Directed by: Sylvester Stallone || Produced by: Avi Lerner, Kevin King Templeton, John Thompson
Screenplay by: David Callaham, Sylvester Stallone || Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Giselle Itie, Gary Daniels, Charisma Carpenter, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke
Music by: Brian Tyler || Cinematography: Jeffrey L. Kimball || Edited by: Ken Blackwell, Paul Harb || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 113 minutes
If you’ve followed the sad state of the American action genre since the turn of the millennium, you’ve probably seen many people scoff at the increasingly feeble continuation of The Expendables “all-star action” series. Many lambast the endless digital blood squibs, the sequel’s abhorrent pacing, and of course the embarrassing PG-13 rating of the series’ third iteration. To be fair, I myself complain about all these aspects of The Expendables series as well as the action genre as a whole, and even I will admit that Sylvester Stallone’s pet project has gone on way too long. Stallone enjoys what he does, and he makes movies to please his audiences and make sure his fans have a good time, but really, The Expendables should have been a one-time thing —- “a group of aging action stars brought together for one last paycheck.” 😀
Since I last saw The Expendables on my birthday and was later disappointed with The Expendables II (2012), much has happened, both with respect to the series’ development and my relationship to the 1980s era of cinema as a whole. While I love and had seen the likes of Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988) long before I set foot in that theatre on August 13th, 2010, I didn’t know too much about the genre in the 1980s heyday beyond its most famous examples. Seeing more middle-of-the-road hits and subsequent cult favorites like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985), Stallone’s First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Robocop (1987), Lethal Weapon (1987), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and others helped put the decade in better perspective.
As such, I realize now that so much of the jaded Generation X backlash against The Expendables (the first one, that is), has largely been unwarranted, much in the same way that fan and critical choosiness with respect to original science-fiction properties has been harmful to that cinematic demographic as well. It seems like everybody wants either a perfect rendition of their old childhood favorite cinema, flawless and just as they remember it from their high-school days, or they’ll scarf down any trendy modern blockbuster (e.g. Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present) films) no questions asked. I don’t think these are realistic expectations.
Moreover, viewing many of the average, run-of-the-mill Reagan-era commando flicks has allowed me to appreciate The Expendables more in hindsight. I agree, those digital blood squibs and fire are annoying, but the practical effects of the 1980s were not flawless by any means. In films like Predator, sure, those effects were outstanding, but have you seen the over-the-top explosions and horribly fake miniatures in Commando? Also, Rambo II is just a bad movie no matter how you look at it, because amazingly its conservative preaching overwhelms its liberal violence, and the original Terminator (1984)’s stop-motion will never age well ever.
I’m not saying that The Expendables is a terrific all-around movie either, or even a spectacular 1980s-throwback, but I do think we should give the film more credit than it’s been given for what it is and the spectacular action that it does accomplish. Particularly when you view (or review) older films from the decade besides the very cream of the crop, the first Expendables (especially Stallone’s dedicated director’s cut) holds up quite well.
In fact, the way Stallone embraces the generality of his ’80’s homage is kind of cute in a big, brawling bear-like sort of way. The film features a purposefully generic setup with “a generically evil general teaming up with a generically evil CIA agent to wreak havoc on a generically Latin island-nation that is going through some sort of coup…or revolution…or something!” The titular squad of middle-aged badasses go by such ludicrous aliases as Stallone’s Barney Ross, Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas, Jet Li’s freaking “Yin Yang,” and former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Randy Couture’s Toll Road. Fucking genius!
In all seriousness, though, it’s easy to enjoy The Expendables to its most outrageous masculine extent with a modicum amount of humor, though again it helps if you’re male and like R-rated action films. Everyone’s scowling and puffing out their chest in every scene, and cast members spend downtime in between action scenes talking shit over beers in biker bars, throwing knives for target practice, and getting manly tattoos by an especially greasy Mickey Rourke.
The action scenes themselves are impressively staged and fluid. Various styles of violence, from unarmed hand-to-hand combat to shootouts to armed close-quarters-combat interchange swiftly to maintain maximum and near constant viciousness. The Expendables may in fact feature some of the most well balanced action of any film I’ve ever seen in any industry, including The Raid (2011, 2014) films.
The director’s cut of The Expendables is better paced and edited than its theatrical counterpart and certainly its first sequel; the story is serviceable both in spite and because of its genericity, allowing maximum time for both terrible and awesome corny one-liners and single-guy banter. Most of the characters are forgettable other than Statham and Stallone, who could almost be considered co-leads even given the fact that this is Stallone’s creative baby.
Still, given the fact that Stallone heavily oversold the film’s cast (Willis and Schwarzenegger are present for about two minutes, maximum) and most of those classic action stars who do show up get limited screen-time (it’s mostly Statham and Stallone’s show), many were understandably disappointed with the final result. As much as I do like this film and appreciate its sentiments to bring back old-school, adult action that’s actually, you know, violent, I do agree with Rottentomatoes’ sentiment to a certain extent that, given the all-star brawl we were promised on the poster and all the talent on display, The Expendables should’ve been better than it was.
With that in mind, though, saying that The Expendables didn’t live up to the greatest heights set by action classics like Predator, Die Hard, and The Terminator isn’t much of a mark against it, regardless of what you or I or anyone of us thought was “oversold” by the film’s marketing campaign. Is The Expendables as good as Predator? No, it’s not, but very few films of any genre from any decade are as good as that movie (or Die Hard, or even Robocop), and that’s why everyone loves those movies. Those films were able to transcend their 1980s action genre status, and just because The Expendables doesn’t, doesn’t make the latter a bad film. Stallone’s goal with this film was not to transcend its influences, but to dive head-first back into them!
One can’t quite enjoy the 1980s American action-canon and its unapologetic violence without the distinctive Reagan-era conservatism and stupidity that comes with it, but that being said I’d by lying if I didn’t experience a sheer wave of catharsis as I watched Dolph Lundgren blow away half a Somali pirate’s torso with 40mm buckshot and Stallone and company subsequently blasted away his comrades, overlaid infrared vision and all. You just don’t get this shit with PG-13. I understand it’s not what everyone wanted and few non-Generation X’ers can fully appreciate action like this, but for what it is The Expendables is a successful tribute to the violent escapades of the American action genre’s golden age.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDED: The Expendables features killer action in all shapes and sizes, demonstrated by mostly older action-stars of all shapes and sizes. Its pacing isn’t the best but it’s sufficient for the tale at hand. That tale is told by Stallone and right-hand man, Statham, who seamlessly combine the best (and worst!) action cliches of the past thirty years with childish glee.
— However… Stallone resorts to some modern action-cinematographic laziness that is unforgivable; I’m OK with the digital blood seeing how that’s just the way action movies are made these days, but the CGI fire looks simply awful in several instances. Also, some of Rourke’s monologues seem like they belong in a different movie.
—> ON THE FENCE; viewer mileage will vary depending on your nostalgia for or cynicism of decades-old action cinema.
? Now, what the hell happened with the sequels?