Despite being a big star, Sylvester Stallone has always seemed to struggle with relevancy. The 2000s had a pair of ‘comeback’ films for Sly, with Rocky Balboa in 2006 and Rambo in 2008. It seemed like every success he had was forgotten. Perhaps that’s because these two films felt like a coda to beloved characters from decades past, whereas The Expendables, from 2010, was new-ish. Or maybe having a comeback film is just part of Sly’s brand in the 21st century. Either way, The Expendables is the throwback to 1980s action that no one knew we needed until it showed up in theaters and made money.
Directed by Sly, The Expendables was written by David Callaham as a film called Barrow, and then reworked by Sly for this project. Sly stars as Barney Ross, the owner of a small company of mercenaries who fly all around the world to battle bad guys. It’s never clear exactly whom his client base consists of, but being a mercenary, it’s safe to assume Barney’s clients are anyone who can afford him. Barney and his company don’t seem to have any sort of rigid morality when it comes to the jobs they will take. The opening scene shows Barney leading his team to rescue sailors being held hostage by Somali pirates. Yet later in the film Barney doesn’t hesitate to take a job whose stated goal is to assassinate the leader of a small island nation.
Barney’s group consists of action stars of yesteryear and today, and some others who might be part of Sly’s Sunday afternoon Harley riders group. Jason Statham is Lee Christmas, knife expert and Barney’s right-hand man. Jet Li is Yin Yang, Randy Couture is Toll Road, Dolph Lundgren is Gunner Jensen, and Terry Crews is Hale Caesar. It’s not important in the least to remember these characters’ names. Just know that they all kick ass. There’s also Mickey Rourke as Tool, a former mercenary who had enough of the life, and who appears to be spending his retirement in Barney’s garage giving people tattoos.
That’s a cast fairly heavy with names. All but Couture and Crews have had starring roles in action films, although Lundgren’s films are mostly bottom-feeder b-flicks. But that’s not all. Veteran ham actor Eric Roberts and former wrestling star Steve Austin play bad guys. Then there are the cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those two spend, total, about 3 minutes on the screen, but that must have been great fodder for the trailer.
There’s an island, somewhere, named Vilena. The island is suffering under the ruthless rule of dictator General Garza (David Zayas). The CIA wants Garza dead, so they hire Barney and company to take him out. Why doesn’t matter. All a viewer needs to know is that Sly and everyone else will be killing people with abandon in spectacular action sequences. That’s all the movie ever promised its audience, and it delivers. Just about everything else in this movie is anonymous, including the music.
The lack of imagination in the screenplay and in the characters is evident in the first scene. It seems that the bulk of the creative energy of this film was put into the action, which is quite ambitious. One thing a viewer won’t be is bored, but one might get tired of the bad boys’ club atmosphere of all the other scenes.
This is a movie that is what it is. It has no pretensions to be anything other than violent entertainment. That doesn’t hurt the film, but nor should a viewer give it any breaks on quality. There is very poor CGI throughout the film. The blood spatters were all added in post, possibly as a hedge if the studio decided to try for a PG-13 rating. As it is, they went for the R and made the violence a bit much for a film this cartoonish.
The Expendables is one of those films that could alienate a viewer from the first scene. It’s no great action flick and the main characters can be quite repellant. The performances are sub-par and the plot is stupid. But hey, it kicks ass. That’s all audiences wanted from Sly in 2010, it seems.