by Mel Valentin
Sylvester Stallone, hoping to continue his late (as in very late) career resurgence than to the surprising box office success of "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo," the sixth and fourth entries in their respective franchises, is back with the semi-anticipated, unapologetically old-school, 80s-style action film, "The Expendables," that collects several past-their-prime action stars, throws in a couple of contemporary action stars of varying magnitudes in an effort to grab two quadrants of the four-quadrant demographic (young and old men, women, young or old, are presumed to have minimal interest in "The Expendables." Stallone, who directed, produced, co-wrote, and acted in "The Expendables," may have, however, overestimated the nostalgic appeal of seeing past-their-prime 80s action stars trying, desperately, to recapture earlier success.In a Somalia-set prologue, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), and his mercenary team, second-in-command, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), a hulking Swede with a hair-trigger temper, Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a heavy munitions expert and one of two token minorities on Ross’ team, Ying Yang (Jet Li), the second token minority member of Ross’ team and, unsurprisingly, a martial arts expert (because every Asian action hero is a martial arts expert), and last, definitely least, Toll Road (Randy Couture), extra muscle who serves an extra-film role (i.e., bringing in the MMA crowd), are up against Somali pirates. Twice during the ensuing firefight, Jensen ignores Ross' orders, endangering the team and threatening unit cohesion. As a result, Ross yanks Jensen's membership card in the Expendables.
"A flick that lives up to its title (and not in a good way)."
Back in the states, Ross relaxes in his members-only club. Former Expendable-turned-tattoo-artist Tool (Mickey Rourke) finishes up a piece on Ross’ back (an excuse for Stallone to show off his cut 63-year-old physique for adoring audiences). A shady CIA operative (Bruce Willis, in a cameo) hires Ross and his team to on a recon mission to eliminate a Latin American dictator, General Garza (David Zayas), and Garza’s handler, a CIA field-agent-gone-rogue, James Munroe (Eric Roberts). First, though, Ross and Lee decide to go on a recon mission. Disguising themselves as employees of a wildlife conservancy, they head for the fictional island, Vilena. It could be in the Caribbean, but from the ethnicity of the islanders, it looks closer to Central or South America, but we never find out for sure (don’t worry, it’s not important).
On the island, Ross quickly makes contact with an underground resistance leader, Sandra (Giselle Itié), and before you can say “Rocky Balboa” Ross and Lee are in a face-off with Garza’s men that naturally turns ultra-violent. Ross has an unconvincing crisis-of-conscience: return the island and depose Garza and Munroe, not for the hefty sum he’s being paid by the CIA, but for the good of the islanders. You can guess Ross’ decision, but the assault on Garza’s palace doesn’t occur until the noisy, over-busy third act when Stallone lets loose his inner Michael Bay to direct the impossible-to-follow action. Before that, Stallone gives Rourke a poignant confessional speech about a particular experience as a mercenary that changed him irrevocably.
The Expendables gender politics are far from surprising: Women need violent men to protect them from other violent men. And how do we know the Expendables are the “right” kind of violent men? Because, when it comes to women, they’re soft hearted romantics. The Expendables gives Lee a troubled relationship with a woman, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter). She’s tired of his long, unexplained disappearances. Lee, however, wants to settle down (in between mercenary assignments). That subplot gets resolved (and never mentioned again) when Lee steps up, as any man should, to give a beat down to the jock Lacy’s dating on a basketball court. Real men do feel emotion, but they also know when serious ultra-violence is in order (of men, never of women).
Predictably, Munroe and his bodyguards/henchmen, the inartfully named Paine (former WWE wrestler-turned-actor Steve Austin) and the Brit (Gary Daniels), have no moral or ethical qualms about torturing or killing women. Munroe claims he does, but in actuality he prefers his henchmen to do the dirty work for him. Ross and his men, or even Garza, who, in the most unexpected, unanticipated, startling plot development, expresses regrets for allying himself with Munroe, clearly have their limits: mistreating, torturing, and/or killing women. That bright line distinguishes Munroe from the Expendables and makes it clear who audiences should hate (not the well-intentioned mercenaries) and who they should wish a bloody, cathartic death on.
Stallone’s skills as an action director have deteriorated over the last decade. Stallone decided to handle the action scenes through super-fast camera moves and rapid-fire edits that don’t just border on incoherence, they cross over multiple times, making it impossible to tell who’s knifing who in the neck or abdomen, who’s kicking who in the groin or chest, and who’s taking out large, anonymous swaths of brown-skinned soldiers using heavy machinery and explosives. Only Ross and the heavy-gun-carrying Caesar, are on camera long enough to tell them apart from everyone else. That Caesar’s African-American helps too, of course. Latinos, though, aren’t eligible for membership in the Expendables. Apparently, having brown people on both sides of a conflict might have been too confusing for moviegoers.Ultimately, "The Expendables" lives up to its title. The characters, story, dialogue (most of it faux-macho speak), and action scenes are forgettable, unremarkable, and yes, expendable. As for Stallone, he’s already talking up a sequel. Assuming moviegoers nostalgic for 80s-style action stars agree this weekend and next (and the one after that, given "The Expendables’" $80 million budget), then Stallone will get the chance to bring his team of (mostly) past-their-prime action stars back for another tiresome, noisome go-round.
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originally posted: 08/13/10 12:00:00