Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER: The Expendables (2010)

When “The Expendables” was announced, I happily declared it the Best Idea Ever. It was an all-star action epic, strictly in the eighties mold, and featuring legendary action heroes of yesterday and today. As a fan of eighties explosion-fest, it was an idea I gladly supported. When I saw the film, it was in the middle of an all-day movie marathon. Sandwiched between “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and a midnight screening of “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter,” the film came off as a disappointment. Maybe it was because I got lousy seats. Maybe it was because the friend I saw it with was acting like an asshole all day. Now that “The Expendables” is an established series, and seen in the comfort of my own home, the first film plays slightly better.

Barney Ross is the leader of a team of super bad ass mercenaries called the Expendables. When hostages need rescuin’, regimes needs topplin’, or bad guys need killin’, these are the guys you call. Yet the team has its problems. Gunner is an unstable drug addict. Lee is trying to mend his relationship with his ex-wife. Yang wants a pay raise. And Barney is beginning to question the morality of what he does. When a mysterious agent offers him a job – stop a rogue CIA agent running a drug empire out of a central American dictatorship – Ross thinks it's just a job at first. When he becomes involved with a beguiling woman there, he realizes more might be at stake.

“The Expendables” professes to be a throwback to eighties action movies. I mean, it’s obviously meant to be. Stallone even grabbed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis for cameos, getting the three biggest action stars of the decade on-screen together. A retro-style flick was clearly Sly’s goal. Then why does “The Expendables” look like a modern film? The action scenes are frequently shaky and hard to follow. The opening shoot-out on the boat cuts between rough zooms and distracting inferred shots. A car chase veers and crashes all over the place, making it difficult to follow. There’s a three-way kick fight between Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Gary Daniels. That should’ve been awesome. But the direction is so incoherent, it’s hard to know who is kicking who. Aside from the shaky action, the movie is shot with a drab, dark, moody color palette. “The Expendables” neither looks nor feels like an eighties action film.

Action films aren’t known for their deep character work. In an ensemble action flick, characters generally have a single defining trait. Some members of the Expendables don’t even get that. Terry Crews’ Hale Caesar really loves his gun and his straight razor. Randy Couture’s Toll Road is seen reading a book once, mentions a shrink, and talks about his cauliflower ears. Jet Li’s Yin Yang gets picked on for being short and wants a pay raise. Aside from their awesome names, that’s it. The characters are mostly just there to raise the body count and add to the action. Crews is funny in his brief role but Couture is obviously more of a fighter then an actor. (It doesn’t help knowing those guys were last minute replacements for Wesley Snipes and Van Damme.)

There are some upsides to the ensemble though. First off, it allows Sly more people to bounce off of. He has a decent rapport with Jason Statham. Both are best known for being movie murder machines but have better chops then that. Occasionally, they’ll get to show it. The expanded cast also gives some room to the bad guy. Eric Roberts, himself a veteran of eighties action, plays the delightfully sleazy villain. Roberts is a classic action bad guy, wearing a suit, pointing guns at innocents, and generally being a greasy bastard. It’s hard to balance action and character development. Maybe because of the bigger action or the bigger cast, “The Expendables” doesn’t do it the best.

Then again, maybe too much character development is also a flaw, at least for movies like this. “The Expendables” is hassled with some truly useless subplots. Dolph Lundgren’s Gunner is a recovering drug addict who betrays the team. This leads to an extended action scene, where he chases Barney and fights Yang in a factory. Admittedly, seeing the towering but slow Lundgren fight the small but agile Li is fun. But the subplot ends up adding nothing to the film. Also adding nothing to the film is Statham’s relationship with Charisma Carpenter. He goes and beat up her abusive boyfriend on a basketball court. Again, it’s unrelated to the main plot and does nothing to develop either character. Lastly, the girl Sly endeavors to rescue is the daughter of the dictator. Sly the Director tries to incorporate a theme here, about fighting for something versus fighting for yourself. It’s clumsy though and, again, seems like another needless distraction.

Now, not all the action in the film is poorly framed. A rough-and-tumble scuffle Sly and the Stath have with some baddies is decently put together. This leads to a daring airplane escape, which climaxes in a massive explosion. That is probably the most fun scene in the film. The last act rotates between incoherent action and clearer violence. Crews exploding two watch tower is amusing. So is the utterly ridiculous scene where Sly blows up a helicopter with a hand-tossed cannon shell. The fight between Couture and Steven Austin’s Paine was obviously designed to answer the debate of who would win a fight between a wrestler and a MMA fighter. The last half hour of “The Expendables” is an orgy of explosions, muzzle flash, and bloody squibs. I’m not made of stone, people. It could be more clearly directed but there’s still some awesome stuff there.

“The Expendables” plays better separated from my initial expectations. It’s not the ultimate action throwback. At times, it feels distressingly modern. Sly’s pretensions about making the movie something more then an in-joke filled battle collection also drags the final product down. Still, it’s not all bad. Any movie that gets Stallone, Willis, and Arnold on-screen together can’t be all bad. As a series debut though, it could’ve used some more work. [6/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[] Social Outcast
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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