The Expendables travel around in a flying boat that is marked with the words “Wildlife Conservancy,” which is kind of the key to the movie’s sense of humor right there. Whenever these guys visit a foreign locale, they let loose with an inferno of gunfire and scorched earth that probably wipes out at least three entire species per landing. Of course, The Expendables treat no species so harshly as they do Faceless Extras and Uniformed Stuntmen. If you’re on the callsheet under those designations, you’re going to be outfitted with multiple squibs for sure. The budget very clearly went right into set construction and the combustible effects used to blow them up, and you know I’m down with that. But the explosions ring a little hollow in The Expendables, whereas I think I was expecting it all to make more of an impression and I know I’m not the only one.
Here’s the problem with The Expendables: If you’re going to spend all that time and energy corralling most of the action stars of the past twenty or so years, you want to make for damn sure that the gathering is one you won’t forget. The Expendables is like a party with the greatest Evite ever; the design is hilarious and the guest list is great and you’ve been waiting for it all year, but when you get there, it’s really just like any other party. It’s just another Saturday night, rather than the Saturday night which will live in infamy.
Sylvester Stallone is the guy who organized the whole production. He worked on the script with David Callaham, directed the movie (with some unusually erratic framing), and heads up the cast as Barney Ross, a beret-favoring mercenary who runs a team of similar-minded meatheads. They call themselves The Expendables, and they have the team name stamped on their knife hilts and motorcycle frames. They even have little Expendables stationery! (I’m imagining.) I’m being arch with this review, but I do like Stallone – it’s just that I prefer him in the more human mode, Rocky rather than Rambo. (Although that most recent Rambo movie was a hilarious cartoon of ultra-violence.) When Stallone is doing the hyper-masculine action-gorilla thing i.e. Marion Cobretti, his acting tends to take on this crooked-lipped stroke-victim aspect that makes him even less comprehensible than the people who he casts as his costars. (More on them in a second.) Stallone works hard to bring some light-hearted banter to The Expendables, but when the majority of the cast is struggling to work their way around the language, that male bonding stuff feels particularly forced.
Okay let’s shift structure here and just take the multi-tiered cast player by player, since it’s the only way I see to get through this. The Expendables is an action-hero convention, and again I’m not saying it’s not mostly fun, but some of these guys come off way better than others, and that’s what accounts for the strange rhythm of the movie.
Jason Statham as the knife-throwing right-hand man, Lee Christmas: I know this is an unpopular opinion, but from the start Statham’s presence in this movie to me has felt like Kevin James’s presence in Grown Ups. It might bring in some extra box-office attention, but it just doesn’t ring true that these guys have been tried-and-true buddies for nearly as long as the movie insists. Statham is a capable action lead, but just because he has the star power doesn’t mean he has a filmography remotely as worthy. Maybe I’m just resentful that Statham got billing over Jet Li and Mickey Rourke, among others, the same way it bugged me when Kevin James got billing over Chris Rock. The Grown Ups comparison is sadly apt, because here comes an ensemble flick that should all the world be boisterous and energetic, and instead generally operates at a mode best described as sluggish and slack. It’s the explosions, more than the performances, that light the spark. Statham is just fine in The Expendables, and he totally holds his own with the old pros in the cast, but then again maybe that isn’t enough. He doesn’t exactly pop off the screen, and aside from a couple of neat knife-throwing stunts, it could have been anyone else playing Stallone’s bestest buddy (preferably Kurt Russell, who opted out) and it would’ve been the same movie, if not better.
Jet Li as the bored-looking martial artist, Ying Yang: Holy shit, I didn’t realize until just now that his character was really named Ying Yang. Vaguely racist, no? I guess if Jet Li is okay with it, I should be, but that’s not how it’s happening in my mind. Jet Li is another guy who has a couple cool moments in this movie, but not nearly enough. There’s a scene where he and Stallone are being pursued by a bunch of bad guys, but who really needs to see Jet Li in a car chase? When he gets to hop out and jump around, The Expendables flies, but again, you want more, and not in the best sense of the cliché.
Dolph Lundgren as the troubled “giant,” Gunnar Jensen: I’ve never liked Lundgren all that much, and it wasn’t until The Expendables that I realized why. When I was a kid, I watched Dolph Lundgren kill Apollo Creed. Yeah I know, it was Rocky 4. I maybe shouldn’t have held that against him, because Dolph Lundgren is really fun in The Expendables! I mean, he crushes a mouthy henchman against a dashboard with his boot. That’s a move that commands respect. Seriously though, Lundgren is one of the guys in the cast who really figures out the appropriate tone and plays it perfectly. If nothing else, I hope that The Expendables re-introduces him to big-screen opportunities.
Terry Crews as the big-gun-havin’ comic relief, Hale Caesar: Best character name in the whole movie, right? As is the case with just about every movie he’s been in to date, Terry Crews is funny and likable and convincingly badass in The Expendables. He’s just strangely under-served by a script that isn’t all that busy with plot – I mean, would it really have been so tough to give this guy more screen time?
Randy Couture as the demolitions expert, Toll Road: Well, all the press materials call him the demolitions expert. Most of what Randy Couture does in this movie is body-slam bad guys. I mean, he’s really good at it, but that’s most of the extent of his role. He also gets a bit where he explains away his jacked-up ear, and makes a few references to the fact that he is in therapy, but that’s as deep as it goes. Most tellingly, Randy Couture goes up against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin late in the movie, and if one were to read too much into it, one might suspect that the resolution of that battle indicates Stallone’s feelings about mixed-martial arts and pro-wrestling and which of the two are superior.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin as the villainous sidekick Paine: Really just here to appear to be ten feet tall and to bark out orders in Spanish to the extras. This dude gets extra credit for standing out as one of the more intimidating-looking members of a majorly intimidating-looking cast, but he doesn’t get much in the way of character.
Eric Roberts as main bad guy, evil profiteer James Munroe: Yeah, I don’t know. I like Eric Roberts, and the way he consistently walks the line between legitimate actor and total cornball. He definitely is one of the more entertaining elements of this movie… But is his character a worthy enough villain? Go watch the movie and tell me what you think.
Bruce Willis as the mysterious contractor, Mr. Church: Bruce is in the movie for maybe four minutes, which at least is twice as much as Arnold is. What can I say? It was nice of him to poke his head in. He looks happy enough – maybe he’s just glad to be in any movie other than Cop Out.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Arnold Schwarzenegger: Because let’s face it, that’s who he’s playing. There is literally no reason for Arnold to be in this movie, and the scene can’t help but underwhelm. One reason is that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already seen the entire Stallone/Arnold/Bruce scene. Another reason is that Arnold looks terrible. If you’ve ever doubted that politics ages a person, just one look at this withered old Cimmerian will cure you of that. And when you take away Arnold’s physicality, you’re not exactly left with a nimble performer. The goofy banter between Arnold and Stallone is Exhibit A in argument that this movie is sluggishly paced even by ‘80s standards. It’s great in concept to unite two icons of equal stature, but this isn’t exactly the diner scene in Heat here, and the timing isn’t exactly right either. This scene would have been a lot more fun twenty or fifteen or even ten years ago. Still, it is a little bit of fun. I can’t lie.
Mickey Rourke as the unfortunately-named retired Expendable, Tool: Best part of the movie. As a fan of the guy, with an occasional column examining his unusual filmography, I may be pro-Rourke biased, but Stallone knows as well as I do that no one else in this huge [literally] cast is equipped to deliver a dramatic monologue in the middle of a movie like this and make it mean something. Mickey Rourke only gets a couple scenes, and the interaction he gets with Stallone brings things down to a human level [temporarily] and makes me wish that those two guys would go make a more character-based movie together. That’s the funny thing about Mickey Rourke – he was never really an action lead, certainly not in the ’80s. He was a real-deal actor first and foremost, and if you had told anyone back then that he’d be in this movie now, they probably wouldn’t have believed it. The fact that he can play convincingly among the more cartoonish and less accomplished members of this cast just goes to show you how strange show business can be. Mickey Rourke walks among them, yet he is not entirely of them. Stallone cast him just right.
See that’s the bottom line: There are a lot of things that Stallone did right here – indulging us action fans with a yen for this kind of a flick, stacking the badass deck, giving each guy at least one brief moment to register – but something feels lacking in a potent way.
In comic book terms, this is The Avengers of action flicks: If you’re going to unite all these mean MF’ers, there ought to be a threat worth their sweat. The Expendables gives us an incongruously-sympathetic David Zayas, a small army of anonymous gunmen, and Eric Roberts in a suit. If you expect The Expendables to make short work of them, you may have seen an action movie once before. There’s a very brief moment, when Bruce’s character is hiring Stallone’s team, where Bruce threatens what would happen if they cross him. Now that’s a movie we’d want to see, isn’t it? Just picture a movie where The Expendables had to face off against Bruce Willis, a guy with more mainstream cachet than any of them. Would they make it out alive? If so, they’d be defying action movie conventions, which no one does in this movie. A single adversary on the level of an assembled team of past and present action stars – now that’s something to imagine. Ultimately, The Expendables still registers best as a glorious, ridiculous idea, rather than a somewhat underwhelming reality.
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