Fans of 80’s classics Cobra, Commando, Rambo II, Above the Law, Bloodsport, and Missing in Action should be rejoicing over Sylvester Stallone’s pool of testosterone in The Expendables, his attempt at delivering the highest-caliber shoot-em-up/martial arts/men-on-a-mission thrill ride featuring a discounted menu of Senior action icons. Why is it that perhaps the most promising film concept of the season turns out to be such a dud?
The answer: Sylvester Stallone, the writer/director.
I’ll give the man some credit as the lead star—at age 64, he’s bringing it, botox and all. Ripped to shreds, and pumped up with steroids (there just can’t be any other way), Stallone returns to cinemas as Barney Ross, leader of a mercenary squad hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to take out a former CIA operative, Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his drug-trading South American general Garza (David Zayas). Stallone wants a payment of $5 million for his team which includes a list of hand-me-down single-trait killers.
Among the line-up we have Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, a blade-wielding expert, believing wholeheartedly that knives travel faster than bullets. Jet Li plays martial-artist Ying Yang, but his sole trait is that he’s made fun of for his height. Why don’t they call him Short-Round? UFC fighter Randy Couture really has no traits except for awkwardly explaining his cauliflower ear. Terry Crews is only memorable for toting an AA-12 shotgun (much like Jesse Ventura being memorable for sporting a Gatling gun in Predator). Finally, Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner, messed up on drugs and a thirst for blood, an uncontrollable rage that gets him tossed to the curb and wanting to exact revenge.
After Ross accepts the mission from Mr. Church, he and Christmas head out to their South American location to scope out their targets and who all is involved. The two end up launching an attack on the entire base after nearly being captured along with their informant, Sandra (Giselle Itie), the daughter of Gen. Garza. Upon the boys’ escape, Sandra refuses to leave and gets captured by her father’s army. Ross returns to listen to the team’s mechanic, Tool (Mickey Rourke), tell a Vietnam story about a woman he failed to save that has haunted him ever since. That story apparently shakes up Ross clogging his brain with guilt and remorse, and he decides to return to the island and rescue the woman, but his men refuse to let him go alone. Meanwhile, former teammate Gunner has given up his old team to Munroe and has plans to stop the ‘expendables’ from succeeding.
The Expendables has only one good scene—where Rourke pours his heart out over his Vietnam regret. As potentially forced as Stallone’s dramatic change of heart may be following Rourke’s speal, the scene still plays out very well, and it’s the only real ‘acting’ moment in the entire movie. I know some will be questioning about the obligatory scene featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis hamming it up with Stallone. Well, as much fun as the scene should be, it isn’t. It’s forced. It’s awkward. It’s poorly written, if scripted at all—much like the rest of the film. Schwarzenegger plays a competing mercenary leader that used to work with Stallone, but they went their separate ways. He tells Willis, “Give this job to my friend, he loves playing in the jungle.” Bruce says of Arnold, “What’s that guy’s problem?” Stallone: “He wants to be president.” So much for what could have been. But that’s the problem with Stallone’s entire movie.
This had all the potential in the world, and the movie disappointingly feels like a cut-and-paste assignment thrown together so sloppily because of Stallone’s desire to cram a bunch of action stars together. He delivers zero character development, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and I hardly believe Stallone’s sudden transition in wanting to rescue this younger woman (suggesting an awkward romance between her and the action star who is 30 years her senior). Also be sure to watch out for any of the dialogue, as it hits you in the gut so hard with its stupidity that you’ll be puking within the first 20 minutes. I’m not talking about funny camp-style 80s one-liners. I’m talking about terribly-written dialogue meeting awful line readings, one after the other—particularly from Lundgren and Li.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the film isn’t the bad acting, or the horrible writing, or the lacking camradery among the Expendables, but it is Stallone’s way of filming most of the scenes. Shot almost completely in close-up the entire time, Stallone zooms in on these stars’ individual faces, even in multi-character moments, and it is beyond awkward. Trust me, he’s not doing these old-timers any favors. Even in scenes showcasing the location of the island, the extras in the town are shot in close-up, and it becomes unbelievably distracting.
If that’s not enough, even the fight sequences have little creativity and energy. Granted, the final action bout on the island featuring the entire mercenary squad against a hundred or so faceless enemy soldiers works about as best as it can, if you can tell what’s going on—which is a rare occasion. The battles also feature hilariously cheesy CGI blood and sloppy special effects surrounding the mayhem as the film’s MPAA rating was never decided on until late in the game. Since the movie could have ended up being PG-13, I guess no physical fake blood was used during filming, and it really shows.
In fact, all of the film’s flaws really show. It seems to be an embarrassing exercise in rushed filmmaking with little substance to build on from the get-go. I love the concept of The Expendables, and I really feel as though I wasn’t expecting top-notch quality here. But Stallone, who actually put out a solid and gratuitous fourth Rambo installment just two years ago, ought to know how to write and direct at this point. It feels as though he did neither here, having his film fare about the same as these Direct-to-DVD actioners we see Steven Seagal and Van Damme releasing five of a year. For the inevitable sequel, I hope Sly stays in front of the camera and allows another filmmaker to take the reigns, perhaps Quentin Tarantino? Hey, I can dream.