When The Expendables was first announced, there were portions of the net that went nuts. Just the idea that Sylvester Stallone was writing and directing a film that would feature some of the biggest, most influential action stars of the last 30 years was enough to guarantee that audiences would get the most balls to the wall, bad ass movie ever imagined. This is understandable, when you consider that Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone alone have played at least five of the most iconic action heroes—well heroes and villain—ever in John McClaine, Conan the Barbarian, the Terminator, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. Add Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin and Randy Couture and the casting sheet alone should have instantly smelled of gunpowder and oozed testosterone. It’s this reliance on the enduring power of 1980s and 1990s action movie iconography that makes 80 percent of The Expendables an excruciating bore. Stallone and his co-writer Dave Callaham lazily rely on the audience’s expectations and warm fuzzy memories to auto-magically fill in the gaps where characterization, decent dialogue and well staged action should be. The other 20 percent uses that same iconography and well worn, yet time honored, action tropes to great effect. Temporarily providing visceral thrills that invoke the golden age of squibs, witty one-liners and explosions of improbable, but holy-shit that was awesome, size.
The heart of the story, fleshed out just enough so it can be considered a story at all, revolves around Stallone’s Barney Ross and his team of Expendables’ attempt to assassinate one General Garza (David Zayas) on the behalf of the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). The dictator of a fictional South American island, Garza is little more than a figure head working for rogue CIA agent John Monroe (Eric Roberts). Part Cuban, part Columbian, all cliché, the island’s people are being oppressed so Monroe and Garza can get rich growing coca plants undisturbed.
Enter Garza’s daughter Sandra (Giselle Itié), Ross’s contact on the island and guide to help the Expendables scout the island. When they’re caught snooping around, Ross and Statham’s Lee Christmas leave a trail of destruction as they fight their way back to their plane. Fearing for her life and believing there’s nothing on the island worth fighting for, Ross begs Sandra to go with them. She refuses, wanting to stay and fight for her people’s freedom.
Returning stateside after abandoning the mission, Ross inexplicably--she's willing to kill her own father to liberate her people, so duh--can’t understand why Sandra would stay knowing she’ll surely be executed. As the thought that he left her behind weighs more and more on his mind, Ross decides to return to the island to save Sandra, finish the job he and The Expendables started, and as implied by some very clunky foreshadowing, save his own soul.
The plots of 80s actions films were generally simplistic, the villains even more so. The Expendables takes that bare bones approach and strips it down even further, stretching out what would barely qualify as a one act short into a feature length film.
This creates dead spots that Stallone and Callaham attempt to enliven with macho man banter. However, the results tend to inspire a lot of cringing and bewilderment that the co-writers could be so tone-deaf or Stallone so awful at finding a comedy beat. More than once, Stallone amps up the male bonding and my gun is bigger than your gun posturing so high scenes become infused with a homo-erotic undertone that just miss qualifying the film as gay porn.
So what does work? Statham and Rourke for starters. In the quieter moments they’re the only two members of the cast who don’t totally embarrass themselves. Both actors exude a charisma and ease that Stallone would have been smart to build the picture around. As Statham and Rourke ably demonstrate, cool doesn’t try so damn hard, it just is. If it wasn’t so poorly edited there’s also a Corey Yuen choreographed Statham-Li team up that might have qualified as one of the most legendary fights ever put on screen. Even chopped to hell and back, how that fight ends will have most action fans pumping their fists.
What also works are the few moments characters are allowed to shine, like Crews finally getting to use his 200 rounds per minute shotgun to leave nothing but piles of viscera and smoldering piles of wood behind him. Ross and Christmas turning around to rain death from above from their seaplane is also memorable. And Rourke’s scene where he recounts the moment he realized he had lost his soul, is an actor’s tour-de-force that’s aching to be in a better movie—and better written.
What’s disturbing about The Expendables is how it revives the more racially troubling elements of 80s action films. Scary Black people from a remember when it was in the news African nation—this time Somalia pirates—waving guns around and snarling incomprehensibly? Check. Stereotypical Hispanic accents that don’t exist in real life? Check (Garza and his daughter don’t even share the same accent…and Zayas’s, amazing on Dexter, is particularly bad). South American country exporting vast amounts of cocaine, and appearing to have no other viable economy? Check. Nearly all white team of heroes liberating helpless brown people so they can bring them (American style) freedom? Check. Folks of color being manipulated by the evil white man who seems to outsmart them at every turn? Check. Hero demonstrating a blind spot for a country’s culture and history and only seeing it as a hell hole that one should escape from? Double check.
If you think this is overreaction, there are even two points in the film where a white character calls someone who is brown skin either a monkey or an ape. In the defense of Stallone and Callaham, I don’t think they were intentionally trying to be racist. It’s just when you start to add up the moments, it becomes pretty damning, and reiterates how oblivious Hollywood can be.
Where Stallone gets the film most wrong is that, even though it’s called The Expendables, plural, the movie is really all about one Expendable, Stallone’s Ross. An exercise in egotism, the final product comes across more as Stallone’s attempt to prove that, even in his 60s, he’s still a man’s man.