Sylvester Stallone is enjoying something of a resurgence lately, developing a kind of “Fuck you, Hollywood!” attitude, and just doing his own thing. Admittedly, his own thing is the same thing he’s done before, with new additions to the Rocky, and Rambo canons. But they weren’t half bad. Rocky Balboa was a huge leap over Rocky V before it, and Rambo had a pleasingly nasty feel to it, not skimping on the gore.
No sign of a Cobra sequel though. I suppose it’s hard to improve on the story of a cop who eats pizza without taking his leather gloves off first.
And so we come to The Expendables. The team comprises Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, and the other two (the other two not being Seagal or Van Damme). They get hired by Bruce Willis to sort out a troublesome South American dictatorship, which is under the thrall of Angel Batista from Dexter, and a rogue CIA operative.
This is Stallone’s stab at recreating the feel of those eighties action movies. Back then, the world was a simpler place. If a drug lord kidnapped the wife, or murdered the daughter, of your average action hero, did he go through the proper channels?
Of course not. All he needed was… guns, infinite ammo, a shoot from the hip policy that hit the target every time, a little roll across the ground that avoided all incoming enemy bullets, the main bad guy skewered on a spike, a quip tailored to the situation (eg. if the bad guy gets his head chopped up in the rotor blades of a helicopter: “Don’t lose your head!”), the soft kissable lips of a hot babe, and finally, the grudging admiration of a senior official who thought our action hero was a loose cannon, but now realises that sometimes a loose cannon is what you need to get the job done.
Now imagine if a load of these action heroes, normally known for their lone wolf tendencies, were actually in some sort of team together. On paper, it sounds great. However, against all the odds, it’s actually pretty average.
There’s a strange, awkward atmosphere when the whole team are together onscreen. The team banter during action free downtime, designed to show that they’re a bunch who go back a long way, rings false. They sit around, queuing up to say their lines, rather than having proper conversations. Here, and elsewhere, funny lines are hammered home, with characters either saying one line too many, making sure we “get it”, or leaving potentially amusing conversations hanging in mid air without a punchline.
For a huge chunk of the movie, members of the team also go AWOL, leaving the film pretty much a Statham/Stallone buddy movie. This is actually the better part of the film. When the other team members reemerge, there’s no sense that they’ve been doing anything much in the meantime. It’s as if they’ve been waiting stage left for the last half hour. Naturally, this applies more to Randy Coutureand Terry Crews, who don’t have the box office history of the rest of the team. For backstory or any kind of character development (aside from, “Hey! I’m the guy with the biggest gun!”), they get the bum deal.
When the team finally gets down to the job at the hand, together, as a unit (thanks to a little cry by Mickey Rourke), much of the action is choppily edited, and takes place in confined spaces, with the camera quickly jumping from one character to the next. I could just about make out what was going on, but I had to work pretty hard. There are little pockets of action in this last section that are inspired, but mostly, it’s humdrum stuff.
Surprisingly, it’s Dolph Lundgren who steals the film. Rarely have I seen him more animated. He’s probably the only one (apart from Statham) who gets some mileage out of the ropey dialogue. Despite looking a bit old and knackered, he shows newer action stars, like Steve Austin (with face permanently set to a tedious ‘pissed off’), how it’s done.
Ultimately, the story is so rubbish, and the bad guys so boring, it’s hard to care whether The Expendables live or die.