‘Expendable’ Sly; Charming ‘Robot’; ‘Compliance’: Movies

'The Expendables 2'
Chuck Norris as Booker in "The Expendables 2." Booker, a "lone wolf," is a mercenary working with a team lead by Barney Ross, played by Sylvester Stallone. Photographer: Frank Masi/Lionsgate via Bloomberg

Sylvester Stallone and his gang of action been-theres fire up assault rifles and old catchphrases in “The Expendables 2,” a sop of a movie for genre fans unperturbed by blood and Botox.

A sequel to the violent box office hit of 2010, the faster-moving “Expendables 2” serves up its winks and bullets with greater volume than inspiration.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a screen return that’s little more than a bulked-up cameo, says “I’m back” two or three times, the last no funnier than the first.

Stallone, who co-wrote the script but tosses directing duties to the workmanlike Simon West (“Con Air”) once again plays Barney Ross, the leader of an all-star bunch of mercenaries arm-twisted into a risky mission by government man Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).

Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Chuck Norris (whose bizarrely flat delivery should delight his Internet cult of hipster ironists) resurrect their familiar personae and pandering wisecracks.

Newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan bring little more than facial elasticity to the team, while athletes-turned-actors Randy Couture and Terry Crews might as well be credited as “Those Other Guys.”

Van Damme

Following the pre-credits rescue of an old pal about to be terminated, the gang gets tangled up in a plot to keep five tons of plutonium out of the hands of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s villainous Vilain -- whose name promises more Dr. Evil fun than the script delivers.

Instead, the film (and whatever narrative tension is suggested by rogue plutonium) gets lost in rat-a-tat editing, pedestrian CGI and murky cinematography that lingers just long enough to capture the explosive effects of assault weapons on the human body.

“The Expendables 2,” from Lionsgate, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *1/2 (Evans)

Robot Story

A man and his ’bot face the twilight in “Robot & Frank,” a smart, charming sci-fi with more heart than hardware.

Set in a near future that seems all too possible, “Robot & Frank” stars Frank Langella, in yet another late-career gem, as Frank Weld, a long-retired gentleman jewel thief and ex-con shuffling through his empty home and final years.

Aside from some absent-minded shoplifting and harmless flirtation with a sympathetic librarian (Susan Sarandon), Frank’s days are filled with the disorienting nothingness that exacerbates his oncoming dementia.

When his dutiful, resentful son Hunter (James Marsden) presents a choice between an in-home aide or a nursing home, Frank begrudgingly accepts the former.

Enter Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), a shortish thing with the appearance of a child’s “Star Wars” storm trooper costume and the personality of an amiable Blackberry organizer.

Wise servants were teaching their bosses long before Miss Daisy took a drive, but “Robot & Frank” only toys with sentimentality. There’s nothing precious about it.

“I am not alive,” Robot frequently reminds a seemingly won-over Frank, but we’re never entirely sure the old con artist isn’t three steps ahead of his caretaker. Frank’s mental acuity revives, but he uses his refound sharpness (and his mechanical accomplice) to return to the life of crime that destroyed his marriage and devastated his children.

“Robot and Frank” is the first feature film from director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford. It’s a poignant rumination on memory, regret and last chances, bolted together with pure delight.

“Robot & Frank,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is playing in New York; opens wide August 24. Rating: **** (Evans)

Stripped Naked

In April 2004, a man claiming to be a cop called a fast-food restaurant in Kentucky, informed the manager that an employee had been accused of stealing from a customer and asked her to help him deal with the situation.

His demands escalated from questioning the young woman to strip-searching her and, eventually, worse.

“Compliance,” written and directed by Craig Zobel, re-creates the event -- pretty accurately, to judge from news reports. You watch with a sinking heart.

All it would take to expose the hoax is one skeptical “Hey, wait a minute,” but neither the restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) nor her co-workers are fast thinkers, especially on a hectic night with lots of orders to fill.

Dowd is terrific; everyone is. Otherwise, though, the picture feels barren. Its ugliness, psychological and aesthetic (it would take a Bertolucci to find beauty among the fryers), is clinical to the point of inhumanity.

The movie doesn’t make explicit judgments, yet it renders the hoax so transparent that it encourages you to feel superior to the working-class dorks who fall for it.

The real terror, though, lies elsewhere -- in the nagging suspicion that most of us, under the right circumstances, are vulnerable to pressure from authority.

That all too human frailty, in extreme form, is what made the death camps possible. But it’s probably also what makes society possible -- an idea the film doesn’t go near.

“Compliance,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in New York. Rating: *** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:
***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Very Good
** Good
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on books and New York weekend.

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