A recent discussion with a fellow movie lover got me thinking more about my opinion of Stallone’s new action flick, The Expendables. No, I’m not recanting my opinion that the film is mildly fun but also mildly disappointing. Instead, it recently occurred to me what the real problem is with the movie. And as far as spending ‘too much time’ arguing about a summer action throwaway, my desire to write more on the matter has more to do with fleshing out of my own opinion, rather than adding any importance to a film almost nobody will be talking about 6 months from now.
On the surface, The Expendables is no more shallow than many of the 80’s classic action films, like Rambo, Die Hard or Commando. The plot is thin as a reed, but so were many of the type I just listed. And acting? Yeah right. No, the thing that defines the 80’s pictures is character. John Rambo. John McLaine. Arnold as the Terminator. Easily recognizable characters with names we remember, personal characteristics that brand them as superheroes, and style that lead fans to either love them or hate them (or to love one brand more than the other). Stallone’s grumbling voice is infamous, but the red bandana, the bursting out of the water to surprise the enemy, sealing a bullet wound with gunpowder; these all defined Rambo and embedded him in our imaginations. Bruce Willis as McLaine, running barefoot on glass and screaming ‘Yipee kay-ay, mother-fucker!’ is a line repeated probably a couple of million times by now. And McLaine’s refusal to give in, his drive to save his wife, his discussions with the doughnut-eating cop outside the building – we knew who McLaine was.
The Expendables has none of that. I can’t recall any of their names. And what is Stallone’s character all about? He doesn’t seem to be particularly good at anything, he doesn’t have much of a defined stlye of fighting, or joking, or… well, anything. He is dry as a bone. Of course, I’ve heard the shouts of “It’s supposed to be stupid,” It’s supposed to be a cheesy throwback”, or it “is the film that they intended to make”… simple and fun. Well, if that’s the case, then so be it. Unfortunately, if your target is low, you don’t deserve much credit, even for succeeding. Stallone and company tried to let their past importance carry the film; their fame as actors substituting for character within the characters of The Expendables. And I will tell you, their past personas are the only thing that keeps the movie afloat at all.
So was it a fun film? Kinda. Was it a really fun film? No. Did they succeed in matching the excitement of the old 80’s movies? Not even close. They get a brief nod of the head from me, but no pat on the back, let alone a cheer. Not bad, guys. Not bad. But not so good either.
This is a movie with plenty of good action that would make a fun rental but is a mildly disappointing visit to the theater. At one point in the movie, Stallone’s character has a discussion with Mickey Rourke’s character about a woman from Rourke’s past. Stallone gets it into his head at that moment to return to an island controlled by a dangerous military junta to rescue a woman from his own life. The scene is only about six or seven minutes long, but it decides the direction of the rest of the movie. My guess is that it took Stallone about as much time and forethought to put together the story for The Expendables.
I suppose the movie would have been truly, horrifically bad if none of the many action stars that appear had been absent. But even with them, the movie drags a bit for the first forty-five minutes, and then explodes into nonsense. Of course, it wasn’t the rumor of a clever plot that interested me. I, like many others, was attracted to the movie because of the involvement of so many of the action stars I have enjoyed in the past. But after Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis make their cameos, the cast feels relatively thin on charisma. Mickey Rourke brings a little depth, but his is a side character who is probably on screen for about twenty minutes total. Stallone and Statham are the stars, and they do a good job with what they have, but neither is able to raise the screenplay out of “B” territory.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were a good handful of laughs, and some very cool fight choreography. The fights with Statham and his knives and Jet Li kicking at people’s legs finally hit on what most of us wanted to see: our favorite badasses kicking ass.
Some classic “action movie mysteries” arise in The Expendables. For instance: Why are they called the Expendables? It’s never really addressed. Why is it necessary to kill all of the soldiers on the island? There is little to make us believe any of the soldiers are evil. Eric Roberts and his crew certainly are, but after the general and his soldiers turn on Roberts, why do the Expendables have to keep killing them? Where do the other guys go when Stallone and Statham are doing their own thing? It’s always a good laugh to have those characters who seemingly wait around at the “home base” with guns in their hands, waiting for the stars to return. All of these questions are remnants of the 80’s actioners, which threw this kind of logic to the wind. It’s a fun throwback, but still makes the viewer say, “Hmmm”.