Today, Sylvester Stallone and crew return for The Expendables II, the sequel to his 2010 feature, The Expendables. Let’s take a look back at the original movie.
Promising to unite the greatest action stars of all time in a throwback to those gleefully violent 1980s action films, the announcement of The Expendables delighted action fans and people who think liking anything from the 1980s is ironic and therefore simultaneously lame and cool. What we got was an average modern action film with a couple of above average moments and way too many quick cuts.
The biggest problem with The Expendables was the same as with Grindhouse: Planet Terror: it missed the point of the assignment. People may have complained about Death Proof, but Quentin Tarantino understood the importance of pacing, cars, cheap sets, and real stunts in the type of movie he was going for. Robert Rodriguez, on the other hand, put a Grindhouse filter on a CGI-enhanced explosion spectacular; cutting out frames and adding scratches does not mean you fulfilled your task.
Similarly, putting Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a movie with heavy gunplay does not make something a throwback. There is a certain vibe and tone to 1980s schlock that The Expendables did not capture. Instead, the movie promising over-the-top carnage and violence ended up playing it too seriously; it did not go far enough. Even the villains, played by Eric Roberts and David Zayas, were relatively low key. They might have had the schemes you’d expect them to have and said the lines you’d expect them to say (Evil Rich Guy James Munroe (Roberts): “And being wealthy is very good. It allows people to be the real asswipes nature intended them to be!”), but compared to the scenery chewing madmen of Commando and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, their performances were dialed back… to the movie’s detriment.
There is an element of fun to those early movies that is lacking in The Expendables. The characters occasionally winking to the audience feels out of place when the entire universe should be a wink to the audience. A “Hey Kids! It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger! [Applause]” scene does not fit a movie that plays things relatively straight. Even the intentional humor The Expendables does have seems forced and awkward (almost uncomfortable), and I couldn’t tell if that was because of a lack of chemistry between the cast or because the actors couldn’t sell the one-liners.
It reminded me of several of the post-Grindhouse Grindhouse revival films where, rather than trust that the audience will understand the joke, the filmmakers feel compelled to hammer the punchline because they cannot fully commit to the set-up. Movies can be self-aware without letting us know that they are self-aware, and trying to play it both ways shows a lack of confidence. In many of those original 1980s films, you understand that they understand that they are making a cheesy movie, and they’re okay with it. The cheapness is part of those films’ charm. Without a dearth of budget and soul, you get yet another inflated, joyless action movie, and The Expendables ended up being too professionally made to be part of the world that it aspired to live in.
Aside from the overall issue of The Expendables not understanding the type of movie it was, it made other missteps along the way. Instead of reducing the number of people on the poster, they struggled to come up with Action Stars. While Jason Statham and Jet Li are “newer” than Arnold, Sly, and Bruce, they have earned their place in the action movie pantheon, even if making Statham the second lead took away from the “getting too old for this” angle that I think it toyed with. But Randy Couture, Steve Austin, and Terry Crews? A bit of a stretch. And Mickey Rourke was too young to play the wise sage, a role generally reserved for a supporting actor older, or who appears older, than the main cast. Sam Elliott wasn’t available?
Also, CGI blood. For some reason, I can believe in The Hulk roaming the streets of New York, but the cartoony red splotches effects people try to pass off as blood takes me right out of a film. The use of computers instead of conventional squibs becomes especially harmful in a movie like this because it only reminds you of what it’s missing.
Of course, all of these complaints would be moot if The Expendables could stand on its own. And it doesn’t, for the most part. As I said, it’s a well-made film, and there are a few decent sequences (the Lundgren/Li fight, for example), but it lacks a personality. Not silly enough to be cheesy or intense enough to be a genuinely good action film, the movie sort of sits there, hitting plot points (BETRAYAL! REVERSE BETRAYAL!) more out of laziness than homage or satire.
Like with many mediocre/bad movies (Green Lantern, The Amazing Spider-Man, etc.), people might defend The Expendables by saying that it should be given a pass because it’s the first movie in a franchise and the sequel will be better. But this excuse shouldn’t fly. The movies that inspired The Expendables weren’t allowed to be flaccid because Road House 2 would totally rule. When you throw anything on film because you hope the box office will allow you to try again, you’re only causing distrust among the audience. There’s a reason The Expendables won’t overtake Predator or The Last Boy Scout in people’s memories. It won’t even have the footprint of Tango and Cash.
The Expendables II opens today.