Aging Beefcake

Posted on April 1, 2015

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Lots of good things have been happening that leaven the tough times we’ve endured the last eight years or so. Sorry they’ve kept me from updating.

Now here’s some corny beef for your reading pleasure!

Bullet to the Head (2012)

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James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) is an all-around criminal. At the beginning of the movie, he and his partner conduct a hit on a guy. Bonomo leaves a witness (prostitute? girlfriend? this movie doesn’t really care about women) alive, then goes out for drinks with his partner. Keegan (Jason Momoa) is waiting in the bar, kills Bonomo’s partner, attempts to kill Bonomo, and then escapes. Enter Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a detective from Washington, DC. It seems Keegan killed Kwon’s partner in DC, and now Kwon believes that Bonomo can lead him to Keegan.

So that’s the setup for a generally enjoyable throwback to 90s action movies. Director Walter Hill is a legend, having directed Hard Times, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs, Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions, Crossroads, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome – I could go on and on.

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Also generally speaking, this movie has very weakly written female characters. While it does not have action purely for action’s sake, it writes action scenes as action scenes rather than suspense scenes. You’re pretty sure Kwon and Bonomo are going to live at least until close to the end of the movie, so there are no real stakes until then.

Part of the problem with the stakes is that Kwon has a phone connection to the DC police that provides him with whatever information he needs. It removes every stumbling block in the way of the team investigation.bullet-to-the-head-3

In fact, when Keegan kidnaps Bonomo’s daughter Lisa (the always winning Sarah Shahi), the sudden rise in the stakes seems to come out of nowhere. The final, ultimate, fight between Keegan and Bonomo seemed like an anticlimax because, as usual, nobody bothered to clarify their greatest desires and greatest fears.


Copland proved that Stallone can do better than this. I’ve seen Momoa in enough stuff to know that he can do better, too.

Escape Plan (2013)

I could summarize this movie as Stallone helping his fellow Hard Rock Cafe investor Arnold Schwarzenegger relaunch his movie career after serving as California’s governor. That’s not really fair to either of them.

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Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a physical security expert who advises various private corporations that run American prisons. His backstory is that he is a former prosecutor whose family was killed after a guy he put away escaped and took revenge. He gets hired by the CIA to test a proposed privately-run black site. For security reasons, he has to go in alone, and no one can know where he is. When Breslin wakes up in the black site, Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) ignores Breslin’s safety code. In the nightmare world of the super-secret prison, Breslin has to decide if he can trust Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an unusually friendly fellow prisoner.

This movie is not about whether or not Breslin and Rottmayer can escape, or even who Rottmayer really is. It’s about how they escape, and how Breslin’s team (played by Amy Ryan and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) can find him.ESCAPE PLAN

What this movie does well is show, rather than tell. With the exception of some exposition about Breslin’s character and work, the movie show us characters through their actions.

Unfortunately, the movie throws a bunch of action on top of that, none of which has any real effect on the outcome. The final escape scenes, with their helicopters, shoot-outs, and explosions, are necessary as a cathartic release from all the tension leading up to those moments. The rest of the non-escape action was unnecessary.


Escape Plan should have stuck with the Escape from Alcatraz formula, and focused on the escape.

The Last Stand (2013)

Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona town on the US-Mexico border. He’s a former LA vice cop who left the big city after a drug bust went bad and got most of his team killed.

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Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro) is a Mexican drug lord who escapes FBI custody with the help of mercenaries led by Burrell (Peter Stormare). Burrell has built a bridge into Mexico near Owens’ sleep little town.

When Martinez eludes FBI pursuit, Agent John Bannister (Forrest Whitaker) realizes that Owens is the only thing standing between Martinez and freedom.

Of these three movies, this one was my favorite – and not just because it also stars Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, and Johnny Knoxville.

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The escape scene exists to advance the story (if Martinez doesn’t escape, the movie is over). It demonstrates the planning and resources of the mercenaries. It shows that Martinez is cunning and ruthless.

A murder investigation leads two deputies to discover the bridge construction site, and ends with a shoot-out. This increase the tension and the stakes. It lets Owens alert Bannister as to why Martinez is heading that direction, and it sends the mercenaries into town to deal with the sheriff. It demonstrates how inexperienced the deputies are, and how badly outgunned they are by the mercenaries. Also, by focusing on secondary characters with Owens showing up at the end to rescue his people, it increases suspense. We don’t know which, if any, of the secondary characters will get hurt.

The movie further increases tension by limiting the sheriff’s resources. Martinez’s mercenaries are ready for FBI reinforcements. The ambush scene is very quick, and resolves a story point.

You paid your money for the showdown on Main Street between the sheriff’s department and the mercenaries, and you get your money’s worth. It’s long enough to feel worthwhile, and cathartic enough not to disappoint.the-last-stand01

The showdown between Martinez and Owens is equally well paced and well worth it.


Really, I have two complaints about this action fest. First, there’s so many characters that many actors don’t get enough to do. Jaimie Alexander and Forrest Whitaker, in particular, are underutilized. Second, it’s never clear why Owens digs in his heels so hard. His virtue and honor are never established or justified. I mean, you don’t really expect a Schwarzenegger movie to be character-driven, but the rest of the movie is so good that this stuck out for me.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for big-budget action, I felt like The Last Stand had the best story of these three and the most heart. The other two are okay, but after a marathon of all three, I’m comfortable picking The Last Stand as worth seeing.

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Posted in: Movies