Following the success of similar throwbacks ROCKY BALBOA and RAMBO (the third sequel to FIRST BLOOD), director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone created THE EXPENDABLES as an homage to the high-octane action pictures that kept him consistently atop the box office charts in the 1980s. Although he does overrelies on inadequate modern techniques like CGI blood squirts and shaky-cam editing, for the most part Stallone sticks to the basics, resulting in an enjoyable bone-crushing exercise in nostalgia with a body count.
It’s interesting that Stallone’s macho parade opened theatrically the same day as Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, which stars scrawny Michael Cera as a babyfaced slacker who fights the seven former suitors of his new girlfriend in elaborately staged martial arts battles. THE EXPENDABLES appears to have been made in direct response to the 2000s’ breed of action hero, who tend to be smaller, milder, and more introspective than Sly’s generation.
In addition to the 64-year-old ROCKY star, still looking fit in spite or because of his obvious facelifts and steroid-enhanced physique, THE EXPENDABLES marks the big-screen return of Stallone’s former ROCKY IV rival Dolph Lundgren, who shows off character actor chops as a drug-addled mercenary named Gunner that plays a big part in the storyline by Stallone and Dave Callaham (DOOM).
Gunner, Lee Christmas (second-billed Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (professional fighter Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and tattoo artist Tool (Mickey Rourke) are friends and members of a team of battle-hardened soldiers led by Stallone’s Barney Ross. Their easy banter makes it clear that these men have seen a lot of shit in their lifetimes, and despite Lee’s attempt at some kind of normal relationship with a woman named Lacy (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Charisma Carpenter), they’re resigned to the fact that they can only really be comfortable with one another.
The film’s most memorable scene contains no explosions or broken limbs at all. Just a short conversation that puts Stallone on the screen for the first time with fellow action icons Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger that is shrewdly designed by Sly to dump a load of exposition in a manner certain not to bore the audience.
Ross and his team hires on for a $5 million payday to invade the army-protected stronghold of a Latin American dictator, General Garza (DEXTER’s David Zayas), who is involved in a massive drug-running operation with rogue CIA agent James Munroe (a deliciously lip-smacking Eric Roberts). Ross and Christmas’ reconnaissance teams them with their contact, the beautiful Sandra (Mexican starlet Giselle Itie, making her English-language debut), whom they discover is Garza’s ashamed daughter.
The script isn’t much to get excited about, though it does contain a few nice touches. When Ross and Christmas meet Sandra, they see that she’s an accomplished artist. Later, we discover the general is also an artist, allowing the audience to imagine a backstory of father teaching daughter his passion and the countless hours they spent together, providing an emotional resonance to their current estrangement without beating the audience over the head with it. Dialogue is mainly curt declarative statements and one-liners, but you aren’t seeing THE EXPENDABLES for the talky stuff anyway. If your memories include Friday nights at the local theater watching COBRA or COMMANDO or INVASION U.S.A., THE EXPENDABLES is right up your alley.