Expended

I saw The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s I-want-to-be-a-blockbuster action flick, just after it opened. I found it a curiously listless affair, considering all the star power and special-effects money lavished on it, but it’s taken me a week to realize why. Stallone, who wrote and directed and stars in the film, misses his target by a mile. Or, more likely, he couldn’t decide where to aim.

The trailer led me to expect an affectionate parody of 1980s action movies, the sort of thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger did with deadpan hilarity in True Lies. My expectation was enhanced by the news that both Ahnold himself and Bruce Willis have cameos early in the movie. So I was all set up for mindless wide-screen fun that knows not to take itself seriously – the sort of thing that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies delivered in truckloads, only with more gunfire and explosions.

And for about the first half hour or so it seemed like we might get that movie. Arnold’s cameo (“Give the job to my friend, he likes playing in the jungle.”) was genuinely funny. So was Dolph Lundgren as the drugged-out nutcase who had to be fired after the establishing sequence. The merc team as motorcycle gang, complete with cheesy “Expendables” decals lovingly zoomed in on, set the right tone of testosterone-drenched ludicrousness.

When Stallone’s and Jason Statham’s characters infiltrate the tropical island where they’re supposed to do an op for reconnaissance by posing as ornithologists, I laughed. I chuckled some more at the deliberately overblown way the female lead was dropped into the picture. The chase scene as they get the hell off the island, culminating with Statham’s character machine-gunning a dock liberally drenched with explodium, is the best-executed set piece in the whole flick.

After that, things fall apart. Stallone tries to turn what could have been a spectacular romp into an earnest and serious thing, some sort of essay on responsibility and the psychological costs of violence, and is defeated by his own thick-necked, mumbling inarticulacy. The ultraviolence turns hollow and detached, except for one scene of the female lead being tortured that is deeply creepy. Jet Li’s screen time is completely wasted, and nothing made me know or care who the Obligatory Large Black Guy with the grenade-launcher was. After a while it seems like Stallone is just sleepwalking through the rest of the plot and you just stop caring.

In retrospect, most of the life in this sad turkey was provided by Jason Statham, who demonstrates once again that he is the reigning king of badass action stars in this decade. Props also to Dolph Lundgren for his gleefully deranged performance as Gunner, and to Mickey Rourke for a soulful soliquy that telegraphs the movie’s descent into seriousness (it’s in no way Rourke’s fault that bending the story arc in that direction was a very bad idea). Everyone else is forgettable. So, alas, is this movie.

17 thoughts on “Expended

  1. Sounds more like a reunion than a movie. However, I must say that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are both people I admire. Stallone because he must be one of the few people who have created two characters that are so iconic that they are idiomatic: Rocky and Rambo. They have a meaning beyond their original characters.

    Schwarzenegger because he has been successful in three different careers, each of which individually would be a remarkable achievement: body building, movie actor and politician. Perhaps the last has not done so good lately, but all the same, it is a remarkable life.

    Their movie genres don’t really suit my taste, but I can admire the fact that these men have achieved the practically unachievable several times in their lives. Kudos. They are entitled to a self indulgent reunion buddies movie if they want one.

  2. Kudos. They are entitled to a self indulgent reunion buddies movie if they want one.

    Right. But they are certainly not entitled to foist such heaping piles of garbage on an unsuspecting public. Well, I guess technically they are, but I can almost guarantee you that they won’t be making much money.

    Fortunately, for me, I took one look at the trailer and chose not to blow $20 ($40 with refreshments) on what clearly looked to me like your typical self-indulgent over-the-hill washed-up has-beens action star reunion movie. Instead, I will wait for the DVD release, in which case, as a Netflix customer, it will cost me nothing but a little time.

  3. Jessica: actually, that would be four careers. He is/was a successful businessman and made his first million dollars before 30, running among other things a brick-laying company with Franco Columbu. I share your admiration for him and keep a copy of “Fantastic: the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger” by my bed for inspiration at all times. One of my favorite self-help books :)

    Btw, his best movie would be Total Recall. IMHO of course.

  4. # A.H.A. Says:
    > Btw, his best movie would be Total Recall. IMHO of course.

    Don’t remember it.

    :-)

  5. @A.H.A. (Keeps copy of Schwarzenegger’s book by his bed)> Thats a little gay.

    BTW, “Pumping Iron” was Arnie’s best movie. “Milk are for babies, when you get older you drink beer. “

  6. > The trailer led me to expect an affectionate parody of 1980s action movies, the sort of thing that Arnold Schwarzenegger did with deadpan hilarity in True Lies.

    I remember enjoying True Lies when it was in the theaters, mostly because of Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance. Lately I’ve found that I can’t stomach action movies at all any more. I put the DVD on fast forward when a Schwarzenegger-caliber actor has uttered three lines, and, after a few jumps forward, give up. I have an especially poor tolerance for the ones that don’t know whether to be funny and unrealistic or dramatic. I thought (not so lately) that Face Off was insufferable. I think I’m going to give The Expendables an emphatic miss, even though I wanted to like it, because I used to go see those action stars as a kid.

    I guess I’m getting old in my mid-thirties. I couldn’t watch even Repo Men, although I find the subject matter generally interesting and Jude Law is a good actor when he picks the right role. It seems that for some reason bad writing and bad dialog has started to jar me a lot more than it used to. The other night I saw a rerun of the original Star Wars movie on television and was somewhat amazed at just how bad the dialog actually is, even if George Lucas is famous for lame dialog. Alec Guinness deserved every prize he won for delivering that crap as if it was Shakespeare.

  7. Morgan, you speak of an “unsuspecting public”. Who exactly are they that, upon seeing the trailer, the poster, the list of actors, or any of those items, combined or by themselves, don’t suspect of what they’re about to watch?
    I mean, I see a list of famous action movie stars, I’m not going to hope for the next ‘Chocolat’. Though Statham as the diabetic rebellious old lady might be fun.

  8. Morgan, you speak of an “unsuspecting public”. Who exactly are they that, upon seeing the trailer, the poster, the list of actors, or any of those items, combined or by themselves, don’t suspect of what they’re about to watch?

    Hmm. I can see that sarcasm and ironic humor are completely lost on you. Good.

  9. @Morgan: They certainly might. I’ve discovered myself, time and again, that they don’t travel well on the ‘tubes. Perhaps next time we’ll all laugh.

  10. Morgan,

    “Instead, I will wait for the DVD release, in which case, as a Netflix customer, it will cost me nothing but a little time.”

    If you value two hours of your time less than 20 dollars you should do some consulting work, at that price there will be an endless supply of customers :-)

  11. “If you value two hours of your time less than 20 dollars you should do some consulting work, at that price there will be an endless supply of customers :-)”

    Yea, I’ve been thinking of the time I waste sleeping while I could be earning money, too.
    (I see the humor in the last statement, and raise mine).
    But it does remind me that people do sometimes talk about the ‘X is free only if your time has no value’. Sometimes, as in software, they might be right (or wrong, when free software is actually cheaper even with the time involved factored in). Other times, they are wrong. It’s my free time, I don’t put a value on it unless there’s some dolt trying to spoil it.

    Furthermore, in this particular case it’s not true: you either spend 20 dollars and 2 hours, or 2 hours (or do something else, like rant about it in someone’s blog).

  12. Wow… a bit of the “ultraviolence” kicked me back a few years. Thanks for tickling that memory. There is a good ole classic to watch :-)

  13. I guess I’m just not a sophisticate: I liked the movie and I don’t think the $12 I spent for the wife and I to see it was wasted at all.

    According to Box Office Mojo the movie pulled in just under $35M on it’s first weekend. Given it has an $80M budget that puts it comfortably in the set of movies that probably will be profitable.

  14. When Stallone’s and Jason Statham’s characters infiltrate the tropical island where they’re supposed to do an op for reconnaissance by posing as ornithologists, I laughed.

    This is probably a nod to Christopher Walken’s mercenary character in The Dogs of War (1980), who did the same thing.

  15. I’d agree with esr’s review – this started well, and then turned into a waste of celluloid (and the audience’s time and money).

    The same week, I saw District B13 and its sequel via NetFlix. Two fun, nicely written, tightly-directed action movies with extensive “Parkour” action sequences. They’re in French, but the Blu-Ray discs offer the options of dubbing or subtitles (unless you happen to know the language).

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