My friends, I write this review with a heavy heart. I know you’ve been waiting patiently for me to review THE EXPENDABLES, but first I had to process it, and what it has done to us. Sometimes a man must go on a journey to find himself before he can rise in the morning and face others. Ever since I was a young
Nah, I’m just fuckin with you. I liked THE EXPENDABLES alot, I was not disappointed, but it’s seriously flawed. To put it in Stallone terms it’s wounded, and not able to sew itself up. So I’m not gonna come to you with hyperbole and Ain’t It Cool style dick metaphors and exclamation points, but I’m not coming to you with tears either. This shoulda been a classic, ends up being more of a novelty. But I won’t let dreams of what could’ve been get in the way of appreciation for what is.
I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that THE EXPENDABLES turns out not to be the WILD BUNCH or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST of mercenary movies that we all knew it should but wouldn’t be. It offers much of the joy promised by the list of names on the poster, but fails in many of the areas that the movies they’re known for succeeded in. For a movie so full of action stars it sure looks a hell of alot like a post-action movie, and for a tribute to old school action it wouldn’t’ve hurt to get out some of the old blood packs after they saw that their CGI exploding people weren’t acceptable to use in a professional movie. I swear in the opening scene I saw a cartoon drawing of green slime come out of a guy.
Before I go on I want to mention that I made a point of seeing this at an evening show, thinking it would be good to see it with an appreciative crowd. Big mistake. This was in the top 5 shittiest bunch of stupid assholes I ever saw a movie with. There was literally an entire row across of drunk video game nerds with loud, deep voices who seemed like they were created by programming all the worst talkbacks into husky android bodies. They had to boo and giggle and comment and talk to each other about every god damn thing on screen, and almost worse they had to overenthusiastically whoop and holler at any machine gunning or explosion, whether it earned it or not, making everybody else feel kind of stupid for enjoying it. When various other people in the theater tried to revolt one of them had the entitled tenacity to say, “I paid $11 for this movie!” And the tone of his voice said, “Shame on you! How dare you?”
In front of them were a couple of your standard variety Mystery Science nerds trying to get a Stallone-imitating word in edgewise. The only thing that shut those boys up for a while was the junkie in the side of the theater who at first was yelling for them to just watch the movie, but then started thinking he liked their style and decided to say things like “yeah right!” or “fuck you!” or “the Governator!” to the characters or hum dramatic music stings. It was distracting but kind of funny because it threw the nerd buddies off their game, they didn’t really know how to hang with this guy and it quieted them down. But suddenly he jumped up, started flicking his lighter, frantically searching through his backpack, and then left for about 20-30 minutes to engage in activities of which we can only guess. So while he was gone that one row got their ruining-everybody’s-night eye of the tiger back. And honestly some of their jokes were as bad as the junkie’s. It was sad.
I mention this partly so you know that I have no idea what was said in most of the Bruce/Arnold cameo scene and many other parts of the movie. But also I think they’re a good example of this attitude I’m always fighting against that action movies are just some dumb bullshit you slop together and it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad as long as you drink enough beer and there’s enough blood and some chicks to look at. I know there are people who don’t appreciate the art and craft required to make even a great cheesy action movie, but I think of them mostly as non-action fans. I include in this category the guy on Huffington Post who blogged about how the cast just wasn’t very impressive and went on to say that John Cena should’ve been in it instead of Stone Cold although he thought THE CONDEMNED was “actually pretty good”, that Jet Li didn’t belong because he didn’t “break out” until LETHAL WEAPON 4, and that Dolph is at best “an 80s cult figure.” But the truth is there are plenty of people who really do love action movies but don’t respect them in the morning. I can’t say that those obnoxious dickheads in the theater aren’t true fans, because the fact is they enjoyed it more than I did (their review: “THAT WAS AWWWWWESOMMMMME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).
They love it but I believe they don’t respect it, because they don’t want to listen to it, they want to laugh at it before it has a chance to do anything wrong, and then they turn around and start whooping at the first smell of napalm, well executed or not. I think they don’t respect it because I heard some of their conversations before the movie about how “it writes itself” and it doesn’t matter what’s on screen because it’s a movie for men, blah blah blah. Just shove it in their mouth, they don’t give a shit what it is.
That’s fine, this is America, that is their lifestyle choice. I just hope I never fucking hear them again and that the junkie guy starts thinking he’s part of their group and showing up at their barbecues asking their wives to loan him money. But I think most of us here are a separate type of action fans. I’m not saying we’re better, because we are all equal children in God’s eyes, etc. But we wouldn’t think it was worth writing and reading about these movies if we didn’t respect their craft, their subtext, their history and tradition, and think those things were worth analyzing. So that’s what we’re gonna do here and that’s who this review is meant for but I hope some of that other group will eventually dig deeper and learn to see the difference between dinner and 7-11 2-for-two-dollars food.
By the way, I wouldn’t read this without seeing the movie. If you like Stallone type movies just see the fuckin thing. There’s no reason to wait for DVD. Do not travel through time and go to the 7:10 show I went to though. You will (did?) regret it.
The plot of the movie is pretty weak. My pals in the theater would say it doesn’t need a plot. I’ll meet them half way because the strengths of the movie do survive the overly simplistic story and lack of build. The ol’ soldiers-go-into-fictional-South-American-country-to-kill-dictator deal is not one of my favorite types of action movies, and instead of finding a new spin on it Stallone barely even goes through the motions of making it a bare bones story. Does anyone even know what Garza was doing other than failing to produce cocaine for the CIA? I guess the good news is that Stallone seems to realize that this is a completely boring villain and puts more emphasis on CIA interloper Eric Roberts and guerilla-trainer/woman-hitter Stone Cold Steve Austin. They don’t get to use the type of charisma they had in THE BUTCHER and DAMAGE, but they make good bad guys.
I also think Stallone has lost track of story structure, or isn’t allowed to use it when working with Millennium Films. This is the same as RAMBO: setup, brief middle part, long action scene. It doesn’t feel like quite enough. It doesn’t set the stakes or up the ante or fake left and go right. It doesn’t feel like quite a complete story.
And it’s minimalistic about these mercenaries. You don’t know much about their methods, their specialties, their lives, or even their names. Jason Statham has a subplot about a girlfriend, but otherwise we don’t see any of their lives outside of their work. Therefore you’d think there’d be some interesting details about how they do it, a sort of soldier of fortune procedural. Nope, not really. It doesn’t even bother much with favorite action cliches like the “Just How Badass Is He?” or the “Putting Together The Team.” I’ve read that Randy Couture plays “Toll Road, demolitions expert,” but in the movie I don’t think they said his name or that he used explosives.
I shouldn’t read scripts, but since I did read an earlier version of this I’ll share what I know. The version I read didn’t feel finished, but it had some plot and character background that was stripped out of the final movie. Church (Bruce) actually lied to them about having a grandson killed, they meet with him more than once before uncovering the truth. In that version Hale Caesar (which I think is still the name of Terry Crews’s character) owned a Mexican restaurant where they met. There was a little more method to what Barney was doing, like he has to recruit a gay Expendable to use to get weapons he needs from a gay arms dealer. He has to meet with old Navy SEAL friends, he has to trick people. I guess they didn’t need the subplot about the two CIA agents following them, and I’m glad Stallone ditched the idea of one young guy on the team, and that he rewrote it for the actors he had (for example having Randy Couture explain his cauliflower ear, which I hope helps him get other roles). But you can see how chipping away at an already simplistic plot starts to leave you with less than a movie.
I’m sure when Bruce was willing to do one scene they figured it was worth cutting out most of what happens with that character, and when Mickey Rourke signed on they took away Caesar’s taco restaurant to make room for Tool’s tattoo shop. The movie’s biggest strength is obviously its awesome cast, but I bet that was what caused most of its weaknesses too. They must’ve had to work around complicated schedules, otherwise I’m sure they would’ve had a bunch of group hero shots with everybody together. They have a great, moody introduction on motorcycles, but who knows if it’s actually them? In fact the movie’s way too light on establishing shots, period. If Bruce, Sly and Arnold really filmed that scene together somebody really fucked up by doing it all in separate closeups.
And speaking of closeups, that’s the problem with alot of the action scenes. It’s not as confusing as the worst post-action, but it’s definitely got some similarities. Stallone knew all the match-ups that had to happen for it to be awesome: Stone Cold vs. Stallone, Stone Cold vs. Couture, Lundgren vs. Li, Li vs. Daniels. All of these fights are pretty cool but none deliver to full potential because they’re shot too close up and cut too quickly. The fact that Stone Cold actually for real broke Stallone’s neck to shoot their fight scene and the scene isn’t very memorable… I mean, that’s a shame. The Lundgren vs. Li fight (choreographed by Corey Yuen I believe) is probly the most satisfying one, but still frustrating because it feels like it has all the elements of a classic fight, taking advantage of their differences in size, but only let you see about 80% of it. Jet Li moves fast, you have to have the camera ready.
Stallone might’ve had some misguided notion that the way to win over younger people who didn’t grow up on his works is to make his look kind of like the bullshit that they’re familiar with. But I don’t think his math checks out. I think the shakycam fakumentary post-action style is a reaction to the type of movies Stallone comes out of. It says “Yes, Matt Damon is a super killing machine, but this is not some phony cartoon like Rambo. This is reality. You can tell it’s gritty because a guy’s having a hard time keeping the camera pointed in the right direction.”
Or maybe it’s just a reaction to THE MATRIX and the movies that came in its wake, which were exaggerated and artificial and used computers and wires to very clearly, in slow motion and from all angles show carefully choreographed and performed movements. We got sick of the MATRIX rip-offs so they gave us the opposite: simple fights that look unplanned and with the camera not set up in time to capture what happened.
I think the way to respond to that is to go the opposite direction, but Stallone’s response is to crash right into it, combine the styles and water them down. Maybe Stallone was worried that the fights were gonna be so awesome that A.B. King would explode, so he had to tone them down by muddling them up. But I think A.B. would’ve been willing to sacrifice himself for the greater cause of awesomeness. I say if you have this much awesomeness you embrace it. And that seems to be the attitude in regards to explosions, bodily mutilation and firepower (which is Hale Caesar’s main character trait). I just wish they would’ve pulled the camera back more and left it on longer, or at least edited the 3 intercut fight scenes a little slower so I’d know what was up and who did that one thing to Gary Daniels.
You know, this really is like an epic version of some of those Millennium DTV movies. They did do some solid DTVs like the UNDISPUTEDs, but are mainly known for sloppier, weirder ones like Seagal’s OUT FOR A KILL. This has a little of that spirit, haphazardly pieced together on the fly, having to say goodbye to making sense in order to film within the budget and schedule. It lacks the sense of place and atmosphere of many ’80s and ’90s greats, or even lesser ones like COBRA.
That’s alot of weaknesses, so how the fuck is this a positive review? Good question, I’m glad I asked that. What happened was what I liked about the movie overcame all that other shit. The main secret is simple: all those guys are in it, and all of them get at least one little scene to shine.
Stallone and Statham are the leads, they have the best action moment together (involving their seaplane, the Expendajet) and a brutal fight against soldiers with well choreographed Statham kicks and Stallone tackles. Couture gets a little bit of a monologue, the best screen fighting he’s been allowed so far, and a nice touch where he’s wearing reading glasses and enjoying a book on the way back from a hostage rescue. Jet gets to be sarcastic, gets a few laughs, and gets to fight Dolph. Dolph goes through a whole character arc in a short amount of time and gets to shit-talk Gary Daniels. Crews gets the biggest laugh in the movie without saying a word. Roberts gets to talk evil, Stone Cold gets to be evil with almost no dialogue. I wanted to see more of everybody but didn’t feel like anybody was wasted. Well, maybe Gary Daniels could’ve had another scene.
What surprised me most is I was watching the movie and all the sudden somebody just picked up the movie and walked away with it. And Stallone said, “Hey you, come back here!” and the guy turned around and it was Mickey Rourke. He plays Tool, tattoo artist and liaison for the Expendables. He’s the retired mercenary sick of all the killing and full of wisdom. And more than that he’s got weird Mickey Rourke-isms that he probly insisted on, including but not limited to smoking a long hobbit style pipe. He has a couple scenes, all great, but one in particular elevates the movie. He has a tearful monologue that just on the page would be pretty standard, but he throws himself into it like he’s still in THE WRESTLER. Or like he’s still trying to get the role in THE WRESTLER. You almost never see emotion like this in an action movie, including good ones. This is up there with Rambo blubbering at the end of FIRST BLOOD or Van Damme’s confession in JCVD. It’s so incredible even the row of assholes was silent for it. But then the junkie came back and said, “dun dun DUUUUNNNN!”
Claudia Puig of USA Today agrees with the crackhead, calling this destined-to-be-legendary-scene “one of the worst scenes” of a “gratuitously savage” movie. Maybe that’s the difference between someone who can enjoy this and someone who can’t. I like the odd, unexpected touches. I like Eric Roberts’s strange hatred of artistic expression, the General’s idea to paint up his soldiers like they’re on the cover of a Tribe Called Quest album, and Stallone’s willingness to “nearly stop the movie cold” with one of the toughest bastards in the movie crying. I like some flavor in a movie like this.
THE EXPENDABLES survives its wounds because the personalities cut through, and that’s what we watch these movies for. That’s why we try to watch every new Dolph Lundgren movie that comes out, even though there’s a high probability of disappointment. Not even including cameos this has a good half dozen guys whose starring vehicles I’m always interested in watching. And while this one doesn’t match the filmatistic greatness of the classics some of them are known for, every one of them does get at least a small chance to shine brighter than they’ve been able to sometimes in bigger roles.
Part of me wishes Stallone had hired another director, someone with a better skill for action scenes (you know I’m gonna say John Hyams or Isaac Florentine). But it’s Stallone’s emotion and earnestness that I like, and the way he lets the actors do what they want. If somebody else had directed it this team might not have the same sense of camaraderie. And I doubt they would’ve gotten that scene out of Mickey Rourke. They might not even have known to leave Dolph inexplicably alive at the end and back to being a good guy. The guy on Huffington Post didn’t know we love Dolph, but Stallone did.
I wish THE EXPENDABLES was a masterpiece, but at least it’s fun. There’s always part 2. I bet he can do it this time. Second time’s the charm, isn’t it? Think GODFATHER PART II in an alternate universe where THE GODFATHER was only pretty good. We can do this, Expendables. We can make this happen. We may be guns-for-hire, but we believe in this.
Special thanks: you, for skimming this long, meandering review
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.