Tim Walker: This summer's cinematic trend is the light-hearted ensemble action thriller
The Couch Surfer: We should expect one bad film, one good film, and one so-bad-it’s-good-film from the genre
Monday 01 March 2010
Hollywood has a weird habit of making the same film twice, and at the same time. I'm sure there were sound economic reasons for Paramount to spend $75m on Deep Impact, a film about a meteor hitting the Earth and destroying most of the human race, just as Disney was dumping double that into Armageddon, a film about a meteor almost hitting the Earth and almost destroying most of the human race. I just haven't heard any of them.
The same goes for Dante's Peak and Volcano, two 1997 films about near-identical natural disasters; or for A Bug's Life and Antz, two 1998 animated features about insects. You'd be forgiven for forgetting that Patrick Bergin played Robin Hood in the same year as Kevin Costner – or for not knowing that there are currently four biopics of the late John DeLorean in various phases of pre-production. That's four. F-O-U-R.
While we wait for that biographical quartet about the bloke who made the car from Back to the Future, however, this summer's synchronistic cinematic trend is the light-hearted ensemble action thriller. Judging by the available trailers and source material, we should expect one bad film from the genre (called The A-Team), one good film (called The Losers) and one so-bad-it's-good film (called The Expendables).
The latter sounds like a bad joke that Hollywood types might tell one another, but instead of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, The Expendables stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Jet Li. Oh, and Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. (He's a wrestler.) As for The A-Team, movie studios just love to appropriate the TV shows of my childhood and inflate them to bursting point, not only producing rubbish, overblown movies, but also raising the suspicion that Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The A-Team weren't actually any good in the first place.
For a while the ensemble actioner has been the preserve of costumed superheroes like the X-Men, perhaps because the studios assume audiences are so dense that they can't differentiate between characters unless they have easily signpostable superpowers. But we're back to something approaching reality here: all three movies are about a group of wronged ex-military dudes on a revenge trip. They don't have superpowers to help you tell them apart, but there's generally a funny one, a foreign one, a fanciable one and a guy in charge who loves it when a plan comes together.
The most promising film of the trio is The Losers, based on a comic book by British writer/artist team Andy Diggle and Mark Simpson, aka "Jock"; the first few issues are available now in a collected edition. An old, forgotten franchise that the pair rebooted for the 21st century, it features a CIA Special Forces team, who escape an assassination attempt and exact revenge on the clutch of baddies that planned their deaths: a topical mixture of fictional stand-ins for Halliburton, Blackwater and the Bush White House. Stallone, by contrast, is still fighting anachronistic battles: Rambo IV replaced Vietnam with Burma, now The Expendables sees its star exchanging fire with South American dictators, a plot line that belongs in the 1980s – along with most of the cast.
Diggle and Jock agree that British writers working on US-style titles have an honourable history of subversion. Mark Millar, currently the UK's biggest comics export (whose own Kick-Ass is coming to a cinema near you), turned Superman from a Midwestern farmboy into a Soviet icon for his series, Red Son. Like Diggle and Jock, Millar is a graduate of the British comics stable 2000AD, whose titles are known for their black humour, graphic violence and political overtones.
Diggle doesn't much care for superheroes, and describes The Losers as his love letter to action movies like Three Kings and The Dirty Dozen. "We're introducing Americans to the concept of the body count," he says. "In superhero comics, people get punched through walls, get up and dust themselves down. Even if they die they're miraculously resurrected as a marketing trick. When our characters die, they stay dead."
The Losers and The Expendables have eerily interchangeable titles, and Diggle is already tired of hearing his creation compared to The A-Team. But he may as well get used to it – if all goes to plan, those comparisons are likely to be favourable ones.
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