Movie review: The Expendables

One Saturday morning back in the summer I saw one of those cheaply-produced movie shows that mostly consists of trailers for upcoming films and – if you’re lucky – an interview with one of the stars. There was a piece about a new film called The Expendables and after watching some clips and the enthusiastic and funny interview with Stallone I was sold – it looked brilliant. A film that pays tribute to the great action films of the 1980’s, with an all-star cast. To top it off, I think Stallone did a superb job of the recent Rocky and Rambo updates. Many people cringed at the thought of another Rocky film after the franchise was destroyed by increasingly bad sequels, but what we got was a sincere and honest film with an engaging and surprisingly credible story. It was also smart enough to realise that the only truly great Rocky film was the first one because it also knew that what actually matters is the characters and story rather than the overblown fight scenes of the sequels.

Speaking of character stories, that is exactly what The Expendables isn’t. Who are these guys? How did they meet? What are they trying to do? None of these questions even come close to being answered. The answer is almost certainly that it doesn’t matter, they are ‘expendables’ after all. My problem with this is that for an action movie to be good, you have to enjoy the action scenes. For action scenes to be good you have to care about the outcome, and for that to happen there has to be some sort of connection with the characters involved.

I’ll keep the plot summary brief as you’ve probably either read it elsewhere already, or quite possibly don’t care: the basic premise is that a fictional island called Vilena is being ruled by a corrupt ex-CIA operative and a home-grown dictator. Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew are offered a big payout to overthrow him, so they head over there on a recon where they meet a girl who’s one of the few locals putting up any kind of resistance. There’s soon trouble and they have to flee but Barney is fixated by the girl and vows to return and save her.

Without any characterisation in the film, the action sequences have a massive job to do because they have to deliver real spectacle to keep the viewer entertained – which they do with mixed success. There’s a great scene where Jason Statham pops out of the nose of a seaplane with a cannon and they carry out an aerial strafing attack on a jetty, finishing it off by dumping fuel out of the aircraft and igniting it. But some other scenes are less impressive – in particular I found the car chase sequence with Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) dull. The grand finale is also a bit patchy in places.

Some of the jokes and plot devices in the film are particularly dated. Lee Christmas (Statham) has an on-off relationship with a woman who has a new man that turns out to be a woman-basher. Eventually Christmas finds out and beats the living daylights out him while she looks on in admiration. Very contrived and something that should have stayed in the 1980’s. There’s also a scene where you feel embarrassed for Jet Li acting out a supposedly funny dialog about being short.

The Expendables isn’t a terrible film but the problem is the feeling of it being a wasted opportunity given the talent involved and all-star cast. A follow-up is apparently in the works, but it really needs to offer more than just a simple concept and an outstanding cast. I’d like to see a prequel that fills the story out a bit more, but the age of some of the actors is going to make this difficult. Perhaps some scenes showing the FBI looking over the character profiles of the expendables crew would be enough to provide some kind of identity to the characters. Either that or get Michael Bay in to direct the action scenes and push that side of it a bit more.

Maybe stick to Rambo and Rocky next time Sly – from his other films I’d recommend First Blood, Rambo (2008), Rocky Balboa and even the cheesy Cliffhanger as offering more quality and fun respectively.

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