American action movie superstar Sylvester Stallone has had an interesting career. In the 70s, 80s and even in the very early 90s, he was a household name who could sell just about anything, be it a good or bad product, after which things went into a downward spiral for at least a decade, the lowest point of the cold streak being, in my opinion, the Get Carter remake. Rocky (2006) and Rambo (2008) proved the doubters wrong for the most part, and so when word got out that Stallone was working on yet another film, this time a hard core action film featuring some of today’s and yesterday’s most popular action stars and professional wrestlers, my own hopes of another solid hit had risen. The Expendables tells the story of an American mercenary group for hire who travel the world to perform rescue missions as well as politically tinged interventions by using the only method they’re good with, brute strength and force. The latest business proposal coming their way would have the proverbial band of brothers intervene on small island named Velina t overthrow a military general who has taken power. A brief reconnaissance mission by the Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham characters sheds some interesting light on the subject: the dictator is in fact being financially supported by a former CIA operative and the most significant resistance movement against the regime is led by the general’s daughter. The Expendables, which includes Sylvester Stallone, Jasan Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crew and formerly active member Micky Rourke who provides a home base back in the U.S., are in for the mission of their lives, especially given how one of their own, Dolph Lundgren has recently turned on them.
About halfway through the film, something struck me which should have been obvious from the start. The script to The Expendables was trying to mimic (or pays homage to) a lot of those cheesy 80s action films in which the villains were very one note and vulgar, the heroes were not the most handsome but certainly the most rugged and muscular, and the plots were of such simplicity that I dare say my 7 year old brother would been capable of following along. I’m uncertain as to why this was lost on me for the first 50 minutes of the movie. I suspect that the source of my confusion was in part due to the movie’s very modern cinematography and editing. The Expendables tries to sell the grittiness of the picture all the while embracing some of the more over the top aspects of the type of films most of the actors involved here were starring in back in the day. This is where many of the film’s problems lie, for I don’t believe that those two ingredients, the dark grittiness as often found in modern action flicks and over the top 80s elements, mesh very well together here. The former CIA operative (Eric Roberts) who is pulling all the strings behind the scenes and bossing the military general around is such a farcical character I was at times wondering if his lines were supposed to be taken as stabs at humour or if he was really trying to come across as diabolical. The subplot concerning the relationship between the dictator and his rebellious daughter is also shamefully contrived, with some scenes teetering into unintentional comedy (everything about daughter and her father both being painters was just embarrassing to see). I imagine that some who are more forgiving than me will be able to see through this thick fog of styles and appreciate what Stallone has concocted for them. I don’t mind cheesy. In certain cases cheesiness can even save a film from utter mediocrity, but with The Expendables, the farcical moments were juxtaposed with the ultra violence and grittiness of the world the characters inhabited, and, to me, gave the impression that the film wanted the audience to take those story elements with a grain of seriousness and dramatic authenticity. That is something I found myself completely incapable of doing. If it was going for cheesy, it didn’t mesh well with the rest of the picture. If it was trying to be serious, it just bad writing.
This review would have missed the point entirely if I were to omit any comments about the star-studded cast. If the majority of people who willfully choose to see this movie (which includes me) are honest with themselves, the men leading the way through the chaos and carnage are among the product’s highest selling points. Here again the film ends up being a mixed bag. Now, I’m not going to pretend that the legions of people who will end up paying for tickets to the film came for Randy Couture, Terry Crew or ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. I’m pretty certain it is Stallone, Li, Stathan, Rourke and a few others whose cameos were hinted at in the trailers who are really doing all the selling here. That being said, I don’t think that is a sufficient reason to forgive the treatment guys like Couture and Crew get in the movie. Their scenes are, to put it bluntly, atrocious. Dialogue, ‘banter’ that is supposed to set apart as individuals among a group of mercenaries and quite frankly the performances are disappointing to say the least. More generally in fact, with whatever ‘guy moments’ that occur throughout the story, which typically involved macho chit chatting loaded with ‘I’m cool, you suck! Ha, ha!’ type of one-liners, the rest of the group doesn’t fare much better. Jet Li’s life is harder because he’s short, Jason Statham is Zorro because he understands a little bit of Spanish, Randy Couture claims it ‘isn’t easy being green’ because he has broccoli ears...I mean my god. The film also feels compelled to add a love angle to the Jasan Statham character which simply has no business being in this movie and Mickey Rourke, now a tattoo artist, gets a moment to cry about how he failed to save a woman many years ago on a mission.
If there is anything that saves this endeavour from the abyss it is the final half hour when The Expendables, as a unit, arrive on the island of Velina and spoil the enemy’s hopes of tightening their grip on the innocent citizens. The final 30 minutes deliver on a level I had been expecting from the get go, so I’m still tempted to say it arrived late, but at least it got there. The action is intense, unflinchingly violent and relatively well filmed. The edits are rather quick but the camera is usually resting at the right spot for the viewer to truly witness what disgusting and painful end one of The Expendables just put an enemy soldier through. And yes, the deaths are horrific at times. I understand that Stallone’s gang are gifted in the art of death, and let it be known that they put on quite a show. Knives in the face, vicious head butts, limbs being contorted in manners that had me gasping, mostly in shock and bodies torn to pieces by heavy machine gun ammunition...you name it, The Expendables probably did it to some sorry schmuck during the movie’s climatic battle. It was basically why I had come to see the movie, not everything that transpired before. Even Stone Cold finally gets in on the action and has a decent fight not only against Stallone, but also against Randy Couture.
All in all, this is a completely disposable film. I would have loved for the old saying ‘never two without three’ to apply in the case of The Expendables, but after Rocky and Rambo, Stallone’s efforts here, as producer, co-writer and director, come across as a gross miscalculation.