Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, David Zayas, Giselle Itie, Terry Crews, Randy Coutre, Mickey Rourke, and Charisma Carpenter
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
An elite team of mercenaries (Li, Statham, Stallone) turn down a contract to overthrow the military dictator of a small South American nation (Zayas). They change their minds when when the drug-runners who are the power-behind-the-power (Austin and Roberts) abduct the dictator's kindhearted daughter (Itie), and they set out to overthrow a government and kill every bad guy they come across--free of charge.
Forget the race-baiting self-consciously referential "Machete" that's coming out later this year. This is the film that captures the real mood and spirit of everything that was great about the explosion-laden action movies of yesteryear, without any posturing, preaching, or pandering.
Like "Predators" from earlier this summer, "The Expendables" is a throw-back movie that succeeds at what it sets out to do--to evoke the feeling of a 1980s action flick and to the movie days when men were men and every day brought another suicide mission. It does this with all the fight scenes, gunplay, car chases, and macho banter than even the most discriminating fan would want. It also does so by reviving a common 1980s villain (the corrupt CIA operative whose gone into the drug trade), by providing us lead characters who can be chivalrous when damsels are in distress, completely coldhearted and unforgiving to those who put them there, and forgiving to their friends even when they betray them.
In "The Expendables," Sylvester Stallone gathered such an array of stars--several of whom have cameos, such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger--that I was afraid the film would collapse under the weight of egoes vying for screentime and recognition. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Stallone, who is also the co-writer and director of the flick, retains complete control of the straight-forward action narrative in the film, with every character and actor portraying it, playing their part in the story with no allowance for star-status, past or present. It goes without saying that three of the biggest stars appearing in the film--Stallone, Statham, and Li--also get the most screen time, but the rest of the almost equally famous cast play their parts without any particular acknowledgement beyond what any other actor might get. The only exception to this is the scene featuring Willis and Schwarzenegger. While it is needed for the plot, its execution feels a little forced, with the dialogue between Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger being just a little too cute and too aware that it's an exchange among movie super-stars and one-time box office rivals.
Aside from that one minor misstep, Stallone keeps the film centered around Barney Ross (played by Stallone himself) and his friend and main partner Lee Christmas (played by Statham), men of violence who nonetheless hold to a strong code of honor and chivalry that they expect everyone who works with them to obey as well. This is established in the film's first scene, and it is carried throughout, as Ross and Lee's honorable natures are ultimately the motivating factor behind every event of the film. They are a pair of cool unapologetic tough guys with the sort of strong moral center that one wishes all such tough guys had both in fiction and reality.
Technically, this is is also an excellent film. It's well-written (aside from the aforementioned scene between between Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger), expertly paced and edited, with every action scene being lean, mean, and exactly what is called for in order to get maximum impact. The only drawback is that this film makes the mistake that so many other action films have done of late--they use computer graphics to add blood spatter and gore to scenes. Unfortunately, it's no less obvious and fake-looking here than it was in the low-budget films that originated the practice, nor any better looking than in the other big-budget film I've recently seen that made use of the unfortunate practice ("MacGruber"). It's a shame really, because those obviously fake bits of CGI were very distracting during the otherwise exciting and fun climactic orgy of explosions, death, and mayhem.