The irony of the stupid and juvenile internet cult surrounding the thoroughly mediocre The Expendables is that the last movie Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed, and starred in, 2008's Rambo, actually did do all of the things that fanboys in denial are pretending The Expendables does. Rambo expertly mined 80s action nostalgia while amping the tropes of the genre into absurd overdrive, it had satanic genocidal villains very satisfying to see taken down, it was a festival of viscera and gore and geysers of blood and it was just a lot of sweaty, pulpy, supremely masculine fun. The Expendables may deliver a parade of celebrity cameos but as an action movie it's a turgid and forgettable affair, yet it's the one being lavished with all the hype that Rambo deserved and never got. Go figure.
Granting that neither elaborate storytelling nor rich characterization are key to a film like this, the plot involves a crew of mercenaries, the titular Expendables, being hired to fly to an island in the Gulf of Mexico and overthrow its dictator and the evil Americans he's helping make drug money. And yep, that's about it. The movie's focus is much less on the sparse story than on the many personalities populating it: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Dolph Lundgren as the Expendables, with Eric Roberts, Stone Cold Steven Austin, and miscellaneous brown guys as the villains, plus Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Mickey Rourke in cameos. "Holy shit!" you say, "That's a lot of manliness! Plus Eric Roberts for some reason!" And you're right! Too much manliness, as a matter of fact.
Because there's so many characters, screentime is spread thin, and every member of the Expendables except Stallone and Statham gets the short end of the stick, including Jet Li, who despite being billed above the title is absent for huge swaths of the movie and spends no more than a couple of minutes total fighting (in shaky closeup). I say again, master martial artist and horrible English speaker Jet Li quite possibly delivers more lines of dialogue than punches and kicks in this film. What's wrong with that picture? Everything. The others get less screentime still, and outside of Stallone and Statham and Rourke in his brief, non-action appearances the sense of camaraderie in this group is nonexistent.
Also, Randy Couture straight-up should not be in movies. He may be one of the best mixed martial artists on earth and I heartily encourage him to continue entertaining his fans in the arena, but he has all the onscreen charisma of a dead fish, made worse by the fact that Stallone saddles him with an agonizing twenty-minute monologue (okay, probably closer to two minutes, but it felt like twenty minutes) about his cauliflower ears that I probably wouldn't even have noticed if the movie hadn't explicitly pointed them out. He then disappears for like an hour to emerge for the final showdown and you're left wondering why this "actor" is in the movie. He makes Stone Cold Steven Austin look like Laurence freakin' Olivier.
Since the much-ballyhooed action dream team cast turned out to be shockingly anticlimactic and the movie obviously doesn't have any story of note, one is forced to turn to the action in desperate pursuit of thrills and will find the movie wanting in that department too. For starters, the action is poorly motivated. The Expendables fails the "show, don't tell" test of fiction when it comes to its villains and fails it badly, which is really surprising coming from the writer and director of Rambo.
In Rambo, we first meet our villain Major Tint forcing Burmese civilians to race across active mine fields for his pleasure, most of them exploding in red bursts after which the rest are shot. We then see Tint and his men slaughter an entire innocent village, having nearly every man, woman, and child burned or bayonetted and the survivors of the initial attack either crucified, sliced up and fed to his pigs, or made into sex slaves. What an asshole, right? He's a a nasty piece of work and so when John Rambo starts fucking up his operation and butchering his men it's all you can do not to shoot to your feet and start chanting "USA! USA!"
In The Expendables, we're told a few times that General Garza is a brutal dictator who has his fictitious country of Vilena oppressed by fear and violence, but when Stallone and Statham fly in for a visit we see jack shit. We see people getting disappeared into the back of vans by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Garza's men try to kill Stallone when he pokes his nose where he shouldn't, but compared to the way Rambo established its antagonists we might as well be watching Teletubbies, ergo you neither hate nor love to hate the bad guys. You don't give a shit whether General Garza and Eric Roberts and Stone Cold get overthrown or not, it doesn't matter, and that makes the action meaningless and impossible to invest in.
So let's break this down to the most animal level, ignore the plot, ignore the characters, ignore the conflict, and focus on nothing but the action; the shooting and the fighting and the killing. It's passable. Unimaginative and unremarkable, with the highlight probably being a scene where Jason Statham beats up a bunch of dudes on a basketball court that might give you a brief, pleasant flashback to Transporter 2, but it passes the time. Stallone knows how to put lots of explosions and loud gunfire and dead henchmen on a movie screen, and the lengthy climactic sequence where all the Expendables roll up to Garza's mansion for the showdown, while unfolding with rigid predictability, will numb your brain into a marginally enjoyable stupor.
For some reason though, perhaps because Stallone was at one point toying with idea of making the film PG-13, The Expendables has like 5% as much blood and gore as Rambo did. The movie lulls you into a false sense of security by having Dolph Lundgren rip a man in half at the torso with a burst of minigun fire within the first few minutes, but sadly that is the absolute peak of gore for the entire duration of the film. I mean, what's the deal? The violence in Rambo was beyond the pale. Throats were ripped, guts were spilled, bones were shattered, and the rivers of Burma ran red with enough blood to form a new ocean. The action in the The Expendables is loud and explodey but so very sanitized in comparison. Your grandma could probably sit through it.
Perhaps the only thing that saves the film from a one-star rating is the already legendary scene featuring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger meeting in a church. That Sly and Arnold never teamed up to make an 80s action buddy flick together remains a wound that will never heal, but this scene, while a bit forced and very brief (I doubt Arnold has more than two minutes of screentime), serves as a small band-aid. If you're a fan of the 80s it's hard not to grin, and it's among the few moments where the film achieves the the level of testosterone saturation that the ad campaign promised. It's destined to be viewed by millions as a YouTube clip for years to come.
Ultimately though, The Expendables brings absolutely nothing new to the table beyond a big collection of action stars, but when most of them are relegated to cameos I'm not sure that's particularly worthy of lauding anyway. For a film featuring so many personalities it has a strange, persistent lack of personality itself, with precious little wit and not a single moment that attempts to genuinely surprise or invest you. It's virtually bloodless in every sense of the word. If the fact that it's peppered with big guns and big explosions is enough for you to join in the film's bafflingly large fanbase, then, well, I'm frankly a little shocked you're capable of reading these words.
2 Stars out of 5