The Expendables, a grandiose B-movie about violent men with big guns and simple politics, is built around a motley crew of aging Reagan- and Clinton-era red-meat action stars-a cinematic meeting of the muscles. Sylvester Stallone, who at the time was in his mid-60s, co-wrote, directed, and headlined the movie, a guilty-pleasure rewind to an earlier era of bulging biceps, obvious villains, and minimal dialogue. Because Stallone is more ambitious than most critics want to give him credit for, it is also a sometimes remarkable, but also frequently disappointing, stab at an even older school of action cinema-honed throughout the '60s and '70s with calloused intensity by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich-that focuses on desperate men bonding in desperate circumstances because they have nothing else (this is what differentiates The Expendables from The Losers and The A-Team, which are superficially similar, but refuse to introduce any sense of real danger or pathos into their comic book pulp). It is not hard to see why Stallone would feel drawn to such stories, as his then-recent films, Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), resurrected long-dormant franchises with a surprisingly robust sensitivity and attention to issues of loss and aging. The Expendables does something similar, but with less tact and more self-consciously macho posturing.
The expendables of the title comprise a group of soldiers-for-hire led by Stallone's grizzled, cigar-chomping Barney Ross and Ross's second-in-command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), whose specialties are knife throwing and beating up cowardly men who abuse his sometimes girlfriend. The only other consistent member of the group is Ying Tang (Jet Li), a martial artist who says very little due to his limited command of the English language except when asking for more money because, as he argues, he has to work harder due to the fact that he is short. When the movie opens, the expendables have been hired to rescue some hostages from a band of Somalian pirates, which they do with an expected excess of fire power. The sequence also leads to the ejection of one of the expendables, Dolph Lundgren's Gunner Jensen, who may have become too unhinged and violent (like westerns, the men of violence in The Expendables are considered "good" because they remain in control of their violent impulses, something Gunner fails to do).
The meat of the story, however, is in their next mission, which is to assassinate General Garza (David Zayas), the military dictator of a fictional island off the coast of South America. Garza is really just the puppet of a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) who uses him and his private army to run a massive narcotics operation. The expendables are aided in their endeavor by Sandra (Giselle Iti), the dictator's daughter who is disgusted by her father's actions, but refuses to leave the island for her own safety (her selfless dedication to her island home adds a moral imperative to the otherwise dirty black-ops mission). The assignment comes from a covert government agent played by Bruce Willis, who also offers it to another soldier-for-hire played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, which allows Stallone to pull off what many thought would never happen: the first on-screen appearance of all three Planet Hollywood tycoons together. The fact that the scene doesn't have any real relevance to the plot is incidental; like most of The Expendables, the Stallone-Willis-Schwarzenegger meeting is designed to draw your attention to how action movies used to be, rather than how they are now.
Unfortunately, The Expendables misses many opportunities to truly exploit its old-school ethos, instead falling into the trap of hyper-edited incoherence as pioneered by Michael Bay, rather than the less stylized, straightforward bloodshed of, say, John McTiernan. This is particularly true of the protracted climax in which Stallone and company lay siege to Garza's island fortress at night, leading to a massive battle in which it is all but impossible to tell who is shooting whom and where anyone is in relation to anyone else. The violence is loud and at times impenetrable, quite the opposite of Stallone's work in Rambo, which escalated the intensity and graphicness of the bloodshed, but with a sharp moral clarity. Stallone is not after such depths in The Expendables, which is perhaps why he plays the action so fast and loose. However, he still makes room for ruminations about loss and regret, particularly in a sequence in which a former expendable-turned-tattoo artist played by Mickey Rourke talks about the toll his life of violence has taken. Stallone holds Rourke's gnarled face in close-up as he confesses the loss of his own soul, and the naked, emotional power of the moment suggests that The Expendables might have been something very different had Stallone put more focus on the underlying issues and less emphasis on blowing stuff up.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Lionsgate
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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