The Expendables is a movie that suffers from one small defect. It is terrible. There really is no easy way to put that, and that hurts to say, because I really wanted to like this movie, but it just fails on so, so many levels that you almost feel bad for it. You want to forgive the wretched acting, and the plot that meanders around the screen like a drunken David Hasselhoff eating a cheeseburger.
Still, The Expendables is in many ways review-proof. The word of mouth will likely hurt the box office sooner or later, but no matter what the critics say, people will flock to it at first. I would be shocked if it did not have a massive opening weekend. And why not. The stars of this movie have earned the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to action movies. The draw of this movie will not be the plot- it won’t even be the action you have seen in the trailers- it will be the potential. As a fan of action movies, it is almost impossible not to be excited for this movie from name recognition alone. The best comparison for the cast that I could think of would be the original basketball Dream Team that laid waste to the Olympic competition. Unfortunately there are serious flaws to the movie that are impossible to overlook.
Irony Doesn’t Make it OK
Directed by Sylvester Stallone, from a story by Stallone and Dave Callaham, The Expendables brings together legends of the action world. If you are even slightly interested in action, you will have unavoidably seen at least one of these stars at some point, in some way, blowing something up. It is an homage to the lost art of the 80s flick, back when it was a simpler time for action movies. The good guy was clearly identifiable as the good guy, and the bad guy was so evil, he was eeeeevil. The first problem with The Expendables is that it tries too hard to recreate those movies, but it does so with a knowing wink to the audience that was probably supposed to make it all OK because it was ironic, and stuff. Instead, the movie nearly becomes a parody of those same action movies it looks to honor.
Stallone stars as the leader of the mercenary-for-hire team, Barney Ross, while Jason Statham plays Lee Christmas, a knife expert and second-in-command. Jet Li plays Ying Yang, a martial arts expert, Dolph Lundgren plays burn-out Gunner Jensen. Randy Couture is the tough guy on the team, Toll Road, while Steve Austin plays Paine, the henchmen for Eric Roberts’ James Munroe. Terry Crews, Gary Daniels, and Mickey Rourke round out the cast. Each name on that list is capable of headlining their own movie (granted, some more than others), and together they make for an impressive lineup.
Now, when reading those incredibly unsubtle names, you have to think that the move “gets it”. It knows what it wants to be, and asks you to get behind it without over thinking it too much. And it is hard not to. When Bruce Willis shows up as the client, and Arnold Schwarzenegger pop up, you feel like you are part of an in-joke wrapped around an action movie, and that is a very good thing. Then it all falls apart once they try to mix in the plot.
Guns, Drugs and… Something
This is the point in the review where normally, I would recap the plot, but to be honest, there’s really no point. There’s something about a tyrannical General and a plucky girl with courage that apparently is so vast that it totally replaced her common sense, then some nonsense about a vague drug connection that is supposedly worth a lot of money, but they never really go into any great detail on that point, which is fine, because it was pretty dumb to begin with. Basically the Expendables are hired to head to a tropical island that is under the rule of a dictator, and they are tasked with killing him. It turns out that there is more to the General than meets the eye. But no one is going to see this movie for the plot, which is good, because it stops making sense about half way through.
It isn’t just that the story is bad, but it is also really stupid. With movies like this, you can forgive a certain level of sloppiness. I don’t expect the plot to really push the limits of how I view life, I just ask that it make at least a lick of sense. Just a bit. At the very least, just remain consistent. Instead, what we get is a script that would be slightly embarrassing from a high schooler, and it gives a surprisingly intimate, and sad look at the psyche of Stallone. You don’t expect a lot of depth when you are watching a movie where the stars all look like Barry Bonds after his head grew three inches, but just make the damn thing make sense. It can be simple, it can be almost nonexistent, but you gotta give us something. And then there is the dialogue. It has been a long time since I heard anyone shout things like “Drop the weapons or I will shoot her in the eye!” There is a good reason for that. It is not just bad, it is cringe worthy.
Terrible Script, Executed Terribly
And then there is the acting. I didn’t really expect much, but most of the performances are at best passable. At least kind of. Stallone is Stallone, Statham plays a solid Jason Statham, Jet Li is alright in the few scenes he is in, and Terry Crews is surprisingly likable. There wasn’t really much to work with to begin with in terms of dialog, or characterization, or things to do that didn’t involve shooting stuff. At least they are all consistently bad. That’s something, I guess. There is one particular scene with Mickey Rourke where he tells Stallone astory about a woman that is supposed to be a turning point for the movie, but instead it marks the turning point from bad to worse.
The Expendables also assaults the laws of physics. Now, I don’t care that Mythbusters proved that shooting a gas tank won’t actually make a car explode- if it blows up pretty, I will proudly cheer and dare people to tell me not to. But, wow. A 60-year-old man, running at full speed, simply could not catch a moving airplane. He just couldn’t. And it isn’t just the laws of physics that suffer, it is the disregard the movie throws at your intelligence. To give you an example, towards the end, not one, but two of the characters are shot. Nothing serious, but they are hit, there is no question that they are wounded. Both characters — at totally different points in the movie, mind you — simply walk it off. In fact, one of them gets in a knockdown, drag-out, ultra-physical fight minutes after. Despite. Having. Been shot. It’s like the movie just forgets about it. The characters don’t even mention it later. They aren’t even wearing bandages afterwards. The film sort of dares you to have a problem with it, but that isn’t even close to the biggest problem with The Expendables.
I could forgive pretty much anything in this movie under the right circumstances. I could overlook the terrible acting. I could forget that Dolph Lundgren looked and acted like there was a tiny man inside his head controlling a Dolph-bot throughout the film. I could handle the dull and nonsensical story and weak emotional connection to the characters, as long as the action was good. But it wasn’t. There are plenty of blood-splattered scenes throughout, and lots of bad guys explode in super neat ways, but the fight scenes are terrible.
The direction and camera work are ridiculous. In one action sequence, there are so many quick cuts and edits that it is almost impossible to fully grasp what is going on. Many times, the camera will cut away after less than one second. One second. And it does it repeatedly. It is like watching a strobe light of violence. At one point I counted two cutaways in one second– something I was unaware was even possible, and was sad to be proven wrong. It is dizzying, and robs the movie of the only thing it really had going for it, leaving you to instead try and focus on the plot, which was a bad move. And it just continues to get worse.
That really is the death knell for this movie. The fight scenes are shot with such a heavy emphasis on speed and multiple angles, that it becomes difficult to track the action, and it becomes difficult to track who is doing what. There are a few very cool action scenes- some are even truly worthy of being called “bad ass”, but these moments are over so fast, and filmed so oddly, that your brain literally does not have time to process and enjoy what you just saw. It truly becomes dizzying to try and track all the sudden movements, which is a shame, because somewhere beneath the bad direction and terrible editing, there are some great action scenes begging to come out.
Once the end confrontation finally comes around, it is so anticlimactic that I was just glad that it was over, notwithstanding the awkward and pointless epilogue. Then the movie just kinda stops, rather than ends.
I really, badly wanted to like this movie. The summer movie selection this year has been thin, and we are due a big, huge, explosion driven visual feast that we can turn our brains off for. There are simply too many flaws to recommend this movie.
So in summation, The Expendables is awful. The acting is bad, the plot is childish, and the action is badly filmed. Save your money and go rent one of a thousand better action movies from the 80s. Or better yet, just spin in a circle until you are dizzy and then run until you fall over. Pretty much the same thing.