CINEMA News Weekly
Reflections on two action-thrillers
, August 30, 2014
Lucy (rated MA 15+) and The Expendables 3 (rated M) are reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson.
As a film critic, I see more films than I have the chance to comment upon. I often watch a few at time, one after the other. It can be quite interesting to see the impact that watching one film might have on subsequent films.
Scarlett Johansson in Lucy
I recently saw Luc Besson’s science-fiction action-thriller, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman, followed by The Expendables 3, starring a lot of ageing action stars, led by Sylvester Stallone. I was struck by their similarities and contrasts, and thought them worthy of some remarks.
Lucy is about Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman tricked into becoming a drug mule for Taiwanese gangsters, and who is forced to carry a new drug that has been stitched into her abdomen. When the bag breaks during a beating, Lucy, rather than dying, is able to access more of her brain’s potential and becomes an incredible warrior capable of astonishing feats.
This drama is cross-cut with a lecture from Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) on the brain and its capacities, specifically the notion that we use only 10 per cent of our brain, and that if we could access more, then we could do amazing things.
Inter-cut between the scenes of the story are documentary shots showing animal behaviour to illustrate either something Professor Norman has said, or something happening to Lucy.
French film director Luc Besson, most famous for The Fifth Element (1997), has sought to make a philosophical thriller that deals with “big ideas”. Sadly, the main idea is pure malarkey. We’re still working on how the brain works, but the idea that we only use 10 per cent of its capacity is balderdash.
What results is a sort of pseudo-Gnostic European thriller — this is not a Hollywood film — that is entertaining but lacking. Besson wanted to do something fun and deep, but the depths are shallow. At least it’s fun to watch, if not exactly memorable.
A surprising contrast, then, was The Expendables 3. This franchise has been described as a charity case for ageing action stars to give them something to do. It’s not really promoted for its intelligence or wit or plot. The posters just list everyone that’s in it — and that’s a lot of folks.
The surprise is that, despite its flaws, The Expendables 3 actually has things to say. Sure, the film is too long, and they’ve pulled out every action movie cliché, but it isn’t a waste of time.
The Expendables are an ageing bunch of black-ops mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone). After rescuing one of their number, Dr Death (Wesley Snipes), from an armoured train, they go on to take down an arms-dealer, only to discover he was the traitorous co-founder of the Expendables, Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson).
Stonebanks takes out one of the Expendables, and they want revenge. Luckily enough, so does Uncle Sam, in the person of Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), the CIA officer who assigns them their work. Since the crew is getting old, Ross retires them and goes looking for a new team with the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer).
The Expendables 3 is not meant to be a deep movie. However, it manages to make some comments on ageing and youth, on experience and innovation, that while worn are certainly not worn-out. It is not as sharp as the RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) action-comedy movies (2010 and 2013), starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren; but it’s not bad.
It’s a popcorn movie, but with its comments on growing old, retirement, the effects of conflict, brotherhood and family, it adds a nice touch that makes it a little bit more than a run-of-the-mill popcorn movie. And then there’s Antonio Banderas as Galgo, a desperate and agile former Spanish Legionnaire, who never shuts up and who adds to the humour.
It was a funny thing watching these two films back to back. I text-messaged a mate who’d remarked on the “meaninglessness” of The Expendables 3, saying: “Lucy tried to have content. The Expendables actually had content”.
This would seem to show the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s dictum that just by showing an adventure properly, one is showing a divine truth, and that as long as that is not undermined, the work may survive.
Lucy is about a bit of scientific balderdash, and all its thoughts flow from that premise.
The Expendables 3 is about old men doing what they’ve been doing since they were young, and coming into conflict with the next generation, and about the challenges of age. This was emphasised by the karaoke rendition of Neil Young’s 1972 song, “Old Man”, that concluded the film. Neil Young is another artist who speaks of the truth of clichés.
Neither film is a masterwork, but they still show something telling about the human person and the human experience, something worthy of recollection.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).