In a summer where film after film has struggled to match up to the sum of its component parts, and where big budget movies with massive marketing campaigns have more often than not underwhelmed, there’s always been the shameless glee of The Expendables to look forward to.
From the moment it was announced that Sylvester Stallone was uniting the likes of Jet Li, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Eric Roberts, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger under the umbrella of one movie, I’ve been practically begging for it not to go wrong.
And do you know what? For once, it really hasn’t. I say that knowing and accepting the inherent and obvious flaws that the film has, too. It’s lacking in solid story. Its characters are thin. It’s often just an excuse to parade action star after action star, with increasingly impressive guns. And it’s very much a vehicle to show that Sylvester Stallone could still kick your ass in a fight.
Yet in spite of this, and arguably even just a little because of it, the news here is good. The Expendables delivers pretty much what you expect you’re going to get. I’d suggested, in advance of seeing the film, that it looked from the outset like a three star movie, but one of the most enjoyable three star movies you’re likely to see. Turns out I was wrong: for The Expendables is the four star action festival that summer 2010 has sorely been lacking, warts and all.
It manages this by eschewing what pretty much everyone else has been concerning themselves with. Whizzbang special effects? You can pretty much forget them, as some of the on-screen work here is ropey at best (demonstrated within the opening five minutes). Lots of CGI? Nope, not much of that. Long, ponderous passages of dialogue, attempting to fuse the film with a host of serious messages? They didn’t make the final cut either, although help yourself to a couple of Mickey Rourke lines of dialogue, if you like.
Instead, what you get with The Expendables is probably what you wanted to buy a ticket for: lots of generally ageing action stars, blowing shit up in a manner we’ve not seen on the big screen for a good decade or two.
Stallone, with his co-writer/director hat on, has wisely kept this as old-school as he can, and 80s action movies are very much his template. Granted, his script really could use a few more pithy one-liners (the ones we get are, on the whole, hardly vintage), but it’s generally very efficient, and moves things along at sufficient pace.
He takes little time for instance – through a terrific opening sequence – to put together his team of mercenaries, who we learn (but could have guessed) will take any job-against-the-odds in exchange for lots of cash. You thus get the first job pretty much as soon as the film starts, and it sets the scene a treat for what you’re going to get for much of the rest of the film, with sparring between Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone (who, along with Jet Li, get considerably more screen time than most), and lots of very bloody violence.
Stallone doesn’t keep us hanging around between missions either (save for a sojourn to the aforementioned Mickey Rourke’s tattoo parlour, allowing him to mumble his way through dialogue for the second time this summer) and soon it’s off to what may just become the film’s iconic scene: Bruce, Sly and Arnie together. And while the meeting of the beefcake trio for just a handful of minutes on screen is pretty much over before it starts, Sly nonetheless has a lot of fun with it, particularly at Arnie’s expense. It’s the comedy highlight of the film.
From this point onwards, the film then floods the screen with yet more action, as the team of Expendables fight against bad guys on a remote island, and Jason Statham leans out of a plane shooting seven shades out of two dimensional bad guys. For fear of spoiling the admittedly quite thin plot, that’s as much as we’ll spill on the story. Because, after all, it’s simply the foundation for the mayhem that’s going to follow.
And there’s plenty of that. There are a couple of standout action sequences, and each frame boasts flames somewhere, bullets flying, or a sweaty action star. Or a combination of all three. Then, at the moments when it looks like Stallone and his crew have run out of people to shoot, it simply cuts to a shot of another truckload of cannon fodder coming around the corner,
If you were being picky, you could rightly suggest that at no point in the film do you get much of a feeling that the mission isn’t something the Expendables couldn’t do in their sleep, as there’s very little sense of peril to it all. Half the time, it’s like they’re marauding through an old-style videogame with an invincibility cheat mode activated. Yet, it’s having such a blast that – for once – it’s easy to forgive it that.
The ensemble cast – the film’s biggest selling point – come out of it to differing degrees. Stone Cold Steve Austin, for instance, spends much of his time standing around looking intimidating rather than inflicting violence, while Jet Li puts most of his martial arts work to the side in favour of guns this time round. Eric Roberts gets to sneer a lot and be menacing, while Terry Crews – in one of the smallest parts of the film – gets one or two cracking moments, involving some mighty impressive firepower.
The weak link in this case, sadly, is the mighty Dolph Lundgren. We won’t have a word said against his portrayal of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, but here – and with all due respect to the man – he’s not at his best. It’s as if he’s somehow forgotten the wink to the audience in the midst of portraying his role, and instead you get him playing things utterly straight (which his character has to do, to be fair), and it puts him on the back foot.
There are other downsides too. It’s probably best to acknowledge right now that, if the posters and trailers for The Expendables haven’t interested you thus far, then there’s not going to be much to change your mind here. Furthermore, many of the actors whose names adorn the poster aren’t on screen for very long at all, with the feeling, in the case of some, that they’re popping in and out of the film when they feel like it, or when Stallone could find a spare bit of the script to drag them in.
In fact, if you were being even pickier, you could pull apart the narrative, the fact that the film has picked up few tips from the last two decades of action cinema, and that any kind of realism is quickly chucked out of the window.
But heck, The Expendables succeeds because of something very simple: it’s so much fun.
I can accept and envisage that many aren’t going to warm to it, and you can almost see the two and three star scores coming around the corner. But what price do you put on having an insanely good time in the cinema, with a film that feels like a proper homage to an era of action movies feared lost? It’s clearly targeting action movie fans of a certain vintage, but hits its target audience with real precision.
I could spend many more words listing an abundance of flaws, but ultimately, two things stuck out for me more at the end of it all. Firstly, I can’t remember having had so much fun watching a film in ages. And secondly, the film simply shot by.
I found myself so ludicrously entertained by it all that the last act was upon me before I knew it. Personally, I’d have quite happily had the projectionist start the whole thing again there and then once the credits rolled. This isn’t a Snakes On A Plane either, where it’s just the enthusiasm and openness of the audience that gets it through. There’s a good action film here, and one I’m already keen to see again.
Thus, against sizeable odds, The Expendables delivers on what many of us who have followed it from day one hoped it would become. It does it by applying a simple rule: knowing what kind of film it wants to be. And that’s, in this case, a proper, hard-edged, old-school action movie.
So, you want car chases? Big explosions? Lots of bullets that never seem to hit anyone? A thumping action score in the style you thought they didn’t make any more? Action sequences edited so you can actually see them? And the biggest firefight of the summer? Then this really is your film.
Mr Stallone? For me, at least, you can’t make the sequel quickly enough. And see if Christopher Lambert and Cynthia Rothrock are available next time, too…