In the world of the B action movie there is nothing which cannot be solved by a large group of armed men, and “The Expendables” are there to prove it. Even if that job includes taking on an entire South American army in order to free a fictional island from the grasp of a ruthless dictator (David Zayas) and the former CIA agent (Eric Roberts) propping him up.
The best of these, your “Lethal Weapons” and “Die Hards” and whatnot, married an exciting plot to charismatic leads, usually with a touch of humor. “The Expendables” has no time for that. It’s much more about constant, unrelenting testosterone and answering ridiculous fictional match-up questions like who would win in a fight; Dolph Lundgren or Jet Li, Randy Couture or Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Is it good? No, not hardly. But is it good? Very.
The dialogue is excruciating, alternating between extra-extra-large machismo and humor that sounds like it came off the back of a package of Joe Blow bubblegum. It’s there to fill the minutes in between action scenes, which is certainly typical of the genre but can and has been done much better.
It also doesn’t use its cast as well as it could. Half of the Expendables are absent for a great deal of the film as it focuses on the teams leader Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and his right hand men Lee (Jason Statham) and Yin (Jet Li).
Realizing that trying to topple the dictator is probably a suicide mission, Barney wisely decides to call it off. Or he would if he could stop thinking about their contact (Gisele Itié) who stayed behind and what might happen to her in the generals clutches. He’s not sure what to do about it, though, since his sniper (Dolph Lundgren) has gone crazy and Lee is mooning over his ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) so much he can’t win a simple knife-throwing competition any more. And Yin keeps demanding more money because he’s short.
It probably would work better with a different director. These sorts of things are all about surface and make no pretense other wise. That sort of movie needs a flashy director, a John McTiernan or the like, who can make the surface so irresistible you don’t mind as much there’s nothing underneath. Stallone isn’t that kind of director, his work is serviceable but not great. The action scenes float between moments of excellence and moments that truly do not work. Come to think of it, a lot of his character scenes do as well, such as an early meeting between Barney, his new employer (Bruce Willis) and his old team leader (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to decide who gets the job. It makes you wonder what sort of world we are living in where Bruce Willis and Eric Roberts are getting out-acted by Dolph Lundgren.
Stallone has, wisely, left most of the heavy dialogue lifting to the more accomplished actors in his retinue, mainly Statham and Rourke. In particular Rourke’s one monologue on the effects of a life of violence on a man’s soul. It’s as close as “The Expendables” ever comes to trying to reach beyond its roots, and it’s gone all too soon.
On the other hand, once “The Expendables” gets rolling, you really do get exactly what you came for. Buildings blow up, men are shot in half, heads are kicked off. “The Expendables” is entirely aware of its near self-parody nature and plays into it constantly, usually backing off just enough to keep its audience with it. It’s not quite ridiculous enough to be truly great like a “Commando” or a “Red Dawn,” but it can stand on its own feet and make you want see another one, assuming you’re the kind of person who wanted to see this one.
“The Expendables” is mainly an exercise in nostalgia and action movie wish fulfillment. And violence. A lot of violence. If you are of the right age, or are a connoisseur of the Steven Seagal flavor of direct-to-DVD action film, seeing all these guys up on screen actually is a lot of fun. It doesn’t make it a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s still a lot of fun.