The Action Hero Lasts
Who knew that Sylvester Stallone would turn out to be one of the most reliable makers of entertaining films in the new millennium? The sixty-four-year-old action icon is on a hot streak, turning out raw, exciting movies that at the same time celebrate and deconstruct the big, dumb pictures that made him famous more than three decades ago.
In 2006, Stallone wrote, directed and starred in Rocky Balboa, a poignant bookend to the franchise that launched his career. Essentially ignoring films two through five, the story caught up with a counted-out former superstar on a quest to prove to the world that he had one last fight in him; the result is a movie that invests as much heart as sweat into a story we think we’ve seen before, but really haven’t.
Two years later, Stallone capped off the First Blood series with Rambo. In that film, America’s favorite Viet-Nam-hero-turned-cartoon-character emerged from retirement to save Christian refugees trapped in murderous-regime-run Burma. It was Stallone’s attempt to merge social consciousness with a fantastic catharsis of blood and gore—and it worked. Rambo is as much about average people stepping out of their comfort zones to do right by the world as it is about machine guns ripping faceless foreign soldiers to ribbons.
Now we have The Expendables, which may be his finest achievement yet. I can’t tell you how delightful and how foreign an experience it was to leave the theatre this afternoon with a huge smile stretched across my face—so mired have I been in the celluloid desert of Spring and Summer, 2010.
What The Expendables gets right, and what lesser films of its ilk (notably The Losers and The A-Team) get so wrong, is that the target audience for action movies adore simplicity. The movie has been called a throwback to 80s and 90s smash-ups—and it is; but not just because it stars almost every thick-necked star of the genre. The Expendables is a streamlined action flick that zips breezily along, and doesn’t get bogged down in the flawed wisdom that every big-budget shoot-‘em-up has to be as complex as the Bourne movies.
The premise couldn’t be simpler. A group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone) gets hired by a shadowy CIA spook named Church (Bruce Willis) to take out the dictator of a small country. While doing recon for the mission, Ross and his partner, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), meet a woman named Sandra (Giselle Itie) who warns them that the dictator is merely the puppet of James Monroe (Eric Roberts), a former CIA operative who wants to use the country as a cocaine plantation.
Ross and Christmas are found out, and make a hasty, fiery escape; but Sandra stays behind and is taken captive by Monroe. The rest of the movie follows the rescue/revenge formula that is so well-worn as to be a teachable science; and, really, the mechanics have to be simple in order to showcase The Expendables’ true draw: seeing different combinations of film and wrestling stars pound the shit out of each other.
A movie like this is only as good as its casting and action. Stallone makes great use of his killer lineup by placing the more charismatic performers at the top of the roster, and filling out the supporting roles both with less interesting actors and some surprisingly compelling meatheads. In particular, Mixed Martial Arts champion Randy Couture shines as Toll Road, the lethal softie on Ross’ team who sees a therapist to help cope with his deadly profession. And Mickey Rourke outdoes his work in The Wrestler (not hard to do) as Tool, the wise old retiree/team mentor. The scene between he and Stallone in which Tool explains why he got out of the business is borderline powerful—and it made me forget that Rourke appears to have filmed his part while in between takes on Iron Man 2.
The one fault I can find in the cast is Dolph Lundgren, but I’m not sure if that’s my problem or the film’s. When I wasn’t struggling to understand half of dialogue, I was stricken with genuine panic that he might have a drug problem. Granted, his character, Gunner, is an addict, which leads to his getting booted off the team; but I wasn’t sure if Lundgren had gone Method or meth-head—it’s impossible to tell underneath all the sweat cascading thickly down his over-done plastic face. But I grew to love his character and all the stupid, dangerous mistakes he made; Lundgren may have been showing off in order to draw attention away from Stallone, but he only succeeded in elevating his performance to drunken cheeseball status.
Speaking of drunken, did I mention that the action in The Expendables is intoxicating? Maybe it was a projection of my desire to kick in the teeth of every hack screenwriter and over-paid movie star who’d sucked my time and spirit over the last four months with their shitty blockbusters, but I got some genuine cathartic thrills out of watching this movie. From the enemy soldiers getting sawed in half by machine gun fire to the countless knives shoved in countless necks to the “boom” of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin barreling through Sylvester Stallone in their epic mano a mano brawl, The Expendables harkens back to the pre-CG days of solid stunt work and practical mayhem. There is a fair amount of CG blood later in the picture, which disappointing, but all of the scenes involving actors leaping, punching and escaping death look like they were performed by real people. It was refreshing to watch impossible feats and buy into the illusion, instead of yawning at the unconvincing exploits of cartoon characters.
I mentioned simplicity earlier, and I can’t understate how important that is to the success of this film. Unlike the two-hour-plus “serious” blockbusters of recent years, The Expendables drops us into familiar territory and assumes we’ll catch up. A typical modern action movie would drown us in the back story of each character; and the team; and the villain; and the villain’s boss. We never learn where Ross’ team comes from, whether they were ex-military or just always soldiers of fortune. All we get is the men in present day and the mission at hand.
The movie sidesteps a bit to flesh out the Christmas character, giving him an ex-girlfriend with an abusive current boyfriend. But it doesn’t detour so far as to make that relationship the driving force of his story. It’s just color; and Jason Statham sells it as both comic relief and as a bit of insight into what makes Christmas tick.
Statham also highlights what’s so very right with the performances in general. The Expendables could have easily been a lazy knock-off of 80s action movies, with all of the protagonists and antagonists grunting and barking out awful one-liners. There’s far more personality and introspection here; the movie is still very hard-edged, but it’s imbued with thinking-man’s machismo.
Despite all of the recent attempts to parody or pay homage to the beloved over-the-top action genre, the only person who could authoritatively close the book is someone who starred in enough hits and misses in his heyday to truly understand how the form works. Sylvester Stallone has directed the last great action/adventure throwback. His peers need to respect the hell out of that and let the genre die.
Note: By now, I’m sure you’ve all seen Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the trailers for this movie. Had this scene been kept a secret for the audience to discover on opening night, it would have been the buzz-worthy stuff of legend. But, no, someone at the studio lost their nerve and blew a giant, premature load of insipidness all over The Expendables. It’s a fucking travesty.