For Sylvester Stallone, action films aren’t just escapist entertainment: they’re a venue for personal expression. His biggest rivals in the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis — who, by the way, both make memorable cameos in Stallone’s new film “The Expendables” — couched their ballets of napalm and testosterone in heavy doses of irony and sarcasm. They made silly movies that they knew were silly. Stallone, in contrast, was always defined by his total and complete sincerity. As ludicrous as they are, movies like “Rambo III” and “Over the Top” are grounded in genuine beliefs. I truly believe that Stallone thought he could single-handedly win the Vietnam and Cold Wars which, when you think about it, is a lot funnier than anything in the work of his more comedically gifted peers. “The Expendables” bears that same mark of earnest stupidity. It may look like a crass cash grab — and it definitely is that too — but it’s simultaneously so shallow and yet deeply felt, it could only have come from the idiosyncratically macho mind of Sly.
The movie takes place in an alternate reality from our own, where men are men and women are nothing but beautiful walking props that need to be rescued. In this world, the simplistic good guys-vs.-bad guys and more-is-more, logic-be-damned action aesthetic of the 1980s never ended. Amongst the stranger quirks of the “Expendables”‘ universe: motorcycles are the most popular form of transportation, kerosene and hand grenades are apparently popular building materials, and gunshots appear to have curative effects on both the body and mind. This place is so foreign to our own that the film may as well have begun with a title card that reads “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
But who can blame Stallone for trying to recapture the 1980s? Everybody else in Hollywood is doing it. From “Transformers” to “G.I. Joe” to “The A-Team,” nostalgia is the operating mode of most Hollywood blockbusters these days. Mining his own legacy is, absurdly, the only way for Stallone to stay current. In fact, the title of Stallone’s ’80s animated series, “Rambo and the Forces of Freedom,” would’ve made a better title for this film than “The Expendables” since none of these men view each other as expendable.
Really, they’re more like The Unkillables: rippling leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right-hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), cranky martial arts expert Ying Yang (Jet Li), gun fetishist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), other guy who’s extremely good at killing people Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Dolph Lundgren…err Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). Other than Christmas, who gets dumped by his girlfriend in the first reel, none of The Expendables have any family, or personal lives, or friends, or hobbies, or even houses they go to to sleep when they’re not murdering people for money.
They spend all their downtime at a tattoo parlor named Tool’s, which is run by a former mercenary and current babbling philosopher, played by Mickey Rourke. A mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) offers them a job taking down the dictator of a small Caribbean island. A reconnaissance mission helps Ross decide to turn the job down: it’s too dangerous and not worth the money. Then, of course, he realizes there are things in this world more important than money. How much money do you think Stallone got paid to “learn” that lesson?
All of “The Expendables”‘ themes are that fascinatingly paradoxical. Much is made of the Expendables’ code, the rules that govern when it is appropriate to kill someone and why; you’re supposed to take a life for a reason, and you should never hurt a woman. Lundgren’s even booted out of the group for being too bloodthirsty. And this is from a movie about violence for violence’s sake that includes some of the most gruesomely splattery cinematic deaths outside the torture porn genre since Stallone’s last ode to his own manliness, 2008’s “Rambo.”
Given the title, the fact that all of the scenes that don’t involve gunplay or explosions are about craggy dudes talking about how things have changed since the good ol’ days, and that Stallone himself is now 64 years old, this movie should really be about a man coming to grips with his mortality. Instead, “The Expendables” is about a man — Stallone or Ross, take your pick — pretending mortality doesn’t exist.
Statham and Stallone’s characters have a friendly rivalry throughout the film about who is faster and deadlier with their weapons. Statham repeatedly reminds Stallone he’s not as young as he used to be and Stallone repeatedly insists he’s still just as good as ever. And when Stallone’s character shoots his pistols at bad guys, he fires and reloads with the speed of a robot. No question Stallone looks good for guy who’s about to start collecting Social Security, but wide shots and scenes that demand Stallone to run show he ain’t as spry as he used to be (probably a big reason the film has an inexplicably large number of close-ups).
“The Expendables” will never join the pantheon of great cheesy Stallone action vehicles. It certainly can’t hold a candle to “Rambo: First Blood Part II” or “Rocky III.” On an emotional level, it’s a failure; on a technical level, it’s a mess. Its characters are nonexistent and the action scenes are confusingly chaotic, though I did like the one where Statham gets on the hood of a seaplane and blows up a dock while big baddies Eric Roberts and Steve Austin leap out of the way of the explosion. But there’s something completely compelling about watching an old guy try very hard — and frequently fail — to look really young.
“The Expendables” is Stallone’s mid-life crisis movie. Some people buy sports cars to reclaim their youth. Sly’s already got a lot of cars. So he made this defiant slap in the face of Father Time instead. It’s unnatural but kind of remarkable. It’s “Viagra: The Movie.”
“The Expendables” is now open wide.