Expendables, The (United States, 2010)

August 13, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Expendables, The Poster

For those weaned on action films from the '80s and '90s, The Expendables might seem like a dream come true. Sylvester Stallone, who is credited as both director and co-screenwriter (in addition to being the star), has assembled a dream team: himself, Jason Statham, Jet Li, old sparring partner Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis. He even managed to lure Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the governor's mansion for a cameo - long enough to provide the two '80s mega-action stars' first screen meeting, but too short for true wish fulfillment. Alas, casting isn't everything. A movie, even one powered almost exclusively by a massive testosterone burst, still needs a storyline and coherence, and that's where The Expendables crumbles.

Stallone has been directing since the late '70s, although the number of films he has helmed over the years is surprisingly small. Most of them, including the recent Rambo, have been action-oriented. His style has been sharp, clear, and streamlined, which makes his decision to adopt the shaky camera/flash editing approach confusing. This is yet another picture in which it's necessary to wait until the action scenes are over to figure out what the hell just happened. With the spastic camera whiplashing all over the place and the editing keeping each shot under one second, fight scenes turn into whodunits as cinematic coherence is put through the meat-grinder. Maybe one or more of the action scenes in The Expendables represents great genre material, but I couldn't tell. Instead of getting a rush of adrenaline every time Stallone went into fight mode, I heaved a sigh of frustration.

The Expendables is the name of a group of six mercenaries - a kind of half Dirty Dozen. The leader is Barney Ross (Stallone), who's a little too idealistic for this kind of work. His right-hand man is Lee Christmas (Statham), whose presents usually involve thrown knives. Ying Yang (Li) has a self-image problem - he thinks he's too short, although there's nothing small about the high kicks he can deliver. Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is a big man with a really cool gun. Toll Road (Randy Couture) obsesses about his "cauliflower ears." And Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), a giant with a nasty temper, has lost the ability to control himself during the heat of battle.

The Expendables are hired by the mysterious Mr. Church (Willis) to travel to a Central American locale and kill the dictator, General Garza (David Zayas), and his ex-CIA drug running cohort, James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Munroe makes a difficult target because he's smart, ruthless, and protected by the mountainous Paine (Steve Austin), so his demise is obviously slated for the film's climax. Ultimately, the $5 million fee offered by Mr. Church to complete the job has little to do with why Barney decides to take the fight to Garza and Munroe. Instead, the overgrown boy scout is impressed by the dedication shown by Garza's daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), when she elects to put her life on the line by staying behind "for the people" rather than escaping.

Once can make a convincing case that The Expendables provides the sufficient framework for an old fashioned kick-ass action romp, but Stallone's inexplicable decision to obfuscate the high-adrenaline material limits the production's most compelling element. Instead, we're left with some lame dialogue (Mickey Rourke's teary reflection on the meaning of life is especially laughable) and a couple of explosions that would impress even Michael Bay. The one-liners are disappointingly unquotable. (One thing you could always count on in even the worst '80s action films was deliciously cheesy quips.) Stallone even misses a golden opportunity to have Schwarzenegger take us into a time warp by uttering his once-signature "I'll be back."

The villains are weak, coming across more as B-grade James Bond bad guys than people whose eventual, inevitable comeuppance is anticipated with relish. Eric Roberts is typecast - it has been a long time since he has played a role other than this sort and, as a result, he's neither scary nor intimidating. He sneers and preens, which has been par for the course since he fell from the cusp of A-list stardom. Steve Austin does what a good henchman is supposed to do: look big and mean, growl his few lines of dialogue, and die in a big fight near the end.

In the final analysis, The Expendables is little more than an ordinary, uninspired action feature. Replace the name stars with unknowns and this would struggle to find a straight-to-DVD distributor. The flashes of action-oriented brilliance are marred by directing and editing choices, and the movie offers nothing of interest beyond the fights and chases. I won't claim to have been bored by the proceedings (well, maybe a little during the exposition-heavy first 45 minutes), but I never once felt the desire to clap or give a fist-pump, and when an action movie fails to achieve that modest goal, it cannot be deemed a success.

Expendables, The (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2010-08-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1