The Expendables is a clumsily executed disappointment, done in by terrible writing, lacklustre performances, and sub-par directing. The fault for most of the film's inadequacies must fall at the feet of Sylvester Stallone, who stars, co-wrote, and directed this 80's action film throwback. The Expendables has the distinct whiff of Stallone trying to launch another franchise after the moderate success in recent years of his reanimated Rocky and Rambo franchises. Unfortunately, age has finally caught up to Stallone (he's now 64), making any further kicks at the can with either of those two characters unlikely, as the actor himself has even finally admitted.
The interesting cast was enough to raise expectations for this to be a summer popcorn movie romp, with the inclusion of Jason Statham, Jet Li, mixed martial artist Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren, and former NFL'er Terry Crews as members of an elite commando squad-for-hire known as The Expendables. Mickey Rourke has a limited role as a former member of the team and the cast is rounded out by wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Eric Roberts, and includes cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I guess Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were busy.
Stallone plays Barney Ross, leader of The Expendables, and Statham plays his right-hand man, Lee Christmas. The pair get the bulk of the screen time and do a decent enough job with the rudimentary script they're working from. Both receive more than a few gratuitous scenes, particularly Stallone, who doesn't miss an opportunity to show off his still impressive physique, notably during a scene where he gets to doff his top for some tattoo work. Statham gets the spotlight in another scene derived from a contrived plot point that is so transparently written into the movie as an excuse to allow Statham to kick some ass on a basketball court that it's laughable.
The barely-there plot revolves around a risky mission proposed to The Expendables to eliminate a tyrannical dictator on a fictional South American island. The job offer occurs during the movie's most buzzed-about scene, involving Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis...call it a Planet Hollywood summit. The scene, which lasts less than three minutes, totally falls flat, though, with the jokey exchanges between the trio failing to hit their comedic marks, and Arnold is in and out in a mere 90 seconds. Willis, as a C.I.A. operative, lays on the heavy so thick that his supposedly imposing character comes across as an unintentionally funny caricature, which makes him fit right in on this movie. A reconnaissance trip to the island by Ross and Christmas leads to a decision not to take the job, but Ross finds himself sympathizing with Sandra, a woman he meets there. She just happens to be the estranged daughter of General Garza, the aforementioned dictator. After returning to the States, Ross is unable to shake Sandra from his mind, leading to a return trip with his team to save her that sets up the main plot point of the movie. The premise that Ross would risk his life by returning for a woman he had only known for a couple of hours, even out of a nagging moral obligation, is patently ridiculous and a shaky foundation on which to base a story around. There isn't even a romantic angle thrown in as motivation for Ross, as the dynamic between Barney and Sandra appears very chaste, thank God. At least Stallone and the two other screenwriters had that much restraint, by not foisting a romantic subplot between two people with an age difference of approximately four decades upon the viewer.
None of the secondary characters bring much to their thin roles, which includes being saddled with lines as bad as "friends don't let friends die alone" and "it's good to hang pirates". Rourke, as the zen tattoo artist, is given what Stallone (the director) envisioned as the film's meatiest dramatic scene. We know this because it's shot with an artsy blue tint and Rourke is lensed in extreme close-up, ruminating on one of his past war experiences in Bosnia, attempting to convey the heavy psychological toll that combat takes on a man's soul. The hoped-for dramatic weight of the scene falls with a heavy thud. Other forgettable performances are turned in by Roberts (playing the kind of snaky weasel role he can do in his sleep), a wooden Austin, David Zayas from TV's Dexter as Garza (overacting and with a bad accent), and Lundgren, whose stunningly bad work here reminds us why he hasn't been in a high profile movie since 1995's Johnny Mnemonic.
Searching for some positives to take away from the film, I'll at least acknowledge that, for the most part (aside from that one scene), the participants don't seem to be taking themselves too seriously. Then again, it'd be almost impossible to have approached this project with that mindset, given the atrocious dialog that was handed to the actors and the movie's over-the-top violence (victims have their bodies literally blown in half, are beheaded, and have knives twisted in their necks). Also, it was somewhat refreshing to watch a modern day action movie that had seemingly little special effects work in it. And finally, there is one clever scene nestled among the witlessness surrounding it, involving the dropping and igniting (with extreme prejudice!) of jet fuel on some baddies. Otherwise, The Expendables makes the recent theatrical reboot of The A-Team look like high art.