Bringing together almost every major action star of the last thirty years for one big cinematic blow-out sounds, in concept, like a can't-miss proposition. The only way it could fail? If it's named "The Expendables," and is as mind-numbingly indulgent, lazy, unimaginative, rote, and just plain boring as this junky finished product happens to be. The mind reels at how wasted this ensemble of actors is, precious few of them given anything to do but stand around and, in only some of their cases, fire a gun. The plot is purely a throwaway, while the bread and butter of the genreyou know, the actioncan hardly be bothered to make more than a cursory appearance until the carnage-fueled, explosions-heavy final fifteen minutes. To reach this point, however, is sheer misery for the viewer. If it's too much to ask for greatness, couldn't the picture at least have been dumb fun? Writer-director Sylvester Stallone (2008's "Rambo
") and co-writer Dave Callaham (2005's "Doom
") can't even achieve this muted aspiration. What they have cooked up, instead, is simply awful.
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) are the heads of a covert mercenary team whose latest mission sends them to the South American island of Vilena. It is here that General Garza (David Zayas) has set about a tyrannical reign, much to the chagrin of his freedom-fighting daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie). Garza is just a patsy, however; the real strings are being pulled by American James Munroe (Eric Roberts), an FBI agent gone bad. Now it's up to Ross, Christmas, and the rest of their gangincluding pint-sized Asian fighter Ying Yang (Jet Li), big black dude Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and the nondescript Toll Road (Randy Couture)to sneak onto the island and take down as many bad guys as they can. The only question is whether or not anything on the island will still be standing by the time they're finished blowing it all up.
"The Expendables" is done in by a lot of things, but most grievously is writer-director Sylvester Stallone's reluctance to really let loose and treat the project as the silly lark it is. Instead, he has cockamamie pretensions of making "art," slowing the film down to a crawl so that he can have endless scenes of exposition, soul-searching, and faux-character development. Mickey Rourke (2010's "Iron Man 2
") easily gives the best performance, playing an ex-mercenary-turned-tattoo-artist named Tool haunted by his past. He receives a long, intense monologue that may have worked in a legitimate drama, but doesn't belong in this movie where his character has no other purpose to the story. A subplot involving Christmas discovering that his girlfriend Lacy (Charisma Carpenter) has hopped onto a new man who hits her is lame as lame can be. As for the other guys, they are tossed into the background like day players, givenif they're luckyone defining trait each. Ying Yang, for example, keeps talking about how he needs their next job so he can provide for his family. None of his cohorts even knew he had a family. The viewer expects a payoff by the end, but there isn't one. Meanwhile, Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) is a drug-addicted hothead who gets thrown off the team for disobeying orders. All is forgiven in time for the end credits ditty "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy.
Danger is always just around the corner for the villainsthey are dispatched either by getting pumped full of lead, stabbed, decapitated, or blown up into a thousand pieces, captured lovingly with lots of CGIbut "The Expendables" is the type of movie where the good guys never so much as receive a splinter. All of them are apparently invincible, stripping their fights and shootouts of any sort of palpable danger or threat. It is all very dull and by-the-numbers, so the viewer is forced to redirect their attention elsewhere. First and foremost in many people's thoughts will be their own mortality as they watch a gaggle of faded action heroes and blemished actors who, for the most part, are well past their prime and can no longer do a lot of the physical feats they used to in their films. Sylvester Stallone looks pretty good for sixty-four and does seem to be in shape, but that doesn't take away the fact that his every appearance (not helped by an unfortunate wardrobe and lopsided cap) reminds of an old gay leather daddy. Perhaps most jarring, though, is the cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
"), playing an acquaintance from Ross' past and the head of a competitive mercenary group. Schwarzenegger hasn't had a lead film role in over nine years, and the sight of him on the big screen again is alarming for the wrong reasons; he has severely aged since becoming governor of California, and it shows. Sadly, his days of onscreen man-on-man combat are probably behind him.
"How are you here?" a shocked Sandra asks when she is saved from a highly-guarded hostage situation. "I just am," Ross replies, summing up the level of logic and intelligence found within "The Expendables." A low-rent, shoddy afterthought with one impressive featureits concluding onslaught of pyrotechnicsthe film gives us no memorable dialogue outside of what can be ridiculed, no iconic characters (only iconic performers who've all seen better days), and almost nothing in the way of genuine excitement. Thomas Wolfe once wrote, "You can't go home again," and perhaps that same adage goes for '80s-style action flicks. Lethargic when it should be energetic, stuck in neutral when it ought to be hitting into overdrive, "The Expendables" fails miserably at capturing the sense of go-for-broke frivolity of an old Stallone or Schwarzenegger pic. This one just sort of meanders around, looking for a purpose as it grinds its gears and prepares for a too-little-too-late surge of ultra-violence in the home stretch. Not surprisingly, the actors have trouble disguising their boredom, and no wonder. The whole enterprise is a tremendous wasted opportunity. Even the title knows it.