Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Review of "The Expendables" (Stallone, 2010)

The Expendables
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Giselle Itié, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis
Grade: C

Written for InRO:

As a 2010 picture Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” shares more commonalities with action pictures of days gone by. That’s not to say that the film is marooned in the late Eighties; just that Stallone is essentially aware of how far removed the days of “Rambo” and “Commando” are from current forays into the genre. The film is somewhat of a resurrection of the era, but only to the extent of harking back to America’s testier times with Cuba, in the form of South American Generals and hefty guerrilla warfare.

The “expendables” themselves are a group of mercenaries, hired by dodgy American agencies to eradicate powerful, heavily-secured guys that take blazing weapons and tons of ammo to conquer. Although most of the bevy of stars have (admittedly, I’m sure) seen better days, there’s little use in debating the on-screen presence of Stallone, Rourke, and Schwarzenegger. Accompanied by plucky daredevil Lee Christmas (Statham), Barney Ross (Stallone) flies to the island of Velina to scout its dictator, upon arrival meeting the group’s contact Sandra. When local guards kick up a fuss Ross and Christmas are forced to flee the island, leaving Sandra at the mercy of Government officials, and ensuring that they must go back to finish the job that they started.

The presence of a feisty heroine notwithstanding, “The Expendables” is often turgid, and not as shrewd or easy to tolerate as it should be. One might say it’s more of a “Jewel of the Nile” than a “Romancing the Stone”, sacrificing narrative intricacy and thought for a familiar 101 depiction of corporate villainy (even if that depiction comes courtesy of a dynamite Eric Roberts). The rapid-fire encounters the group enjoy are interspersed with occasionally witty banter between bromance duo Ross and Christmas, welcomed largely because it requires the aural saturation to subside for a few seconds. Aside from an interesting-but-nowhere-to-go sub-plot involving Christmas and his would-be missus, Stallone is fairly stubborn in maintaining that this story is all about the men and their mission. The men are endearing and slick at a stretch, but the mission lacks composure and structure. As it is, I’m inclined to believe that barging your way through a castle with guns hardly constitutes a “mission” anyway.

While the badass credibility of the meaty cast allows for stoic genre convention, the array of different commodities on offer – from the martial arts exploits of Jet Li, to the ice-cold arrogance of Dolph Lundgren – suggest that while determinedly courting box-office pull, “The Expendables” is at least attempting a legitimately flexible oversight of the genre. The inter-generational nature of the personalities creates a sense of this being the family-tree of action piledrivers, a genealogically-linked tribute to how the genre has evolved since Stallone was roaming the jungle. The film feels particularly indulgent of drawing attention to the Actors’ renowned traits, going so far as to satirise Schwarzenegger’s retirement and foray into the world of American politics with the denunciation, “He wants to be president.” The group act as if taking down a General is akin to an evening at the local bar, but the suggestion of a world outside of social alienation is often ridiculed in this way. A tacky but trustier reaction to the Ocean films; these men are a bunch of pariahs, and they embrace it.

Dubbing the group as “expendable” is asserting the fact that they are flirting with death, and that their demise is unimportant in the grand scheme of the world. The underlying motives of the film, however, pertain to include the notion of the Actor as expendable. An action movie is rarely an actor’s movie, but “The Expendables”, as an homage to fifty-plus year-olds and their perpetually bulky guns, considerably bucks the trend. In Hollywood terms, the actor is as expendable an article as civilians in times of wartime; necessary casualties of the bigger picture. The lengthy absences from the screen of Sly, Mickey, and Arnie serve as an observation of how one’s profile can flounder from decade to decade.

With all their experience of wielding weapons from the filmic front-line the ensemble in “The Expendables” feel rather like a 21st-Century version of the jam-packed cast in the 1962 epic, “How the West Was Won”. Indeed, the film often reads an upgraded version of such erstwhile depictions of factional warfare, with its heady nostalgia and inherent sense of comradeship. While cultural overhaul was on the mind of John Ford, individualist tendencies and general disdain creep into “The Expendables”, and the film adopts a cynically-diminished attitude towards Nationalist ideals, blaming bureaucracy and the misdemeanours of Western philosophy for foreign instability, going so far as to reference the pain of the Vietnam War.

If rumours of a sequel are right, it doesn’t look as if “The Expendables” is the final hurrah that it appears to be. The tongue-in-cheek remarks of Stallone et al. only half-mask the remonstrations of “Look at us! We can still do it!”, and work in the sense that it binds the team. The film, however, is another matter, and “The Expendables” is a prime example of a picture coasting on star power. Even if the charm offensive isn’t wholly unsuccessful there’s a girth of quantity-over-quality, and I’d gladly expend of most of the former.

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