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The Expendables (2010,USA)

24/02/2012

Director: Sylvester Stallone               Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Giselle Itie, Mickey Rourke

When Sylvester Stallone broke the news that he was putting together the ultimate action movie, uniting some of the biggest names in the genre in a single movie, a billion fan boys eagerly jumped on the hype wagon, tripping over each other to be the most excited at the prospect of their favourite action stars joining forces to kick some bad guy ass. I’ll confess that even I was curious. I have a certain fondness to those great action flicks of the eighties, you know the ones, where some muscle bound indestructible hero blasts his way through the bad guys to rescue the girl/partner/dog. As the release of the film drew closer and the snowballing hype gathered in intensity however it started to look like the lumbering assemblage of aging dinosaurs I suspected it actually was, none of which being an obstacle to it making shedloads of money across the globe, more than enough to encourage the production of a sequel.

Barney Ross (Stallone) is the defacto leader of a group of mercenaries, the Expendables of the title, who are willing to undertake pretty much any task for the right price. They are hired by a mysterious CIA representative (Willis) to assassinate a South American General who has undertaken a military coup, interfering with American mineral interests in that particular banana republic. When scouting the area with the ridiculously monickered fellow Expendable Lee Christmas (Statham) they team up with a local fixer Sandra (Itie) but when they are rumbled by the army are forced to bail out, leaving her to her fate at the hands of the General and the shadowy former CIA spook who is backing him. Unable to live with the thought of her being tortured, Ross leads the rest of his team in an apparently suicidal mission to rescue her, with rather predictable results.

What seems like an exciting prospect on paper is actually a pretty depressing one in practice. The main flaw here seems to be a direct result of the concept. While it might seem like a good idea to put together an action fan’s wishlist of stars for your cast there is no way that the execution could ever live up to its hype. For one thing, there just isn’t enough screen time for all the main characters to have their moment in the sun. The result is a chaotic mess of half realised action sequences where they are so busy trying to give everyone a look in that any sense of cohesion is irretrievably lost. It also means that the proper action stars are criminally underemployed because they have to share screen time with the (mostly wrestling star) second stringers. Who honestly cares about Randy Couture? I don’t even know who he is, let alone have any regard for his pitiful showing here. Why waste valuable screen time on someone like that when Jet Li is in the house?

As it turns out (and believe me I’m as disappointed in Li as anyone for this) Li pretty much only seems to be here to be the butt of racial stereotyping (his character is called “Yin Yang”) and wisecracks about his height. He doesn’t get to fight much and when he does the choreography is pretty poor. But then when it comes to the action scenes in general they are all pretty poor, mostly down to mediocre choreography and terrible editing. There isn’t a single moment that has stayed with me for the twenty four hours or so since I’ve watched it. It’s all just a bland, confusing mess of gunfire and unconvincing hand to hand combat. Attempts to give each Expendable his own fighting gimmick (Statham for example specialises in knives, Crews in heavy weapons) don’t really help and tend to muddy the waters even further, especially when the non-knife specialists start using knives.

And what the hell is up with those names? Apart from Lee Christmas and Yin Yang, the Expendables include such unusually named fellows as Toll Road (honestly) and Hale Caesar (really). It’s entirely appropriate then that they operate out of a tattoo studio called “Tool’s”. Obviously somebody, somewhere thought these would be funny names for the characters rather than just complete drivel. Whoever that was should be chained to a car bumper and dragged through the streets. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it really, really isn’t funny. It’s just annoying and a symptom of an apocalyptically bad script. While I suspect it’s partially to do with the casting issues I’ve already mentioned the plot is an addled, overcomplicated mess. It’s supposed to be a big ballsy action film but attempts to be clever fall flat and detract from the serious A to B to C business of a good action movie. We don’t need (or care) about Christmas’ domestic troubles, they bear no relevance to the story and serve only to bog everything down in yet more unwanted, unnecessary detail.

The key factor in the film’s abject failure is revealed in the on-disc “From The Ashes” making of documentary in which Stallone beams with pride (at least I think he’s beaming, his face is so ravaged by time, surgery and botox that it’s almost impossible to read any expression from it at all) at everything he’s achieved in the making of the film. Amidst confessions of making it up as he went along (probably got a lot to do with the incomprehensible fight scenes and fundamentally silly plot “twists”) he spends a lot of time explaining how much heed he paid to the test audiences who he showed the film to before committing to a final cut. By the sounds of things he paid a lot of attention to the gripes of the test audiences and changed a lot of aspects of the film before it was released which might have a lot to do with how dismal the end product is. Perhaps it’s unfair to have watched it in the wake of a run of Kubrick blu rays as almost anything would look wretchedly thrown together by comparison but I can’t help correlate the greatness of Kubrick’s work with his single minded dedication to his vision, a vision he meticulously planned and executed. Clearly Stallone hadn’t given The Expendables a huge amount of thought beyond securing a cast that would guarantee a box office return no matter what happened and was perfectly happy to have his vision poked, prodded, stretched and mutilated by the general public. No wonder it’s an incoherent mess.

Defenders of the film have told me “it does what it says on the tin”. To them I say it does not. What The Expendables promises is a tribute to classic action movies, the Commandos of this world, straightforward entertainment with some classic images and fight scenes thrown in to spice things up. In fact it promises, by virtue of the personnel, to be the ultimate action movie. What it delivers though is a barely coherent, under-realised, rather boring mess of a film that has little in the way of substance and is certainly far from memorable. The fact that Stallone is crowd-sourcing ideas for the sequel (a la the risible Snakes On A Plane) shows that he has learned nothing from his mistakes with the first film but then why should he when it has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide thanks to the frothing at the mouth fanboys who willingly submitted themselves to the hype machine and who will undoubtedly do the same for the sequel. If you ask me, they deserve everything they get.

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 22/09/2012 06:15

    I have borrowed this out on DVD twice and twice I have quailed at the thought of watching it and returned it unseen. Fellow Jet Li fans assure me that he is wasted in this and I have never actually been into beefcake myself so the antics of Sly et al are no attraction. The central concept also embarrasses me – it smacks of male menopause. My nephew, who is just starting to get into martial arts movies (naw bless!) tells me to avoid it – “It’s Horrrrible!”

  2. 22/09/2012 07:02

    Horrible is the word. The sequel has zero chance of being any good when you consider the biggest flaw in the first one was an inability to balance the multiple stars in the script and the action and that they’ve added more superstars into the mix the second time round. Joss Whedon proved it’s possible to have 5 or 6 main characters in the excellent Avengers (Assemble) so it can be done, I just don’t think anyone involved in the Expendables concept is capable of doing it and it’s main stars certainly aren’t capable of playing second fiddle to anyone…

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