For anyone expecting something approaching the avant-garde awareness of JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008), you may as well not bother. The Expendables doesn't waste its time with subtlety or pondering. Bodies are severed, heads are blown off, bones are broken - and it's all very, very loud. Stallone and co don't even attempt to parody or slyly nod towards convention - this is a textbook excersise in machismo. The closest it gets to intelligence or politics is a send-off gag for Arnold 'The Governator' Schwarzenegger's cameo ("He wants to be President"). It's not worth telling you the plot, because if you've seen any film the cast have made over the past 30 years, you'll have heard it all before. What matters is the way in which it is done. And in the case of The Expendables, it's practically and effectively.
Riding off the success of Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), Stallone has took it upon himself to direct the ultimate action epic - a mish-mash of talent and style, combined for hopefully explosive effect. Does he succeed? Well, yes and no. Sadly the film also displays some of Stallone's most uninspired and confusing direction. Featuring lots of handheld camera and some grainy cinematography (with moments of flashy gloss) it can be hard to tell both where the characters are and exactly who they're fighting. Unlike the days of Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Rambo: First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982), audiences now demand five cuts a second, even when characters are just walking across the street. It's sad to see an actor and filmmaker from the golden age of action cinema conforming to the standards set by Michael Bay (Transformers, 2007). Thank god then, that he actually knows how to stage the action, practically and without the use of CGI (for the most part). It may be the best American action movie made in the past 10 years (we have to consider foreign efforts such as District B13, Pierre Morel, 2004 and A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon, 2005). The finale, 20 minutes in length, sees the crew practically laying waste to a small island and its inhabitants - beginning like a stealth mission and building up to a body-ridden fireworks display. To say the action is back to basics would make it sound unjustly retrograde and also underestimate the level of carnage that takes place, but it does feel like something from the period it lovingly takes from.
The problems, obviously, lie elsewhere. Outside of the clumsy direction the screenplay and acting is, even for this kind of material, cringeworthy and embarrassing. One-dimensional knuckleheads speaking in exposition and one-liners pretty much covers it, but even then, it's a head-scratching case. Sly intended to make an action movie with a 1980s style. Sadly he's just made a film from the 1980s and anything apart from the aforementioned (awesome) action feels incredibly lazy. One peculiar moment sees Tool (Mickey Rourke) attempting to add some depth to the proceedings with some misty eyed back-story about why this gang of rag-tag mercenaries do what they do. Besides Rourke's baffling decision to actually act (and do so rather well) it's absolute nonsense. In a film that revels in blowing a persons body in half, the last thing we need is awkwardly scripted moralising. This is the sort of film that, rather than using its brains, prefers to blast them over the nearest shiny surface. Worst of all is how most of the cast are shoe-horned in. Bruce Willis turns up for a 2 minute cameo, Schwarzenegger has a pointless minute within that time, Jet Li just kicks a few people and Lundgren gets some of the worst character twists in recent memory and a hair-tearing conclusion. The chemistry between Stallone and Statham works, but only because they're having such a good time setting fire to an entire country! Before going into The Expendables I said " the only saving grace will be the action". Sometimes I hate it when I'm right.
This isn't to say you won't have fun. Anyone expecting intelligence and intrigue clearly needs their head examined but I should think that most Stallone fans were expecting something more than this. The action is over-edited but it's practical, blood thirsty, nostalgic and in abundance. If that's all you're there for, your money is well spent. Such a shame though that everything else feels embarrassingly rotten. I mean, Stallone wrote Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976). He starred in Cliffhanger (Renny Harlin, 1993). He's got to know better than this. Hasn't he?