This summer has seen a string of attempts to bring a retro ’80s flavor to the screen with the remake of The Karate Kid, the movie version of the TV show The A-Team, and Predators. Here finally comes the most overt attempt in The Expendables, whose roundup of leading action heroes should tip us off to the fact that this movie will try 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 personally have always had a soft spot for the ridiculously cheesy, machismo action movies of yesteryear. However this one, as directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone, occupies a peculiar middle ground in which the action inevitably borders on the ridiculous while the story takes itself much too seriously. When you round up this group of action heroes, there should be more kick-back enjoyment.
The 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 film 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 pirates start to get mowed down one by one with great rapidity, we see the fighting and weapon specialty of each of the Expendables.
Is the movie an ensemble piece with all these names in action? Not really, as Stallone’s Barney Ross and Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas really are in the center for most of the film. The others are relegated to supporting roles: Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). And in the scene that sets up the main plot, there are uncredited cameos by Bruce Willis, who explains the mission to Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Stallone’s past rival who bows out to leave Stallone to take over the mission. This actually turns out to be the most fun in the film as these three former owners of Planet Hollywood give sly, twinkling jabs and smirks at each other’s star personas, especially for Schwarzenegger, about whom Stallone states the film’s funniest line about his political ambition.
What is the mission? To overthrow the corrupt dictator, General Garza (David Zayas), who rules a remote South American island named Vilena. Once Barney and Lee make it to Vilena through a female contact, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), it turns out that Garza is not entirely the man in charge. Rather the real villain behind the corruption is (excuse me while I bring up the other action guest list) rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts, in all his hammy, sniveling, cigar-chomping glory) who leads his own gang which includes his right-hand henchman, Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels).
So why isn’t this film more fun than it is? 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 absurd plot and situations going all around them. This film has little to none of that and rather makes a poor attempt to make us “care” about the camaraderie of the Expendables and the seriousness of the mission, all of which are awfully trite and predictable.
In fact, the screenplay, which half the time is strangely consistent in conjuring up three-word sentences like “Are you crazy?” “Not so funny,” and “Let her go,” becomes so leaden that we just wait for something to blow up. Unfortunately, beyond the efficient opening scene, the action scenes (most of which are found 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, in particular the way with which Statham is quite handy with knives. Much of the time, however, that frenetic shooting and editing style becomes repetitive and reduces the 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 his willingness to blend in with this all-American action gang (even at the expense of being the butt of jokes poked at his shorter height). 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 it 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 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 hurrah for most of these action stars whose greatest enemy in the end, as it is for the rest of us, is time itself. Knowing this, the film provides a montage of smiling faces over the end credits that certainly drew 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.
Bottom line: Mediocre at best.