Friday, August 24, 2012

The Unusual Ineptitude of The Expendables 2: A Technical Analysis

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I wasn't going to review The Expendables 2. It's basically critic proof. What can be said? It's trash, and mostly knows its trash. There's a few fun cameos, cheesy one-liners and a high body count. The acting's universally awful, the narrative schlocky to the extreme (abandoned plutonium!). I didn't like it much at all, but it was a tad better than the first. Just a tad. It does what it says on the tin. Consider that my definitive 'review'.

HOWEVER. Various aspects of the film demand critiquing. It's arguably futile to analyse the directorial identity of a film as proudly dumb as this. You need to compare like with like: not dumb Sylvester Stallone action movies with, say, Terence Malick films. However, I cannot remain silent: The Expendables 2 is the worst made film Hollywood has produced in a long, long time. And I don't mean the content. No, this is a shoddily directed and shot film - almost amateurish in its genuinely surprising lack of technical sheen. I find myself in a rare position to be able to discuss a film's failures in purely subjective form - even ignoring the actual narrative (which will work for some, not work for others) The Expendables 2 is a very, very bad film.

Here I present a series of bullet points outlining why. To me these flaws are largely unforgivable, and a damning indication of the lack of care taken in this production. The Expendables 2 has a number of significant technical and artistic failings, and I feel obliged to report them to anyone who cares enough.
It was during a bar sequence following the film's action-packed prologue that I began to notice that The Expendables 2 looked quite... soft. Perhaps it's just the lighting in this scene, I thought. But no... consistently throughout close-ups were noticeably, distractingly out of focus. I do not know if the blame is entirely with focus puller Hristo Aleksandrov and cinematographer Shelly Johnson, as this is a movie that has clearly had considerable post-production tinkering. But it's absolutely disgraceful how 'soft' this film looks for no discernible reason (if there's an artistic justification for this, I sure didn't recongise it). On the big screen, this lack of focus is only amplified, which is just one of several amateurish technical shortcomings of the film.
The Expendables 2, according to IMDB, was shot on a Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 using Panavision Primo Lenses. This, admirably, is a 35mm camera, which is decidedly unfashionable in these digital days. The analogue choice of format explains the overall  'grainy', cinematic look of the film. However, it does not explain why certain shots seem as if they were shot on a much, much lower quality camera. Perhaps they were cropped. Perhaps they were cheap pick-ups or 2nd unit stuff. Yet the fact is, even within individual scenes, the quality of individual images in the movie can vary wildly. The low resolution of some shots make them look like they were shot on a camera phone. Truly bizarre. The lighting is also constantly dark and ugly - making it look as if the camera gain / aperture was turned up to maximum on a number of occasions.
The shoddy SFX of the film make themselves known during the gung-ho opening sequence. The budget is reported to be around $100 million, but the iffy CGI makes it look like it was made for a fraction of that. The prologue features laughable computer generated smoke, explosions, blood splatters, vehicles and even humans (it literally looks like Stallone was half-heartedly photoshopped into one group shot). It proves to be an unfortunate indicator of things to come, even if the subsequent action is never quite as effects heavy as it is in the first ten minutes. The Expendables 2's SFX failings remind us of one simple fact: squibs for life.
It took me a while to realise what felt so off about the action scenes. It eventually dawned on me: director Simon West and his fight choreographers make absolutely no use out of the space or settings available to them, instead keeping action restricted to tiny area of real estate. Perhaps this is due to the stars' increasing frailty (fun fact: Chuck Norris is seventy-two years old, and is clearly never on set with several of the other stars). But it makes for uninspired, uninvolved action with no sense of time, space or rhythm. The shot choices are random, character placement almost inconsequential. The final fight between Stallone and JCVD is a prime example - the two barely move. Compare it to The Raid - where every setting was utilised to its utmost potential: the actors making the ultraviolence seem almost balletic. Here, it's just dully passive and devoid of threat.
No, I'm not talking about the unfunny puns, one-liners and meta-references: they're clearly intentional. This is, however, still a film that needed so much more attention at the writing stages. Consider this: why the heck was Charisma Carpenter in this for one scene? How about Jet Li? Why did JCVD's role feel so... inconsequential? What the heck was Arnie meant to be doing in the prologue? It's foolish to expect poetry or high art from the frickin' Expendables: the rough edges and half-assed subplots, though, are worthy of note even when taking this film on its own limited terms. It's amusing to see two credited screenwriters alongside and three 'story by' credits on a production whose script seems like it was thrown together over a weekend.

These are the five most obvious reasons why The Expendables 2 fails as a piece of cinema (alongside the more obvious one that it's just adolescent nonsense). It's rare to see a high-profile, big-budgeted movie produced with such incompetency. It is a movie that seems to actively ignore the technical basics of filmmaking. Who is responsible is hard to call - with the amount of posthouse tinkering that goes onto far, it's almost impossible to assign blame. I can say this without reservation though: Simon West has directed the most technically inept Hollywood film of recent times. In a film that's so proudly and purposefully dumb, it's staggering that they couldn't even keep the camera in focus.

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