For many – especially those who love to see things stabbed, shot and ‘sploded with maximum force – all you really need from a legendary badass team-up like The Expendables is the action. There is no need for story or character development, no use for sharp or witty dialog, and no room for romance. It’s all about the loudest and most violent moments that the mind of director Sylvester Stallone can deliver. Nothing else really matters, right? Perhaps. But consider this. The Expendables flick that’s been playing out in your mind since the moment the project was announced is the epitome of a “no holds barred thrill ride,” is it not? A non-stop smattering of violence hung together by a generic, but mostly logical plot. It never lets up, does it?
Unlike that movie that’s been playing in your head, the real Expendables film is a mixed bag. Inside this bag is the action that’s been promised from day one, the gigantic men of action making their requisite appearances (if only momentary, in some cases) and plenty of bodies to be piled up at the end of the day. Also in this bag is an unseemly amount of character and plot. Remember that thing you didn’t need in this testosterone-a-thon? Yeah, that’s all there. In just as much bulk as the stuff that you did want.
The story, simple as it may be, follows a team of mercenaries led by Barney (Sylvester Stallone). His right hand man is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), a reliable and deadly dude who fights best when surrounded by 20 adversaries. The movie centers on their stories, Barney’s being that of an aging soldier searching for meaning, while Christmas is trying to maintain an absentee relationship with his sugar momma, played by Charisma Carpenter. There are three more on this team – Jet Li, Terry Crews and Randy Couture – but their characters feel like background music to the Sly/Statham main event. Essentially this team of hired guns is tasked with rescuing a small island in the gulf from a vicious dictator (Dexter’s David Zayas) and his American cohort (Eric Roberts), a former CIA spook with a bad attitude and a god complex. The mission is gnarly, the pay is good and when Barney meets their contact on the ground – the lovely Giselle Itié – he gets slightly emotionally involved in the fate of the minuscule island.
It isn’t the general story behind The Expendables that causes problems. In fact, it’s all pretty straightforward. We’ve seen this stock script before – in just about every other Sly Stallone actioner – a reluctant hero goes in to do a job, the job turns out to be something altogether different, and he’s forced to have a change of heart that leads him to become the hero that the situation needs, rather than just a hired gun. Rambo 2 and 3, I believe. The problem with The Expendables is that for everything that the film does right (read: action) it does at least one, if not two things wrong. These things include stretches of dialog and character moments that go on far too long. It’s not a matter of being poorly written – though much of the dialog is achingly bad – it’s also a case of bland delivery. There’s a reason why folks like Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin make films that mostly go straight to DVD. They aren’t so much actors as they are “guys who look tough and angry” who look good firing large weapons. And when they’re doing the firing, they are fun to watch. When they’re doing anything else, it’s boring. And there’s too much of doing anything else in The Expendables.
The film also falls victim to a Bermuda Triangle of cameos. Most of the big names touted on the poster – Mickey Rourke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis – have momentary, and mostly ineffective roles. The Governator shows up long enough for some banter, then leaves, as does Willis. Mickey Rourke uses a bit of screen-time to look like he’s back off the workout wagon, using one scene to deliver some emotion. But by then it’s too little, too late.
There is plenty of good, though. If I could assemble a highlight reel of the 4–5 major action sequences in this film, that would be worth the price of admission by itself. The most exciting of which is a scene that pits Stallone and Statham against 20 armed soldiers. Statham proves once again that he’s a bonafide action star, and Stallone keeps up (for the most part). There is, of course, a big payoff. If director Sly has proven himself to be anything, he’s a man who knows how to finish. The latest Rambo delivered one hell of a killing spree, and The Expendables follows suit with 30 (or so) minutes of absolute pandemonium – including 30 seconds of incredible action that completely redeems the presence of the criminally underused Terry Crews. After seeing this movie, I’m convinced that Terry Crews doesn’t need an entire movie to steal my action-loving heart. He needs all of 30 seconds and one big-ass gun.
What you have to ask yourself is this: what do you want out of The Expendables? If it’s anything other than action, you might want to look elsewhere. But if it is the action, you have to be willing to spend about 60% of this movie bored to tears by Sly’s tough guy talk-a-thon before you can get to the money shots. However, it’s worth noting that the money shots are worth it. Yes, I would pay $10 just to see the last 30-minutes of this film again in a theater. When The Expendables revs up and becomes the loud, explosive machismo parade that it’s meant to be, it works. But when it doesn’t, it’s rather abysmal, taking much of the air out of the rest of the movie. The choice is ultimately yours. Then again, if you’re interested enough to read this far, it’s probably a choice that you’ve already made.
The Upside: With four or five big action sequences, The Expendables shows flashes of the brilliance you’d expect from a cast of larger-than-life action heroes.
The Downside: A mis-managed story partnered with several of the big names being saddled with short-lived cameos. It all feels rather underwhelming.
On the Side: According to Sylvester Stallone, the villain and plot of the film is based on Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama who had a corrupt relationship with the CIA and drugs.