The Expendables Review
If there was ever a film to make men all across the world feel inadequate, then The Expendables is that film; nearly every cast member, perhaps Jet Li aside although he could still own you in a fight, possesses muscles as big as a normal weakling’s arm. Yet the man love is so strong when it comes to Sly and co that most men wouldn’t mind if their partner copped off with them and there won’t be many women who hadn’t thought of it at one point, especially if they grew up in the action heydays of the 80s. It’s that combination that means that although The Expendables is the ultimate blokes’ film, there won’t be many partners complaining about being dragged along to witness the on-screen carnage that unfolds when the action stars of the past team up with today’s young upstarts.
No one will come along to this film expecting strong characterisation, deep emotions and Oscar-winning acting, and if they do they’ve clearly bought the wrong ticket, but even the broadest action flick needs a plot-line. The Expendables revolves around the titular band of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) who receive a job offer from the mysterious Church (Bruce Willis) to overthrow a murderous dictator on the island of Vilena. During a reconnaissance mission, they meet their contact Sandra (Giselle Itie) but are forced to leave her behind when things turn sour and Ross quickly realises that the real target is rogue CIA operative James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Determined not to fail Sandra, the team set out to return to Vilena and finish the job they started.
For all the marketing hype of the on-screen combination of so many recognisable action stars, the main players in the film are Stallone and Statham as the ridiculously, but brilliantly, named Lee Christmas. The pair convince as long-time friends and share a natural chemistry which means their entertaining banter never feels fake which proves crucial when the film starts to meander after its explosive start in order to set up the wafer-thin plot. It’s here that the pattern for the film is established where the dialogue only serves as a motor to guide us onto the next big action sequence as the two recon Vilena before they combine for a deliriously enjoyable destruction of one of its ports as they escape.
With such a straightforward plot – only one attempt is made at a ‘twist’ when ex-team member Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) comes back to haunt them – it should come as no surprise to say that the film lives or dies on the strength of its action scenes and it never once fails to deliver. Whether dealing with the small-scale, such as Christmas exacting revenge on the guy that beat up his girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter of Buffy fame), or the grand-scale climax when the team infiltrate the dwellings of General Garza (David Zayas of Dexter fame), The Expendables consistently delights and contains several crowd-pleasing, punch-the-air moments of sheer unadulterated glee.
Anyone concerned by the 15 certificate needn’t be as The Expendables is frequently bloody - limbs litter the screen during the finale - and brutal with some truly bone-crunching fight scenes, the highlight of which is a cellar fight between Ross and Munroe’s henchman Dan Paine (Steve Austin). CGI-phobes also needn’t be worried as barring a dodgy, but not as dodgy as Crank 2, man-on-fire moment, the focus is on the practical stunts. It means that you feel every punch and know that just like McClane and co, these men are hurting lending a realistic edge to the fights not often experienced in modern action flicks.
Amidst the action, there’s no doubt that characterisation gets sidelined with the majority of the cast, aside from Stallone and Statham, playing stereotypes. The women suffer the worse with even Itie’s character ending up being the obligatory ‘damsel-in-distress’ despite having a promising ambiguity when we first meet her. That being said, if you’re going to get actors to play stereotypes, you probably couldn’t get any better: Roberts in particular is sufficiently evil and smarmy as Munroe who is the type of guy who can stand by drinking a cup of tea whilst a young woman gets waterboarded. Only Rourke as retired expendable Tool gets a chance to show off his acting chops with an emotional scene as he recalls just when he knew that he had lost his soul.
Aside from the onscreen carnage, most of the excitement surrounding the film concerned the scene that would unite the three action icons – Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger – and despite the complete pointlessness of Arnie’s appearance in the scene, it ends with Sly delivering the best punch line of the film and, given that every action scene ends in the old-school punch line style, that’s some feat. At times, the scene does border on parody but it crackles with such a self-referential spark that you can’t help but be wooed by its corny ridiculousness.
It’s something that can be said of the entire film that you will end up disregarding the weaknesses, sitting back and just feasting on the testosterone that drips out from every action scene. Criticising it for not fully fleshing out its characters or having a plot that even remotely comes close to surprising you just seems completely irrelevant if you cast your mind back to the first time you heard The Expendables was green-lit as it’s almost a guarantee that the first thought that came to your mind wasn’t ‘that should be a deep, philosophical and completely life-affirming experience’. If it transpires that we live in a world where plot is favoured over seeing The Stath firing a machine gun out of an exposed front of a plane, then it’s a world that sorely needs its priorities re-assessed.