There was a time when people walked into a movie starring Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone knowing their faces were about to be blown off by insane action and hand to hand combat. Die Hard’s John McClane stalks corporate terrorists across several floors of the Nakatomi Plaza Building, popping them one at a time before finally saving his wife (and several nameless hostages) from evil old Hans Gruber. In Demolition Man, a wrongly convicted cop named John Spartan is thawed from suspended animation in a nonviolent “utopian” future to hunt rival-criminal Simon Phoenix. The crux of these movies isn’t how many corpses or boots the director can throw at the screen—it’s witnessing how the heroes succeed. There’s only twelve baddies in the entirety of Die Hard, but that’s all we need—watching McClane face off against a towering Swede clutching a machine gun is good enough. Likewise, watching Spartan and Phoenix adapt to the future by battling it out through an artillery museum is entertaining enough; there’s never a moment in these movies where I thought “You know what would make this more awesome? If the hero battled all of China in a long hallway! With fast cuts!” Alas, the masters have lost their edge. Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables proves that even the icons of action-gone-by have forgotten that character, and not blood and guts, made their older films worth watching.
The plot’s simple enough—Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) hires a group of mercenaries named The Expendables to infiltrate the gulf island of Vilena and depose its puppet government, a fascist dictatorship installed by rogue cocoa dealer James Monroe (Eric Roberts). While scouting the area for a gameplan, Expendables leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and sidekick Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) meet Sandra, their reconnaissance informant and daughter to the installed General. After drawing the attention of nameless military men, the two whisk off on a modified battle plane, complete with nose-turret and firebombing tank, leaving the beautiful Sandra behind for torture, rape, and whatever else the evil cocoa man may order of her. The mercenaries return, of course, and mindlessly shoot a bunch of soldiers, blow up a building, and rescue the girl. The problem is that nobody really cares. Your investment in the movie doesn’t come from its characters or writing—it relies entirely on nods to the actors’ former roles, and like that reliance, this film feels like an empty shell, lacking any meaningful soul or identity. The best comparison I can think of is 2009’s Fast and Furious, a film that did little to break the mold it established for itself, instead relying on the fact that “those guys from the first film are finally back together!”. Nevermind that they were back because Vin Diesel and Paul Walker’s careers had tanked and they needed the work—a fact mirrored and mentioned several times in The Expendables. There’s an entire section where Sylvester Stallone pitches the Vilena job to other mercs and is faced with “Could use the work”, “They got work?” and other variants as replies. For anyone who’s been following these guys’ careers the last several years, you get the meta-statement—the Vilena Island Coup-de-ta isn’t merely mercenary employment—it’s acting work. Like Mickey Rooney returning from a shameful Hollywood retirement in The Wrestler, the rogue’s gallery that constructs Stallone’s film is mostly consistent of washed-up old heroes who need the work—men left behind by the studio machine.
Unfortunately, it seems even these icons of classic action have fallen prey to the quick-cutting, hallway-massacring tendencies characteristic of the modern action genre. I blame The Matrix; though there were soulless shoot-em-ups before the Wachowskis produced their opus, it was The Matrix that stood out—was the first film to stylize and build up to the climactic hallway battle that so perfectly carried that film to success. People have since forgotten that The Matrix is a film about fighting facelessness—that its enemy is a soul-sucking machine embodied by the apathetic monotone Agent Smith, and that Neo finds himself in a near-hopeless collision course with the be-suited man early in the film. There’s a legitimate arc the character faces—an arc superseding hallway shootouts, bullet-time slowdowns, and gravity-defying kung fu—that allows Neo to grow, and invests the audiences’ interest in exactly how he can defeat the enemy. Every action film since—including the other two Matrices—has seemed content at throwing as many baddies at the hero as possible to show, “yes, this guy is invincible, there’s no way he’ll lose, and holy shit, did he just throw a saber through that man’s torso”? The Expendables is no different (right down to the saber bit)—the climactic ending features the mercs landing on Vilena, shooting up nameless latinos, taping plastic explosives to stuff, and fighting Stone Cold Steve Austin. Trust me on this, the fight scene can barely be described as a fight scene—Stallone subscribes to David S Goyer’s quick-cut school of “What the fuck is going on?” cinematography; most of the time I couldn’t tell if Austin was on fire, thrown over a wall or getting punched in the face. The film’s single saving grace is a fight scene between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren, which is about as hilarious as you’d imagine—other than that, there’s no reason to see this movie. Maybe if you really hate Latin American extras or can’t get enough “We’re the same, you and I” evil villain speeches, but for the most part, this film is exactly what it purports to be—a bunch of washed up action stars reveling in the shell of a genre they so long ago left behind. If you want to see a good take on the washed-up action hero’s life, check out Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD—a semi-factual narrative about Jean Claude Van Damme’s tax problems and child custody battles. If you want an entertaining throwback to 80’s action check out The A-Team.
The Expendables is neither.