There are a few moments during its running time where “The Expendables” manages to become the movie it should be, where it feels effortlessly bloodthirsty and appropriately over-the-top. There are moments of real red-meat action-movie glory, with bodies blown in half and entire buildings vanishing in white-hot explosions and one-liners that actually land a punch.
I’ve enjoyed this late-career resurgence by Sylvester Stallone. Both “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo” demonstrated a real understanding of his own iconography, and walking into “The Expendables,” I hoped he was going to do the same for his whole cast, and that this would be a knowing celebration of the macho ensemble movie, a great big men-on-a-mission flick with a fat bag of mayhem to unleash on audiences conditioned by modern action films to expect special effects and shaky cams.
And, like I said, there are moments where the film almost pulls it off, but not enough of those moments, and they are unfortunately wrapped in a big limp noodle of a movie, a largely impotent mess that wastes its cast to no memorable effect. Taken as a whole, “The Expendables” is a disappointment, and a frustrating one at that.
Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of this group of mercenaries, and the film is, at heart, a buddy movie between him and Lee Christmas, played by Jason Statham. They’re the real core of the movie. As much as the marketing for the film leans on the idea of the massive ensemble, there aren’t many sequences where everyone appears onscreen. The film opens, as so many action films do, at the tail end of a job. The Expendables have been engaged to free some hostages from some high-seas pirates, and they roll in as a group to do that in spectacular, bloody fashion. It’s a strong sequence, and it sets up the dynamics of the group pretty well. During the tail end of the raid on the ship, Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) has a meltdown and threatens to hang one of the pirates for fun. When Ying Yang (Jet Li, and yes, I swear to god that’s his character’s name) stops Gunner, the big guy almost beats him to death. Barney steps in to stop the fight, and he throws Gunner off the team until he can get his drug habit under control.
The film downshifts a bit to show the guys during their off-hours, and here’s where the problems start. Stallone and his co-writer Dave Callaham (“Doom,” “Tell-Tale”) want to make you care about these guys and their lives away from the battlefield, but they fail completely. Jason Statham’s got a weak subplot about his maybe-girlfriend played by Charisma Carpenter that goes nowhere and that wastes her presence as a performer completely. Jet Li complains a few times about needing money for his family, but it never pays off in any way. Mickey Rourke shows up as a former mercenary-turned-tattoo-artist who is meant to spark some sort of crisis of conscience in Stallone’s character, and he’s got a monologue that is obviously supposed to be the soul of the film. But it’s all so drenched in cliche, so painfully familiar, that it just doesn’t connect. Rourke is a fascinating onscreen figure these days, all ruined beauty and scar tissue, and he is good in his big moment… it’s just that it doesn’t feel connected to the movie around it, and the writing is so pedestrian that the performance works in spite of what is on the page, not because of it.
The “big moment” in the movie, ruined months ago by the trailers, involves Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and it’s honestly a non-starter. I guess if it’s enough for you as an audience member to see the corporate partners behind Planet Hollywood onscreen together, then you’ll be happy. But aside from a bizarre non-sequitur about Arnold wanting to be President, there’s nothing memorable or interesting about the scene. It’s just three big-name actors standing around for a few minutes, and then it’s over. If they had made a film with the three of them starring together, that would be something, but this is half-assed, and it pretty much sums up the movie. I get the intent, but the execution is lacking.
Willis hires Stallone and his team to head into a fictional banana republic and take the country back from the corrupt General Garza (David Zayas) and the rogue CIA agent James Muroe (Eric Roberts) that are bleeding it dry. Stallone and Statham venture down for a first look around, and they meet the general’s daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), who is a freedom-fighter determined to topple her father’s regime. She helps them to scout out the job… or at least that’s what they’re supposed to be doing… but again, the film sets up the most basic ideas for scenes or set pieces and then fumbles them, time and time again. All the first trip really does is give Stallone an excuse to go back and make it “personal,” because evidently his five minutes with a surly Latina are enough to suddenly awaken a sense of duty and love in him. It’s one of those attractions of convenience, where Stallone becomes fixated on her because that’s the only way they could motivate the rest of the movie.
And I’m certainly not the first one to observe this, but it is worth stating again that a great action movie needs to have a bad guy (or bad guys) who are every bit as interesting as the heroes, and “The Expendables” fails that test outright. David Zayas is a familiar character actor, a guy you’ve seen many times before, and he’s certainly up to the challenge of playing a character like Garza, a conflicted military leader whose ambition is at odds with his feelings about his family, but the writing fails him. There’s nothing for him to play. He has about four scenes, and they are all perfunctory at best. Eric Roberts has played this sort of slimy scumbag many times over, and the only way this would have been effective is if they’d figured out some new riff on the archetype, giving Roberts something to really play. Instead, he’s a ghost in the film, a walk-by with no impact at all.
There are little punctuation marks on the action all the way through the film that work, and it is worth saying that Stallone has an appetite for the staging of mayhem that is admirable and effective. I wish the whole film lived up to those fleeting moments, but the truth is that it’s just not very good, and as much as I admire and enjoy action cinema, I’m not going to praise this because of what it could have been or should have been, and I’m not going to blindly offer the film my loyalty just because it throws a few familiar faces onscreen at the same time. If someone tries to tell you that “The Expendables” works, be wary. There’s a good chance they’re describing to you the film they wish they’d seen instead of the one that will unfortunately hit theaters this weekend.
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