For many an action fan around the world this has been the most anticipated film on the calendar since its basic premise, that being the assemblage of all the biggest names in western action cinema under one title, was announced a year or so back. The big question for those not too concerned about marketing was simple: how well can such a project hold together with so many brand names to riffle through? The answer, it has to be said, is that The Expendables mostly does a good job at balancing straight forward action with obvious name-dropping. Stallone may not be the most highly regarded name in cinema. In fact it sometimes seems that his primary talent, at least up until he re-energised his two most famous franchises in the latter half of this decade, was his ability to get people with money to take him seriously in the first place. Nonetheless what he does know is how things worked back in the 80s; a time when Hollywood’s action titles were legitimate contenders for the best of the genre around the world.
The Expendables are a team of mercenaries who take on jobs too dangerous for regular military groups. Leading them is Barney Ross (Stallone) with his right-hand man, knives expert Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and martial arts buddy Ying Yang (Jet Li). Providing weapons backup is Toll Road (UFC fighter Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (former NFL player Terry Crews). Also on board, and immediately established as a hot-headed renegade, is Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). Having endangered the lives of his teammates through his blood-thirsty habits, which it is stated throughout are fueled by drug addiction, Jensen is dropped from the team and bears a grudge. When Ross meets Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) he’s given a new mission, to take down an evil dictator who holds the Central American island of Vilena ransom with the help of rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his heavies (played by former wrestler Steve Austin and tae-kwon-do practicioner Gary Daniels).
If it’s not entirely obvious from that last paragraph the film doesn’t so much boast a plot as it does a casting list. There’s even more recognisable names than those listed above with Charisma Carpenter and Mickey Rourke both taking on supporting roles while none other than the Governor of California himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes a brief cameo. In short, this is Commando made with a lot more money and a lot more star power. Action purists might lament the lack of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal but, by and large, you’re spoiled for familiarity here. Van Damme claims he turned down a role because Stallone couldn’t describe his character to him and, having seen the film, this sounds like a fairly likely scenario. Even among the stars there’s a certain sense of surplus as the film tries to give them all some time to shine. To Van Damme’s credit he’s always tried, albeit with limited degrees of success, to offer more than simply a lot of violence in his films. His later work suggests someone trying to broaden his scope and command a little more attention for his acting. Whether or not this is advisable, any role offered to him here would not have fit in with that plan. Meanwhile Seagal would have shown up were it not for an ongoing disagreement with producer Avi Lerner. On-screen anonymity, lack of charisma and easy paycheques are all things Seagal can easily warm to so it just goes to show he must really dislike Lerner.
Of those action stars that do show up it’s little surprise to anyone that Lundgren takes all the plaudits. Indeed the film’s tone shifts up a couple of gears whenever he’s on screen. Of all the action heroes the muscular Swede has always boasted the right to be called an actor. His problem, if you can call it that since he’s still made a fine living, is that he perhaps lacks the likable charisma of his fellow Europeans, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, which allows them to indulge in self-deprecation to good effect. Lundgren often works best as a bad guy and it’s a position he’s rarely afforded. Here he manages to straddle the ethical line quite nicely as his character is clearly unstable but also an undeniable companion to the others; their relationship forged in the fires of battle, so to speak. Beyond that it’s probably Statham and Rourke that manage their roles best. Statham has never made great inroads as a leading man but as support he’s as solid as they come. Meanwhile Rourke, looking somewhat worse for wear in this decade thanks to obvious cosmetic surgery, is handed a small role that allows him to wallow in some easy drama.
Stallone’s leading role is more problematic because Stallone himself is obviously a fairly limited presence. He does just fine by the material all in all, it being admittedly easy fare throughout, but his pseudo-romance with Giselle Itié and his general wrangling with supposed ethical dilemmas fall deadeningly flat. It’s par for the course though so there’s little point in dwelling on it. Even if the romance is fundamentally silly it’s still good for a laugh as you can compare who adopts the more affected pidgin English, Itié in this film or Julia Nickson who played an almost identically stunted part alongside Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Eric Roberts, who dabbled with action heroism in The Best of the Best franchise (ironically, not that good), gets the second most fun job next to Lundgren. As the primary bad guy he just has to sneer, point guns at people and discuss why he doesn’t mind killing everyone for profit. You’ve seen it all before but what’s an action film without that character?
All of this is fine of course. The real question is, how’s the action? Truth be told it’s problematic but, as the stakes rise higher, it delivers just about enough to satisfy. Stallone really turned heads in 2008 with his revisiting of the Rambo franchise.The politics were as repugnant as ever but what amazed was the full-blooded viscera of the special effects. As that film came to a close it effectively set a new bar for computer-augmented violence on screen. The exploding bodies, flying limbs and general mass carnage suggested that some lunatic from the fringes of exploitation cinema had taken the reigns and not tried and trusted, Hollywood-friendly Stallone. There are traces of that same violence here, but they’re nowhere near as strong nor as impressive as in the earlier feature.
In terms of tone The Expendables takes quite a while to really find its footing. The earlier segments stop and start as the film struggles to get all the exposition out of the way while also doing a role call of the extensive cast. In this sense certain elements seem entirely out of place. For example, Charisma Carpenter’s role could be removed entirely and no one would notice while elsewhere Schwarzenegger’s cameo is awkwardly played for laughs that never convince. More troubling than the film’s narrative structure are the action dynamics themselves. Quite worryingly the film’s numerous action sequences often stray into the borderline incomprehensible with whip pans, quick edits, darkened rooms and messy choreography rendering much of the violence entirely devoid of excitement. More depressing in all this is Jet Li’s role, choreographed with the assistance of Corey Yuen. There’s no reason for it not to work; an extended fight with Lundgren, a karate champion himself, provides plenty of potential. The end result features some fine acrobatics that are largely masked by poor production theory.
The good news is that this film has a fail-safe that most in this genre cannot fall back on: a significant budget. Although early forays into action—gunfights, fistfights, knife throwing extravaganzas and car chases—fall somewhat short of the mark, the film makes up for it when the heroes reach Vilena (not to be confused with the fictional island setting of Val Verde in Commando). At this point the various cast members’ presence takes a backseat to huge explosions, heavy weapons fire and a neatly structured plot that lines up the various villains against their heroic counterparts for efficient slaughter.
When it comes down to it, The Expendables was always going to be about the action and it’s hard to complain too much about what Stallone fields for his audience. There are, without doubt, weaknesses; the aforementioned sloppy production design really limits even the more adventurous forays into close quarters action while we’re also treated to some fairly amateurish CGI depictions of blood and knives. Still, when it comes to mass destruction the film mostly ticks the appropriate boxes, even deriving some good comic effect as Hale Caesar finally unleashes his pet automatic-shotgun, his only notable character trait. As far as body counts go The Expendables surely must rank among the elites. In terms of overall quality it might not match up to the insane fun of Commando or the aesthetic aplomb of Hard Boiled but it’s certainly trying to keep pace as lives are erased left, right and centre.
To that end action fans need worry no more about all the things that could go wrong here. Stallone mostly keeps things ‘old-school’ enough. You’ll find no high-tech gadgetry or overcooked political posturing. As far as gadgets go, finding bigger artillery does the trick just fine. For fans of the particular names found here your mileage may vary. To a large degree the bigger the name the more time they get on screen which seems a fairly just system. The real casualty is Lundgren who really could have used more space. Or rather, the film really could have benefited from more Lundgren. Still, with space for a sequel and action cinema open to all kinds of silliness I suppose we’ll sit back and see what comes next, if anything.