Movie Review: The Expendables

Can someone please direct me to the Federal Bureau of Masculinity and Testosterone? I think I may need to turn in my Man Card.

Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables exists largely as a gimmick. The film seems to exist for no other reason than to bring together the big action stars of the 80s for one last hurrah, and match them up with their more contemporary counterparts. Young meets new. It’s almost like a totally bad-ass passing of the reigns.

The plot is thin and secondary – acting mostly as a framing device to hold characters, fight scenes and special effects – but here it goes anyway: The Expendables are a team of mercenaries hired by the CIA to overthrow a ruthless Latin-American dictator, but once the mission begins, a corporate conspiracy and their leader’s relationship with a local woman complicate their situation.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the cast. That’s why we’re here in the first place, isn’t it?

Sly’s character, Barney Ross, acts as leader of The Expendables. Jason Statham plays Ross’ second in command, Lee Christmas, a former Special Air Service-soldier in the British army. The team has a martial arts expert named Yin Yang (seriously) portrayed by Jet Li as little more than an Asian stereotype, complete with jokes about his being short and money-hungry. There’s the obligatory sniper named (again, I’m not joking) Gunnar Jensen, brought to the screen by Dolph Lundgren. Terry Crews is Hale Caesar (I couldn’t make this up if I tried), a heavy weapons specialist. Former wrestler Randy Couture rounds out the team as demolitions expert Toll Road (I give up).

There’s also Tool, a former Expendable played by Mickey Rourke, who now runs the tattoo shop that serves as the teams home base. Rourke’s talent is completely wasted; he doesn’t do any real acting (as is the case with everyone in this movie) and is absent during any of the action sequences, making his presence entirely useless.

The other half of the cast is far less interesting. Bad guy highlights include Eric Roberts and (Stone Cold) Steve Austin. Like Rourke, their presence is in body only. We also get blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger who share one brief scene together with Sly. It’s sad really.

The cast, while impressive on paper, actually does very little to elevate this film above its very shoddy script and amateurish direction. While it’s understood that part of the film’s “joke” is that these men are all past their prime and quite literally, “too old for this shit,” the movie never fully exploits this element. The end result being an odd combination of stunts that seem to be scaled back to accommodate the actors’ ages, and said actors still failing to effect them convincingly. To make up for this, Stallone includes a substantial collection of conversational scenes which feature banter between the characters. Again, this falls flat because the choppy dialogue and phoned-in performances prevent any chemistry between characters from materializing.

From the get-go, it was obvious The Expendables was a film that would sacrifice story and acting for action and spectacle, but unfortunately, these elements also fail to satisfy. The camerawork during hand-to-hand combat scenes is woefully inadequate. The handheld (shaky-cam) cinematography is shot almost entirely in close-up, cutting far too quickly, with no consideration given to maintaining a sense of geography. It’s difficult to tell who’s who, what’s what or where we are in any given frame. Scenes featuring gunfire and explosions fare slightly better; wide shots at least allow for some kind of clarity. However, even in these scenes, a semi-seasoned viewer will notice the subpar digital effects and be taken out of the action.

The Expendables is an $80 million movie with an all-star cast that looks like it was made using first-time actors and half the budget. Rather that focusing so much of his energy on casting, Stallone should have polished his script and honed in on a real vision for what he wanted his film to be. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have failed so spectacularly.

An interesting note: Jean-Claude Van Damme was offered a role, but turned it down citing a lack of substance. Smart move, sir. Smart move.