"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.
Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Written by Sylvester Stallone and Dave Callaham. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, David Zayas, and Giselle Iti. Rated R.
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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.