Aptly Titled 'Expendables' Falls Flat
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
There are some moviegoers among us old enough to think back to when Sylvester Stallone wanted very much to be taken seriously as a filmmaker and an overall intellect. Back when he was constantly reminding his public, in interviews, that he wasn't just the originator and portrayer of the one-of-a-kind mush-mouthed underdog palooka Rocky Balboa, but that he was the writer of the "Rocky" films' screenplays, and that he had even higher writing and directing aspirations. He spoke passionately of his love for Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. And what did he get for his "I'm-not-really-some-dumbass" demurrals, and his finer enthusiasms? Mockery mostly, on a nearly unrelenting scale. One wisenheimer humor writer titled an entire collection "Yo, Poe," after a celebrated essay imagining what a real-life cinematic meeting of the man who created Rocky and the man who wrote "The Raven" might add up to.
In any event, for certain observant or perhaps semiobsessive observers of Stallone The Filmmaker, his incredibly crass 2007 rethink of "Rambo" -- so mindless and endless a spectacle of gunfire and grunting and gunfire and grunting that it made the near-universally derided 1986 debacle "Cobra" look like "The Importance of Being Earnest" -- came off as a relatively definitive goodbye-to-all-that to his higher aspirations, or pretensions, if you will. So what would giving up the aesthetic glory and going, ahem, balls-out for the macho gusto do for Stallone's, um, art as the 64-year-old action icon's career entered its unavoidable twilight?
Sly has concocted what he hopes will play as a big, bold, rousing answer to that question with "The Expendables," an all-action-icon adventure that's meant to hearken back to the moviemaking days when men were men on a mission and women were pretty ornaments and camaraderie was tough and not at all gay and all of that other stuff. They were the days of "The Great Escape," "The Guns of Navarone," "The Magnificent Seven" and dozens of other films, none of which "The Expendables" happens to resemble all that much. One merely assumes that the film wishes to reach for the classics just mentioned; what winds up in the picture's largely lazy grasp is largely evidence of the influence of, well, any number of cheap and often straight-to-video testosterone fests. Because once you get past the film's front line of stars -- Sly himself; the lithe, cool Jason Statham; and martial arts maestro Jet Li -- and the in-jokey cameos and bit parts -- contributors here include, yes, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke -- what's buttressing the movie are a bunch of basic cable staples whose sell-by dates have been and gone. As far as more than a few people are concerned, the formerly "Stone Cold" Steve Austin might as well have been regularly opening a can of Dinty Moore in front of a hobo fire for the past few years, for as much impact as his existence has had on American culture of late.
Stallone and Statham and Li play the front line in a group of mercenaries who call themselves, yes, "Expendables." After a sort-of character-establishing opening set piece -- replete with the fellas conducting a semi-Mexican-standoff with some Somali pirates and dropping bon mots such as "Fat chance," "Yeah, that'll happen," "Appreciate it," and "Good to have friends" just at the points where they ought to -- they are recruited by a shady suit (Willis) for a Banana Republic cleanup mission right out of ... well, right out of Woody Allen's "Bananas," basically. "The job's real ... the money's real," Stallone's character tells his crew. This is hardly the beginning of the film's catalog of commonplaces and clichés. Take the travails of Statham's character, for instance. After a mission, he comes home to the girlfriend he's been neglecting and hasn't spoken to for months (and who doesn't know what he does) and finds that -- gasp! -- she has taken up with another man! And this surprises him. One might wonder, at this point, whether action movie characters suffer from the same epistemological problem as players in latter-day zombie movies: that is, that they've never seen the 120 million action movies in which the uncommunicative mercenary comes home to this very same domestic dilemma.
There are those who might argue that such predictability is the point, and that this kind of action movie is meant to serve as a sort of cinematic comfort food. And certainly there must be at least some sly self-awareness at work here, or else why would Stallone include a prominent shot of his character switching the plane he's flying to "Autopilot" right before the climactic battle scene begins? And in many respects the picture does get the job, such as it is, done. Every player, from the superb Statham (whom I'd like to hire as a personal trainer) to the lowly Randy Couture (I still find that name highly befuddling), gets an opportunity to strut his particular brand of ass-kicking stuff -- although I wonder how Mr. Li must have felt about having to almost lose both of his big fights, and to the massively luggish master thespian Dolph Lundgren, at that. The explosions are huge. There are car chases, jumping-onto-a-moving-plane gags, miniature-warhead-equipped bullets, a lame joke about Schwarzenegger wanting to be president, and Mickey Rourke riffing, in what appears to be an at least semi-improvised fashion, about giving Statham a tattoo with a "Charlotte's Web" motif. "What more could you possibly want?" the movie seems to be asking, earnestly, at certain points.
Some critics have complained, as critics will, that the picture's action sequences lack spatial coherency, which is a wonky way of saying that you can't necessarily tell who's kicking the living hell out of whom in a given scene. This does tend to be the case, but one should add that this is only really a problem when the viewer actually really cares about which character is going to walk away from the fight, a state of affairs that the film rather neatly, albeit perhaps inadvertently, sidesteps. In any case, I don't think it's a spoiler to say that all the fellows you hope/expect to walk away from the fight intact in fact do, and one or two surprise, or "surprise," cast members are revealed as probable cast members of "More Expendable," or whatever they'll call the sequel. And of course the film's end credits roll over Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town." It's like they never left. Or do I mean, it's like they'll never leave?
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.