Since the first day the ridiculous cast was announced for The Expendables, action movie lovers everywhere have been anticipating the release of Stallone’s magnum opus of manliness. This movie almost seems like required viewing for a certain segment of the population, and if you count yourself among this group, nothing in this review will change your mind. But for the rest of you, I must admit (with a heavy heart): The Expendables is a waste of impressive casting, a spent bullet casing of a movie that leaves you scratching your head and asking, “this is what everyone was waiting for?”
I had high hopes for this film – too high, as it turns out. With audacious character names like Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Statham), Tool (Rourke), Yin Yang (Li), Gunner Jensen (Lundgren), Paine (Austin), and – I sh*t you not – Hale Caesar (Crews) and Toll Road (Couture), I figured this movie had to be so self-aware that it had to be a parody of the genre. While The Expendables is definitely a throw back to the brawny action films of the 80’s and 90’s, there is absolutely nothing else going on under the surface. I enjoyed Stallone’s previous film, 2008’s Rambo, because – while being shockingly violent – it also had a message behind it. Stallone used his iconic character to comment on the atrocities in Burma, and while you could enjoy the movie without that reminder, it gave the film a little extra for us to chew on. And if you’ll forgive the continuation of the analogy, The Expendables doesn’t provide any meat this time around – just spice, in the form of excessive explosions.
Look, of course I love explosions on film. I’m a guy. But I like my action movies one of two ways: either Bourne-style, with a legitimate storyline that makes me think, or Tony Jaa-style, in which there is only the illusion of a plot, allowing Jaa to transition from one action sequence directly to the next. This film teeters toward the latter, but unfortunately relies too much on exposition that no one cares about (Mikey Rourke’s mirror scene, anyone?) and sacrifices fun in the process. The tone is so somber for most of the movie that we can’t even celebrate victories with the characters; as soon as a scene ends, the leads – especially Statham’s character – go right back to moping around, feeling sorry for themselves because they can’t hang onto their women (mercenary soldiers are never home, you see).
The writing is absolutely atrocious. Like the ludicrous names of the characters, I hoped it was done on purpose to provide a sort of commentary/parody of the genre. But after the first fifteen minutes, I couldn’t remember all of the horrendous lines of dialogue anymore because there were so many flying off the screen. The unsettling truth set in very early: this wasn’t on purpose at all. Stallone and co-writer David Callaham actually thought this would be a good movie. After hearing the cast talk about this movie at Comic-Con, I truly thought we were in for something special. But with one of the worst scripts I’ve seen realized in the past five years, The Expendables couldn’t even sustain my interest for its mercifully short 103 minute run time. After a point, you can only take so many cliched plot twists, reveals, and explosions.
Ah, the explosions. In the final scene, so many buildings and cars explode that on multiple occasions I thought they had blown up everything at the island compound. Turns out I was wrong – every time that thought crosses your head, something else blows up. This probably sounds awesome to some people (Trust me, I was one of you!), but at a certain point – right about this time in the movie, actually – I just didn’t care what was happening to these characters. There’s no sense of peril for any of them, even though they’re getting shot at from every angle and inexplicably survive at every turn. One character even asks, “How did two professionals pass through security, kill forty-one men, and leave?” How, indeed. Generally speaking, I’m totally OK with these kinds of movies – I really enjoyed The A-Team earlier this summer – but this one wasn’t even fun. The one-liners were embarrassingly bad (many falling flat in the theater, leaving half of my audience turning to each other with quizzical looks on our faces), and the action scenes were almost as uninspired, relying on Greengrass-style shaky cam instead of the classical 80’s and 90’s style that we wanted to see.
As expected, the acting was borderline dismal throughout the entire film. Randy Couture’s delivery was as wooden as you’d expect from a mixed martial arts star, and you get major points (salute) if you’re able to comprehend every word from the slurred Lundgren or the weathered Stallone (double points if you catch his dialogue when he’s mumbling with a cigar in his mouth). General Garza is played abysmally by David Zayas (Angel Batista of “Dexter”), and Jet Li was only there to be made fun of for being short. Yes, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger show up in a cameo. Let’s just say Arnie’s had way too much time off – aside from the fact that his character doesn’t even need to be in this scene, he was dreadful, and Willis wasn’t much better. There are some jokes thrown in during this scene, but again, they all fall flat and induce eye-rolling instead of legitimate laughs. Half of this film is spent laughing at it instead of laughing with it.
None of this is to say I hated the movie. There are some bright moments scattered throughout, certain explosions or fights choreographed in a way that make it quasi-interesting for those looking for hints of new ideas. There are two that I can think of, and Statham is involved with both of them. I could mention specific scenes, but I’m sure most of you will end up seeing the film for yourselves anyway, so I won’t spoil anything. I’d probably do the same thing if I were you. This is the kind of movie that, in theory, only comes around once in a lifetime and demands to be seen on the big screen. (I say “in theory” because there are already rumblings of a sequel.) The Expendables is not the savior of modern action films that I yearned for: instead, it’s a straightforward, big, dumb action movie and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be pleased. I was just hoping for a bit more from the talent involved. Until next time…