Admit it. the idea of Sylvester Stallone assembling a team of inglorious bastards to kick ass in The Expendables is a testosterone turn-on. And who gives a crap that the man who was Rocky and Rambo is now 64. Or that Arnold Schwarzenegger, coaxed out of the governor’s office for a cameo, is 63? Or that co-stars Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke are in waving distance of Social Security? These grizzled geezers all look ready to rampage. You’ll be salivating.
As director and co-writer (with Doom‘s Dave Callaham), Stallone had the idea to ramp up his AARP team with youngerbloods like Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Stone Cold Steve Austin and mixed-martial-artist Randy Couture. Only Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme are no-shows at this party.
So why oh why is The Expendables such a limp-dick bust? Because Stallone forgets to include non-spazzy direction, a coherent plot, dialogue that actors can speak without cringing, stunts that don’t fizzle, blood that isn’t digital and an animating spirit that might convince us to give a damn.
Things begin promisingly. Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of a band of mercenaries who long ago sold human compassion for a price. The CIA wants to make Barney its bitch by hiring his crew to infiltrate a South American island and take out despicable General Garza (David Zayas) and the cocaine kingpin (Eric Roberts is sleaze incarnate) financing his reign of terror. The big setup scene has no action, just Stallone doing verbal battle in a church with two suited-up honchos, Mr. Die Hard and the Governator of California. It’s just one scene, so I won’t spoil the juicy fun of it. But watching Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis together brings back the satisfying stupidity of the 1980s, when planet Hollywood (the film industry, not the restaurants) meant action movies with no shame about blowing shit up. First blood, indeed.
Sadly, the pumped-up Expendables stumbles on its pint-size ambitions. Stallone paints his characters by the numbers. For example, Jet Li’s height or lack of same is a joke worked to death — Barney thinks it’s fair to pay his crew by the inch. Couture gives TMI about his cauliflower ear. Crews has the biceps to handle jumbo weapons. Lundgren is not to be trusted. Get it? One trait per character. Line ’em up, boys.
Between kinetic displays of knife-throwing, Statham’s Lee Christmas excels by showing mischievous humor. He introduces himself and Barney as Buda and Pest. OK, you had to be there, and I’m not advising that, except on a rental night when you’re snowed in and it’s either Eat Pray Love or this.
You’ll want to cry “Abort!” when The Expendables gets emotional and Barney falls chastely for Garza’s daughter (Giselle Itié). Kudos to Rourke as Tool the tattoo artist (you heard me). He actually pulls off a speech about what war does to the soul. The rest is just digital sound and fury signifying nothing that a live wire like Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have easily fixed. It’s not the age of the actors that makes The Expendables expendable. It’s the stale storytelling.