A hot mess — that’s what Sylvester Stallone and friends have wrought in “The Expendables,” a nearly incoherent all-stars-on-deck actioner that plays like “Grown Ups” on nitro or a brutish, blue-collar “Ocean’s Eleven” (which, financially speaking, isn’t a bad place to be). With no concept to go on at the screenplay level, Stallone impressively assembles a never-before-seen tough-guy lineup the likes of which B-movie fans should feel compelled to witness firsthand. Though the muddled execution falls far short of the talent involved, the Lionsgate release is loud and explosive enough that sequels will likely follow.
And what self-respecting, testosterone-producing child of the “Rambo” era wouldn’t want to tag along for a mission with the likes of Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (mixed martial artist Randy Couture) — a multi-generational, cross-discipline roster of bone-crunchers, whose talents range from throwing knives to butchering the English language. But take the cast away, and there’s not much more here than the straight-to-DVD schlock that has kept conspicuously absent rivals Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme busy of late.
Scripted by Stallone and “Doom” co-writer Dave Callaham, pic tells of a mercenary team hired by the CIA to infiltrate a South American island and take out local despot Gen. Garza (David Zayas), as well as the cocaine-peddling puppetmaster (Eric Roberts) behind him. The Expendables recognize the assignment as a suicide mission, but instead of turning down the job, they decide to “make it personal.”
Assurances of grade-A ass-kicking aside, why should we care? Apparently because there’s a woman involved. Stallone casts Latin bombshell Giselle Itie as Garza’s daughter, Sandra; he might just as easily have chosen a 12-year-old, as she holds neither sexual nor romantic interest for the gang, serving instead as a symbol of the purity these guys lack.
The key to the entire movie can be found in a dialogue scene between Stallone and Mickey Rourke, playing a tattoo artist named Tool, now retired from mercenary duty. Tool tells Barney of a defining moment in his past, when he spotted a woman about to commit suicide; had he intervened, Tool might not have saved his own soul from damnation, but he surely could have saved hers. Sandra is Barney’s endangered soul.
It’s preposterous, pure and simple, that Barney would turn down a $5 million payday, then do the job anyway just for Sandra’s sake, and the script does nothing to sell the idea — not that plausibility seems to have been much of a concern. Basically, the plot serves merely to support the action sequences, which makes it all the more curious that more than 30 minutes go by between the opening setpiece (aboard a pirated vessel off the coast of Somalia) and the next explosion.
Featuring pyrotechnic displays over-the-top enough to alter the planet’s orbit, the aesthetic here is very much in keeping with the ’80s action pics that established Stallone’s career, save for the use of digital blood in lieu of old-school squibs. When the Expendables shoot anonymous evil henchmen, they don’t just die, they erupt, sending a shower of virtual viscera across the screen — a distractingly artificial way of rendering violence presumably intended to appear more realistic (for those who’ve wondered what a knife to the throat or a mini-cannon to the head might look like).
When the movie isn’t in fight mode (and be warned, it’s as gratuitous with futile plot- and character-building scenes as it is with gore), its chief running gag involves getting the characters to hurl insults at one another — the idea being that auds will enjoy watching these guys lob locker-room taunts as much as the cast appreciated having the chance to tease one another. (While age and ego are prime targets, no one dares make fun of how Stallone runs or the fact that we practically need subtitles to decipher all those heavy accents.)
Undaunted by the fact that most of his leads are past their prime, Stallone manages to get the most out of them physically. He’s hardest on himself, and reportedly suffered several injuries in an intense fight with wrestling star Steve Austin, who plays a sadist named Paine (what else?). At various points, he stages one-on-one clashes between heavyweights (other key matchups being Lundgren vs. Li and Couture vs. Austin), though most of the time, he has everyone fighting at once.
That approach might’ve worked had the editors assembled all that footage in such a way that we could tell where characters are in relation to one another or what’s going on. While Brian Tyler’s temp-sounding score beats its drums and blows its horns in support, pic crams sequences of rapidly cut, high-energy moments down our throats, such that the effect begins to resemble the waterboarding Sandra’s character endures in one particularly unpleasant scene.
With “The Expendables,” Stallone makes the point that Hollywood wouldn’t be the same without these action heroes. As for their big group effort? Not so indispensable.