Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The Expendables Movie Review: Sylvester Stallone and other 80s Action Heroes Get a Dusting Off
Poor Sylvester Stallone. It must be dreadful to have been one of two kings of 1980s action films only to suffer a swift and steep decline through the 90s. Now well into his 60s, he is devoting himself to sad knock-offs of the films that made him a superstar once upon a time. First was Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in that series, then Rambo, his fourth film playing that character. This year he came back for more as writer, director and star of The Expendables, an action film which revels in cheesy schlock, washed up stars and dead bodies.
It’s a genuine throwback to the diet of loud, dumb action films I was fed as a child and I would be remiss not to admit a certain thrill and enjoyment at watching this throwaway piece of nostalgia. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: Superman-like heroes with unbelievable abilities to withstand countless punches and kicks; a never-ending supply of ammunition and explosives; an enemy army of nameless and faceless soldiers/henchman who can be killed off by the score for entertainment value. I don’t know - maybe I’m just a sucker for movies about a team on a mission. As a child, I was always partial to The Dirty Dozen, Red Dawn, and their ilk. So something about The Expendables struck this inner child of the 80s.
The cast is an amalgam of various action stars of yester-year. In addition to Stallone (still sporting an incredibly fit physique for a man of his age) the Expendable team includes Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Jason Statham, always exuding that laid back English attitude of coolness and sarcastic wit. He is the only one who brings any amount of charisma to his role. He also seems the only actor not taking his role deadly seriously. Eric Roberts is the big bad villain with Steve Austin as his head muscle. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make brief cameos together in a scene with Stallone, which I suppose is meant to be something like the historical first face-to-face meeting of Pacino and DeNiro in Heat, but it feels much less significant. The only actors missing from this lineup are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Van Damme was approached, but declined a role. Their presence would complete a tableaux of aging and decrepit bodies still trying to hold on to the vigor of youth through use of cosmetic surgery or steroids or both.
The plot in a movie like this is almost insignificant as the primary goals are to blow stuff up real good and to unite a group of actors who would otherwise never get the chance to work together. Stallone is Barney Ross, the leader of a gang of elite mercenaries who take out pirates and other undesirables at the behest of governments that don’t want to get their hands dirty. At a time when mercenaries are getting a bad rap for their actions in the Middle East, here is a movie that turns them into heroes, showing them living by a code. If wishing made it so. The other members of his team come with names that may have been stolen from the old “G.I. Joe” cartoons such as Toll Road (Couture), Hale Caesar (Crews), Lee Christmas (Statham) and Yin Yang (Li). Mickey Rourke’s character, Tool, is retired from the life, hoping not to “die for a woman, but next to a woman.”
Their mission is to infiltrate a small island in the Gulf of Mexico to take out the dictator General Garza (David Zayas) who’s got the backing of an American drug cartel (Roberts). The team’s contact on the island, Sandra (Giselle Itié), is a beautiful young revolutionary, who is hiding her true motives for refusing to leave the island for a better life elsewhere.
All in all the experience is enjoyable almost in spite of itself. Stallone’s screenplay, co-written by Dave Callaham, is not even in the same world as his Oscar-nominated Rocky script. There’s hardly a plot development that isn’t drawn directly out of the action movie cliché handbook. When one member of Barney’s team is ousted early on for burning out too soon, how long do you think before he’s double-crossing his old mates? Do you suppose Sandra will turn out to have some history or connection with General Garza? Not to mention, this is the kind of movie that gives a female character a black eye simply as an excuse to highlight how badass Statham’s character is when he exacts revenge on the offender and his friends. And the dialogue, oh my, oh my! What can possibly be said about an exchange like this between Stallone and Schwarzenegger, playing rival mercenaries:
“How about dinner?”
“In about a thousand years?”
Yet still I found myself drawn in by the action sequences. They are well-constructed and executed, the fight choreography is breathtaking, and there is virtually no gratuitous use of CGI. What a sad state of affairs for film making to be in when a review has to go out of its way to compliment a movie for using stunt men instead of animation.
Any movie has to be judged against other movies of its kind. You have to assess what the movie has set out to accomplish and evaluate whether or not it has achieved its goal. Using that as the only criteria, The Expendables is passable and often good fun. However, it’s also a shoe-in to extend Stallone’s record streak for Razzie nominations. Expect him to be at least triple-nominated for this as director, writer and actor. The writer nomination will be well deserved.