I’m apt to employ the term temple when describing Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. It is a place of holy reverence for cinema of all genres and visible levels of technical proficiency. The people who own and operate this glorious shrine to film are tried-and-true movie geeks and they know how to put together events that allow for communal worship and celebration of our passion. Last year they unleashed an event that, by its close, had graduated to force of nature: Cinemapocalypse.
The premise was that Quentin Tarantino wanted to premier Inglourious Basterds in Austin and the epic epicness of that film called for something a bit more grandiose than a simple screening. So along with Basterds, QT brought two other films; personal favorites of his that inspired the main attraction. Veteran character actor, and all-around badass Robert Forster then introduced a film of his own and the evening concluded with two more films; six in total. The event ran all through the night and well into the next day.
The first Cinemapocalypse was so loaded to the gills with pure awesome that its aforementioned awesomeness could not be contained within or quelled by just one event. It was a cinch that a second Cinemapocalypse would follow, but the anchor film would have to be something unbelievably amazing to match the power of Nazi killing and Hitler exploding. Luckily, Sylvester Stallone reached into his most manly of chests, ripped out a bloody rib, and gave birth to the ensemble of testosterone that is The Expendables.
Because The Expendables is the long-awaited conglomeration of some of the most macho, irrepressibly badass action stars of ours or any other generation, it was decided that the three films that would precede its premier would each be vehicles for one of its cast members to showcase the pure gun-shooty, kick-facing, punch-gutting magnificence of said actor. For my part, I will try to do justice to the eyebrow-singeing fireball of fantastic that was Cinemapocalypse II. I was lucky to survive.
Demolition Man (1993)
The evening began with a screening of the finest Sylvester Stallone/Wesley Snipes film to be set in the future to come out of 1993: Demolition Man. I have a big, wet soft spot for this early 90’s train wreck. I went so far as to canonize its so-bad-it’s-good cult status by inducting it into the fraternal order of schlock that is Junkfood Cinema. Check it out here if you absolutely hate productivity.
Rather than echo my thoughts on this film, and bore you to tears for a second time, I would rather discuss the crowd reaction to the film. You may find the choice of Demolition Man a bold, possibly absurd, one as far as the quintessential representation of Stallone’s contribution to action cinema. But the thing is, every film shown tonight was hand picked by the masses.
When the immeasurable selection committee was presented with the task of selecting three movies, despite the scores of titles to choose from, these three were overwhelming favorites. That means the people have spoken and when they think of Sylvester Stallone, more than Rocky and more than Rambo, they think of the naked guy in the block of ice who tries to teach Sandra Bullock about sex. I could not have been more thrilled that so many people recognized this film as being a dynamo of Stalloneic entertainment value regardless of its quality level. That’s my kind of crowd, and that’s exactly why it played so well.
At our first break, as the hands of the clock were just about to herald the commencement of the next day, Master of Disaster of Ceremonies Zack Carlson decided that the crowd looked a little haggard. He felt we were beginning to fall to the sirens of slumber and rallied to keep us fully sentient of the ocular smorgasbord before us. And so, in honor of one of the weirdest portents of the future featured in Demolition Man, Zack unveiled a tray of 30 food items purchased form Taco Bell. He then proceeded to chuck tacos and burritos at the defenseless audience. Would this be the most absurd moment of the evening? Read on to find out.
I Come in Peace (1989)
Next up was a film showcasing the talents of the tallest member of The Expendables cast: Dolph Lundgren. The film chosen to honor this gargantuan Swede who has punched and kicked his way into our hearts was I Come in Peace. The basic premise is that an alien comes to earth to inject people with heroine and steal the resultant endorphins, as they are a designer drug back on his planet. A second alien, an inter-galactic law-enforcement officer, follows him in an effort to curb the slaughter of Earthlings. Dolph plays a renegade cop whose partner dies and is therefore forced to team with an uptight FBI blah blah blah cliché cliché cliché.
I wish I could adequately express how much I love this film. I Come in Peace played Terror Tuesday earlier this year, which is the Alamo’s weekly showcase of horror films. I have been covering that event for the past year for a great website called Horror Squad. I fell in love with this film from the first explosion and never looked back. Although this was the ardent Lundgren choice of the action film cognoscenti prior to the event coming together, I was shocked at how many of the actual attendees had not seen it.
This film is a parade of every conceivable misstep a filmmaker can make. The characters are flat and hackneyed, the story is absurd and derivative, and it was set in an exotic locale known as Houston. However, the insuppressible cool of Dolph leaks out of his stilted character mold and spin-kicks his way into cult hero all while spouting some of the most gloriously awful catchphrases of all time. The crowd went wild for the action and unintentional comedy of I Come in Peace.
On the Next Page: Bruce Willis kicks ass on Christmas and Sly and the boys play war games in The Expendables..
Die Hard (1988)
While the other selections of the evening may have garnered the most votes, the voices championing this film carried the ominous tone of an ultimatum more than the politeness of a suggestion. There was to be no negotiation, no discussion, and no questioning that Die Hard would be the choice for the Bruce Willis portion of the evening. I cannot agree more with this demand; thanks in no small part to my never before having seen it on the big screen. But Zack was not about to let us feast our eyes upon this holy classic without first offering sacrifice to the action gods.
Before this film began, Zack brought two enormous garbage bags onto the stage. I had no inclination as to the contents of these bags until he began to wax poetic about a certain iconic scene involving Bruce’s bare feet. He then proceeded to dump what appeared be an endless supply of broken glass onto the stage and called for two brave volunteers. A man and a woman bravely shed their footwear and ran across the gauntlet of unspeakable pain in tribute of this epic film. Truth be told it was actually the remains of vivisected hard-plastic cups, but judging from the shards these two pulled from the soles of their feet, the pain was no less intense.
I am not sure I can offer you any perspective on Die Hard that hasn’t already been communicated by folks far more eloquent than I. It is the seminal action film that spawned not only a host of imitators, but birthed the blueprint of the sympathetic action hero for decades, and will continue to provide just such a benchmark. What I will mention is the print. Apparently the only print the studio could offer was fairly beat up and nigh unwatchable. However a private collector lent us his 35 mm print whose beauty and pristine clarity was beyond words. I felt as if I were seeing the film for the first time with fresh eyes. One of the major talking points after this event, even as much as The Expendables, was the Die Hard print.
The Expendables (2010)
We had arrived at the main event just prior to 5 a.m. The anticipation level, despite the lateness of the hour, was no less palpable than when we first walked through the doors. As if his bringing together of some of the greatest action stars of all time weren’t enough of a gift, each of us was given a box of popcorn courtesy of director Sylvester Stallone. Right as the lights dimmed, on his way off the stage after introducing the film, Zack Carlson did an inhuman belly flop onto the pile of sharp, broken plastic in one final heroic sacrifice to The Expendables.
The film itself delivers on every level on which one would likely judge it. The opening scene establishes an apathy for human life that is truly jaw dropping and would satiate even the most bloodthirsty actionphile. The fight scenes are well constructed and pack the proverbial punch (as well as kick, body slam, and broken neck). And if you don’t chew your own face in geekish glee during the brief moment wherein Sly, Bruce, and Arnold share the screen then you may want to check your own pulse.
All that being said, The Expendables left me in a quandary. Yes, it is a supremely entertaining action film and offers everything the trailers promise. Beyond that, the film has some major issues, but am I crazy for expecting more from this film? The average person would probably accuse me of just that, but the fact is that I expected nothing from Sly’s 2008 Rambo and that film knocked me on my ass. Stallone demonstrated poise not only as a director of action, but as a man who knew exactly how to lend weight to a franchise and give it the most beautiful of sendoffs imaginable. I wanted to see that same care and craft from The Expendables, and it just wasn’t there.
The script, which Sly co-wrote, is a mess. There is a complete lack of balance in developing this all-star lineup and where it could be balancing the scales of screen time, it languishes in unimportant nonsense. Mickey Rourke honestly has no business in this film as his character serves almost no purpose and slowly expires minutes of run-time with lackluster monologues. He was so shoehorned into this thing that they didn’t even have time to change out his Whiplash highlights.
But more than that, the script does not take the time to really sell me on this team. It focuses so much on Statham and Stallone that the other guys feel like tools in their arsenal more than individual characters. Not only that, but at no point did I buy into Sly’s motivation for taking on the suicide mission. It was forced, lazy, and the logic behind it was shaky at best.
There is also no build up to the mission. There is a series of inner conflicts between team members and then BOOM they’re on the island ready to go. Are you seriously telling me that with this cast, with an understanding of the films that made them who they are, there’s not a single freaking montage? Hell, I’d have settled for seeing them spend one moment actually adopting a plan of attack rather than just dropping us into the finale because that’s what needed to happen by that time in the plot.
So yes, The Expendables grants bloody satisfaction and a chance to see a plethora of our childhood heroes in the same universe for a change. If that is all you demand of this film, it is great. If, like me, you feel Stallone has previously shown real writing/directing chops and hoped for a deeper emotional impact from the film—or even half decent screenwriting at all—I fear you will be disappointed. Nevertheless, The Expendables capped another remarkable Cinemapocalypse that rocked downtown Austin for the second year in a row. I suffered fatigue, a sore throat from exalting, and a slight burn on the hand from some errant burrito cheese, but I managed to make it out alive. Next year, I may not be so lucky.