. . . to make a good action film? The answer is one, but Sly Stallone saw fit to answer with 11 in his Texas Hold ‘Em all-in experimental blockbuster, The Expendables. The theory behind this production is perhaps the most interesting aspect of it all, namely, you get as many alpha personalities of a particular social subset, put them under one roof, and watch the magic happen. Hey, everyone is expecting this same experiment to work for professional basketball in Miami, why can’t it work for Stallone? Well, the main difference is that LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have 3,936 minutes to work it out and Sly has 100. The theory is sound and a collaboration of this many alpha males on celluloid has not been attempted since The Magnificent Seven (1960). Perhaps I should have re-titled this review: “How many steroid syringes does it take to make a good action film?”
I have been raising an eyebrow at Stallone ever since his follow-ups to the two franchises that made him: Rocky and Rambo. Love them or hate them, the most recent installments for both franchises were shells of their former greatness featuring an older, slower and rounder protagonist. For the life of me, I could not understand why these sequels did not warrant additional numbers in their titles to tie-in with their previous films. After having seen both films, the reason is clear: they are simply different and the same could be said of The Expendables and how it so desperately tries to be the definitive action blockbuster through strength of cast alone.
Another film in recent history attempted to do something similar by the shear epic nature of its own title: Last Action Hero (1993). Do I need to get into the epic fail of that venture? The point is that Stallone’s heart is in the right place, but his mind has been eating mo-mo sandwiches if he thinks just showing up for these movies is going to make them any good. But perhaps that’s not the point because it really is all about the money. We will return to this later.
Since the cast is the main story, let’s start with that and I promise to be as efficient as possible. Stallone is the leader of a mercenary group known as The Expendables. He does what every leader in an action film does and fills the role of moral compass while trying to create personal relations with the rest of his team to create camaraderie and a connection with the audience. This doesn’t turn out so well as no member of his team (outside of Jason Statham) spends more than three minutes of screen time with him so as to allow more time for punching and explosions.
Jason Statham is Stallone’s second in command, of sorts, and easily provides the most three dimensional character in the entire cast. Statham is every much the badass he gives us in The Transporter films demonstrating equal proficiency in melee combat and gunplay. He also shows the audience a softer side as his character alone (Lee Christmas) is allowed some form of back story outside of mercenary warfare in his estranged relationship with his woman played by Charisma Carpenter. Statham is by far the best actor in this cast as he shows an ability to sell soft emotion, but Lee Christmas is no Frank Martin, period!
Jet Li provides the role of, yep you guessed it, martial arts expert and his character is named with the appropriately Asian theme: Ying Yang. Li is given two martial arts sequences to showcase his particular talents, but the choreography was lacking. Li is known for more grace and precision rather than brute force and it makes his fights from Lethal Weapon 4 seem like vintage Bruce Lee in comparison. On top of everything, the dialogue Li is required to read hates him. Yes, the words literally hate him because when he speaks them, it makes the man look like a complete illiterate. Jet Li would have been better served sans dialogue.
Dolph Lundgren plays the loose canon/junky of the team who has no respect for discipline, authority or the basics of following a plan. As the physically largest member of The Expendables, his role involves more physicality to speaking. But when the man opens his mouth, I find myself pining for his golden era when he spouted such Shakespearean greatness like, “If he dies, he dies.” If Stallone really needed a giant, he could’ve just given Big Show a call.
Terry Crews plays the Old Spice ad man … er, that is to say, token black member of the Expendable team. He is given the least exposure out of the entire cast and is meant to be the comic relief. This man can do comedy as seen by his commercial notoriety, but he also needs screen time to show it. At the same time, he’s got really big muscles and wields an automatic shotgun like no other.
Randy Couture plays another member of the Expendables. He is there to fight Steve Austin and poke fun at his own mauled ear.
Mickey Rourke plays the deal making contact man for The Expendables. This man has the most authentic and poignant acting moment of the entire film as he attempts to be a mentor for Stallone when he questions the validity of his life. His innate ability to balance bad-assery and likeability is unparalleled. Rourke’s got muscles, but he is also a stone cold sure thing if you need a real actor on your cast. In my opinion, he is too good for this film franchise.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a rival leader for an unnamed mercenary group. It’s cool that he shows up out of nowhere, but a cameo role is a cameo role. He is too busy raising taxes and axing government jobs to be bothered with a deeper acting role.
Bruce Willis retains all dignity and overall coolness as the CIA bag-man who hires The Expendables to do a little job. He has the best lines in the film and provides the kind of presence on screen that dominates the stature of any steroid induced mass of man.
Eric Roberts plays the bad guy in this whole mess. He does evil very well, but I remember when he was the hero in Best of the Best (1989). That movie kicked ass, but so did The Dark Knight (2008) and I don’t even want to think about how much fellatio he had to dish out to get on that cast. Oh yeah, he was also in this movie, The Expendables.
Steve Austin plays a bad guy working for Eric Roberts. He is there to fight Randy Couture and poke fun at his own history of beating women. He also broke Stallone’s neck during the filming of this movie. Someone finally tried!
-- WHEW, that’s 11 --
The greatest strength of this film was the action. Of all the summer blockbusters of 2010, the action captured on camera for The Expendables was second to none. Normally one would credit the director for this, but Stallone is just not that talented. No, the credit for these particular camera angles and dynamic camera motions belong to Jeffrey L. Kimball whose body of work, at the same position, includes Top Gun (1986), True Romance (1993), and Mission Impossible 2 (2000). Combine this level of experience with a very athletic and physically gifted cast and you get great action on the screen. Everyone earned their paychecks on the days explosions were sounding off.
Conversely, everyone should have worked for scale on the days dialogue was slated to be filmed. Shame, shame, shame, shame, SHAME on Stallone and co-writer Dave Callaham for not only concocting the most generic, cookie-cutter plot a cast as dynamic as this was forced to work with, but also for excreting the most derivative, irrelevant and uninteresting dialogue in the history of action films. The writing was weak, suffice it to say. I mentioned how it was a particular detriment to Jet Li, but it was just as much of a burden for every other actor as well and the main reason for this was because when The Expendables weren’t blowing up bad guys, they were talking about their girlfriends or past skirmishes or their non-existent families. Now that stuff would have all been interesting if it had been relevant to the story that was unfolding in the present and had been written with whatever speech deficiency the respective actor had to struggle with (see: Lundgren and Li).
The dialogue was that terrible. Not once do they talk about the mission at hand, as if all that information is simply understood. How can you leave out the planning segment of an action film, especially a military action film involving a small team of specialists? I don’t know how many restless nights Stallone spent with Callahan while writing this script, but I figure it happened something like this: Callahan worked on a new draft for a month, showed it to Stallone’s inner circle on the last day, they told him to do re-writes, he takes another month to draft, rinse and repeat. This style of “collaborative writing” might be acceptable for a seasoned and successful writer, but Callahan’s only other significant writing credit is Doom (2005) and we all know what a gem that was.
Ultimately, the big names in this film get you into the theater while the quality of the action keeps you from walking out. The whole purpose of this film was to be a gigantic power play on the viewing public whose appetite for action films will never be satiated. For a cast that includes so many alphas, a budget of $85 million is a no-brainer to green light! Opening weekend puts this film at recouping almost half of that, so it seems nothing but smooth sailing for The Expendables crew as no other movie juggernauts will challenge it for the remainder of the summer.
Stallone may be an old man, but he’s still sly in the way of making movies. He plays politics well enough to get all these big name actors to sign for much less than what they usually command, but I should not be surprised by this at all. The man does live in Miami and he has been watching Pat Riley do his business-of-basketball thing for a while now.