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The Expendables

December 23, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A wonderfully seasonal tale of slaughter, out now on DVD and Blu-ray.  Sadly, the best thing about it was the free gift sent out to bloggers with the check disc: a bullet-shaped key ring.

The Expendables
(Sylvester Stallone, US, 2010)

Things that are expendable here: plot, dialogue, taste, well-filmed stuntwork, and any 1980s action star who isn’t also directing

For a certain type of movie lover, The Expendables is a dream come true – so much so, in fact, that the quote used on the poster simply lists members of the cast in the kind of awestruck reverence usually reserved for saints. Inevitably, though, the film that goes with it sounds better in concept than in actuality, because its (literal) overkill reduces several generations of action heroes into a blurry, generic gestalt of fisticuffs and firing massive weapons of destruction.

The story is an obvious homage/throwback to the 1980s flicks that made Stallone’s (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, and Bruce Willis’, and Dolph Lundgren’s) names, most pertinently the Rambo sequels. But ‘one man on a mission’ is a very different concept from ‘several men on a mission,’ and there are too many people jostling for attention, despite Stallone’s attempts to mix things up. It’s not quite the old-timers’ reunion you might expect, with Lundgren consigned to the role of on-off traitor, while Arnie and Bruce are only along for a cheesy cameo in which the one-time Planet Hollywood honchos look simultaneously smug and embarrassed at being allowed to swing their dicks on-screen together.

Once the action gets going, Stallone replaces his fellow granddads with a younger crew, calculated to ensure he’s the alpha male. There’s a Brit (Jason Statham), a Chinaman (Jet Li), a black man (Terry Crews), and a cauliflower-eared wrestler (Randy Couture), a combo that struggles even to rustle up a monosyllable between them. If it’s actual acting your after, it’s left to veteran scene-stealers Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke to ham it up as, respectively, the bad guy and the Expendables’ haunted guru.

Stallone is at least true to the sheer ridiculousness of the genre, all glowering looks, fist-pumping triumphs, and strange, gnomic one-liners that sound like they’ve been mistranslated from some obscure art-house flick. And the trad-Reaganite story borders on the offensive, in the way that the team decides not to bother with the mission…until Stallone feels a pang of guilt about leaving the local rebel beauty to a certain death. It’s the usual sloppy attempt to pretend U.S. foreign policy is a matter of philanthropic regime-change rather than propping up CIA-sanctioned money-spinner, but what reduces the effectiveness of Stallone’s oh-so-chivalrous gesture is that, by the time he’s resolved his crisis of conscience, the girl has been captured and waterboarded by neckless henchman Steve Austin. Cheers, Sly, you procrastinating dick.

It’s all worth it for the final half-hour… or would be if it was possible to tell what was going on. It’s difficult to believe that Stallone actually has a track record as a director, because so much of this relies on randomly cobbled-together, punch-drunk camerawork. Much has been made of the old-school reliance on stuntwork (as it ought to be, given that nobody here has been cast for the subtlety of their performances) but, as per the modern-day standard, the stars’ fighting prowess is subliminal at best. Ironically, the most impactful moments are the ones that rely on CGI, as hands get chopped off, a Somali pirate is bisected by a rocket launcher, and dozens of goons are mown down by Crews’ characteristically OTT firearm.

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