Modest though its promise may be, The Expendables doesn't live up to it. In fact in a lot of ways, it's the most disappointing movie of the summer. The premise suggests a throwback to the cut-and-dried action pictures of the 1980s - pure action that didn't need much of a brain to be effective, relying on bold stunts and direct, hard-headed anti-authoritarian heroes. The casting suggests much the same - Stallone, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, plus much-touted cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger, all bring us back to a time when men were mostly made of muscles, voted Republican, and hated Russians. The idea of a "reboot" cleverly applied to a genre rather than a specific franchise seemed to hold a great deal of potential.
Instead, The Expendables is just a drag - a boring, one-note action picture that monotonously goes through the motions, offering a parade of unconvincing pyrotechnics and awful dialogue, all while barely paying lip service to the pictures of yore that it intends to salute. And when I say "unconvincing pyrotechnics," let me be very clear: In this film, a blow-'em-up featuring explosions galore, the fire looks fake. It all just made me want to watch Commando again.
Sylvester Stallone - also serving as director and co-writer - stars as Barney Ross, a mercenary. It ain't any more complicated than that. He leads a team of characters played by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. They are assigned - by the shady Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) - to assassinate General Garza, the dictator of a small fictional island nation. During a recon mission to the island by Stallone and Statham, the dictator's daughter emerges as the team's unlikely ally. When she is kidnapped by the evil rogue CIA agent Monroe (Eric Roberts), who secretly controls the island through the general, the team's mission becomes more complicated and challenging.
I was expecting nothing more than a plot-free excursion into the land of Pure Action, but The Expendables delivers a formless soup of explosions and pointless character moments that cumulatively add up to a negative in the entertainment column. The performances are wooden, there is little evidence of a screenplay, and the visuals are clunky and graceless. Worst of all are the action sequences, which are incoherent and impossible to track. Stallone, whose directorial handling of the recent Rambo sequel was firm and swift, favors an impossibly fast Michael Bay-like approach to these scenes, which, in case anyone doesn't already know, simply doesn't work. In order for action to be effectively conveyed onscreen, one must first be able to see it. Hackneyed, nonsensical editorial "styling" such as this destroys the work of the technicians, actors, and stuntmen who plan and participate in such sequences. Their work is rendered invisible when someone in the editing room makes a decision based on the belief that teenagers enjoy the visual fuck-you of a seizure-inducing twenty-four cuts per second. Good action - the kind of action that is supposed to have inspired The Expendables - is memorable for what it shows, whether it's guys flying through the air in slow motion, or buildings being destroyed by spaceships, or cars barreling at top speed along the Embarcadero. Whatever the thrill, it's notable first because you can see what is happening in the context of the action's location, sets, and characters. Chopping up action beyond all recognition results in the opposite of tension, and in so doing lays waste any and all storytelling that may have preceded it.
The performances are hardly worth discussing, although Jet Li can be credited for eliciting the film's only real chuckle and Mickey Rourke has a surprisingly effective scene in which his character - an old associate of Stallone's - talks about being a mercenary and having a soul that's basically dead weight. It's nice, brief work. Overall, however, character interactions are generally meaningless, even in the context of the titular team of compatriots. Their banter is limited in both scope and believability. Far from generating a feeling of personal and professional camaraderie, these guys may as well have just met each other for the sake of making a lackluster Z-grade action picture with terrible special effects. Oh, wait...
The Expendables is an action movie that is, for all intents and purposes, still in the discussion stage - it's a concept without a script or a reason to be made. A film at this stage should only be talked about; the fact that it was actually shot and edited in this premature form is a testament to the hunger for clever ideas in Hollywood. And that's understandable to a point because, as a one-pager on paper, The Expendables is terrific. On film, it's terrible.