A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2010


2010, R, 113 mins.


Sylvester Stallone: Barney Ross / Jason Statham: Lee Christmas / Jet Li: Yin Yang / Dolph Lundgren: Gunner Jensen / Eric Roberts: James Munroe / Randy Couture: Toll Road /  Steve Austin: Paine /David Zayas: Gen. Garza / Terry Crews: Hale Caesar / Mickey Rourke: Tool

Directed by Sylvester Stallone / Written by David Callaham and Stallone

The final thirty or so minutes of Sylvester Stallone’s THE EXPENDABLES positively delivers on all its intended pulse pounding, rip roaring, bullets blazing, explosion heavy, blood curdling, and limbs-a-flying glory.  

During this ear-piercingly and eye-gougingly heavy climax of wanton, barbaric excess, Stallone and his mercenary right hand man (played by Jason Statham) lead a testosterone-hulked out group of weapon-adorned soldiers on an wide-scale assault on the island fortress of a vile and deplorable general.  Whereas the A-Team, for instance, always had a proverbial “plan”, these hard-assed grunts have one simple objective: to shoot, stab, punch, kick, slice, impale, behead, torch, and blow up as many targets as they can possible get within their crosshairs.  Make no mistake about, the final moments of THE EXPENDABLES leaves fanboys of late 80’s and early 90’s-centric action vehicles in a state of giddy nirvana.   

Yet…sigh…most of the rest of the film building up to that exhilarating climax lacks the same level of fever pitched intensity and shameless, gung-ho gratuitousness.  Stallone’s long-gestating and fanatically anticipated tribute to the intellectually vacant, human life wasting, and pro-gore action blockbusters of 25 years ago features a relative who’s who of A and B-grade screen heroes of yesteryear and today.  Just look at this roster:  Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, and…yes…blink-or-you’ll-miss ‘em cameos (more on that in a bit) by Bruce Willis and the current Governator of California.  There is absolutely no doubt that Stallone’s tough-talking, muscle bound killing machine dream team here is enough alone to wet the appetites of diehard fans of the action genre.  It’s is an unmitigated hoot to see these walking and talking action figures gather and click on screen together to collective kill as many baddies as possible.   On those primal levels, THE EXPENDABLES is an unqualified triumph.  

Yet…again I have to say this…why does the first three-quarters of this film feel tedious, rudimentary, uninspired, and forgetably derivative?  Yes, Stallone’s assignment here was to gather his beefcake army of macho-men killers to elicit nostalgic memories of the unhealthily gruesome, old school action romps that we all lovingly remember despite their relative low health value.  Fine.  I get that.  But, if you are going to the trouble of amassing all of these icons of the genre wouldn’t it be a good idea to give them a story to play within that does not just prosaically spin its tires from one perfunctory beat to the next?  Nothing truly memorable happens throughout THE EXPENDABLES and, even worse, the film never truly harnesses the sheer stupidity and goofball fun of the past films its trying to duplicate.  THE EXPENDABLES is too often as serious as cancer when it should have be dumber than a bag of hammers.   

Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of a group of mercenaries that could aptly be described as a half-sized DIRTY DOZEN.  His right hand man is Lee Christmas (Statham) who has an incredible affinity with sharp instruments of death in all shapes and sizes.  Under them is Ying Yang (Jet Li) who is a martial arts dynamo despite having some real self-esteem issues about his pint-size.  Then there is Hail Caesar (Terry Crews) who has a childlike obsession with guns…really, really big guns...that shoot rounds that can destroy watch towers.  Toll Road (Randy Couture) is tough and granite jawed, but sensitive because of his recent therapy sessions.  Finally, there is Gunner Jensen (Lundgren) that is a giant and nasty mountain of a man that has trouble curtailing his instincts to...well...kill.   

Ross hooks up with an old war buddy, Tool (Mickey Rourke) whose tattoo parlor is essentially the HQ for the commandoes.  It is through Tool that Barney has a meeting with their next client, Mr. Church (Willis).  He hires Ross to go to a Central American locale to kill a brutal dictator, General Garza (David Zayas) and a ex-CIA stooge now drug runner named James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who in turn has a nefarious bodyguard appropriately named Paine (Steve Austin).  Ross and his partners are offered $5 million up front to finish the job, but after a recon mission ends with unintended results, Ross and company leave the country.  However, the Expendables leader has a connection with Garza’s daughter (the beautiful Giselle Itie) and ultimately decides that he will return to assist her with eliminating corruption in her home country, fee or no fee. 

The overall story for THE EXPENDABLES is on auto-pilot and the characters contained within – despite the actors' camaraderie together – are cardboard cut-out types and not fully realized personalities.  Perhaps this could have been due to the sheer number of actors in the film, but I really wished that Stallone gave all of these actors something to do in the film instead of just strutting around, posing, and speaking cookie-cutter dialogue.  The villains in particular are lame and weakly realized (drug dealers and Central American generals…been there, done that), even though it is kind of enjoyable to see Roberts play such an odious slimeball with a teeth-clenched flare.   

The main anti-hero leader of the film is disapprovingly bland and indistinctive, mostly because Stallone – a very charming and charismatic screen presence when compelled to be – plays Ross with a flat, monotone, and expressiveless timbre.  Also, the film does not do a very good job of explaining his motives for continuing on with his mission back in Central America.  He has an attraction to the General’s daughter, even though it does not appear sexual or romantic, but he nonetheless feels compelled to go back into the gates of hell because…he just respects her determination to lead her people.  Uh…nope.  Not buying that. 

You kind of know you're in trouble when you are the writer/director/star of an action film and you are outclassed on the performance front by Dolph Lundgren, who actually shows more colorfully rugged magnetism and cocky bravado than Stallone, his fellow ROCKY IV co-star from 25 years ago.  Statham is also solid as his knife-wielding grunt, although he occupies a completely unnecessary subplot with Charisma Carpenter on the domestic front that is as tacked on as it gets.  The real standout here is definitely Mickey Rourke, who occupies the only superbly introspective and moving moment in the film when his character – in one long held close-up – delivers a monologue about his tour of duty in Bosnia and how it changed him forever.  Rourke is as convincing and commanding of an actor as they come, and this scene is indeed stellar, but it almost felt like it was dropped in from a whole different movie altogether. 

Then we also have the titanic meeting of the action gods early in the film with a three-way verbal standoff between Stallone, Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (marking his first screen appearance since AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS).   This is the first time that all of these screen icons have "played" a scene together, but let’s face it, the way it's presented makes it feel like a disingenuous rip-off.  Stallone aggravatingly shoots the entire scene with tight close ups of the actors, cutting back and forth, without so much as a few long shots to show the men sharing the screen together.  When there are a couple of medium shots of Arnold and Sly on screen it looks suspiciously phony, like it was sandwiched together in post-production.  You rarely gain an impression that the three performers were even on the same set for the production.  The sequence – which should have had the audience’s juices really flowing – is an amateurish hatchet job that could have been easily excised form the film completely. 

The rest of Stallone’s direction is inconsistent at best.  I liked the relatively clarity and energy that he brought to the brain matter-spattered action scenes in the underrated RAMBO sequel from a few years ago, but here in THE EXPENDABLES Stallone perhaps utilizes too much queasy-cam moves and cringing, whiplash-infused editing to suggest action and tension whereas a less-is-more and stable approach would have done a better job of just showing the spectacle.  For as disposable and low-rent as the action films that Stallone is trying to pay reverence to here, I fondly remember all of them for at least having visual coherence. 

THE EXPENDABLES is going to be critic-proof for the legions of Stallone and action junkie fundamentalists.  I will go as far as saying that the novelty of seeing these movie giants laying waste together is a scatter-brained thrill and the aforementioned climax of the $82 million production is sufficiently awesome for its satisfying and politically incorrect butchery and carnage.  Unfortunately,  Stallone never lets the film exultantly soar above the level of its novelty and direct-to-DVD-video worth.  What emerges here is basically a curiosity piece, a squandered opportunity, and a dime-a-dozen, painfully ordinary, and expendable action vehicle that lacks innovation and spirit.  I was left thinking more about what could have been with all of these cherished screen stars if perhaps someone else other than Stallone served as writer/director.  

Hmmmmm....just imagine THE EXPENDABLES with a Quentin Tarantino rewrite.  Now how super sweet would that have been?

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