Reviewed by James Owen
It’s clear that director/star/ co-writer Sylvester Stallone was torn between tones with “The Expendables”: On one hand, he wants a “The Wild Bunch” feel of old warriors facing tests of loyalty despite the selfish desire to continue riding off into the sunset. On the other, Stallone wants an ironic, detached homage to the action films that made him so popular in the 1980’s.
But what does the audience want? Old school Stallone fans want something out of the glory days (?) of “Rambo III” and “Cobra.” Younger fans want the limits pushed, whatever that means these days.
The problem is that Stallone can’t do all of this at the same time. His effort to throwback to those Cold War flicks lacks perspective—he doesn’t show us how the world, or Stallone himself, has changed. The result is Stallone, rather than trying to maturely redefine himself, comes off like the middle-aged guy throwing a couple extra ten pound plates on his bench bar at the gym.
A pity, because Stallone’s story (co-written with Dave Callaham) has serious contemporary implications. “The Expendables” follows a group of globe-trotting rogue mercenaries, doing the dirty biddings of the rich and shadowy. Have some Somali pirates raided your cargo ship and demanded money in exchange for the crew? The Expendables will be there…just don’t expect them to have anything interesting to say about the corporate politics involved. Are you a shady CIA operative (Bruce Willis) who needs a group of reckless malcontents to overthrow a drug-funded army in some weird island country? A little crazy, but hey, throw some money toward The Expendables and you’re good to go. I am sure you would be shocked to learn the CIA might have some non-policy reasons for sending private killers on this mission.
See where this is going? Stallone’s soldiers-of-fortune in the modern era of capitalistic-driven conflict would make “Bourne” director Paul Greengrass salivate.
But the set-up never pays off. Even when The Expendables learn the CIA’s motives in this banana republic dispute are “surprisingly” unclean (c’mon, they’re led by Eric Roberts), there’s no response. Stallone simply doesn’t go there, as if he doesn’t trust his story. Instead, the movie becomes about his infatuation with the daughter of the island’s general. She’s played by Giselle Itié, who no one’s going to throw out of bed for causing a revolution.
This becomes the reason Stallone’s character risks not only his life, but also his team’s. This turn whiffs of desperation, suggesting Stallone just wanted to prove his cinematic virility rather than go for something a bit more substantial. C’mon Sly, you even give us a waterboarding scene! But, again, there’s no consequences, no discussion, nothing. Like every other moment in “The Expendables”, it simply sits there hoping to speak for itself. The “Rambo” films always seemed to have an agenda about Vietnam or the Contras or Myanmar. Even Rocky was about the legacy of the great blue collar cities. To be fair, I don’t expect Sylvester Stallone to have a Michael Mann-style political agenda, but I also want more than the lazy crutch of the damsel in distress.
Furthermore, Stallone doesn’t do very much with his cast. I have no reason to be excited about Jason Statham, Jet Li, “Cone Stold” Steve Austin (thank you, Mike Tyson), or Dolph Lundgren individually. Together could be a real thrill, but Stallone miscalculates: When you’ve got AK-47s and hand grenades aplenty in the action scenes, it doesn’t matter who’s in the film. The only one he gives anything important to is Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke. His precious few scenes offer a glimpse of what “The Expendables” could have been: Rourke’s character speaks of hard-swallowed regret and fighting for things no longer worth the fight. These are strong moments, just long enough to make you wish there were more of them. Mickey Rourke has something close to gravitas.
Beyond Rourke, Stallone is intent on giving Statham as much screen time as possible, as though Statham is the Next Big Thing and Stallone is Passing the Torch. Maybe I’m misreading this excessive screen time, but Guy Ritchie “made” Statham twelve years ago and that torch isn’t Stallone’s to pass anymore. Better was Ah-nuld’s quick advice to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “The Rundown”: Schwarzenegger bumped Johnson and told him to “have fun in there” while The Rock walked toward an impending bar fight. Then Arnold walked away from movies to terminate Gray Davis in the fall of 2003. Statham is a fantastically fun action star who has carried movies far better than this, but his screen time precludes other interesting but unexplored possibilities here.
Speaking of Arnold, I must address the cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger. Early in the film, the Mt. Rushmore of Action Heroes meet in a church, as if Stallone wants to solemnize the moment. Willis is at the pulpit, Ah-nuld bursts through a heavenly shaft of light. It’s a show-off moment, but Willis looks confused and Arnold and Stallone’s banter seems awkward at best, pitiful at worst. Each actor tries to one-up the other with insults and smackdown, and Stallone eventually gives himself the win. But Arnold looks uncomfortable and stilted, like he’s got some crisis affecting the world’s fifth-largest economy on his mind. Knowing that, Stallone’s little verbal victory comes off as extremely hollow.
Inadvertently, the moment hints that Schwarzenegger “will be back” when his political foray is over, and perhaps Arnold will create something “The Expendables” is not: A film with gravitas, weaving the themes of legacy, loyalty, mortality, and, yes, politics. Stallone had better watch out; he might not even get a cameo. As for “The Expendables,” Stallone has no one else to blame.