Movie Review: The Expendables
By Matthew Huntley
August 25, 2010
I went into The Expendables with the following question on my mind: if you take away the iconic cast and replaced them with a bunch of nobodies, would it still be worth seeing? The answer is no. In fact, even with Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke as the stars (along with tiny cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis), it’s still not worth it. The movie suffers from what so many bad action movies suffer from: it thinks it can get by on names and routine action sequences alone. Unfortunately, with the movie destined to gross millions, this isn’t the last we’ll see of this type, and like the cast members, these movies will only get older and less interesting.
It’s understandable what Stallone, who directed and co-wrote, wanted to accomplish here. As one of the most beloved and popular action stars of all time, he probably thought it’d be fun to unite all his genre pals under one roof and blow a whole lot of stuff up. Let’s face it: the reason anyone would see this movie is because of the cast and the genre. If any one of these conditions wasn’t met, the theaters would be empty.
But I’m sad to say the theaters should be empty anyway, because Stallone doesn’t do a whole lot with his resources. There’s only one scene where the movie is cheerfully aware of itself and recalls all the fun, brawny action movies of the 1980s and early ‘90s. That scene, of course, is when Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis exchange zippy dialogue in a church and resurrect the “toughest movie guy” battle from back in the day.
With the exception of this scene, though, the rest of the movie is fairly standard, or perhaps substandard, and it all too faithfully lives up to the “mindless action” label. The plot is razor thin, which we knew would be the case, but it seems especially thin, even for a dumb action movie. I wasn’t expecting anything short of ridiculous, but I wanted some kind of hook to keep me involved. The whole conflict is explained in less than one minute of screen time and involves a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) trying to take over the cocaine industry on the fictional island of Vilena, which is somewhere in the Gulf.
Stallone heads up The Expendables, a specialized mercenary unit who contracts themselves for private jobs. He’s hired by a legitimate agent (Willis) to take down the Vilena operation. His team includes Statham, Li, Lundgren and Rourke, along with Randy Couture and Terry Crews, who really are expendable since they hardly have anything to do. Steven Austin also has a bit part as Roberts’ right-hand man.
One of the underlying problems is Stallone the filmmaker seems to take the plot seriously, or at least seriously enough that the movie is not the high-spirited, self-referential cheese-fest we thought it would be. That wouldn’t be such a letdown if the action sequences were anything to speak of, but the truth is we’ve seen them before, only better, and the digital blood and effects deflated the movie of the palpable, raw action we came to admire in Rambo, Terminator and Die Hard. Here, it’s all thrown together and we get scene after scene of The Expendables planting bombs to take down the drug compound, mixed with knife-throwing, loud guns blasting, buildings collapsing and a few scenes of mixed martial arts. I expected all this, and was even hoping for it, but the direction, editing and choreography fail to make them interesting. Stallone shoots in too many close-ups and we lose a sense of space to really know what’s going on. The cuts are so frequent that I often felt disoriented and gave up trying to follow who was hitting whom or where somebody was in relation to just another building exploding.
And why does the screenplay even bother to throw in a subplot that tries to comment on domestic abuse? Was this really needed? All the characters are so under-developed that such a tangent just feels tacked on for no good reason. Even the supposed payoff was lame.
It’s been a while since a really great action movie has raised the ante and delivered something really fresh and exciting. As far as modern action movies go, The Expendables is about on par with The A-Team. It’s not offensive, but it’s also not ambitious or stimulating. If it’s action you want, it’s action you get, but it’s not the kind that will have you telling others to go out and see. I know - I was so hoping it would be, too.