Things I Learned From Movie X: The Expendables
By Edwin Davies
January 13, 2011

There's no easy way out. There's no shortcut home.

In The Expendables, a film whose script was supposedly written by Sylvester Stallone and David Callaham but which was more likely composed from shreds of paper left after someone accidentally dropped the scripts for every bad action flick from the 1980s into a blender, Stallone leads a crack team of mercenaries, comprising the A-List of B-movie stars, against a military dictator. It was a film with a premise and a cast that promised to be awesome.

Sadly, despite its noble intentions, The Expendables was not a very good movie. What is really disappointing about it is not just that it's bad, but that it doesn't even have the courtesy to be badass. There's plenty of action movies that aren't especially good but, through their sheer ridiculousness, become hugely entertaining. Commando is one such film. The Running Man is another. In fact, a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger's films are like that, and I did find myself wishing that the film had followed what his group of mercenaries were up to instead of Stallone's. Apart from a scene in which Terry Crews saves everyone by literally shooting a bunch of enemy combatants into tiny pieces, then screams the beautifully stupid line "Remember this shit at Christmas!" there are no ludicrously awesome or awesomely ludicrous moments in The Expendables. However, that doesn't mean that it wholly without value, or that we cannot take something profound away from it (Editor's Note: Yes it does and no we can't) so let's open our books to page 12 and try to find deeper meaning in The Expendables.

Sylvester Stallone: The New Ed Zwick?

As anyone who has seen Rambo, Stallone's hard-hitting (and throat-ripping) treatise on the excesses of the Burmese junta, he strives for social relevance in his films above all else because he wants to change the world one testosterone-fueled bloodbath at a time. The Expendables is no exception. Beginning with a scene in which the team take down a group of Somali pirates (who Dolph Lundgren, as any good social studies teacher would, tells us it is "good to hang") the film shifts its focus to the actions of a military dictatorship on the fictional island of Vilena, ruled with an iron fist by General Garza (played by David Zayas, best known for his work in Dexter and whose name can only be said to the tune of Amadeus by Falco) and the ex-CIA guy who has been propping up his regime (played by Eric Roberts who, with his suit, perpetual cup of coffee and slicked-back hair, flecked with silver, looks like David Lynch. A piece of advice: this film is much better if you imagine that David Lynch is the villain. In fact, this is true of pretty much all films). Not only that, but in the character of Ying Yang (Jet Li), he examines the plight of the short, who apparently have to work twice as hard as tall people and deserve to be paid more. As someone of slightly above average height, I personally think that my fellow Tallies should do everything possible to keep the shrimps under control, but I applaud Stallone for raising awareness of their struggle.

The one problem with Stallone's particular brand of social commentary is that, whilst it shines much needed light on society's ills (except for the problems of the short, because fuck them) is that the only solution he offers is to kill everyone. Admittedly, in a existential sense, killing everyone would solve all the world's problems because there would be no one left to suffer from them, but that seems overly nihilistic and since the film doesn't end with Stallone personally slitting the throats of every man, woman and child on earth (sorry if I've spoiled the ending of The Expendables 2, Sly!) I can't imagine that it is the view that Stallone himself actually takes. This lends a frustrating ambiguity to his work, suggesting that he is not merely the new Ed Zwick, but also the new Alain Resnais.

Is it possible to get a restraining order out on someone to stop them from running in films?

Movies demand a certain degree of suspension of belief, otherwise they become laughable. The Expendables already asks a lot of its audience by expecting us to believe that Sylvester Stallone can write and direct a film, something which moves beyond suspension of belief and borders on a kind of mass psychosis. I can't help but feel that if enough people stopped believing that it was possible for Stallone to make a film then all the prints of The Expendables would turn into blank celluloid. But early on in its running time, the film expects us to make a leap of faith which even members of a suicide cult would consider a tad too much. It expects us to believe that Sylvester Stallone could run fast enough along a pier to catch up to a moving plane, despite the fact that he runs like a darts player chasing a pie.

The art of running on screen requires grace, poise and, above all else, the ability to run pretty fast whilst being filmed. Stallone has none of these qualities. Seeing the form mangled so profoundly made me understand why there are so many videos on YouTube of clips of Tom Cruise running set to '80s pop songs. Truly, he is the greatest on-screen runner the world has ever seen.

For a movie called The Expendables...

When Stallone started assembling his ultimate action cast, there was a sense that he was creating his own version of The Dirty Dozen (or his own cut-rate Inglourious Basterds, depending on your age, point of reference or overall level of cynicism regarding the willingness of Hollywood to jump wholeheartedly onto a bandwagon) but in bringing together the crème de la crème of the direct-to-DVD world, Stallone forgot one crucial factor; in the Dirty Dozen, some of the characters actually were expendable and died along the way, something which Stallone was curiously unwilling to let happen. As long as they are on Stallone's side, they survive.

Dolph Lundgren, who gets beaten half to death by Jet Li then shot, somehow lives. He even has a "poignant" death scene, yet he's in the final scene drinking and talking with the rest of the gang. Then again, Lundgren is massive and could probably take much worse. Seriously, he must be the offspring of a human and someone from Brobdingnag. Even his knife is so colossal that when Jason Statham takes it from him he looks like Link playing around with the Biggoron Sword. Even Randy Couture (who boasts the rare distinction of being the one actor in the film whose real name is crazier sounding than that of his character, who is called Toll Road) and Terry Crews (to illustrate my last point, his character is called Hale Caesar. I wish I was making that up) make it to the end. What kind of cockamamie world are we living in where the black character and the actor you've never heard of don't die in an action movie? (FYI: I'm glad that Terry Crews made it to the end because he is the one shining light in the film. He was clearly the only guy to read the script and decide that he was in a comedy.)

Planet Hollywood, just as underwhelming the second time around

In the lead up to the release of the film, one scene above all others was used in all the ads, trailers and promotional materials, one beautiful, luminous, incandescent moment that for all the fans of '80s action films was the equivalent of the Rapture; beyond it, nothing else could ever be. Yes, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were going to share a scene. It was going to be awesome, except it wasn't. The trio traded halfhearted barbs, swore a good deal, then went their separate ways. It was truly the second most disappointing scene of characters meeting in a church of 2010.