Silver Screen: The Expendables **1/2
Sylvester Stallone’s latest is all about stunts— in this case, not so much the ones attempted by actual stuntmen, but rather the feats achieved by the daredevil casting department. In The Expendables, Stallone makes absolutely no attempt to convince anyone that the plot, or even the action setpieces, are worth the price of admission. The real draw here is the nostalgia high of watching the Ghosts of Gold’s Gym Past assemble. Think of it as the Traveling Wilburys of action movies, or An Ocean of Human Growth Hormones’ Eleven: Sly, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, and even a certain governor of Cal-ee-fohnia.
Director and cowriter Stallone leads the titular team of mercenaries, which also includes relative whippersnappers Jason Statham and Jet Li, as well as anti-charismatic mixed martial arts star Randy Couture and Official Black Guy Terry Crews. They fly around in their private jet, killing foreigners for cash, and in their downtime they struggle to maintain even the most basic subplots.
Killers though they are, they have a code. This is demonstrated in the opening sequence, in which Stallone, Li, Statham, Crews, Couture, and Lundgren bloodily dispose of a couple dozen Somali pirates holding some God-fearing Americans hostage. After making a game of who can incite the most gore, which includes blowing a guy in half and splattering his torso against a back wall, Lundgren decides to hang one of the pirates after the Designated Massacring Time. Stallone (I’m not even going to bother to list these guys by their character names, so thin is the guise) proudly informs him that this isn’t the way the Expendables roll. Sure, there’s the massacring and whatnot, but as the Byrds sang in various Time Life Video commercials and montages about the 1960s, there’s a time to butcher nefarious brown people, but also a time to establish faux morality and character development by arbitrarily sparing a couple of bad guys.
When Lundgren fails to comply, he’s kicked out of the band. The shame over this, plus probably the codpiece he wore in Masters of the Universe, causes him to turn on his former crew.
Meanwhile, the boys take on a new job at the urging of former Expendable Rourke, who is their muscle-brained philosopher king. Slurring through his Billy Bass lips, Rourke dispenses some advice that convinces Stallone to help overturn a military dictatorship in South America engineered by a rich American puppet master (Eric Roberts), all to save the dictator’s noble daughter (Giselle Itie). But when spurned teammate Lundgren inexplicably finds out about the new mission, he throws his lot in with the dictator as part of a revenge scheme.
The Expendables is passably entertaining for fans of old-school action, but it’s not as fun as it could be. Stallone’s ambitions have long exceeded his abilities, and his self-seriousness here, as in the latest Rambo sequel, is a significant detriment. Why the dictatorship, the waterboarding, the mopey subplot about lovelorn Statham pining for his abused ex-girlfriend (the ironically named Charisma Carpenter)? That’s a big reason his movies were never as good as Schwarzenegger’s— I’ll take the kill-crazy action of Commando or the nudges and winks of True Lies over the failed political statements of the Rambo sequels any day of the week. That’s saying nothing of Sly’s increasing fondness for computer-generated blood geysers and his focus on gore over adventure.
As for the Expendables themselves, it’s a mixed bag. Li, the real badass here, is underused, while the omnipresent Statham and the eerily smooth-skinned Stallone gobble up most of the screentime. Couture and Crews are afterthoughts, which is a good thing in the case of the former, but a misuse of the latter’s comic timing.
The key scene in Michael Mann’s Heat— which, by the way, though sporadically exciting, is vastly overrated— is the quiet diner conversation between icons Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, onscreen together for the first time. Likewise, The Expendables’ biggest thrill is a testy, testosteroney tê te-à -tê te between 1980s action rivals Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It’s not so much a conversation, though, as an in-joke-riddled dick-measuring contest mediated by Bruce Willis, but there’s the rub: Neither of these two dudes are known for their acting chops, so there’s only so much ground they can cover lest they begin duking it out in earnest, a move Arnold likely finds unbefitting of his office.
The only real question left is: Wherefore art thou, Jean-Claude Van Damme?