With the unfortunate shutdown of Non-Social Media, I’m under no further obligation to do video versions of this feature. This may be a blessing in disguise, as I’m unsure how much free time I’ll have on my hands in the future, not to mention the fact that I’m not feeling very well. On a possibly unrelated note, I watched The Expendables this week. I invite you to sit back and relax as you bear witness to me potentially becoming audibly ill.
While there is something of a plot in this film, it seems to really only serve as an excuse for the cast to play off of one another. Considering the cast involves pretty much every major established action star of the last decade or so, to testosterone junkies this is probably a worthwhile excuse. For those interested in the details, the titular band of rogues are black-ops mercenaries contracted to take down the American-backed dictatorship in a fictional island nation. Actually, if you’re familiar with video games at all, I’d venture that this plays out a bit like a movie version of the sandbox shooter Just Cause 2: a general lack of coherent plot, made-up island country, explosions you can outrun, one-liners with hilarious accents, and so on.
Fans of action won’t be disappointed. If all you look for in a movie is an excuse to dim the lights, pop some popcorn, pour some cola and turn your brain off for an hour or two, I say go for it. I’m in no position to tell people how to have their fun. I mean I spend a good portion of my free time with Magic the Gathering, StarCraft 2 and webcomics. For me to lean in from the side of the screen while Sylvester Stallone and his dream team of muscle men blow away legions of faceless mooks and say it’s a pile of lifeless drivel smacks of pretentiousness, even hypocracy. And yet, as someone who takes storytelling in its various forms pretty damn seriously, I can’t really help it if I get my boxers in a bunch over something like this. So if you’re still with me after another one of my questionable digressions, let’s crack this thing open and find out how many blanks it’s actually shooting.
Writer, director, actor. When people say “triple threat” they usually don’t mean “to good taste.”
Let’s begin with the premise. I understand that this is meant to be something of an homage to the camp, over-the-top explosionfest action flicks of the late ’70s and most of the ’80s. If that’s the case, where are the references to movies like Commando and Predator? Yes, Arnold makes a brief cameo appearance and there’s one attempt at a joke at his expense (or maybe it was at Sly’s, I couldn’t bloody tell), but other than that The Expendables behaves very much like its own beast. And while some of it is certainly over-the-top in a moment or two of gratuitous violence and gun porn, most of it feels like it’s trying to be taken somewhat seriously. There’s banter and whatnot, sure, but there’s no feeling of tongues being in cheek. If there’s any sort of joke or irony at work here, our heroes are most certainly not in on it.
From start to finish I was unable to find a single surprise, genuine laugh or legitimally compelling character. What little story there is takes more than a few unnecessary turns into the personal territory of characters we really don’t care about. It’s clear from the outset that Stallone is not writing, directing or starring in the sort of film where time and resources are managed well enough to both develop deep characters and put them through creative, well-shot action scenes – Sly is no Nolan. Hell, I hesitate to put him in the same directorial company as Michael freakin’ Bay. His shot composition and ability to transition need a lot of work. At least he didn’t use any wipes, so he has better sense than Lucas.
“So, Sly, what’s my motivation again?”
“Yer shootin’ people.”
“Oh, right. Forgot.”
On a related note, let’s talk about this cast and how they’re utilized. Jason Statham showed some hand-to-hand fighting skill in his Transporter films, Randy Couture is a mixed martial artist, Dolph Lundgren has thrown down with the likes of Van Damme, Stone Cold Steve Austin beats people up all the time in staged fights and women when he’s bored, and wiping the floor with all of them would be Jet “the second coming of Bruce” Li. So where are all of the breathtaking fistfights? Where’s the mano a mano duels where weapons are discarded and it all comes down to one warrior’s skill against another’s? The moments where there’s even the potential for this are shot, cut and paced so badly Paul Greengrass is rolling his shakey-cam eyes. None of the gunfights are particularly memorable, the villain has no real motivation other than greed and what should be an exciting or at least entertaining exercise in action movie nostalgia just left me feeling bored.
Other than one neat sequence with the aforementioned seaplane and the monstrous AA12 automtic shotgun getting a moment in the limelight, The Expendables feels like another lackluster entry in the already bloated and uninteresting action film genre. It adds nothing to it, does nothing for it and says nothing about it. As I said, there’s appeal in the fact that it demands nothing of its audience if said audience wants to give their higher brain functions a break, but the whole thing just feels tired, by the numbers and dull. Despite the star power of its cast, the potential for a reawakening of the band of misfits harkening to Seven Samurai or The Dirty Dozen and the opportunity for these manly men of modern movies to poke some fun at thesmelves, there isn’t a single thing about The Expendables that would lead me to recommend it. No matter what Sly originally had in mind when he got this idea and gathered all of his friends, there’s just nothing here.