The Expendables’ cast is arguably the most impressive ever assembled. Featuring heavyweight stars of the action movie genre, the film promised to be the Yorkie bar of the big screen and manlier than Tom Jones’ chest hair. But (continuing this confectionary chain of thought) is The Expendables the equivalent of the last square of a chocolate bar (to be savoured and enjoyed) or a coffee flavoured Revel?…
The Expendables are the world’s greatest mercenaries (according to the gravelly tones of the trailer voice-over man anyway). The only life they’ve ever known is war. The only loyalty they’ve ever had is to each other. Now, this elite band of highly-trained ‘guns-for-hire’ are sent “to hell and back” (or rather, South America) to overthrow a merciless dictator. The unit are led by paramilitary veteran Barney Ross, played by writer and director Sylvester Stallone. Stallone is dovetailed by Jason Statham (Lock Stock… and ermm.. The Transporter) who plays Ross’ second in command, former SAS soldier Lee Christmas.
The Expendables is a throwback to a bygone era of action movies (albeit with the distinctly modern tendency to overuse CGI). The Expendables doesn’t really concern itself with plot, acting or character development, its sole focus is violence: explosions, guns, knives, rocket launchers and martial arts are the foundations upon which the film rests. Rambo IV holds the record for the highest body count in a movie with 236, and The Expendables certainly gives that tally a run for its money.
Each team member has a speciality. Man mountain Dolph “if he dies, he dies” Lundgren is a sniper, cauliflower-eared UFC champion Randy Couture is a demolitions expert, Jet Li is a Chinese martial arts expert (what else?) and Terry Crews is both a heavy weapons specialist and the ‘token black guy’. The bad guys consist of Eric Roberts (brother of Julia), Stone Cold Steve Austin (who gives one of the better performances – though the decision to have him punch a woman is perhaps misconceived given his history of domestic abuse) and Dexter‘s David Zayas. The names the characters are given are quite ludicrous: Toll Road, Hale Caesar, Yin Yang, Dan Paine and The Brit to name but a few.
The fight sequences are gory but never quite gory enough, and certainly never as creative as one might have hoped. There are plenty of elaborate executions that will prompt grimaces (or laughter), but none match the memorable kill/one-liner combos of past action movies (“Let off some steam, Bennett”). The CGI used to depict exploding heads and severed limbs is pretty awful. The Expendables feels like a cross between Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Hot Shots and Call of Duty – while this might be a mouth-watering prospect for some, it leaves the film slightly bereft of an identity of its own.
Few scenes have been more anticipated than the Willis/Schwarzenegger/Stallone ménage à trois. This scene provides the only moment in which the characters operate outside the context of the film, with Schwarzenegger’s position as Governor of California referenced and Stallone’s role in Rambo (“he loves playing in the jungle”) alluded to. This feels like a missed opportunity. The Expendables is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but takes itself just seriously enough to prevent it from becoming a classic action escapade.
The dialogue is almost non-existent, hampered further by the inability of the cast to enunciate their words properly. Lundgren and Stallone mumble through their lines, Mickey Rourke adds out of place intensity and Statham simply growls. Stallone’s direction is awkward and uncomfortable, employing frequent, disjointed camera cuts which interrupt conversations. The car chase sequences have been sped up (noticeably so), and the same technique appears to have been used on an ageing Stallone as he runs after a plane.
The Expendables doesn’t pay tribute to the blockbuster action films of the 1980s as much as it lives in their shadow. The Expendables attempts to create an action film for today by relying on the action stars of yesteryear (half the cast look like their faces have been carved out of raw meat by Stevie Wonder). This could have been the greatest action movie ever made, but it largely falls short of that target. Nevertheless, The Expendables is a manly, testosterone-fuelled romp. It’s explosive, action-packed and an hour and a half of unadulterated fun, regardless of its many shortcomings.