The Expendables: Sly and the Family Stallone Get Nostalgic for Their Legacy of Brutality
"If the money's right, we don't care where the job is." So explains the leader of hired-gun task force The Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone). This credo lands Ross and his team in the Gulf of Aden as our story begins. Somali pirates staging a videotaped decapitation are pinned down by dancing laser sights — and the ripped-from-the-headlines baddies are ripped apart. A human trunk splats against the wall, and star/director/co-screenwriter Stallone slaps his cards on the table.
Rocky's creator is a promoter at heart, and in his career's third act, Stallone is hawking nostalgia. After farewell tours with Balboa and Rambo, Stallone presents The Expendables ("If the money's right . . ."). Tipped by the presence of Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren and cameo favors called in from Planet Hollywood, the movie is a throwback to '80s run-and-gun action, when Hollywood gym rats made boffo box office depopulating Third World countries.
Stallone and Jason Statham have the lion's share of screen time here; the full Expendables aren't together much when not killing, and they never jell as an ensemble. Lundgren is a fringe presence, Jet Li and UFC vet Randy Couture are awkward outside of a scrap, and, in "The Carl Weathers Memorial Role," Terry Crews, a great comic, doesn't get the opportunity to create the familiar, relaxed, workaday banter that the movie requires.
Between commissions, the gang convenes at the New Orleans tattoo parlor of ex-Expendable Mickey Rourke. Stallone rolls up in a hot-rodded '55 F100, Statham in a hot Ducati. It's a fantasy clubhouse catering to gearheads and bros in Affliction shirts. Stallone's lushly dark eyes are now set in a shiny, red, curiously smooth face (and The Expendables do sport a Raven on their insignia). At age 64, Sly's still peddling his action-figure musculature, the cigar nub he smokes almost indistinguishable from his swollen fingers.
As in Stallone's last Rambo, where a good-hearted Christian woman resurrected John Rambo's wrath to the woe of the Burmese junta, Giselle Itié's vague Hope gives the Expendables a purpose. Smushed in close-up, Rourke gives a teary, deal-sealing keynote speech about redemption, beginning, "When we was up in Bosnia . . ." It's a disingenuous sop from a script that recklessly deploys loaded images of napalm and waterboarding as part of its dirty-thrills sensory assault.
Though Expendables does not have that last Rambo's . . . let us call it "focus," it tries manfully to top that film's berserker, kill-'em-all climax. Here, Stallone's julienned editing — you get every vantage but the clear one — whips up a blizzard of violence, bodies by the hundred being sundered in the most extraordinary ways, registering almost subconsciously. Couture punches a man wreathed in CGI fire . . . Li snaps a head back with a guillotine kick . . . Sly reloads three times in the span it takes fleeing soldiers to cross 20 feet of uncovered ground. . . .
It's surprising to emerge into a still-intact world after this spectacle, as all-in as if it were the last shoot-out ever to be filmed . . . Or the first? The Expendables ends with a knife thrown at the camera. This is action as timeless as the reptilian brain — and if The Expendables is no classic, for about 20 minutes, it blowed up real good.
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