Les Expendables

It took 33 years, but Sylvester Stallone once again has a sense of humor about himself. And that’s what makes The Expendables, the balls to the wall ’80s style action flick that we’ve been anticipating for over a year now, so awesome. I’ll admit it, when I saw his low rider pickup truck that hearkens back to his ’50 chopped Merc in Cobra, I was a little bit concerned that the kickassitude of Rambo went to his head. But no, he is definitely the star of this one, yet plays well with others. He gives plenty of screen time to all the big names he got together to make this throwback extravaganza, and we can’t ask for anything more. Well, except maybe for Kurt Russell and Jean-Claude Van Damme to show up in the sequel.

Testosterone Level Causes Impregnation Within 50 Yards

I’m not going to bore you with the plot except for this single line: a group of bad-ass mercenaries take a suicide mission to assassinate a South American dictator. We first meet them as they rescue a cargo ship held hostage by Somali pirates, scaling it like Navy SEALs and blasting them to pieces with laser sighted machine guns and shotguns loaded with shells that will blow a man in half. But they’re reasonable people; Sly isn’t playing Rambo here, he’s more of a tired old guy who wants you to surrender, but will blast six holes in you with his revolver the second he realizes you won’t. He has a buddy rivalry with Jason Statham, the knife master of the group, over who can take someone out quicker. As in many of Sly’s previous films, he equips his men with custom knives, from a Gil Hibben Bowie blade with a brass parry strip, ring-pommelled throwing daggers, switchblades and huge, fast draw folding knives.

If I wasn’t getting married, I’d buy this $1850 Gil Hibben Bowie…

Sly and Statham are the biggest roles, but Jet Li gets some good fights in, and gets to show some comic chops as he complains he should have a bigger share, because everything is harder for him because he’s the short one. He has to take more steps when they run someplace. Randy Couture “used to wrestle in high school” and that explains his cauliflower ears, which he is very sensitive about. Terry Crews gets to have some fun with a Sledgehammer shotgun, but this is a long way from his hilarious role as President Camacho in Idiocracy.Pity, he can be really funny. Dolph Lundgren gets the thankless job of being the guy who’s a little too psycho for a band of psychos, and Mickey Rourke has retired from mercenaryin’ to be a tattoo artist. He gets to give the “I’ll cry when I’m done killin'” speech.

The movie showcases the strengths of our favorite bad boys but peppers humor in between, a wise choice that has worked since classics of the genre like Commando. I was a little disappointed that the fictional country they invade isn’t named Val Verde, but that should be saved for an Arnie movie, I suppose. Speaking of which, Arnie and Bruce Willis’s cameos are hilarious. Sure, they only get five minutes, but Arnie lets himself be the butt of the jokes, with Sly poking fun at the weight he put on as Governor, and that he “wants to be President.” He’s a rival merc leader, and doesn’t ham it up. Maybe after he’s done governating, Sly will give him a big role in the sequel. I sure hope so.

If he dies… he dies

The bad guys are played by a psycho Eric Roberts and David Zayas, best known as Angel from “Dexter.” The girl is Giselle Itié, a beauty from Mexican television, who will likely appear in Hollywood again. She has good chops, though Sly isn’t the best at getting realistic performances out of women (see Julie Benz in Rambo, who we know can act like a champ). But that’s not what we’re looking for in an action funfest like The Expendables. It was great seeing so many of them together. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I don’t think it’s as good as Rambo– which is damn hard to top. The best I can say about it is: IT DELIVERS. And I damn well hope they make a sequel, and keep it rated R. And I will agree with Milky, my movie buddy, that they better bring back that shotgun, too. It should get its name in the credits.

4 out of 5 exploding human heads

© 2010 Tommy Salami

The Wrestler

After Slumdog Millionaire, I didn’t think I’d see a more emotionally engaging film this year. But The Wrestler tops it, slams it, and does the Ram Jam on its face in that regard. Mickey Rourke is back, Darren Aronofsky has made another classic, and this is the one time where I saw a big man cry, and I could not be the bigger man who laughs at that man. Because I was touched. I’d forgotten it was Mickey Rourke, and thought I was seeing Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

The Ram was a wrestling superstar in the ’80s, when it was at its biggest. I was never a fan, but I watched anyway. It was inescapable. I remember Sergeant Slaughter, The Iron Sheik, guys dressed as ninjas, Jake the Snake, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper in his kilt, and of course Hulk Hogan. At the time there was great controversy over whether it was “real” or not, which seems quaint now. We were so naive about what happens off camera. Wrestling is theater- it’s not so much a competition. It’s a Face vs. a Heel, bashing their faces on turnbuckles and body slamming each other for our entertainment. That’s real enough- they don’t have to really hate each other, or really try to kill each other. Find a copy of Beyond the Mat and you’ll realize it’s as dangerous and “real” as being a linebacker. They aren’t trying to kill you, but you’re doing something that the human body was not meant to tolerate as often as you’re doing it.

With that out of the way, it’s 20 years later and Randy the Ram now wrestles at Rec centers, goes home to his trailer, and plays with the neighborhood kids. He goes to a strip bar where he’s friendly with a dancer named Cassidy. She’s played by Marisa Tomei- looking more worn but just as sexy as she was in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and once again embodying a role so perfectly that you think she’s just another Jersey girl swinging from poles to make a buck. She wants to keep their relationship strictly business, but sees a sweetness under Ram’s grizzled exterior, and he’s not like the others; he uses his body as a piece of meat, so he doesn’t treat her like one. Let me say this, I think Tomei gets an unfair shake- it’s a meme that her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is the “least deserved” one awarded, and I disagree completely. Comedy is hard. And not once in that movie do you look at her and say “ha, Marisa Tomei trying to be a foomatza broad.” It wasn’t until In the Bedroom that she got taken seriously again, and it’s good to see her getting good roles like this again.

They’re both performers- he works a crowd in the ring, she works the stage, the floor, the champagne room. But he sees in her the parent he never was. She has a 9 year old son, and her work is for him, her life revolves around him; while Randy has an estranged daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe). After an injury in the ring, he seeks her out, and this is where the film builds its deepest emotional power. Randy has made a lot of mistakes in his life, and like Rourke himself, he wears the scars on his face. When he does track his daughter down, the film doesn’t play us for suckers. As anyone abandoned by a parent will know, there are wounds that won’t heal. But they make contact, fittingly at the ruins of Asbury Park, silhouetted against the sea in a shot similar to the dream sequences in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Some things are beyond forgiveness, and as in Gran Torino, not everyone can be redeemed; but Randy and his daughter come to an understanding that rings true.

Randy’s promoter wants him to do a 20-year anniversary rematch with The Ayatollah; the idea of playing to a real crowd, and capturing the glory of the old days is at the front of Randy’s mind, but he’s not sure his body can take it. He’s trying to put his life together, to have something more than playing Nintendo with neighborhood kids in his trailer, and paying Cassidy for her time. But the plot is not what makes the film engaging. Aronofsky films it with an almost documentarian feel, as we follow Randy through his life. Backstage, preparing with his fellow wrestlers, and even working at the local deli counter when money is thin. It never feels like a mere veneer of reality. Much has been made of Mickey Rourke actually performing his own stunts, and that certainly helped make the ring footage look as real as it does, but the director’s camera and choices had a lot to do with it as well. Mickey made The Ram, but Darren Aronofsky told the story like a master- by letting its characters speak for themselves.

There are a lot of choices that he made that helped the movie. Fighting for Mickey to get the part was only one of them. The movie is set in New Jersey, in Rahway, Elizabeth, Garfield. Industrial and blue collar neighborhoods. The classic Jersey decrepit railroad bridges are everywhere. There’s a scene at a payphone with an abandoned railroad tunnel behind it that sets the tone perfectly. Falling apart, like Randy. Asbury Park’s lost former glory. The soundtrack is all ’80s hair metal like Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” and the perfect choice of Guns ‘N Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for Randy’s big bout. He and Cassidy talk about the music of the late ’80s and how it got swept away by grunge, and that G’nR song was hair metal going down in one last blaze of glory. The end title is by Springsteen and is one of his better recent ballads. There are other little touches; Randy drives Ram van, of course, has an action figure, and they even made a Nintendo wrestling game with him in it. It’s exactly the sort of relic one would have if you were a pro wrestler in the ’80s.

The wrestler cast is mostly, if not all, former and active pro wrestlers. You can’t fake that kind of body, and Rourke’s late-in-life boxing career helped make him perfect for the part. He’s been in the ring, and knows that unlike acting there are no second takes. He’s done the walk from backstage, knowing thousands of bloodthirsty fans are out there wanting to see you get punched in the face.

“The Man in the Arena”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
–Teddy Roosevelt

The Wrestler is one of the year’s best films, and the best drama I have seen this year. If anything, Mickey Rourke’s performance is the most natural, courageous, and one where emotions are laid most bare. Let’s hope the Academy does the right thing, it would be great to have Mickey back. At the least, whether you like wrestling or not, go see this as one of the best movies of the year. A small story, of a has-been, finding out what he’s made for. I guarantee it won’t leave you unaffected.

5 Ram Jams out of 5