USA. 2010. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Story by David Callaham. Screenplay by David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone. Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Mickey Rourke, Gary Daniels, Terry Crews, Giselle Itié and Charisma Carpenter.
This summer has seen a string of attempts to bring back the retro 1980s flavor to the screen with the remake of The Karate Kid, The A-Team and Predators. Here finally comes the most overt attempt in The Expendables, whose roundup of action heroes should tip off to the fact that this movie will strive with every ounce of its testosterone juice to recapture the anarchic, over-the-top B-movie spirit of 80s and 90s action films. The end result though is that the overt translates to self-serious posing and the trying does not try hard enough.
Personally, I wished and hoped I could think otherwise because I have always had a soft spot for the ridiculously cheesy, machismo action movies of yesteryear. This one as directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone occupies a peculiar middle ground where the action remains inevitably ridiculous while the story takes itself much too seriously. When you round up this group of action heroes, there should be more kickback enjoyment.
The very opening action sequence provides the closest thing to that kind of enjoyment as the titular Expendables, who are a group of highly trained mercenaries, face off against a band of Somalian pirates. It will probably not surprise most audiences to note that the first kill is one of the most graphic in the movie as one of the gang literally blasts a guy’s upper half into the camera (in a shot that seems left over from the last Rambo film). As the hapless pirates start to get mowed down one by one with great rapidity, we see the fighting and weapon specialty of each member of the Expendables.
Is the movie an ensemble piece with all of these big names in action? Not really, as Stallone’s Barney Ross and Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas are in the center for most of the film. The others are relegated to supporting roles with Jet Li as Ying Yang, Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen, Randy Couture as Toll Road and Terry Crews as Hale Caesar. And in the scene that sets up the central plot, there are also uncredited cameos by Bruce Willis, who explains the mission to Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Stallone’s old rival who bows out to leave Stallone to take over the mission. This actually turns out to be the most fun in the movie as these three former owners of Planet Hollywood poke sly, twinkling jabs and smirks at one another's star personas, especially for Schwarzenegger, about whom Stallone states the film’s funniest line on his political ambition.
What is the mission? To overthrow the corrupt dictator, General Garza (David Zayas) ruling a fictional, remote South American island named Vilena. Once Barney and Lee make it to Vilena through a female contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié), however, it turns out that Garza is not entirely be the man in charge. Rather the real villain behind the whole corruption is (excuse me while I bring up the other action guest list) rogue CIA agent, James Munroe (Eric Roberts, in all his full-on hammy, sniveling, cigar-chomping glory) who leads his own gang including his right-hand henchman, Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels).
So why isn’t this film more fun than it is (and as you can see from my last few paragraphs starting with questions, I did have a lot of curiosity and hope for this one to deliver)? Mainly because the dialogue in the screenplay by Stallone and his co-writer, Dave Callaham starts to really clang. Of course, most of the B-grade action movies of the past did not contain the most scintillating lines either but there was a way in which many of those movies (intentionally or not) turned their cheesiness to campy fun by being so on-the-nose about the silly plot and situations going all around them. This movie has little to none of that and rather makes a poor attempt to make us “care” about the camaraderie of the Expendables and the whole seriousness of the mission, all of which are just awfully trite and predictable. The worst of this is in the scene when Mickey Rourke enters as the tattoo parlor, Tool and delivers a hopelessly clichéd monologue, all taciturnly morose and teary-eyed, about a source of guilt he feels from a past botched mission to convince Barney to go back in (surprise, surprise, it is because of a woman he could not save).
In fact, the screenplay, which half the time is strangely consistent in conjuring up merely three-word sentences like, “Are you crazy?” “Not so funny,” and “Let her go,” becomes so leaden that we end up waiting for something to blow up. To be sure, those explosions do come in droves towards the end, as I lost count of the number of fiery detonations. Unfortunately, beyond the aforementioned, efficient opening scene, the action scenes, most of which are concentrated really in the last 30 minutes, only work in fits and starts. There are times when the close-up shooting and quick-cut editing is effective in trying to show how fast these guys can move, especially with Statham's character who is quite handy with his knives. Much of the time, however, that style of frenetic shooting and editing becomes repetitive and reduces the often bloody action to a mere series of indiscernible kills.
Among the cast, Statham comes off best, as his character’s handy knife weaponry fits best with the film’s quick-cut style. Meanwhile, Stallone, probably with some Botox help, actually looks a lot better in this film than he did in the last Rambo, although some viewers will howl at the most violent scene in the film that is pretty much a direct replica scenario from Rambo. The one who gets the most shortchanged, however, is Jet Li. He is a good sport for willing to blend in with this all-American action gang (even at the expense of being the butt of jokes poked at his shorter height by the other guys). But his more realistic wushu martial arts background does not mesh with the rest of the outrageous, 80s style action and Stallone does not know how to integrate that more into the action (which is likely why there is not much martial arts fighting at all). And truth be told, Jet Li was my favorite action hero from my childhood, which makes it all the more personally disheartening.
It is more than likely that, with the exception of the youngest of the bunch, Jason Statham, The Expendables will sadly be the last big hurrah for most of these action stars whose greatest enemy in the end, like the rest of us, is time itself. Knowing this, the film provides a montage of its stars' smiling faces over the end credits that certainly drew a lot of nostalgic affection from me. As many massive star vehicles have often proven, however, the star power and the resultant self-awareness can smother the pure essence to just have fun like the old days. To be a lot more entertaining and satisfying, The Expendables should have been cheesier or better.