There was a part of me, probably the part of me that cackles with glee every time ‘Commando‘ is on television and a montage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his teenage daughter (Alyssa Milano, if I’m not mistaken) seamlessly segues into a sequence where Arnold plunges a huge knife into various dudes’ necks, that was looking forward to ‘The Expendables,’ writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s riff on ’80s action movie machismo. But then I saw the thing. And boy, is it terrible.
At least it isn’t trying to be anything it’s not. The movie opens, in a mystifying manner that is typical of the film as a whole, with the titular mercenary group The Expendables (and I could be reading into this, since no backstory is given to them or the team) taking down a bunch of Somali pirates. Topical! Sly is the leader of this ragtag team, who aren’t so much interested in surveillance and high tech gizmos as they are in really big knives and killing the fuck out of people.
Sly’s main trait is that he’s kind of a mentor to his fellow roughnecks. That, and it looks like half of his face is sliding off of his skull. Also on the team is Jet Li, whose character’s name is Ying Yang (yes, I’m serious), and who wants more money for being a part of the team because he’s “smaller.” Then there’s Jason Statham, who plays a guy named Christmas (again: seriously), who is involved in a tortured romance with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’/’Angel’ vet Charisma Carpenter and who throws knives real well.
The more secondary players have even less backstory or explanation: Terry Crews breaks out a switchblade at some point and a big gun that essentially liquifies people. Randy Couture is supposedly the team’s demolition expert (according to press materials), but I never got that from the movie. Instead, I got that he’s a big bald dude – and when he fights the other big bald dude (the villainous Steve Austin), Couture has to wear a hat because no one would be able to tell the difference between the two. Although, now that I think about it, Couture is saddled with the most interesting character quirk: he’s in therapy. Imagine if, earlier in the movie, he had described to his therapist a recurring nightmare where he fights an evil version of himself – then at the end of the movie, he actually does! But no, that would have been too clever.
Moving onto the movie’s alleged plot, it has something to do with a corrupt South American dictator, an evil ex-federal agent (played with smarmy soulfulness by Eric Roberts), and the dictator’s daughter, who is very hot but not anything else. There’s a whole bunch of needless back-and-forth, including a soul-stirring speech by Mickey Rourke – a former Expendable who now runs a grungy tattoo parlor – about the power of love. Or something. I had kind of glossed over at that point. Thankfully, I turned to my friend, who I had dragged to the screening; after Rourke’s speech, he said: “Uh, what?”
‘The Expendables’ is the kind of lousy, third-rate movie that tries to trick you into having a much better time than you actually are. There’s a scene, for instance, at the beginning of the movie between Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s supposed to be funny and cool and clever. But it’s none of these things. It’s stilted and distracting. Instead of an amazing return to the screen for Arnold, the whole time I was thinking: “Shouldn’t you be working on California’s crushing debt and severe agricultural problems?” I also couldn’t help thinking there’s no reason for these three men to be in the same room together anymore, besides deciding what to do with their Planet Hollywood restaurant chain.
Part of the reason that ‘The Expendables’ never coheres is that it’s such a lazy, shapeless blob of a movie. Stallone and Statham go down to this country, fuck shit up, and then come back to wherever their base of operations is supposed to be (title cards identifying the locations of the action seem to be out of reach) and try to figure out whether or not they’ll go back. Then we’re forced to sit through a back-and-forth between Stallone’s brooding and whatever is happening with this girl in South America. Also, I forgot to mention that Dolph Lundgren is in the movie, as a turncoat Expendable. That never leads to much besides a poorly choreographed fight between him and Jet Li. Snooze.
The movie is relentless, all right, but not in the kick-ass, high-fiving, ’80s-revisiting way it’s going for. Instead, it’s just a groaning, crushing, artless machine that leaves you numb and, surprisingly, bored. Nothing is even mildly interesting – from the sub-Greengrass shaky camera cinematography which seems perpetually zoomed in on these actors faces, many of them so craggy and jagged you would swear you were watching a movie set on the surface of Mars – to the endless parade of violence which, thanks to digitally created blood, lacks the sloppy slap of the last ‘Rambo‘ sequel. Half of the “movie stars” they’re touting I had never seen before. (Sorry, never been much for wrestling.) And the older actors seem tired and sad. Really, I have only myself to blame. I never should have looked forward to this slop. After all, it’s right there in the title: Expendable, indeed.