Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
I don’t want to think of Sylvester Stallone as a simpleton, but he keeps forcing me to with movies like The Expendables.
Here’s the thing: I like Stallone. He strikes me as an earnest movie-maker with decent storytelling instincts. I thought Rocky Balboa was great, and I could really sense his desire to get back to the roots of the character that made him famous.
But even in Rocky Balboa, I got a sense of Stallone the simpleton. The movie’s plot hinges on a video game that pits the aging Rocky against the current heavyweight champion — and you know what? I bet that’s where Stallone got the idea. A video game. By comparison, in the leadup to the release of Rambo (the fourth in the series that began with First Blood), Stallone (if memory serves) revealed that he got the idea for the fourth Rambo from a magazine article, as well as from the Saw movies, although the horror franchise only guided Stallone’s hand in pumping up the volume of the violence he depicted. (The splatter-gore aesthetic, while less intense in The Expendables, is still with Stallone.)
Although I don’t sense the influence of a video game or magazine article on The Expendables, it’s impossible to miss the impulse behind a project like this: Let’s round up every action star and tough guy we can and stick ’em in the same movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, there’s not even anything wrong with finding inspiration in a magazine article, but in the case of Stallone’s recent movies, the results of his inspiration are three earnest efforts that occasionally hint at the possibility of better movies but never quite get there.
Briefly, I feel like Rocky Balboa could have benefited from more focus on the Mason Dixon character. It should have been as much of a Rocky story about Dixon as it was for Balboa himself. As for Rambo — what’s there to say? He made a movie where Rambo shot someone at point-blank range with an anti-aircraft gun. It turned the guy to strawberry jam.
The problems in The Expendables are more varied, more numerous, and for each body of problems, its origin lies in a different part of the story. I don’t even know where to start, but the movie is essentially cinematic gibberish, when the actual story ought to be simple. The Expendables get hired to take out a tinpot Central American dictator. That’s it. Somehow Stallone and his co-screenwriter (and story guy) David Callaham muck up the works with a nonsensical intel-gathering operation in which Stallone and perennial north London bruiser Jason Statham fly an airplane into the front harbor of this presumed police state, disembark, and walk freely around the city until they meet with their local contact, who just happens to be the only daughter of the dictator in question.
None of this makes any sense, but it gets really baffling when Stallone, Statham and the daughter (Giselle Itié, preternaturally beautiful) venture too close to the dictator’s central compound, which somehow activates his terror troops. Stallone and Statham kill a bunch of them, and then a madcap chase back to the plane ensues. Mind you, we have no idea how Stallone was originally detected or why the movie’s other villain (Eric Roberts) joins in the chase.
And that’s it. Stallone and Statham escape and decide (temporarily) against doing the job they were hired to do — this despite grim promises of reprisal from their employer (Bruce Willis in a fun cameo). Later in the movie, Stallone just decides to go back, kill the dictator and “rescue” the girl, even though she gave no indication that she wanted to be rescued in the first place.
That brings us to another central problem: dumb motives. I don’t know why this problem still crops up in movies, but we (the audience) shouldn’t have to ask why a character does something, and they certainly shouldn’t have to tell us. Unfortunately, when Stallone announces that he plans to return to the scary Central American police state, he doesn’t have a good reason for doing it.
In addition, The Expendables lacks a ticking clock of any kind — another baffling oversight for what should have been a by-the book action potboiler.
Oh, wait! There is a ticking clock! A context-less, absurd one that appears out of nowhere in the third act. While Stallone and his team are getting into position for their final, compound-fracture-filled assault on the dictator’s palace, Stallone inanely states, “We’ve got 20 minutes to get her out of there!” Twenty minutes? Twenty minutes until what? She turns back into a pumpkin? Now, I concede that I might have missed an important detail in Stallone and Callaham’s densely layered script when I got up to take a leak at the 30-minute mark, but somehow I doubt it.
Listen, this shit isn’t that hard, and although no one’s ever going to mistake me for a successful filmmaker, other filmmakers have been properly motivating actions and setting ticking clocks for years. Hell, look no further than one of The Expendable’s direct ancestors, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s classic kill-a-thon Commando. Here’s the hook: Arnold’s a former Delta Force badass. Bad guys kidnap his daughter and order him to kill a Central American leader. They put him on a plane that takes off on an 11-hour flight. He sneaks off — well, jumps off — the plane and makes plans to rescue his daughter.
That’s it! That’s all you need! He has to save his daughter, and he has 11 hours to do it. Arnie’s character (the awesomely named John Matrix) even sets a timer on his watch so all the fucking idiots in the audience know how much time he has. Furthermore, we always have some idea of what his plan is, what he wants and how he plans to get it — even if it involves Rae Dawn Chong blowing up a cop van with a bazooka.
Yes. You read that last paragraph right. I’m pointing toward Commando as an example of sound storytelling in contrast with The Expendables.
But. But, but, but. There’s a big but in this review, and it’s directly tied into what my expectations should be for a movie like The Expendables versus what the movie actually is. The Expendables is less like a traditional narrative and more like a variety show with Stallone as its overly botox’ed emcee. (Seriously — Stallone’s had so much work done on his face he looks a computer-generated, uncanny-valley version of himself.) It’s a variety show in the sense that Stallone rounded up every tough guy from here to Die Hard — the only major omissions seem to be Jean-Claude Van Damme (he declined) and Steven Seagal — and Stallone and Callaham honestly try to give all of them something fun to do.
And sometimes it works. For me, the strongest scene comes in the middle of the movie, when Stallone meets with Mickey Rourke’s character — a grizzled former operative who’s settled into retirement as a full-time tattoo artist and skirt-chaser. Stallone, intentionally or not, busts the occasional action-movie cliché in The Expendables, and this is an example. Your typical former badass is drenched in yearning for the days when he was on the job. Not Rourke’s character, who seems perfectly happy in his twilight years and delivers a reasonably effective speech about the regret he feels for his more violent days.
Most of this works because of Rourke, an actor with so many legitimate demons in his personal life that I get the feeling he doesn’t enjoy acting so much as he uses acting to cleanse himself. Rourke is notorious on sets for his eccentric behavior and kooky demands. I can’t speak to what he’s like to work with, but the guy is always engaging onscreen — no less so in The Expendables than he was in The Wrestler and Iron Man 2. Whatever he’s doing, it works.
Another surprisingly welcome presence is Dolph Lundgren — the hulking Swedish weightlifting champion, karate master and chemical engineering genius best known for playing a taciturn Russian boxing monster in Rocky IV. Although he’s had a low profile on the Hollywood radar for the last decade, Lundgren (53) has kept himself in peak condition. The man looks great, but more than that — the motherfucker arrived on The Expendables set ready to act. He plays the loose cannon on the team; a drug addict of some kind who makes an attempt on Stallone’s life, and during his scenes, he credibly comes off like a druggie, all without showy scenery chewing. He’s also pretty dang funny. Kudos to him, and here’s hoping he finds a career renaissance.
The aforementioned Statham plays Stallone’s second-in-command and delivers his usual workmanlike leading-man role. I have the creeping feeling that Statham will be best remembered for playing the hopped-up antihero in the Crank movies, and that’s a shame. The guy’s a solid action-hero and a good performer. Projects like The Bank Job let him show a smidge of range, and even in The Expendables, he plays a spurned lover who actually seems heart-hurt that his girlfriend left him after a month’s absence.
But in the Statham storyline, we once again see Stallone’s shortcomings as a director, as well as the movie’s overall failure as a paean to manliness and violence. As said, Statham’s girlfriend leaves him for another guy. (Side note: It was great to see Buffy/Angel alum Charisma Carpenter as his girlfriend, and not just because she looks like a goddess. She should work more.) Anyway, later in the movie, Statham finds out the new boyfriend has been beating on her, and he brings the pain in a basketball-court beatdown where he kicks the ass of the abusive jerk and his douchebag friends — all in a rapidly cut swirl of roundhouse kicks, footsweeps and clotheslines.
And you know what? Despite all of the exploding bodies, severed heads and bullet-blasts, there’s nothing in The Expendables that’s as shocking or as as primally bad to the fucking bone as this analogous scene from Martin Scorsese’s always-a-classic Goodfellas:
Note that Scorsese shoots this scene with no fanfare — only a full head of steam. Ray Liotta’s violence is inexorable, inescapable, and all we can do is wince in anticipatory dread for the pistol-whipping that’s coming. Listen, I know it’s not fair to mention Stallone and Scorsese (or The Expendables and Goodfellas) in the same breath. I can’t help it.
(Side note: If I’m going to talk about “shocking” imagery, I guess it’s worth mentioning the use of waterboarding in The Expendables, but I just found its inclusion obnoxious, tasteless and downright dangerous — a gun in the hands of a child. Waterboarding has stood at the center of a national “debate” about torture, and it deserves a more serious platform. Stallone mitigates a nanogram of this indiscretion by putting the endless pitchers of water in the hands of some pretty loathsome bad guys.)
Less effectively deployed are Terry Crews, Steve Austin and MMA fighter Randy Couture, who has potential as an actor but mostly looks stunned onscreen. I’m not familiar with Crews, but man. He always looks soooo intense. The glower on his face makes him look like an imminent victim of scanning.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.