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The Expendables

August 26, 2010

This is the first post I have ever been inspired to write after chancing upon a clip of Bill O’Reilly.

The reports on Sylvester Stallone’s plans to make an unapologetic homage to the action movies of the 1980s with an ensemble cast of action stars from then and now seem to have been circulating for years. The development of The Expendables was followed from the start with interest akin to that of an upcoming Tarantino film (geeks in the know first heard the title “Inglorious Basterds” in the mid-90s). For better or worse, Stallone seems to have succeeded in securing the presence of every action star he wanted bar the notable exceptions of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, who turned down the roles offered. This happened because those two men are legitimately insane (Van Damme complained about his proposed character lacking in substance…seriously). The movie finally landed recently and seems to be performing well, despite the fact that it largely fails to live up to its promises.

Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of the eponymous mercenary group. He’s joined by a team of ludicrously named* mercs played by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and the Scandinavian demi-god, Dolph Lundgren. Ross’ group is approached to take a job that involves overthrowing a brutal Latin American dictator on a politely fictional island. During an initial reconnaissance mission there, Ross encounters the brave and defiant Sandra, dissident daughter of the dictator dedicated to her father’s downfall. (5-hit alliteration combo!) Sandra’s struggle inspires Ross to assemble his team to defeat the dictator (and the rogue CIA agent drug-baron who’s really running the show), not for the money, but because it’s the right thing to do and it offers them a shot at redemption for their bloodstained lives. Mayhem ensues.

Once more unto the beef, dear friends.

The action in The Expendables works fairly well. As with the thoroughly satisfying Rambo (IV), Stallone heroically eschews any attempt to tone down the violence of this film to fit with the appalling trend in recent years to make all action films conform to PG-13 ratings. There are decapitations, severed limbs, brutal slashing and stabbings, bone-crunching beatings and disposable bad guys being turned into puddles of gloop. However, there are too many close-up, fast-cut shots that largely squander the martial arts talent of Jet-Li as well as some dubious CGI blood effects that undermine the professed attempt to celebrate the action aesthetic of the 1980s. A set-piece with Statham and Stallone attacking soldiers from a plane seems the single most successful moment in terms of nailing the OTT style and tone being aimed for and there are plenty of decent shoot-outs and fisticuffs that deliver throughout. The truly ghastly failure here is the script and the way the lines are delivered. None of it works. At times, the dialogue in The Expendables almost feels surreal, like the screenplay was originally written in a different language and was then poorly translated into English afterward. Much of the downtime interaction between the merc buddy team is intended to be deliberately self-conscious comedy but the lines are utterly devoid of wit and the gags fall so flat that the overall effect is hideously jarring. Had the script been better written and played more deftly for laughs and actually hit the mark, it would have worked. Likewise, had the script played it straight with more stony faces and less of a deliberate striving for comedy, audiences would still have understood what this movie is all about. Instead, it falls into a no-man’s-land of discordant, baffling anti-fun. The cameo appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular suffer acutely here. Their scene is downright painful to watch (when it should have been an entertaining high point). Just to confuse things further, Mickey Rourke has a five minute scene in which he delivers a poignant monologue using actually decent acting, hitting the mark out of nowhere and disorientating the audience further.

Three-way, man-on-man rape chain. Shit just got real.

A few weeks ago, following the general release of The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone appeared on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor for a short interview with Bill O’Reilly. It seemed an odd format to promote an action film but the excuse presented by Bill was that left-wing newspapers were unjustly smearing the film as exploiting patriotism and peddling irresponsible jingoism. It turns out a critic at the Los Angeles Times had served up a soft ball for O’Reilly by rather stupidly looking at The Expendables and perceiving a nefarious political agenda beneath the ostensible facade of a mindless hokey action flick. A relaxed and chirpy Stallone sat across from Bill and happily explained that his new movie was indeed just a mindless hokey action flick, intended purely for fun, before going on to deflect O’Reilly’s mild probing about his age and physical appearance with a series of jokes. It was an impressively subtle parry from having to give an answer as to why he looks like a remarkably youthful and muscular, albeit puffy and mutilated, 64-year-old man. Steven Zeitchik, behind the L.A. Times piece, was legitimately in error with his attack on the film. Back in the 1980s that Stallone pays homage to with The Expendables, it’s true that the action star was involved in some blockbuster movies that were overtly peddling Reagan-era jingoism (he won the Cold War via a boxing match in Rocky IV), but his latest flick has no such political message. The mercenary team appears to be multinational and doesn’t represent any part of the American government. The nearest appearance of any formal American institution in the film is the CIA which is depicted in a highly questionable light, with Willis’ Mr Church as a ruthless bureaucrat and Eric Roberts’ arch-villain Munroe as the agency operative turned rogue drug lord. The evil tin pot dictator is a mere Latin American cartoon and is far removed from any semblance of a real-world enemy of America. This is light-hearted, apolitical fluff quite in contrast to the last Rambo film in which Stallone made the secondary focus of that movie a political hit-piece against the military junta that controls Burma and was quite open about doing so in interviews afterward.

The Expendables is a watchable action flick which quickly gets down to the business of an outrageous climactic battle in which hordes of evil henchmen are slaughtered and all sorts of shit gets blown up. That said, even getting there is something of a chore when the dialogue and intended comedy are so confusingly off. This film needed the talents of a scribe like Shane Black or, more realistically, a lesser known writer attempting to emulate that kind of style. There is the morbid interest in watching the action stars of yesteryear with old craggy faces (or faces that look rebuilt from the devil’s own silly putty) romping around onscreen once again and Stallone sports a goatee beard that is fascinatingly grotesque, like the trimmed pubic hair of a sexagenarian porn actress. However, in light of the expectations people had of this film, and what it was trying to achieve, it doesn’t really pull it off. I feel it would have been better if played with more po-faced seriousness, the ridiculous action and violence then conveying all the entertainment and fun necessary, because whatever attempt at parody that has been forced here is a serious misfire.

We few, we happy few, we beefy brothers.

(*On reflection, the names of the characters amount to the best jokes in The Expendables. Jason Statham is “Lee Christmas”, Jet Li is “Yin Yang”, Randy Couture is “Toll Road” and Terry Crews plays “Hale Caesar” whilst Mickey Rourke’s character is known simply as “Tool”.)

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