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Movie Review: The Expendables

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Movie Review: The Expendables

Movie Poster: The Expendables

The Expendables

Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Screenplay by Dave Callaham and Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone as Barney Ross
Jason Statham as Lee Christmas
Jet Li as Ying Yang
Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen
Eric Roberts as James Munroe
Randy Couture as Toll Road
Steve Austin as Paine
David Zayas as General Garza
Giselle Itié as Sandra

CLR [rating:3.5]

Movie Still: The Expendables

Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone and Toll Road (Randy Couture) in The Expendables
[Photo credit: Karen Ballard. © Lionsgate]

You Don’t Mess Around With Sly

Pardon the expression, but the simplest and most adequate term for a production like The Expendables is “balls-out.” Overkill is the name of the game in this gleeful throwback to the shoot-em-up favorites of the 1980s. Director, star, and co-writer Sylvester Stallone gathers action stars old and new, wrestlers, professional fighters and football players in the dueling ring. Wind them up and watch them go!

The Expendables are a hardened squad of mercenaries, accustomed to high-risk, impossible-odds scenarios. We first see them (half a dozen or so in number) shredding a desperate crew of Somalian pirates without putting more than a scratch or two on their cargo of hostages. It is immediately clear that this is no sobering military drama. It is, instead, a celebration of the Ultimate Badass. If this sounds entertaining to you, then by all means stick around. For the rest of you… well, you’ve been warned.

To anchor all the mayhem, the film weaves just enough plot between adventures to give us some idea of who these men are and what drives them. These men are mercenaries for a couple of very basic reasons. It pays, it is what they are best at, and it substitutes nicely for the real-world relationships that seem just out of reach for them. After all, what group of guys wouldn’t enjoy zipping around the world on motorcycles, being as tough as they want to be and getting paid bundles for it? These men understand one another, which lends a thread of credibility to their outstanding – bordering on superhuman – sense of teamwork. Each insists that his number one motivation is money, but an underlying bond of solidarity keeps them together even when the risk outweighs the reward. Without one another, all of these men would be troubled and dangerous loners. And they know it.

At the same time, they all fear the lurking specter of burnout. Stallone’s character observes early on that “the life” catches up with every mercenary at some point, and for the professionally lethal, a loss of faith in humanity can be a very perilous thing. Enter Stallone’s old foe from Rocky IV, Mr. Dolph “Man Is He Big!” Lundgren, as a hulking and unstable teammate who has been driven by the Expendables lifestyle to a rather frightening outlook on the world at large. Cut loose by Stallone as a liability, he is by no means out of the picture, sneering and crushing his way through an impressive performance of ice-cold, unstoppable menace.

The flip side of the burnout coin is Mickey Rourke, playing a former mercenary turned reclusive tattoo artist. Disillusioned and scarred by his younger and more bloodthirsty days, he is unable or unwilling to make a meaningful connection with the real world. Though retired from active wet work, he still spends all his time with his old buddies, throwing knives and blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival. He is caught for good between the world he abandoned and the one where he does not belong.

NEWS FLASH! The tiny island nation of Vilena is in crisis. A cruel military dictator oppresses, tortures, and terrorizes the dirt-poor citizens into farming cocaine for his own profit and glory. We further learn that the real boss of the operation is a sinister, sharply dressed American (Eric Roberts) with connections powerful enough to walk all over the general and his army, constantly demanding more money and any amount of bloodshed required to make it. Through a series of shadowy contacts and secret meetings, the Expendables are hired to terminate the operation and all major parties involved.

The Expendables pays tribute to many high-octane favorites of yesteryear. The general’s island compound – half fortress and half statue garden, worthy of any comic book supervillain drug lord – brings to mind the blissful chaos of Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice. Meanwhile, Eric Roberts does a fantastic riff on the old Jack Palance profit-driven-sociopath routine, straight out of Tango and Cash. As promised in the trailer, Stallone’s buddies Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger show up in a pair of all-mugging, all-wisecracking cameos.

Not content simply to play out all the best bits of bygone films, Stallone actively updates a number of time-tested action clichés to new levels of insanity. For example, rather than grabbing onto helicopter skids to escape a gunfight, Stallone leaps from a pier onto the side of his airplane, scales it like a monkey at full takeoff velocity, and manages to swing himself inside to safety just as the big bird lifts off. This vehicle deserves special mention – a giant black cargo plane, adorned with the Expendables logo of a huge raven perched atop the globe, painted with the oh-so-convincing legend “Global Wildlife Conservancy.” It puts one in mind of a similar joke from The Simpsons, where the mafia element spend their time in a back-alley hideout, undetectable except for a huge sign out front that says “Legitimate Businessman’s Social Club.”

At first the mission looks like a real meat grinder, so dangerous that the team nearly walks away from it. However, further entanglements with the general’s beautiful daughter (Giselle Itié) convince Stallone, and eventually his compadres, to reconsider. This time it may be about more than money. It just might be about a group of people worth saving. The drama is satisfactory, decently performed and suitably directed. It is also not pressed upon the audience beyond reasonable limits. The film never pauses for too long between its many fights, chases, and shootouts, and each of these is absolutely wild. The copious, high-grit violence fits seamlessly with the film’s defiantly over-the-top style. In fact, many action directors of twenty and thirty years ago would probably have killed for the technology to make their films look like this. It is the same meat-and-bone style that Stallone himself exercised to similar extremes in his 2008 installment of Rambo, and which pervades most pictures produced under the Lionsgate label. It takes a fairly outrageous movie to house action of this caliber, but if you ever wondered about the effects of prolonged, close-quarters shotgun, grenade and throwing knife combat, this movie offers a number of plausible illustrations. This is not to downplay the impressive hand-to-hand work, including a noteworthy battle between the gigantic Lundgren and the smaller, nimbler Jet Li.

This kind of entertainment is not meant to be challenging, except to those who may find the graphic violence a little too pervasive and extreme. It is meant to be exciting, and this The Expendables delivers in buckets. It offers everything that can be reasonably expected of a film dealing primarily with the ups and downs of being a Big Bad Dude. If the trailer got you excited, then the film will not disappoint. If you do plan to watch it, go ahead and shell out for a big-screen ticket. You will get what you came to see, and plenty of it.

The Expendables Trailer

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter

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