Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzeneggar
Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, David Callaham
Somewhere, beneath all the human growth hormones and machismo, lies the heart of a poet. The man who wrote and directed Rocky presented a deeper understanding of the tough guy with a heart of gold. He actually came pretty close to recreating the same magic with the 5th and 6th films in that series, although many who saw Rocky 5 would disagree with that notion. Around the time of that film, he was on a mild up tick. Sure, there were movies like Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! and Oscar but there were a slew of hits like Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, Daylight, The Specialist, and Judge Dredd. Some of these films were okay, but a few were downright putrid. It was no accident that by Assassins, he hit a wall with Hollywood he couldn’t bulldoze through.
Then came the dry spell. He had Copland, made with a limited budget and some big stars, but then there was Antz, Get Carter, and, largely, nothing with any sort of budget, until he brought back the dead horses of Rambo and Rocky. Both films made many times their budget, but still no one else would put anything behind his original material. Finally, he got the agreement of a bunch of more successful action stars to star (and two legends to cameo) in this project, and he was greenlit for a decent sum of $82 million. What he did with the money is commendable, for what you see and hear. Plenty of explosions, plenty of Rambo-style killings. For those who concentrate on the dialogue, however, there are some cringe inducing moments. In and of itself, this does not matter to most people watching the film. This is the most frustrating part of the equation for me.
Good and even bad action films can get by with stuttering, growls and menace, but classics have lines that resonate forever. The Die Hard franchise is in the latter class, as are the first two Terminator films. The best moments of The Expendables, for me, are when the script reaches inside of the tattooed hides and goes for something, anything that can make the characters people, worth investing time in. Mickey Rourke, a semi-retired Expendable, waxes truly philosophic in a moment of vulnerability. It is so well done, you would think it out-of-place in a movie with characters named Tool, Christmas, Yin Yang, Gunner, Toll Road, Hale Caesar and Paine. The mix of subtlety and hammer you with meat head lines is dizzying, indeed. There is the sense that Stallone has great scriptwriting in him, but he also has the desire to paint the sky with bullets, blood and beer cans. One would like to have seen more of Rourke and less of the other stuff.
So, for the other stuff, you get Statham, as Lee Christmas, getting the most screen time outside of Stallone’s Barney Ross. Both are given women to pine over, and both trade cheesy lines about them.
Dolph Lundgren is given a meaty role in action terms, as the Expendable with substance abuse problems. Those issues get him kicked out of the group and lead him to betray them, and some pretty good fight scenes that Stallone gets to lament over.
Jet Li, who recorded the movie with some pretty substantial injuries, gamely worked his way through some wire-free action scenes, taking many hits and giving more. He had some good lines, too, or at least plays the lines he has well.
Couture and Crews are largely ignored until it comes time to kick some ass. The gun Crews brandishes is absolutely amazing. Couture gets the privilege of finishing off a major bad guy, and this came as a minor surprise to me, given the absence of screen time prior to that moment.
Stallone provides some pretty damn cool scenes for himself here, from the speed shooting displays to actually allowing himself to get his “ass kicked.” His face has long ago lost its ability to show a variety of emotions, and that is a problem. Clint Eastwood doesn’t show many emotions either, but that is by choice. When Sly writes a joke into a script, sometimes it’s hard to tell if he is smiling. The hormones have had an effect, and that’s a shame. Someone who is 64 should not look like he does, in any capacity.
Statham really shows no difference in his portrayal here and that in any other movie he’s been in. He is a good action star, for what he does. Somewhere way above Seagal and below Willis. He was great in The Bank Job, but thus far, that has been the only variance in his career. He is likeable, but he runs the risk of making these movies his whole life if he doesn’t mix it up more.
The direction of the film’s fight scenes is a mixed bag. There are plenty of quick cuts that annoy to no end, but then there are some fantastic fighting shots mixed in that show a brutality rarely seen in movies where people supposedly get hurt. It is more than a little disconcerting that 90% of the dead in this film were brown people, but who am I to buck the tradition of the U.S. in films and wars? One would hope that Stallone could round-up some of the guys running those torture camps in the Soviet Bloc films in future films. Some longer shots would benefit all the actors, immensely, one would hope. Quick cuts, to me, show that the actors really cannot do what they are appearing to do. As old as some of these guys are, I still think they can carry a fight scene better than Drew Barrymore in the Charlie’s Angels series. Let them show it.
Oh, and if you are wondering why I didn’t mention the bad guys, let’s just say that Hans Gruber did not make an appearance. Eric Roberts does not a compelling villain make.
For at much of each of their careers, Stallone and Billy Joel have seemed quite similar to me. Always presenting themselves as auteurs when their work did not quite back it up. They would bounce around, from talk show to talk show being listened to by yes men like Jay Leno while they pretend as if everything they put out is a Picasso. Never are they challenged in these assessments, even when the corporations backed away. How they keep up that illusion that they are more than producers of good pop entertainment, occasionally coming up with a song like Allentown or a movie like Rocky, I have no idea. Perhaps it is that drive that got them there with middling talent to begin with. Perhaps it’s that self-satisfaction that keeps them at the top of a small hill, thinking that they climbed a mountain.
While having no aversion to either, it kind of makes me think that they are fools. They do have talent, but they stopped short. The Expendables is like this to me. Just another Cliffhanger. It wants to be Die Hard, even going so far as to hire the director of the second. But the second (and really, the worst) Die Hard is more memorable than anything Stallone has done since it was released. It’s just missing some memorable characters and memorable lines.
(*** out of *****)