As someone who grew up during the heyday of ridiculous action movies in the 1980s, I've often wondered how movies like Commando
, or Rhinestone
would translate to a modern era. Sylvester Stallone
gave us a pretty definitive answer to that question with the hilariously ultraviolent 2008 version of Rambo
, but as if to put an exclamation point on the whole thing, now we have The Expendables
, a film that revels in the trappings of the ludicrous '80s action blockbuster with such celebratory glee that it might as well have been plucked from the hyperactive fever dream of a 12-year-old boy and shotgunned onto the screen in a blast of bullets, fire and testosterone.
For The Expendables
, Stallone has assembled a cast that could fill and subsequently blow the living shit out of a retirement home for action movie stalwarts. Stallone himself stars alongside the likes of Jason Statham
, Jet Li
, Dolph Lundgren
, Mickey Rourke
, and Eric Roberts
, and even manages to wring brief, perhaps over-billed cameos out of Bruce Willis
and the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger
. Even the relative newcomers on the bill, such as Randy Couture
, Steve Austin
, and Terry Crews
, seem cut from the same ridiculously macho (and maybe slightly over-the-hill) cloth as the rest. Basically, this is the movie equivalent of a leathery, tattooed, heavily juiced bicep...that explodes.
The titular Expendables are a rag-tag crew of mercenaries, the sort that take the jobs other mercenaries won't touch with a ten-foot exploding pole. Stallone, as Barney Ross (the most normally named of the group), leads Lee Christmas (Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (Couture), Hale Ceasar (Crews) and Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), while Tool (Rourke) serves as the group's resident tattoo artist and business manager. These guys are the sorts of cartoonish portraits of homicidal masculinity that have little issue making bloody mincemeat out of the most hardened bad guys, but of course it wouldn't be much of a movie if a job didn't come their way that tested even the seemingly untestable mettle of these killing machines.
That job involves a small Central American island and a ruthless dictator ( David Zayas
), who has just recently come to power with the help of a shadowy American (Roberts) and his hired muscle (Austin). While normally a small army would be no issue for a team this adept at killing literally anything that happens to wander into its blast radius, things become complicated when Ross becomes enamored with the comely young leader of the revolution ( Giselle Itie
). Leave it to a woman to gum up the works, right?
Themes of rediscovering beliefs, standing up for what's right, and the power of love and heartbreak are explored here...and then more or less tossed aside in favor of blisteringly loud, flaming balls of hot, exploding death. This movie is pure, unadulterated mayhem, the likes of which hasn't really existed in more than a decade. It's the kind of movie where in each progressive scene, characters unleash increasingly preposterous new types of weaponry that up the body count in creative and incredible ways. It's the kind of movie where new pieces of architecture seem to pop up out of nowhere, for the expressed purpose of being blown up. It's the kind of movie where one character will leap into the air to deliver a flying death punch to another character that already happens to be on fire, for no fucking reason.
The last 25 minutes of this movie is like some kind of endless, delirious orgasm of fire, blood and death that just keeps going, and going, and going, to the point where ecstasy, pain and exhaustion all kind of blend into one intoxicating assault on your brain's ability to function. And it is glorious.
Granted, Stallone has proven himself a director who knows how to stage ridiculous action sequences. Hell, he's been in enough of them over the years, he ought to have picked up a thing or two about a thing or two. And it's not all just non-stop explosions either. He showed a great talent for sickeningly brutal up-close combat scenes in Rambo
, and in The Expendables
, he ramps up the crazy factor by leaps and bounds. More dudes get punched, kicked, stabbed, snapped in half and beheaded in this movie than I could possibly keep track of, and the thing that struck me about it was how utterly painful every single hit looked. There is no moment where it looks like these guys are dogging it—every time someone gets slammed to the ground, clotheslined in the neck, or flung across a room, it looks, sounds, and feels
incredibly brutal. I will say that Stallone's penchant for using shaky-cam mixed with dizzying amounts of quick-cuts does get more than a bit distracting at times, especially during one particularly incoherent car chase. By and large, though, these scenes are staged and shot with great care.
Credit where credit's due to the actors, who, despite their age, seem pretty well rejuvenated here. Stallone, despite looking like his face has been spray-painted on, is a marvel of bad-assness, smacking around grunts and blowing off heads like it was still 1986. And if you'd told me going in that a fight sequence between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren would, A. Be remotely coherent, or B. Actually kind of awesome, I might not have believed it, but these guys bring their A-game in a way I simply could not have expected.
The only real trouble with The Expendables
is that, with such a loaded cast, some of these guys are just plain underutilized. And I'm not even talking about Willis or Schwarzenegger, who exist in this movie solely to give every boy born of the '80s a single ecstatic “omigodomigodomigod” moment (and, I won't lie, it totally worked). Most of the movie revolves around Stallone and Statham, with some Li and pepperings of Lundgren and Eric Roberts (who is some kind of sublime vision of slithery scumbagginess here). Couture and Austin get a few good fight scenes, and Terry Crews--who I contend hasn't gotten his proper due since his President Camacho days--does have one tremendous moment near the end (which I will only refer to as the
Terry Crews moment) that pretty much justifies his entire existence in the movie. Still, it feels like there was more to do with these guys, as well as Rourke, who never gets in on the action (and, frankly, might as well just be playing himself). Then again, assuming these guys' hearts don't explode in the near future from overuse of HGH, maybe they're just saving them for more fleshed-out subplots in a sequel.
I can't sit here and pretend to say that The Expendables
is a movie that will appeal to all sensibilities. Hell, it might not even appeal to most sensibilities. What it does appeal to is the visceral, hyperviolent sensibilities inherent to every kid that has ever enjoyed watching hailstorms of bullets, knives and grenades bring down scads and scads of anonymous bad guys, while non-combustible objects combust for seemingly inexplicable reasons. The movie does sag a bit in the middle (much like its cadre of aged stars) when it tries for dramatic beats that ultimately come off more risible than tense, but by and large the movie's plot is simply a serviceable motor to get you from one awesomely crafted action scene to the next. This is the big, dumb, fun summer blockbuster this summer has been sorely lacking, and for action junkies the world over who have felt slighted by the tepid offerings brought to theaters as of late, this is one that shouldn't be missed.