August 22nd 2010

The Expendables
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Run time: 103 minutes

Review written by Delme Stephenson 

“The most awesome action cast ever assembled…” (Empire). It hadn’t been the first time I had seen the poster. But Empire magazine had me at the word ‘awesome’. This had to be a must see summer blockbuster after reading those words and seeing an Aviator-wearing, cigar-chomping, bicep bulging Stallone surrounded by a couple of contemporary action superstars. It’s been a reasonable year for films involving mercenaries against the odds (or the CIA), ‘The Losers’ and ‘The A-Team’ namely. But seriously who can resist the allure of Stallone, Statham, Li; the reuniting of action legends Willis and Arnie; tough guys like Austin and Couture and straight-to-DVD action legends like Lundgren and Daniels in one film. Yes, in one film. If you’re going to watch this film based on the hype alone then you know what you’re going to get. In short the film delivers, so long as you’re not expecting anything that resembles an ambitious storyline, dialogue or acting…but you knew that already…didn’t you?  

I’m going to review this film seriously because it would be too easy to the do the opposite; besides it starts to take itself seriously at the half way mark anyway. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not that good either. It has its moments. I had reasonable expectations. I always wondered who would win in a showdown between martial arts superstar Jet Li and Swedish giant Dolph Lundgren, or what would happen if UFC legend Couture decided to get it on (not in that way) with WWE legend ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. My main problem with this project is that it fails to live up to its potential. 

‘The Expendables’ pays tribute to the action movies of the 80’s and early 90’s. So it comes as no surprise then that our group of mercenaries have to overthrow a corrupt South American Dictator in a fictional South American country. However he’s just a pawn being used by a former CIA operative, Eric Roberts, who has set himself up as a drug lord. It also comes as no surprise that there are loads of explosions and gory deaths. In between all of this we have several subplots (if you want to call them that) involving Barney Ross (Stallone) considering his mercenary disposition - his onscreen dilemma actually brought to life by the talent that is Mickey Rourke; knife-wielding Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) trying to reconcile his relationship with his girlfriend; Ying Yang (Jet Li) trying to get a pay rise and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) who seems to have gone on one mission too many.           

I genuinely admire Stallone who has also directed and co-written the screenplay for this picture. His last two features: ‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006) and ‘Rambo’ (2008) saw him wave goodbye (hopefully) in style to two of his most iconic film characters – particular Rocky Balboa. It showed Stallone still had it after some of the dire films he’s been in over the last decade.  

There is an air of playfulness about ‘The Expendables’ and I admire its self-awareness. This is most efficiently executed in the much talked about scene where Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis meet to discuss ‘the job’ and trade snide remarks at one another, thus alluding to their competitive heyday in the movie industry. Statham works well in this film and as a relative action newcomer is not only able to fit in, but effectively stamps his persona onto the film - better than any other star. His banter with Stallone is easily one of the films highlights. Rourke also adds in a well delivered mouth dribbling monologue (how does he do that dribbling thing anyway?).     

But there are huge flaws. Most of the characters are underdeveloped, Jet Li in particular is under utilised and that’s an understatement. He needs money for his family (not funny!) and he’s short (again not funny!). Dolph Lundgren shows us why his films have been released straight-to-DVD for the last couple of decades by uttering his lines like he’s just been knocked out by Rocky Balboa. 

Stallone’s direction comes under scrutiny. The fight scenes are edited in a quick-fire fashion - especially the Lee/Lundgren fight. Several of the cast members are martial arts experts for goodness-sake, which means I think this calls for longer takes not hastily edited sequences, and I don’t believe the continual pay-off should be a quick shot of someone’s bloodied broken body. At the climax I was confused as to who was fighting who and I was a little baffled by one of the chase scenes which darted from vehicle to vehicle (and to believe I thought I understood ‘Inception’). The banter between the team is weak and the much needed rapport between the team, which is important in these types of films, is missing.  In terms of the budget the film cost $82 million to produce. I would really like to know where that money went, because it’s not on the screen. Compare that figure to the ‘The A-Team’ which cost a $110 million and looks like it and ‘The Losers’ which cost $25 million and looks like somebody actually worked overtime.     

I didn’t mind ‘The Expendables’. Stallone apparently wanted to pay homage to ‘The Wild Bunch’ – a classic violent western about a group of gunslingers who are becoming relics in a modern world that doesn’t need them. The Mickey Rourke monologue or the scene with Arnie and Willis, are not enough to seal this sentiment - this film features two of Hollywood’s current biggest action stars in Li and Statham. It also comes on a little bit more seriously than the two mercenary releases this summer, specifically regarding American (CIA) involvement in other countries. Those other films also develop the ‘honour amongst men/comrade’ themes in much more interesting ways where as ‘The Expendables’ bases this union on adrenaline. At its heart this is a film about rescuing a pretty girl in peril and blowing/shooting/kicking etc. up stuff. Based on its domestic success a sequel should be in the works. Stallone has been quoted as saying "I have an idea ready to go" and "I'm going to try to do something that's quite radical”. I can’t wait.

Live in London? Liberation Frequency recommends Everyman Cinemas for the best independent and leftfield cinemas in London

Want to Discuss this article? Pay a visit to our Film Forum to discuss this and many of other topics! For more Film reviews, interviews and features, visit the film section and our film archive