into pure action films, since even the Bourne films seem to have a lot else going on in them. Either way, I do agree with you that much of the testosterone-fueled, shoot-em-up and blow-em-up extravaganzas that ruled the 1980s no longer have a real place in today’s society. And Hollywood certainly shouldn’t be forcing the issue, though I’m sure they would love to eliminate the need for scripts altogether.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet