Everyone loves a good underdog story, and The Expendables should've been it. The late '80s and early '90s were a glorious, cheese-filled time if you were an action movie fan, but by the time 1998 and 1999 rolled around, even cinema's most brawny and bulletproof marquee names were hitting the dirt one by one, ousted by high-tech, high-concept, action-and-then-some flicks like The Matrix. Of all the titans, only one -- the dependably cranky, endlessly durable Bruce Willis -- fully survived the transition; even today, he's still cranking out the occasional Die Hard (well, Schwarzenegger didn't quite crash and burn, but even that was a race to slip into politics faster than his box-office returns slipped into oblivion).
Then, suddenly, Stallone was back, and following the surprise one-two punch of Rocky Balboa and the ridiculously, awe-inspiringly gory Rambo, Stallone presented the action faithful with a grand idea: a "class reunion" that would gather all the '90s greats for one more balls-out, take-no-prisoners blast of B-movie goodness. I'm a guy who counts Michel Gondry's precocious French romantic dramedy The Science of Sleep as one of his favorite movies, but there's no denying the visceral, exhilarating fun that can be had with a hard-hitting, kinetic shoot-'em-up, and thanks to CHUD's monumental B-Action Movie Thread, I've enjoyed my fair share of vintage guy flicks as of late. Even if I don't Stallone very high on my personal list of favorite action stars, I do think First Blood deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Die Hard and Predator (even maybe before Predator!), and the whole idea of a team up seemed too juicy and potentially awesome to resist.
Unfortunately, The Expendables that rolls into theaters this weekend isn't the rogue's gallery Stallone seems to have envisioned. Titans like Van Damme (busy polishing his second film as a director) and Seagal (who decided to lend his doughy aikido skills to the upcoming action ensemble Machete instead) are nowhere to be found. In their place, we've got a couple of modern stars (Jason Statham and Jet Li), one totally misused genre vet (Dolph Lundgren), and a couple of no-name pro wrestlers who have no business acting (Steve Austin's participation in a film automatically makes my desire to see it drop faster than a piledriver hitting the mat, and trust me when I say Randy Couture's contributions are not more impressive). Yet, even with adjusted expectations and ignoring what could have been, this ragtag version of Stallone's big epic still fails to deliver the kind of thrills that DTV action has been ramping up as of late, thanks to terrible writing and too many budgetary constraints.
After a splattery but way-too-short opening on a boat with the rest of the actual Expendables (which also includes Terry Crews), Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Statham) cross the border to look into taking out a cruel, dictator-like general (David Zayas) and the fat cat funding his operation (Eric Roberts). There, they discover both an apparently insurmountable challenge (it's sort of unclear why Ross and Christmas initially choose to bail; I think Stallone's budget made Zayas' operation look much more rinky-dink than he intended), and a fiery woman named Sandra (Giselle Itié) who insists her people are worth saving, and refuses to leave when Barney offers. Knowing that if he doesn't do anything, Sandra will be killed, he gathers his team and storms back in.
The story probably sounds pretty straightforward, but Stallone and co-screenwriter David Callaham ruin its simplicity with useless distractions, such as ruminations on what what war does to a man's soul (espoused by Mickey Rourke in a glorified 12-minute cameo), politics (like Rambo, only fake and dopey), and backstory for just one character (Statham gets a cheating girlfriend, played by Charisma Carpenter, who exudes none). Why The Expendables needs 45 minutes of distractions from shootin' and blown' stuff up is beyond me, but the fact that it's also heavy-handed and boring only adds insult to injury. On top of that nonsense, Stallone's surrender to modern quick-cut/shaky-cam techniques and, even worse, the over-application of awful-looking CG blood and gore kills most of the big setpieces dead in their tracks. Rambo also had CG gore, but it must've been planned; The Expendables was once rumored to be PG-13, and all of this violence seems to have been a hasty, after-the-fact decision.
Aside from the highly-publicized, legitimately chuckle-worthy four-minute scene where Sly, Schwarzenegger and Willis basically make fun of each other and a brief (but still overcut) fight between Lundgren and Li, The Expendables takes everything that was good on paper and pisses it away. Stallone embarrassingly closes the film with "The Boys Are Back in Town", which plays more like a punchline than a rousing finish given the crowd riding off into the sunset, and the movie that's just finished unspooling. Then again, can you blame the absentees? To say that those guys felt the deck might be a bit stacked against them in an "ensemble" that happens to star, was co-written and would be directed by Stallone is a fair point. Sure enough, nobody really co-stars in the existing picture except Statham, with Li a distant third, and given the film's "macho men" subject matter, color me unsurprised that ego ultimately wreaked havoc. Stallone may have envisioned his movie as a modern take on The Wild Bunch, but all the final film really wants to offer is Stallone himself: still ticking, like a bloated, persistent Lone Gunman.
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