Monday, August 30, 2010

The Expendables

What you get out of The Expendables depends entirely on what you expect to get out of it.  If you watch this, expecting it to be drenched in testosterone and blood (ugh), to have awful dialogue with worse delivery, then you're absolutely right.  On the other hand, if you're expecting it to be drenched in testosterone and blood (woo!), to have awesome action and ridiculous amounts of violence, you're still absolutely right.  As long as you're not expecting an Academy Award-winning period piece romantic comedy, you pretty much know how much you'll like this movie before the opening credits.

The Expendables are a group of mercenaries that handle the dirtiest jobs.  Barney (Sylvester Stallone) is the group leader, with Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Ying Yang (Jet Li) as his trusted confidantes; the other members of the group include Gunner (Dolph Lungren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Bridge (Randy Couture).  While those names aren't quite descriptive enough to be GI Joe names, they're amusing nonetheless.  The film opens with the Expendables on a mission to save hostages from pirates.  Obviously, that doesn't end well for the pirates.  In fact, Gunner blows the torso off a guy --- he doesn't cut the guy in half, he blows the torso off the rest of his body.  Gunner later decides to hang a pirate for fun, but that is crossing the line for the rest of the group, so Gunner is stopped and kicked off the team.  So, keep that in mind: blowing people to bits is a job well done, but hanging pirates is taboo.

Barney is later approached by a mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) for a dangerous mission; actually, Barney's group isn't the only group being considered, but the other group, led by Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is allegedly too busy.  The mission is to kill a drug despot, General Garza (David Zayas, of Dexter fame), on the Gulf island of Vilena.  Barney and Christmas go to the island to do some reconnaissance and discover that General Garza is obviously a puppet dictator, with former CIA operative James Munroe (Eric Roberts) pulling the strings and Paine (Steve Austin) providing the muscle.

The film takes a slight detour to add emotional depth and (probably) earn its weight in Academy Award nominations.  Apparently, mercenaries don't have rich family lives.  **PSSST!!!**  Pick your jaw up off the floor!  Christmas stops by his girlfriend's (Charisma Carpenter) house, only to find that, after being gone for an entire month without warning or communication, she has gotten a new boyfriend.  What a tramp!  The boyfriend is a prick and beats her up, so we get to see Statham beat the jerk up and then tell his ex-girlfriend that he was worth waiting for.  That, Charisma Carpenter, is the sound of you being served!  Tool (Mickey Rourke), the group's resident tattoo artist/bar owner/pretty boy is a former member of the team who now spends his time surrounded by slutty young women; he actually is required to cry while giving a monologue about being alone.  For his part, Barney has become obsessed with his contact on Vilena (Giselle Itie), a woman who opted to risk her life on that island hell hole instead of coming to the US with him.  Barney's is not a romantic obsession, but and idealistic one.  He hasn't cared about anything in so long that the notion is incomprehensible to him.  To be fair, the word "incomprehensible" is probably also incomprehensible to him, so it might just be a vocabulary issue.

After the recon mission, Barney and friends (Why didn't they call the movie that?) were going to pass on the offer, but Barney's obsession drives him to take out Munroe, General Vargas, and anyone else that might threaten his idealistic contact.  The rest of the team agrees to go with, because the bond of brotherhood that is formed when bathing in the blood of a common enemy is stronger than any other.  Or, you could just say that they all have a major bromance going on.  After a brief battle against the angry Gunner, the team decides to topple an island dictatorship by blowing the whole island to hell and shooting whatever is still breathing.  Whoops, did that need a spoiler alert?

This film was directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone, with all the subtlety you would expect from him.  As in any of his action movies, Stallone's direction is hard to gauge.  The action sequences are awesome, particularly the hand-to-hand stuff.  The acting...well, what do you expect?  The top three billed actors are Stallone, Statham and Li; only Statham can speak English fluently.  Actually, Statham's acting was much better than it needed to be in such a dumb movie, and Stallone was correct to give him one of the more emotionally complex roles.  Judging from the rest of the movie, though, it is clear that Stallone can't direct (or write) witty dialogue to save his life.  The plot is (mostly) perfect for a big, dumb action movie, but the dialogue is often awkward.  Do we really need to put up with Stallone, Couture, and Jet Li trying to deliver funny lines?  They couldn't get the timing right for a joke if they had a DeLorean.  That is forgivable, since action movies require poorly executed one-liners, but there is a glaring flaw with the plot.  Why does Stallone bother with the attempt at depth?  Look, I don't give a flaming crap about how these guys feel.   Aww...the elite murderers for hire are lonely when they go home!  >:-[  Did we ever need to understand Schwarzenegger's backstory in Predator?  No!  That is just 40 minutes that could have been better spent shooting people's faces off.  Or they could have had Arnold's team try the mission and die!  That would have been awesome!  Or they could have added a Predator on the island!  Or...well, pretty much anything would have made more sense in this movie than talking about feelings.

The acting is a lot like the writing and directing: not too surprising.  Bruce Willis is good in his cameo, Arnold gives us a reminder that English is not his first language, and Mickey Rourke cries to remind us that he has a Best Actor Oscar.  Randy Couture shouldn't have been given the "smart guy" role, but everyone else is as good as you expect them to be.  Statham is obviously the best actor out of the bunch, Terry Crews is amusing, and Stallone and Li are both pretty bad.  Fulbright scholar Dolph Lungren, while not a good actor, was much better than I remember him from the 90s, so that was a pleasant surprise.

I feel the same way about The Expendables that I feel about Transformers: I paid to see giant robots fighting, and I got my money's worth.  I wanted to see a bunch of action heroes kill the faces off of some bad guys, and The Expendables delivered.  As usual, Stallone tries to give his characters emotional layers, but does it in his typically inept way.  The violence was great, even though the blood was clearly CGI at times.  If Stallone had cut the emotional crap and just blown stuff up and garroted butts off, this movie would be perfect for what it is.  Since he tries to reach for something more than a stupid action movie --- nay, the stupid action movie --- it ends up falling a little short of perfection.  Still, this is a great example of the brainless fun that action and explosions can provide.  I would like to offer one more bit of criticism, though: in a movie called The Expendables, how many team members should die?


  1. I think a Muppet should have been casted instead of Couture. It couldn't have hurt.

  2. Good call. My vote is for Statler or Waldorf.