By Marty Mulrooney
The Expendables is a blast from the past, a totally old school action film starring some of the biggest action stars of the 80’s and 90’s. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, the film tells the story of a group of elite mercenaries, sent on a mission to overthrow an South America dictator. But of course, not everything goes to plan…
The opening scene of The Expendables exposes the positives and negatives of the entire project from the outset. The titular team of mercenaries are admittedly enjoyable to see together on screen. Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) may all have ludicrous names, but they certainly look the part and have an undeniably strong group presence when seen together on screen, old blood mixing with the new to great effect.
However, the direction itself is not very sharp. The camerawork is at times almost pedestrian and the use of purple night vision in the opening action sequence (complete with yellow blood) ultimately comes off as a cheap Predator knock-off. The dialogue is also pretty rough, making the fatal mistake of trying to be so bad that it’s good… and just coming off as plain bad. All of this within the first five minutes, many viewers will have already written the film off by this point. Yet rest assured it does improve, if not script-wise, then at least in the sense that the action never stops… and soon enough, the bad dialogue finally starts to pop like it should.
The story is the usual action movie hokum, an excuse to get everyone together in the same place and blow stuff up. Still, the larger action sequences actually work really well for what they are. It is completely ludicrous that Jason Statham would ever need to climb out of the nose of a plane to shoot its main gun, but they include this moment anyway because it looks cool, especially when he has his sunglasses on. Predominantly CGI-free explosions and prolonged shootouts where bullets constantly miss their target hail back to the action genre’s heyday. The A-Team should take note.
Sadly, this authenticity is lacking when it comes to the actors themselves. One unnecessary subplot has Christmas (Statham) involved with Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), the type of woman who always makes sure a lot of bra is showing above her strappy top. Upon discovering that she has been hit by her new boyfriend, Christmas beats up him and his buddies. It should have been a great scene making up for a bad subplot, but sadly the camerawork is too choppy and filmed too close, robbing it of the adrenaline and momentum of Statham’s fight scenes in The Transporter franchise.
This happens a lot throughout the film. It always feels relatively low budget and is saved by star power rather than anything particularly exciting. Car chases and shoot outs are instantly forgettable, save for the shock factor of broken necks and CGI blood splatters in the more gory scenes. The actors seems to be playing themselves rather than actual characters and as the film progresses, the team doesn’t mesh or gel like it should. Stallone, Statham and LI receive top billing and you can certainly see why: they get the most lines and seem to be the most capable, likeable actors of the group.
The bad guys are also a strangely mixed bag. Steve Austin as henchman Dan Paine is certainly intimidating but doesn’t feature much at all, ultimately fizzling out with a whimper rather than a bang. David Zayas as General Garza evokes the most laughs, for all the wrong reasons. I kept seeing Dexter’s Angel Batista in a uniform with a sword… in candlelight. Strange. Luckily, Eric Roberts is a sufficiently horrible bastard. I just wish he had been a more formidable foe come the final moments.
What ultimately makes the film enjoyable despite its faults is the fact that it constantly offers fan service, plot be damned. The much anticipated scene between Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger is nothing special, but will undoubtedly make many actions fans break out in a huge smile nonetheless. The script is bent to accommodate moments such as these throughout: why else would Dolph Lundgren be fighting Jet Li when they are on the same team? Because it is what many action fans will want to see: the script is a mess because it is more about looking cool and giving everyone their moment than telling a cohesive story. This is a style over substance overload.
The one exception? Mickey Rourke as former teammate Tool. Quirky personality traits and genuine likeably make you wish he had featured as more than just a side character. One scene in particular feels ripped from a completely different movie. The camera focuses tightly on Rourke’s world-weary face as he painfully recalls a moment in Bosnia when he could have saved a woman from dying, but didn’t. He questions if he missed his only chance to save his soul, his eyes moist with tears, spittle on his lower lip. In this one moment, he completely upstages the entire film and its $82 million budget. The Expendables is worth a watch for action fans to see their heroes together onscreen, but ultimately fails to be one of the better examples of the genre.
6 OUT OF 10
All images © Lionsgate 2010