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.