The Expendables

Stallone has assembled a mighty cast of toughies.

It has been a long time coming and certainly should have happened at least a decade ago, not to mention most of its stars have worn the phrase “long in the tooth” down to the nub, yet The Expendables is a magnificent exercise in wish-fulfilment that’s still welcome despite the distended gestation period. Comparatively, it is everything that the other recent long-awaited star match-up – Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s naff 2008 crime thriller Righteous Kill – wasn’t, yet ironically, it is just as, if not more low-rent. The difference? While The Expendables could – save for its shaky cams and HD photography – have been pulled straight from the annals of modestly-budgeted 1980s straight-to-VHS territory, Stallone and his cohorts absolutely would not have it any other way.

Negligible though the narrative may be, here it is; Stallone’s Barney Ross is the leader of the muscle-bound brutes known as The Expendables. Each member is as ludicrously monikered as Stallone’s; his younger equivalent, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) is a wily ex-SAS knife expert, while Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) is a mentally unstable, Frankenstein-inspired lug who is frequently at odds with Yin Yang (Jet Li), the monetarily insolvent member of the group who happens to be a dab hand at martial arts. Rounding out the group is Mickey Rourke as handyman-come-philosopher Tool, UFC’s Randy Couture as Toll Road, a grunt who has found peace through psychotherapy, and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a silent-but-deadly type who totes the film’s most literally awesome weapon; a shotgun capable of firing at the rate of a machine gun. After a bungled attempt to assassinate the evil dictator of Vilena (David Zayas), the guys decide to return to there – though good like finding it on a map; it’s fictional – in order to rescue their initial contact for the mission, Sandra (Gisele Itie), who was kidnapped in their initial excursion.

All it took was three minutes for Sly to convince me that he hadn’t fluffed up every action fanboy’s dream film. In an opening standoff, as Dolph Lundgren tears a Somali pirate in half with a high-powered rifle, I knew Stallone had not lost sight of the sort of film that made him and his crew – especially his crew – famous; amoral, gratuitous violence, and of course, a sprinkling of tongue-in-cheek humour. Though the plot plays out with a genuine love for the run, gun and rescue narratives of action classics like Commando, the humour derives not only only from the intentional replication of this – that is, faceless foreign bodies performing absurd aerial acrobatics amid a steady stream of explosive weaponry – but also the at-home chemistry between the cast. Ego has not left the guys to ruin, for each member gets their own moment. Even the lesser-developed baddies – Eric Roberts’ evil puppeteer Munroe, and Stone Cold Steve Austin as his minion, Paine – play with apt malice; Roberts hams it up for the rafters, while Austin reprises his WWE persona in a way fans of his will doubtless find hilarious. The worst fear with a film like this is too many cooks, but with a heavy action surplus, Stallone does his men proud, for each character – both good and bad – has at least one distinctive, stand-out moment of badassery.

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the much-awaited “reunion” scene between the Planet Hollywood consortium; Stalone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. While barely three minutes in length, it is as strong a crowd-pleaser as action fans are likely to see all summer, ending with a punchline simply too devilishly funny to spoil. Safe to say, Arnie may have a spot in the Expendables sequel – though maybe not how you think – when his term as Governor is up.

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to the action, and Stallone delivers in spades. The film’s second half is the steak, while the first is the sizzle, for the near half-hour fest of destruction that closes things out is sure to warm the cockles of any action fan jaded by the market as of late. And boy, is the thing gory. Sly has done well not to alienate those who made him rich, delivering a hard 15-rating (it recieved an R-rating in America), full of decapitations, Kool-Aid streams of viscera, and countless acts of dismemberment and disconbobulation. A good amount of the gore is computer generated, yes, but it is used sparingly nevertheless, and in a film that doesn’t deign to take itself seriously, it sort of adds to the gleeful schlock appeal.

Without a doubt, you’re either going to get and appreciate what Stallone is doing here, or you just won’t. Without a doubt, fans of the simple-minded, unpretentious actioners of yesteryear will feel more at home than with any other film this year. Viscerally thrilling and funny to boot, The Expendables might not be the five-star Dirty Dozen homage it could have been ten years ago, but we’ll all be damned if it isn’t a pure exercise in a director making good on his promises and satisfying those who have cared enough to keep watching him (and his mates) through the good and the bad.


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