Review: The Expendables

the expendables one sheetSylvester Stallone! Jason Statham! Randy Couture! Dolph Lundgren! Jet Li! How can you be a fan of action movies and not love the idea of teaming them all up as a mercenary army ready to take on the biggest bad guys in the world? That’s how Stallone undoubtedly lined up the funding for this big, loud mess of a movie. Actually, The Expendables is worse than that, because the first half of the film is terrific, enjoyable, dripping in testosterone and insider jokes, including cameo appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Then it just falls apart, the story becomes completely incomprehensible and even the editing degrades to choppy transitions.

Stallone is Barney Ross, head of a rough band of mercenaries, The Expendables, who hang out in the back of Tool’s tattoo parlour, run by Tool (Mickey Rourke). There’s tension between the team, of course, notably between Ying Yang (Jet Li) and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). Gunner is the “mad dog” of the team and when they get a new assignment from the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), he’s not invited to join them, which — surprise! — upsets him a bit.
The story is some nonsense about a tiny Caribbean island called Vilena, ostensibly run by General Garza (David Zayas) but really run as a cocoa plantation by the nefarious American James Munroe (Eric Roberts). It’s a festival of clichés that could have been a fun traipse if the story itself hadn’t just collapsed in on itself so horribly. Heck, with the possible exception of Rourke, none of the actors stretch at all, instead just playing their typecast “action hero” roles, and even Roberts is so unrelentingly evil that he’s just as much a comic-book character as the rest of the cast.
I really wanted to like this film. I went in with visions of The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, Force 10 From Navarone and other classic war / action films that featured all-star casts, and even an hour into the movie, I was pleased at how well Stallone (who is also the film’s writer and director) was satirically referencing classic action film tropes, but by the time the credits ended, I just felt relief that there wasn’t a “twist” suggesting that a sequel could be in the works.

At their best, this sort of military action film has a simple “if only” storyline, a wish fulfillment tale that sends our tough guys into the most dangerous of situations just for them to triumph, often specifically because they circumvent the authorities (think of the many Chuck Norris Vietnam War-themed films for a superb example). 

The Expendables opens up on a pirate cargo ship somewhere in Somalia, with the almost incomprehensible Somali pirates videotaping an execution of some unspecified prisoners. As we’d hope occurs, the Expendables pop up out of nowhere and mercilessly, though not without wisecracks and sarcasm, slaughter the entire pirate squadron, then fight amongst themselves rather than swiftly departing.

Gunner (Lundgren) immediately demonstrates his rogue, unhinged mental state and I have to say that as a fan of his 80s action films, it was great fun to see him play this role, but he was the only actor who played a role that I hadn’t already seem him in dozens of times. For a few minutes, it’s a fun homage, but after a while, it just gets boring and feels dated.
the expendables publicity still

Sylvester Stallone’s still a bad dude in The Expendables

Ross (Stallone) and Christmas (Jason Statham) take a solo trip to Vilena in their military cargo plane, cunningly camouflaged as part of the “Global Wildlife Conservancy”. Their contact on the island is the beautiful, troubled, artistic Sandra (Giselle Itié) who — surprise! — turns out to be more than just their cute driver. Ross and Christmas escape in a blaze of bullets and when they return to their HQ, decide that the job is just too dangerous to accept. Except Ross has fallen in love with Sandra and wants to return to Vilena to rescue her.
He does return, with the entire team along to help accomplish the new mission, and, well, that’s about as deep as the story gets. Stallone also clearly had no idea what to do with the intimacy of their relationship after Ross rescues Sandra late in the film. But then again, isn’t The Expendables all about the gunshots, the kicks, the punches, and the rest of it?
If you’re satisfied with lots of explosions and a staggeringly high body count in a film that otherwise ends up making almost no sense and can’t get beyond its loosely connected cliché scenes, you might find The Expendables an enjoyable 103 minutes in the theater. If not, go rent one of the far superior war films I’ve referenced earlier and wait for this to show up as a cheap DVD rental.

2 comments on “Review: The Expendables

  1. I dug it more than you did but can’t really argue with the critiques found here. It still stands as a missed opportunity for me. Imagine if a smart screenwriter stepped in and made their age more of a factor? Or amped up the humor in a self aware fashion? That would have worked beautifully with the action sequences. Instead, most of the lines clank to the floor.

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