We’ve all noticed by now that Sylvester Stallone has been trying to settle on the magic EXPENDABLES casting formula. The action icons (Dolph, Wesley, Arnold, Bruce, Jet) are surrounded by a protective layer of athletes (Couture, Austin, Ortiz, Rousey) and youths. For EXPENDABLES 2 he plucked young Liam Thorsbrother from the HUNGER GAMESes, and now EXPENDABLES 3 picked up Kellan Lutz from the TWILIGHTs. I didn’t really know who that was so I was pleasantly surprised when I looked him up and found out he has legitimate b-action experience. He did the sword and sandal ones like IMMORTALS and RENNY HARLIN’S LEGEND OF HERCULES, but also one called JAVA HEAT where he’s an American cop trying to catch a terrorist in Indonesia. And the terrorist is Mickey Rourke.
I should probly check that one out, but when I decided I needed to choose my first Lutz for EX3 supplemental viewing I chose the DTV death match picture ARENA, because I’d come close to renting it before anyway. You know how I am.
Lutz plays David Lord, a rugby player, firefighter, paramedic and war vet I think who, on a drunken downward spiral in Acapulco after the death of his pregnant wife, is kidnapped, taken to an undisclosed location (spoiler: South Africa) and forced to fight in illegal death matches that, like all illegal death matches in movies of the last two decades, are streamed live on the internet. Abducted gladiators have to beat and chop each other to death – the same depressing premise as RAZE, though they at least have them fight in front of a green screen and with costumes so they can have different themes (Roman gladiators, samurai vs. ninja, MAD MAX, drug raid, WWII).
Other captives include Daniel Dae Kim (AMERICAN SHAOLIN) as sword expert Taiga and Derek Mears (remake Jason Voorhees) as infamous South African spree killer Brutus Jackson. And James Remar has a small role.
The action filmatism isn’t terrible, but the fights aren’t very imaginative or acrobatic. I was never excited to see another match. The best that can be said for them is that they get pretty brutal at times, pretty gorey. Sometimes digital but there’s some rubber body parts involved too.
I think there’s a problem with the whole death match concept though. It’s mostly between innocent victims who don’t want to fight, so you can’t root for one of them to win. There’s no art or honor to the fighting, it’s just two desperate people being tortured, so it’s not in the tradition of martial arts movies, really. At best we’re supposed to enjoy it on the same level as the college kids and office drones we see watching the matches online – at least the ones who think it’s all staged. But of course some of them know, that’s the whole attraction. That reminded me of HOSTEL PART II, these scenes of seemingly normal people in society getting off on watching dudes get axed. The girls are horrified, but they keep watching. The guys are elated, like their team just won the Super Bowl. They cheer and high five and talk about cumming in their pants.
Samuel L. Jackson (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE) plays Logan, the ringmaster of the whole thing. Sometimes he sounds like he’s running through his lines for the first time, or as he probly calls it, “giving it the ol’ Phantom Menace.” But he seems to be having fun. He likes to do things like eat a giant feast by himself with his two leather girls on a giant swing behind him and Lord in front of him in a strait jacket and Hannibal Lecter mask.
Logan’s relatively small staff includes Kaden (Johnny Messner, WRONG TURN AT TAHOE), a hooded executioner henchman; Kawaii and Kaneko (Lauren Shiohama and Irene Choi), two Asian director/assistant/girlfriends who he calls “My pearls” and takes turns making out with; and Milla (Katia Winter), the gorgeous recruiter/seductress who lures Lord in by pretending she wants to fuck him.
I like that Lord gets animalistically horny for Milla two different times. They don’t bother with the usual scene where he’s tempted but stops himself because of his love for his late wife. She’s obviously bad news but all she has to do is take her clothes off in front of him, he waits about one second and then can’t resist pouncing. I’m not saying he’s proud of himself afterwards, but it’s believable sleazy behavior, makes him seem legit.
I can see reasons why he’d want to forgive her (Stockholm syndrome, her own victimhood, a boner, etc.), but the movie itself seems a little too merciful in my opinion. The bitch has a whole mirror covered with IDs and passports as trophies of past victims, but she screams into the mirror and takes one of those sad sitting-down-washing-the-blood-off showers and I really think we’re supposed to consider her now cleansed of all her sins. Then again, maybe we’re supposed to be creeped out that she purposely makes her hair look more like Lord’s dead wife and has sex with him. Maybe they know what they’re doing.
Alot of the fights are disposed of in montage form. Bloody combat, shadow boxing, hot girls laying on a bed behind him while he shadow boxes, more bloody combat, doing Uchi Mata push ups while Milla sits on the bed drinking champagne and eating chocolate covered strawberries. There’s a nice tweak of the old “hot girl removes bullet” scene: she messily yanks a whole bunch of nails out of his back and, yes, dumps them onto a metal tray. Also she closes him up with a staple gun.
I can’t say I’m completely sold on Lutz as a lead actor, but I gotta say I’m impressed by the bestial way he throws himself into this part. He’s not trying to look cool. There’s a scene where he hunches over a plate of food stuffing his face like a chimp and talking to her with his mouth full.
He has a chain around his neck and he jerks on it like an angry dog. He gets dragged around strapped to a dolly. There are at least two scenes where he’s hit by some kind of taser dart and he clenches up, convulses violently and drops to the floor. It looks painful. If he doesn’t smash his face he’s gonna pop a bunch of veins from all that tensing up.
He’s also well practiced in the art of angry cheek and nose twitching.
Writer Tony Giglio also did DEATH RACEs 2–3, this came out between those two. ARENA has many DEATH RACE similarities:
filmed taking place in South Africa, obvious sorta-satire about bloodlust in entertainment, actor from PULP FICTION slumming as villain, anti-hero being forced into a pre-packaged persona (they try to get him to call himself “Death Dealer,” which I’d bet was the original title), a deal where if he wins 10 matches he gets to go free, no reason to trust that deal, and also it has an impressively far-fetched twist to leave things on a high note. The big reveal changes everything, explains some things that were nagging at me, raises other questions, and I think that makes for an exciting conclusion. The way he may or may not get out of there is pretty cool.
It’s not a cliffhanger or anything but the way things end up it seems like they wanted to leave it open for a sequel, which I surely would watch. But again I must point to the WAR precedent. If you want it to be a series you better come up with a title more memorable than ARENA. Jesus.
For the record Giglio also directed CHAOS and SOCCER DOG: THE MOVIE. But director Jonah Loop is a one-timer, he usually works as a visual effects supervisor.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.