The Expendables is really two films. On the one hand, it’s a buddy-action movie starring the greatest action cast ever assembled. On the other hand, it’s Sylvester Stallone making a lightweight Rambo film and trying to climb over the egos of his fellow cast members to tell one of the most pointless and hackneyed stories in modern cinema. OK, so the first part still sounds pretty cool, and I was really hoping that would be enough to carry the whole thing through. Unfortunately it ends up being a bit of an incoherent mess, with the two ideas artlessly mashed together with not enough time given to either to make it successful. I get the feeling it was brutally chopped down in the editing room in order to satisfy the running time, and to make up for the fact that Sylvester Stallone’s direction really couldn’t decide which of the two he wanted this to be, resulting in a bit of a schizophrenic mess.
In a plot ripped straight from an A-team episode/75% of all 80s action movies, an ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts, solid but unsurprising) is bankrolling a generalissimo to exert military control over a small south American island in order to produce lots of delicious cocaine. So the CIA hires a rag-tag group of enormously-muscled unkillable mercenaries to kill him and/or the general. Enter Stallone and his team. The big thing about The Expendables has always been the cast, and it’s something the countless trailers have made a big deal about, so let’s run down the full motley crew. It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Jason Statham and Jet Li, none of the ‘specialties’ that the characters supposedly possess are ever mentioned, explained or even particularly demonstrated in the film:
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone): the leader of the group. In charge of things for some reason, has massive arm veins and a face like iron filings stuck on stretched plastic. Given no backstory or characterisation whatsoever, emotional range of a turnip.
Lee Christmas (Jason Statham): Knife specialist and Barney’s best mate. Apparently ex-SAS, has a girlfriend who leaves him because he’s emotionally distant and disappears for months at a time. This is supposed to make us feel sympathy towards him. It doesn’t. If you think his character name is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Yin Yang (Jet Li): I told you the names got worse. Martial arts specialist, naturally. Underused in the film outside of a couple of pointless fight sequences, his only characterisation seems to be saying ‘I need more money’ or occasionally ‘I need more money for my family’. It is unclear whether this dialogue was in the script or was simply something he said on set so often they decided to put it in the film.
Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren): Sniper. Aha, sniper..Gunner? See what they did there? Brilliant. Dolph Lundgren, surprisingly, gets the most acting to do in this film as the mentally-unstable Expendable who is (we are informed, though never see) on some sort of drugs. Moody, spaced-out, rambling, this massive hulk of a man actually plays the role with incredible pathos, with big puppy-dog eyes showing a vulnerability and fear despite his physical stature that would be utterly incredulous coming from anyone else on this cast. He was genuinely very good in this film, and if this performance is anything to go by, deserves a hell of a lot more ‘serious’ acting work than he’s ever been given.
Hale Caesar (Terry Crews): weapons specialist (aren’t they all?). Good grief. His name is actually Hale Caesar. Doesn’t have a lot to do except being massive, and I do mean massive- the dad from Everybody Hates Chris is possibly the most beefed-up in the whole movie. He likes things that make big noises. Literally. That’s it. Kicks serious ass with a massive shotgun in some of the more entertaining/graphic fight scenes.
Toll Road (Randy Couture): demolitions expert, apparently. A personality vacuum that serves no purpose whatsoever in the film, except presumably to even out the weight on the plane if he and Terry Crews sit on opposite sides. He has no character, no good fight scenes and the only thing vaguely unique about him (he has cauliflower ears) is explained by a needlessly shoehorned-in anecdote that even the other characters in the film are bored by. It’s one thing to write bad dialogue, but if it gets to the point that it’s so tedious your other fictional characters don’t even give a shit about it, maybe that should tell you something. At least this time it’s a toss up between whether the character or the actor has the worse name.
You may have also heard that Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steve Austin are in this film. Well, Bruce and Arnie are in one scene, together with Stallone, bouncing incredibly awkward dialogue around with the sort of terrible acting chops I genuinely thought they had all long outgrown (maybe it’s ironic? It’s certainly awful), and the scene ends on what is obviously supposed to be a clever line that actually makes no sense at all. Austin is given a bit more to do (physically, at least) as Roberts’s henchman, Paine (oh come on. Seriously?), and the nicest thing I can say is he doesn’t screw up what is essentially a drill sergeant/mean bastard role that in any other film would be just as ably performed by an unknown extra. Mickey Rourke is also hanging around as mission co-ordinator/motorbike-loving-tattooist Tool (oh for goodness sake). He has one emotional speech that has all the subtlety of a brick with lines that are just as cumbersome, but otherwise he’s fine as an incidental character.
The Expendables are assisted in their mission by the general’s daughter, Sandra, played by Gisele Itié, giving the role the overdose of emotion you’d expect from a Brazilian soap opera actress, and far more than it requires/deserves. Of course, she will be the love interest for Stallone, and consequently the reason for countless deaths of her countrymen.
Now it may seem from what I’ve written so far that this is a complete turkey of a film, but that’s not true. Amongst all the jarring tonal shifts between buddy-movie camaraderie and brutal bloody battles, the needless overuse of shaky cam and the paper-thin characterization, there is the kernel of a great film here. Some of the fight scenes are truly well executed, brutal and visceral without being over the top (though some come very close), and though the plot might be so generic it hurts, at least it doesn’t try and make this ensemble piece Ocean’s Eleven with guns. It’s not enough to turn it into a recommendation, but, just like many people went to Gran Torino for the chance to see Clint Eastwood playing ‘that character’ for probably the last time, if you want to capture the last twinkle of 80s action magic out of this cast, now’s your chance.