It is true that 2010 has already seen two movies about soldiers of fortune, “The Losers” and “The A-Team,” and that neither of them was any good. But those movies didn’t star some of the biggest action heroes of the ’80s, ’90s, and today, all together in one awesome story of explosive awesomeness! Only “The Expendables” can boast such a cavalcade of stars! Yes sir, if a bunch of recognizable names were all it took to make a good movie, “The Expendables” would definitely have the advantage.
Sylvester Stallone, who directed, seems to have thought casting was everything. He put himself in the lead, and got fellow old-timey action stars Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make appearances. (Willis and the Governor just have cameos.) Joining them are modern-day tough guys Jason Statham, Jet Li, Steve Austin, and Randy Couture. Throw in some Mickey Rourke and some Eric Roberts and you’ve got a cast that hearkens back to the cheesy action flicks of the ’80s while also looking to the future.
That’s only the cast, though. The screenplay, written by Stallone and Dave Callaham (“Doom”), is bottom-of-the-barrel generic, a formulaic explosion parade about a team of mercenaries hired to take down a corrupt South American dictator. It isn’t the ironic, look-how-corny-these-movies-are kind of generic, either, but the kind of generic that would normally go straight to DVD (if it got made at all) if it weren’t for the big names in the cast. A few lines of dialogue suggest self-awareness, but they are precious and rare. Mostly the guys engage in banter that has the form of ’80s-action-movie repartee without the charm.
Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Couture, and Terry Crews play the title bunch. We meet them while they’re rescuing a hostage from Somali pirates. The tone is set when they open fire on the head pirate and literally blow the top half of his body off. It’s going to be that kind of movie. Then they kick Lundgren off the squad because, even for a group of trained killers, he’s too much of a loose cannon.
The remaining five Expendables are recruited for the South America job, targeting the despotic General Garza (David Zayas) and the deep-pocketed American businessman (Eric Roberts) pulling his puppet strings. A beautiful local woman, Sandra (Giselle Itié), is their informant. Back home, Rourke is a former compatriot who now runs a tattoo shop and delivers weird monologues that I suspect Rourke wrote himself.
Stallone has chosen to make the fight scenes as ridiculously violent and bloody as possible, a perverse parody of his own Rambo films. These sequences deliver on their promise to show bad guys being hilariously slaughtered. For example, it isn’t enough for a goon to be shot several times; Statham must also plunge a machete through his chest. It isn’t enough that one of Garza’s henchmen is set on fire; Couture needs to punch him, too.
By the end, though, Stallone has gone all shaky-cam on us, and the climactic battle is a monotonous frenzy of explosions and nonsense. All the old cliches are followed scrupulously, without being subverted or reconfigured. The only one who fully embraces the inherent cheesiness of it is Eric Roberts, whose suit-wearing villain character can shoot a duplicitous lackey in the head and say, “Now we can see inside of him. And I see lies” — and make it work.
Stallone also runs into the “Ocean’s Twelve” problem, where a terrific team is assembled but there isn’t enough for everyone to do. Statham has a girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) who has moved on because he’s so distant … and that’s really the only info we get on any of them. Rourke is wasted. Couture and Crews serve almost no function. In fact, I could swear Couture disappears for half the movie.
“The Expendables” is occasionally fun in its over-the-top mindlessness; the fun just never lasts more than a couple minutes at a time. If Stallone had gathered this cast AND come up with a smart, exciting story, he’d have really achieved something. Instead, he wasted a golden opportunity. The man is 64 years old, for crying out loud. He doesn’t have a lot of these things left in him.
C (1 hr., 43 min.; )