So, it’s come to this. Hardcore fans of the action film have had to watch their beloved genre die a slow and painful death over the last decade or so. Sure there are still very big movies being made today that could be called “action films,” but most of them seem like they could better be classified “effects movies” than “action films.” Real action films are not that hard to define, they’re movies that show a lot of bad guys being shot or stabbed and do so in a way that’s exciting and fun for the audience, it’s a medium that was taken to its commercial highpoint by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. During the short period when these kind of action films were at the height of their fame we saw the creation of a new genre that may be almost as potent as the John Wayne western on the American conscience, but which can be just as problematic. It’s also a genre which is almost as dead as the western, though not dead enough to have inspired some sort of revisionist revival. Instead, we’re kind of at the place with this genre where we were with Westerns in the 70s, when John Wayne was still making movies like True Grit and The Shootist but was clearly not on the cultural cutting edge anymore. That’s kind of where Stallone is right now, and movies like The Expendables show that there are still audiences willing to watch a genre in its death-throes.
The film is all about a group of mercenaries called, funnily enough, The Expendables. The leader of this group is Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), an aging soldier who’s burned out on the idea of fighting for his country but who’s still willing to fight for a living. His two main men are a knife throwing ex-SAS guy named Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and a martial artist named Yin Yang (Jet Li). Ross is approached by a man going by the codename Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) who offers him a job: to overthrow a rouge Latin American “dictator” named General Garza (David Zayas) and in the process take out a rouge CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and save the General’s defecting daughter (Gisele Itié). Ross accepts the job, but it turns out to be one of the hardest jobs he’s had to go on in a while.
The most discussed thing about this movie is obviously the cast, which seems like a who’s who of action stars. But the truth is that the cast isn’t quite as impressive as it may seem. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be very present in the trailer, but he’s really only on screen for all of sixty gimmicky seconds. Bruce Willis isn’t there much longer, though at least his presence seems less perfunctory. Mickey Rourke at least has two or three scenes, but he’s never in an action scene and is only a minor character. Dolph Lundgren has a bigger role than the aforementioned cast members, he’s not part of the titular team for most of the running time and his climactic fight isn’t with Stallone, but with Jet Li. So, once you discount those cast members what are you left with? Stallone, Statham, Li, Randy Couture, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Terry Crews. Aside from Stallone, that sounds like the cast of a very modern (and possibly direct to video) action movie rather than the eighties revival that many are expecting. That’s not to say that some of these young guys don’t do a good job, Statham is especially good here, but the movie promised by the advertising is kind of different from the movie that’s delivered.
The thing about action movies is that people who don’t get them tend not to realize that there are some very subtle things that separate great action movies from the bad ones. There’s a world of difference between something like The Terminator and something like Invasion USA. This difference largely come down to the efficiency of the script, the dedication of the cast, and especially the talent of the director. The direction is probably the biggest problem here. Sylvester Stallone seems like the kind of guy who really wants to do good work, but the simple fact is that he’s kind of lousy behind the camera. This is defiantly an improvement over his wretched work on the last installment of the Rambo series from a few years ago, but the editing is almost as bad and the camera work is still not very confident. I was also unimpressed to see a return of the CGI blood that harmed a lot of the action scenes in that Rambo movie. All the action scenes lack a certain artistry that the best auteurs in this genre have, and the movie suffers because of it.
The movie also suffers because the script is kind of a mess. I know people are going to read that and say instantly say “dude, it’s The Expendables, it’s not supposed to be all artsy fartsy.” NO. That’s not what I’m trying to say it should be at all. I did expected this to be a stupid action movie, by problem is that it isn’t half the stupid action movie it should have been. The main problem is that movie needlessly switches locations far more than it needs to between the group’s American headquarters and the Latin American country the main action takes place in. What the movie lacks is a certain simplicity that was needed in order to get it from explosion A to explosion B in a really efficient way. The motives for it all are also completely muddled, and I also felt like the characters lacked some of the strong grounding and definition they needed. This almost felt more like a sequel to a previous film than the first in a series.
In spite of all these complaints, I really still kind of want to give this movie a pass. Goddamn it, this movie has explosions… lots of them, and they didn’t look like CGI. Seeing a decently budgeted R-rated action movie where a lot of people get shot just seems so rare today that it’s really easy to overrate a movie that conforms to that retro aesthetic. I definitely think this sort of works as a rental, but if I’d seen it in theaters I would not have been so pleased. Maybe the sequel will be better…
**1/2 out of Four