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Non-Review Review: The Expendables

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. When it was mentioned that Sly Stallone would be putting together a dream team of action movie stand-bys – Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren – our minds immediately go to a happy a place. We remember the joys of films like Rambo: First Blood or Die Hard or Total Recall. However, we forget that a great many of the films produced over that iconic era we look back to were also just plain terrible (or, at best, woefully mundane): Red Heat, Cobra, Tango and Cash, among many others. Sadly The Expendables stands more with the latter than the former. Which is a damn shame.

Sly managed a long and arduous shoot...

In a way, The Expendables is a more honest film than the other waves of eighties nostalgia which have hit of late. The A-Team (despite not taking itself too seriously) did attempt to gloss over the camp influences of the original film. On television, Hawaii Five-O seems intents to market the classic cop show as a distant cousin of CSI rather than a bright and colourful homage to the decade that taste forgot. Hell, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was unjustly ashamed of its pulpy roots, intent of darkening itself to the point where it lost all thematic and tonal connection with the material which supposedly inspired it.

However, The Expendables – despite not being a remake or a relaunch – is unabashedly proud of its heritage. It seems that Sly was not just looking back with rose-tinted glasses when he planned with trip down memory lane. This movie isn’t interested in offering you a streamlined or more efficient action movie experience – or even to emulate just the highest quality of the action movies produced in the eighties – instead it adopts a “warts and all” approach. The ridiculous violence and mindless setpieces are there, but so are the one-dimensional cast and the forced melodrama – along with the terrible dialogue and ridiculous plot twists.

I could probably make a word defense of the film, arguing that the movie’s central theme – the notion of soldiers whose glory days have passed – are skilfully reflected both in the types of stories that the cast tell (reflecting on Bosnia, for instance, or reflecting on the loss of “belief”) and in the film’s choice of setting and adversary. The bad guy – rogue CIA agent Monroe – is an eighties throwback, funding a cocaine-producing Central American dictatorship, right out of the worst conspiracy theories of the eighties. Monroe is, we are informed in horrible hamfisted dialogue, unable to adapt to how the world has changed in the twenty or so years since the Reagan administration – the movie is populated with soldiers without a cause, looking for a purpose. These are men in their autumn years, forgotten about. Not one of them has a family, though one really wishes he did. These are heroes without a war – indeed, they need the unambiguously black-and-white environment of a nineteen-eighties action movie to thrive.

Mickey just couldn't tell Sly how disappointed he was with the film to the action star's face...

However, the movie has the exact same flaws as the movies it seeks to evoke. The most skilfully adaptations and nostalgic throwbacks find a way to play up the more beloved aspects of a production (in this case the “carnage candy”), while downplaying the less enjoyable moments – if it’s done right, you don’t even notice: you end up with a movie as good as your nostalgic memories of the original material. Unfortunately, the film is just as blunt and simplistic (and bland) as the vast majority of the empty action films it hopes to bring to mind, dwelling far too long on predictable and pointless melodrama and too intent on providing its characters with the opportunity to spout philosophical-minded nonsense.

It also somewhat hurts that nobody is taking it seriously. This is the high camp of Stephen Segal and Christopher Lambert and even Jean-Claude Van Damme, not the work of Stallone. Whatever you may say of Stallone and Schwarzenegger as actors, they were always professional – they always treated their roles with as much professionalism as one could expect. Instead, here it seems like a bunch of guys who hang out in real life got together and decided to ad-lib. We get anecdotes about wrestling in place of a structured and logical character development – the actors simply seem to be hanginga round waiting for the stuntwork to happen. Very rarely (for example, when Jet Li’s character makes an argument for why he deserves a bigger cut because he’s shorter (“the hole is bigger”)), it works. More often than not, it misses – most obviously with a meandering “protective boyfriend” subplot which can be seen a mile away and just eats screentime as it veers into the ridiculous. Hell, Eric Roberts (playing the villain) seems to be pining for an excuse to hang out with the ensemble, who are having such a good time that they don’t need the audience.

The second problem is that Stallone – while a great actor – isn’t offering us anything new. Pretty much this exact same plot and exact same themes were handled much better in Rambo. At least there, John Rambo’s character added some weight to a “light” story. Here the idea seems that tattoos and weapons equate with “character” (explicitly stated by Tool, the gang’s tattoo artist), so none of the creations are particularly interesting. It has all been done before, by the same guy – but better.

On the upside, Stallone can direct. The final action sequence almost works on the sheer audacity. Obvious CGI and a fairly weak climax (along with several moments which shatter suspension of disbelief) tend to detract, but the movie nearly offers you the adrenaline-pumping experience you were promised. Of course, by then you’ve been bored numb by the blandness of the first hour that you’re cynically spotting flaws and problems in the film. The sequence is aimed for action fans who don’t care about laws of physics or characterisation or subtlety or innovation, but just like the material delivered in a raw (and slightly cheeky) way.

The Expendables is a disappointment on so many levels. Ultimately, and ironically, it’s expendable.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent review Darren. The movie would have benefited from being faster paced with less subplots (the Statham/Carpenter “romance” Jesus!) so we don’t have so much time to be exposed to terrible dialogue, and atrocious acting. I thought the cinematography and editing was poor. Why edit the fight scenes to bits when you have Jet Li for example. In all, it was entertaining yet nowhere does it equal the movies it is trying to replicate…

    • Yep. I think you may be kinder to this one than I am, which I never would have called.
      I’m sorry I haven’t been around AM lately – they blocked the proxy from work, which is just about the only time I have to check it this whether (I’m in crazy hours).

  2. This review is accurate in every way!

    As Castor said, the editing was below average. Even in “quieter” scenes like the church one or the Lundgren/Stone Cold supposed confrontation – There was no flow at all, which is a major failure in terms of editing.
    It felt like when each actor made their first appearance, they all but did a freeze frame with an ink stamp sound effect of the actors name appearing in Die Hard type font. Actually, that would have been amazing!

    The only thing I found really annoying about this film were the damsel in distress scenes, which could have been edited out to the betterment of this piece of film brie. And as for the Carpenter scenes? Her Cordelia days are definitely gone.

    In spite of the poor dialogue/acting (not to mention, the Arnold lines!), general awkwardness and the feeling that, indeed, a few friends had rendezvoused to have some fun with a few action sequences, I still have to admit that I found the whole thing quite entertaining. The gaudiness of it all made for an enjoyable cinema-going experience. I loved the way it ticked off the main ingredients on an action checklist – Jumping on to a moving plane etc. Even though the film was entirely shoddy from beginning to end, for the large part I enjoyed the all-in-one nostalgia!

    • Thanks.

      I don’t know. I got the sense my screening enjoyed it less than most. During the scene with Terry Crews ambushing the badguys from behind with his BFG, everybody was rolling in the aisles – not to mention the David Bowie tribute group that were serving as soldiers.

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