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The American Action Movie isn't what it used to be. Our heroes, the men we turn to when a goon deserves a dagger to the forehead or a corporate jackal needs kicked out a window, have turned into conflicted whiners bogged down by so much emotional baggage and "acting skills" that their kicks, punches, and 'splosions are barely registering.
Not Sylvester Stallone. He left all that baggage in the terminal when he made his super-group opus: The Expendables.
Facts of the Case
The Expendables are a group of elite mercenaries who are more than happy to bust a few skulls for the right price. Like any good ragtag group, each curiously-named member brings something unique to the table: Barney Ross (Stallone), the quickdraw leader; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the knife guy; Ying Yang (Jet Li), the karate expert; Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), the shellshocked loose cannon; Toll Road (Randy Couture), the wrestler-in-therapy; Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), the strongman with a nuke-shotgun; and Tool (Mickey Rourke), their long winded tattoo artist and adviser.
The gang is hired by a CIA operative, Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), to overthrow a puppet dictatorship on the island of Vilena in the Gulf of Mexico. That's pretty much all you need to know.
The Expendables is a fantasy. A man-fantasy. Not that kind of man-fantasy. You know what I mean. It's an imperfect, but admirable, dream come true. I remember seeing it in theaters, at midnight in downtown Chicago, and thinking to myself, as Terry Crews liquidized several nameless villains with his massive shotgun, that this couldn't be happening. How is it that all of these legendary action heroes, spanning over 30 years of film history, could be on the screen together blowing up a dictator's house? How did Stallone pull this off?
It's easy to be disappointed by The Expendables if you go in expecting the Citizen Kane of blow-em-ups. It's certainly not. The story is paper-thin, and the film suffers from some weird pacing (a problem Stallone has in most of the movies he helms), overzealous editing, and more than a few reasons to roll your eyes. But it has the heart of the '80s beating inside of it. From the moment the gang rides into the picture on motorcycles to the cheesy boys club ending, the film is an honest, hard-R throwback to the glory days.
Not surprisingly, the movie's steak-and-potatoes success is completely due to its cast. Stallone used his Hollywood tenure to assemble the meanest ensemble since 12 Angry Men. Sure he's missing greats like Van Damme and Seagal, but you forget about them the second Dolph Lundgren screams some unintelligible line and rips a dude in half with the pull of a trigger. Each of these guys gets a moment to shine, but Stallone and Statham are the stars here: they go on their intelligence missions together, they're the only ones dealing with "love interests," and they single-handedly destroy an entire dock (and probably the whole fishing industry) on the island of Vilena.
The chemistry between those two, along with the rest of the cast, is not unlike that of a veteran bowling team or a band of actual bikers (and not bikers happen to be mercenaries). The movie is fun because the actors are having fun. They easily sell the hokiest lines of dialogue ("Bring it, happy feet!") and can't help themselves from cracking a smile. Sure the acting isn't great, but who cares? Just wait until the Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Willis scene; for all its annoyingly claustrophobic framing, it's one of the best "non-killing-everyone" moments in the movie.
Stallone's directorial sensibilities are about as efficient as his screenplay. As in Rambo, Sly knows how to show some shocking violence, and his love for practical special effects and explosions gives the movie much appreciated authenticity. If only the marquee hand-to-hand combat scenes weren't shrouded in darkness and jump cuts. The Stallone/Steve Austin fight (which sent Sly to the hospital) is an ineffective mess—the same with both Lundgren/Li showdowns. But for every fight spoiled by modern editing, there's scenes like Jason Statham beating the tar out of a pick-up basketball team.
The film's South American locales and New Orleans warehouses look decent enough on the standard definition DVD. While a few of the darker scenes in the film are a little hard to decipher, the overall picture is solid. Even better is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, which puts great emphasis on the film's copious explosions, engine roars, and gunshots.
Accompanying the movie is an insightful commentary track from Sly, a deleted scene, gag reel, behind-the-scenes featurette, and an archive of trailers and posters. While it's not as expansive as I would have liked, what's here is certainly appreciated.
The reason '80s American Action Movies are so effective (awesome) is because they're reacting to the tumultuous events of the 1970s: Vietnam, the energy crisis, Watergate, etc. The reason The Expendables is so good is because it's reacting to the state of the action genre in Hollywood. Stallone has called together the League of Badasses to deliver a film that pays homage, in the most earnest way possible, to our Greatest Generation of Action Movies.
Expect nothing more than a hearty dose of red-blooded heroics and manly camaraderie and you'll come away fulfilled, feeling like you just ate a 16-ounce porterhouse.
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