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Movie Review: The Expendables
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the expendablesThe Expendables
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Steve Austin
Rated R
Release date: August 13, 2010

Since The Expendables was first announced in 2008 the idea of bringing together some of the finest cinematic tough guys and badass motherfuckers of the past three decades for one big blood, bullets, and bombs brouhaha sounded like the wet dream of millions of action movie geeks brought to life in booze-and-steroid-infused flesh. I was raised on a steady diet of badass from the moment I was born. When I was a child my celluloid heroes were Han Solo and Superman. My mother didn’t think I was ready for R-rated movies, the threshold you had to cross to truly be a man. When I turned ten the time had come. During my summer vacation I caught the HBO premiere of the immortal Die Hard and my mind was promptly blown by the glorious on-screen action and the awesome presence of the one and only Bruce Willis in his signature role as badass New York cop John McClane. My exposure to such large scale chaos until then came chiefly in the form of cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe (which one day would ironically become big screen cartoons only with flesh-and-blood folks playing one-dimensional characters), but watching Willis bury bullets in the heads and asses of a bunch of heavily armed German thieves was a serious cultural awakening nothing could’ve prepared me for. By the time I was eleven and my parents allowed me to watch Lethal Weapon for the first time, the doors on a brave new world were forever opened for me. I may have still inhabited the body of a shy, snot-nosed kid who grew up dirt poor and never had many friends, but from that moment on I was a man, in my heart at any rate.

In the two decades my action movie regimen slowly grew until I was a full-on junkie for big guns, sexy ladies, huge explosions, and the screen’s manliest of manly men righteously kicking ass and firing off flippant one-liners with the velocity of an AK-47. Even as I began to devour films of all and develop more mature tastes, I still kept coming back to the finest works of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Snipes, Bronson, Willis, Lee (Bruce and Brandon), Russell, Eastwood, Marvin (Lee that is), and many more. Some of my favorite directors to this day include names like John Carpenter, Sergio Leone, Robert Aldrich, and Walter Hill, masters of the craft of stylish, smashing adventure and cool heroes who would become pop culture icons. But in recent years the preferences of the increasingly fickle movie-going public (fuck ‘em) have shifted away from hardcore revelries of raw machismo and more towards flimsy throwaway fare designed by the studios to get rated PG-13 in order to capture that fiscally important but in due course irrelevant teen demographic, all the while using the changing national aura as a handy excuse. The escalating success of superhero comic book adaptations have also contributed greatly to the downfall of red meat action extravaganzas. The hell with all of them I say. Now more than ever we need our heroes to detonate small islands, gnaw their way out of dank prison cells, and bounce horny strippers on their knees while shot-gunning kegs of Molson. We need heroes who don’t need to wear outlandish costumes to enforce their own brand of justice, who require little motivation to strap on the heavy artillery and pilot Sherman tanks down the streets of Anytown, U.S.A. leveling mortar shells at gangs of Neo-Nazis and mutant ninjas. Brothers and sisters, we need The Expendables.

When there’s a dangerous situation in the world that the military can’t — or won’t — handle, maybe you can hire the Expendables. They’re the toughest bunch of hombres you’ll ever find. Led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), the team consists of Ross’ right-hand man, British knife fighter Lee Christmas (Jason Statham); martial arts expert Yin Yang (Jet Li); heavy weapons man Hale Caesar (Terry Crews); and demolitionist Toll Road (Randy Couture). No longer with the team is sniper Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), who was rather brutally shown the door after going nuts on a mission. Back at their home base in Louisiana former team member and now full-time tattoo artist and professional pussy hound Tool (Mickey Rourke) arranges for Barney to meet with the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) for their next assignment. Church offers the Expendables the demoralizing yet lucrative task of invading the tiny South American island nation of Villena and overthrowing its power-hungry dictator General Garza (David Zayas). For the small fee of $5 million, Barney accepts the job and goes with Lee to Villena for reconnaissance. Once there they meet their contact, beautiful local rebel Sandra (Giselle Itie), and get a ground-level view of the battle that’s tearing the country apart. Garza is in cahoots with rogue ex-CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his associates Paine (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels) to fund his cash-hungry nation with the money from the sale of drugs grown on the island. Garza doesn’t like that he’s the puppet of greedy Americans but in order to maintain his grip on his crumbling kingdom he has no choice but to do Munroe’s bidding. Ross and Christmas make their presence known and are forced to flee while Sandra stays behind. Returning to the States Barney is prepared to refuse the mission, but after a soul-searching discussion with Tool soon realizes that he’s not about to let Sandra and her people suffer so he can keep his own ass out of the fire. With Lee and the rest of the Expendables in tow he returns to Villena armed and ready to take out Garza, Munroe, and anybody else that stands in his way.

I don’t apply what George W. Bush once referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” but I have also come to comprehend that sometimes you can’t allow those hopes to get misplaced. Something I’ve noticed in reviews I’ve read of The Expendables is a lot of people complaining that the movie was far from what they expected. I can certainly understand how they could be disappointed. When you take a look at the amazing cast Sylvester Stallone put together for this movie, an all-star cast of action greats spread out across at least three generations, you could be excused for venturing into your neighborhood multiplex, torn ticket resting comfortably in your pocket until you can frame it for all time, expecting mind-blowing awesomeness the likes of which have never been seen. You see names like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Lundgren, Statham, Li, and so on and flashes of past cinematic classics of desperate men going on dangerous missions that could cost them their lives because it’s the right thing to do like The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen flood your celluloid-soaked medulla oblongata. If that’s the case then all I have to say to is, you poor, hopeless fool. Please take that as an insult, but if you expect something approaching cinematic immortality from the director of Staying Alive featuring the stars of Romeo Must Die, The Transporter, Gamer, The Scorpion King 2, Most Wanted, The Condemned, and the 1989 version of The Punisher (and those are some of their better films), then clearly you haven’t seen many movies. In fact I’ll wager your eyes have never beheld the greatness of John Ford’s The Lost Patrol, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (or even its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, or anything from Kurosawa for that matter), anything from Sam Peckinpah, the original Predator (for shame) and so on and so forth. My advice to you is to stop reading this review, get thee to Netflix pronto, and check out some of those flicks I just mentioned. Come back when you’ve seen at least three of them.

There now, don’t you feel quite the harebrained person? Hey don’t get yourself down, not a lot in any case. It’s not a crime to have lofty expectations when going into a movie with the kind of potential The Expendables has, and I must admit that when I heard Sylvester Stallone, who had been a box office pariah for more than a decade before emerging from exile with a vengeance with Rocky Balboa and Rambo, was taking on the most difficult directing job of his career by casting just about every major living action star in one film I got serious goosebumps, some in areas I’d rather not mention. Then I read that he was shooting this movie with the intention of earning a more marketable (but just as foolhardy as the moronic NC-17) PG-13 rating my heart sank a little bit. But then I figured what the fuck, seeing so many of the coolest dudes to ever pick up Vulcan cannons with their bare hands and atomize a school bus full of zombie nuns going head to head on the widest of movie screens was too rich an opportunity to pass up. I knew it wasn’t going to be a classic, not with Stone Cold Steve Austin in the cast and Stallone doing some of his best action directing work to date, and yet I had a good feeling it was going to be a shitload of mindless fun that would ideally compliment a six-pack of frosty suds and a sizzling thick-crust meat lover‘s pizza. I’m happy to say it was that and so much more. Even with the materials in place I knew right off the bat that seeing the next major man movie great was not going to happen and I accepted that long before I walked into the air-conditioned comfort of a darkened theater last Friday night with my best friend Sarah by my side. The Expendables is a movie geek wet dream on the level of Freddy Vs. Jason and Grindhouse, a violent wish-fulfillment fantasy loaded with carbohydrates, chewing tobacco, high fructose corn syrup, Brut cologne, refried beans, and a grimy sense of childlike wonder. This is the kind of big-budget toy commercial the kid in all of us can relate, that is the kind of kid who likes to tie M-80’s to their action figures, burn ants with a magnifying glass, and drool over 20-year-old dog-eared copies of Hustler. You kinda wish some toy company had released a line of tie-in merchandise with action figures and vehicles that shoot the little plastic missiles Mom always told you not to swallow. Imagine the possibilities! I hope they consider that for the inevitable sequel. That would be extremely cool.

As I said before I thought The Expendables was a great deal of old-school action fun even as it strives to be a movie of its time rather than a full-blown throwback to the 1980’s. It has the laidback, who-gives-a-fuck-let’s-party attitude of a down-and-dirty drive-in B-flick, more Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards than Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (two movies I happen to love a great deal for diverse reasons). The fate of the free world isn’t at stake, democracy will not be irreparably spoiled, and there will always be a Santa Claus (you sad fuckers). Character arcs are few and handled with vicious efficiency. Statham’s character Lee Christmas is given a girlfriend subplot (with Charisma Carpenter, late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as the lucky lady) that takes up little prized time and pays off beautifully with a basketball court stand-off that pits Lee against a bunch of putzes with balls bigger than their brains, with nothing but his fists and his trusty knife (one of them at least). That’s The Expendables’s idea of resolving relationship issues and it works for me. Because this is not a movie geared towards the estrogen set, although there is no law on the books saying they can’t participate in the mayhem. The meatiest arc is given to Stallone’s character, valiant team Barney Ross. Ross is an old warrior whose immediate future consists of the next mission and little more, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who yearns for the quiet life. This is what he does, he loves it, and so what the fuck is your problem asshole?

Stallone and his co-writer David Callaham boldly chose not to make The Expendables yet another “one last assignment” kind of movie. Who wants to see those anymore anyway? I’m sick and tired of them to be quite honest because it’s a foregone conclusion that it won’t be the last mission/heist/rescue/journey to the moon/what-the-fuck-ever. Ross knows that he’s in this business out of choice until he’s dead and that’s fine with him, but with each mission, each bullet he fires into some poor sucker’s head in a them-or-you situation, takes with it a small piece of his soul. The best dramatic scene in The Expendables is a conversation Barney has with his retired colleague Tool about the moral compromises they have to make in order to do what they do for a living and Tool has a monologue that perfectly encapsulates his reasoning for choosing life as an old man over dying in the heat of battle. Mickey Rourke gives each word of his small speech the spiritual weight and gravitas of a haunted man who got fed up with killing, and for that one brief moment you can see what life as an Expendable can do to a person. It gives the ensuing carnage a touch of melancholy as Ross and his team decide to risk life and enlarged limb so they hold their heads high when they walk down the street, and that makes a world of difference when you compare this movie to most of the mindless, low-risk action crapfests polluting the theaters and online video stores, since the actual video store is fast becoming a relic of a bygone era. Stallone and Callaham also give the dialogue the diamond-hard terseness of classic tough guy films. Not a lot of cheese ball one-liners here folks, just cool, clipped, and bearing the mark of the professionals.

That’s about the extent of the character profundity in this movie. I wish there had been more of it because what little of it there was worked well for the kind of film The Expendables is, but between the multitude of action beats Stallone and his cast still managed to throw in little quirky touches like Toll Road’s brief monologue about his cauliflower ear (it’s gross but awesome, the ear I mean), which Randy Couture sells through his matter-of-fact attitude about the thing. I also like seeing him relaxing with a good book, reading glasses and all, on the plane on the way back from the opening mission. Terry Crews and Jet Li don’t get much time to develop their characters either but they both get their moment to shine acting-wise. Crews gets to articulate the intimate bond he has with his trusty shotgun that uses exploding rounds and Li has a running gag where he complains about being the shortest member of the team and needing more money for his “family”, which often feels like an improvisation but it’s pretty funny as an oddball character moment. There were quite a few of those and I grooved on all of it as I did the rest of the movie. I loved it when towards the end as he prepares for the final battle Garza makes his soldiers wear war paint like they’re about to storm the gates of Hades. During a torture scene Roberts coolly takes a sip of coffee as he orders someone to be water-boarded. An attempt was made to give Dolph Lundgren’s character some depth but his arc, from psycho Expendable castoff to hopeless junkie to temporary bad guy to….well I can’t really tell you, felt pretty rushed. I will say that none of the violent action scenes made my jaw drop as far as the fate of Gunner Jensen did. It was the cherry on top of this maniacal hot fudge sundae of testosterone and gunpowder and in a sense I loved it. Definitely unpredictable. Besides it’s fun watching Lundgren, usually cast as the granite-faced hero in numerous direct-to-video flicks, go nuts doing a reprise of his greatest performance as the deranged Sgt. Andrew Scott in Universal Soldier.

But if The Expendables belongs to any one man it’s Sylvester Stallone because this is first and foremost his baby. He directed, co-wrote, and plays the leading role in this monster and probably took the lion’s share of the physical abuse throwing himself into his acting and his stuntwork with the same kinetic that brought his career roaring back to life. The man isn’t afraid to do the dirty work and he even got into better shape physically than in his last two movies for the part. That shows commitment and it’s something to be respected. I always thought Stallone’s talents as an actor and director were sorely underrated. You could make the argument that his career, which started out with box office success and Oscar glory, has seen more than it’s fair share of dark days and poor decisions and I would certainly agree. As fun as it is to watch Cobra, Tango & Cash, and Demolition Man then and now it’s been apparent from the beginning that Stallone’s filmmaking resume could’ve included more sterling achievements than guilty pleasures, Cop Land notwithstanding. Like his peer Bruce Willis the guy has better acting chops than the majority of action stars and he’s an infinitely more interesting screen presence than his one-time rival and future business partner Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has a clever cameo as one of Barney’s fellow guns-for-hire, a scene packed to the gills with camera winking), at least that’s my humble opinion and many of you would likely disagree.

Stallone never plays his characters as emotionless machines, well maybe not all the time, and when he gets hurt or inflicts pain on others you can usually sense his suffering, and he can sell a soul-baring monologue better than Steven Seagal that’s for damn certain and you can look to the original Rocky or the end of First Blood if you don’t believe me. Plus he often injects a sly (as befitting his nickname) sense of humor into his characters, and I’ve never had a problem understanding Stallone when he talks so you can dispense with the mumbling mockery. Schwarzenegger realized his days as a big-screen action hero were numbered so he retired into a life of politics. Bully for him because he wouldn’t have aged well in cinema as Stallone seems to be. Now well into his 60’s Sly has in the span of a few years completely turned his image around from has-been of a more innocent time to elder statesman of badassery. He’s becoming more like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin with each new movie he does and since our yesteryear icons of cinematic cool starting departing this world years ago Stallone’s presence in film is more valuable than ever. Plus doing more directing is a smart way of ensuring he’ll still be called upon to deliver the goods behind the camera when he’s no longer able to do it in front of. Both his performance as Barney Ross and his work in the director’s chair are solid and enjoyable, not reaching the heights of legend but never having to. They’re both perfect for the movie and nothing more, and I’d hardly call it sleepwalking. Stallone exudes authority and laconic cool as Ross, the best man to lead a team of armed-to-the-teeth war dogs. He shares good chemistry with Statham, doing his patented English hard man act to a T as usual.

Giselle Itie and Charisma Carpenter are both around mostly for eye candy but Stallone tried to give their characters a little significance. Itie had the toughest job playing the world’s sexiest guerilla fighter and a somewhat predictable connection between her and Garza adds a dimension to her adequate performance. Carpenter on the other hand does little but look concerned and sport a black eye that was given to her by an asshole boyfriend which Statham must naturally avenge, for that is the way the world works. The villain team has a few good players in its bullpen, lead by Eric Roberts (who once shared the screen with co-stars Stallone in The Specialist and Rourke in The Pope of Greenwich Village) as the lead baddie Munroe. Roberts wisely restrains himself from chewing the scenery even at times when that would’ve made his scenes more interesting and it turns out to be a decent bit of bad guy acting that is only hampered by a bog-standard last reel speech in which he tries the whole “you and me, we’re the same” song-and-dance act with Stallone when a few choice words would’ve sufficed. David Zayas, an actor known mostly for his television work on Oz and Dexter, does fine work as the morally-conflicted dictator Garza. Stone Cold Steve Austin, who’s always been a better wrestler than actor even though I’m not into his wrestling either, and Gary Daniels acquit themselves decently as Munroe’s henchmen, getting to show off their moves in a couple of knockdown drag-out brawls in the finale. Austin, who apparently does most of his acting with his bulbous neck, has an on-screen fight with Stallone that actually broke the star/director’s own neck in real life. You can’t fake that with CGI, and speaking of which that brings me to the problems I had with The Expendables.

There’s a lot of computer-generated visual effects in this movie, primarily in the carnage department, and going by the stunning obviousness of the CGI blood and gore it appears that the rumors of the movie having originally been shot to be PG-13 and then later hardened to whole grain R-rated goodness in post-production may have been true. I could be wrong but ultimately the only thing that matters is the quality of the effects, and most of the time they’re very effective. Bodies explode in fountains of viscera, limbs are ripped and sliced from their bodies, and high-powered weaponry separates flesh from the bone with the enthusiasm of a ravenous zombie. Granted the mayhem is barely up to the apocalyptic standards of the last Rambo movie, but then again it’s going to be hard for any movie to top the MGM musical-quality of Stallone’s epic 2008 bloodbath. During the finale there’s an explosion that looked so phony and digital it makes you long for the colossal fireball from an earlier action sequence that tore apart a dock full of baddies, because there was no way in hell that was done on a computer. That one was epic, Armageddon in a can so to speak. Then there’s the muted quality of the villainy. You never really learn to fear these guys despite their macho posturing and trigger-happy tendencies. Finally there’s not much of a rebel presence on the island of Villena even though it’s apparent that Garza’s cruel tyranny has fostered an underground resistance since he took power, if Sandra’s role in aiding the Expendables is any indication. Stallone could’ve added in a scene or two of a rebel uprising in play, or a more meticulous look at the toll the oppression brought on by the general and his CIA backers has taken on the island. After all it’s the future of the people of Villena Barney Ross and his team are fighting for. I didn’t let these flaws derail my enjoyment of the movie, but it would’ve behooved Stallone to tighten up the screenplay because a somewhat more substantial movie may possibly have emerged from the effort.

The Expendables is a cheeseburger in paradise: a big ol’ greasy slab of grilled-to-perfection beef coated in slightly singed dripping American cheddar, drowning in ketchup and mustard, sautéed with the finest onions, mushrooms, and green peppers, and served up with a side of crinkle-cut French fries and a frosty draft beer. It all looks yummy and you’ll devour it all like a lusty Viking warrior after a hard day’s raping and pillaging, but afterwards you’ll be stricken with stomach cramps. Then you’ll go and do it all over again and think nothing of it, and you’ll be grinning like a kid the whole time. Dig in, and make sure to keep a bottle of Tums handy just in case.

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