When Sylvester Stallone set out to make the ultimate action movie, he didn’t muck about with the casting. If you know anything about the movie, it’s because someone has excitedly rattled off the film’s pitch-perfect cast list to you. Hell, even the promotional material seizes the fact that this movie is a list of the greatest action stars of all time (minus, you know, Van Damme, Seagal and Kurt Russell) and while the result isn’t quite as epic as its actors, it’s still an enjoyably silly ride.
Barney Ross (Stallone) is the leader of a group of mercenaries known as The Expendables (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture), a clandestine unit that specialises completing the toughest missions. Ross is put onto a new mission by retired Expendable Tool (Mickey Rourke), a job arranged by the mysterious Mr Church (Bruce Willis). It seems simple – travel to the South American island of Vilena and overthrow the ruthless military dictatorship of General Garza (David Zayas).
However, nothing is ever that clear-cut and before you can say ‘puppet president’, the team discover a shadowy figure in the guise of James Monroe (Eric Roberts), a man who has an even larger shadow behind him (Steve Austin). Not only that, but Gunnar (Lundgren) is an unreliable junkie and before long The Expendables find themselves going to war.
The best way to describe the film is to ignore the previous paragraphs and replace them with white noise. There is a plot, but it’s merely window dressing for the action. There are characters, but it’s just a bunch of action stars with dialogue stapled to them. It’s a true, hardcore, old-school action flick – guns fire, bad guys die and sh*t blows up. The funny thing is that it’s totally okay.
The action is well-staged and reasonably well-directed, although there are maybe too many crash cuts in the more intense scenes. The sound effects are ten times louder than in any other film, ensuring that each single punch lands with a thump that rattles the eardrums. The guns are big and ridiculous and the dialogue is so absurdly macho that repeating a single line of it is almost guaranteed to increase the speaker’s muscle mass. In short, it’s the kind of film that cinema has been missing for over ten years.
In spite of this obvious celebration of macho films, The Expendables is also a very flawed film. In terms of script structure, it’s downright appalling. Practically all of the cinematic beats that film has thrived on since the thirties are missing. There is no darkest point, no character development, no first, second or third act, no mid point and the stakes aren’t raised even once throughout the movie. You could say that it’s because the films this one emulates didn’t have those either, but that’s no excusing the laziness of the writing. In this, stuff just happens because it looks good on camera.
The pacing seems pretty off, too. Without any clear structure in the script, the film seems to lurch from action scene to action scene with no real build-up or explanation. For the most part, the film oozes the strange sense that you’re waiting for something to happen. Mercifully, Stallone plays his ace card at the finale and the incredible action-packed twenty minute climax is well worth the wait, but it does seem strange that a film with this much star power should have to hold on for that one glorious moment of pure adrenaline.
With the absence of Seagal and Van Damme, the cast is pretty shaky, almost as though there are gaps in it that only the two stars can fill. Terry Crews is an NFL player (and therefore unknown outside the US), leaving him sitting awkwardly alongside genuine giants of the genre. Eric Roberts basically plays a rent-a-villain role that could easily have been played by just about anyone. Bruce Willis’ cameo is left completely unresolved, as though the obligatory ‘mission complete’ scene was never filmed, while that cameo – you know, that actor, the one who went into politics six years ago – is little more than a ninety second riff. (Still, it’s good to see Him back on the big screen where He belongs). The best character in the film is Lundgren’s Gunnar, and that’s purely because he has both a tiny bit of depth as well as an arc.
It doesn’t make much use of the actors in the roles, either. A couple of times there’s a teasing hint at potential dream fight scenes (Li Vs Lundgren, Stallone Vs Austin) but that’s the end of it. You’d think with the stars on offer you might get to see some of the big names throw down against each other just for the hell of it, but, no. There’s the overwhelming sense of a missed opportunity there.
Still, that’s not what you come to see The Expendables for, is it? This is a proper, old-school manly action movie that takes itself seriously and knows how to throw a punch. While the male characters, dialogue, female characters, structure, development, CGI and plot are sorely lacking, the real star of the show is the action, and it is glorious. Essentially, it’s a movie that could have been released on DVD but for the star power of the actors. A film for anyone that remembers the good old days of action movies and anyone who enjoys a film about people with guns blowing sh*t up.