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Review: ‘The Expendables’

Big, Dumb, and Lots of Fun

Above: Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, and Randy Couture are part of "The Expendables"

“The Expendables” (opening August 13 throughout San Diego) is like dating a jock – no sparkling conversation or subtlety but great to have around when you need to blow sh-t up or kick some ass.

In the realm of action movies, the concept for “The Expendables” is genius. Let’s get all these iconic action stars together, arm them to the teeth, and let them loose on a balls-to-the-wall, to-hell-and-back mission. Stallone may be pumped up on steroids but he still has enough synapses firing to know a good idea when he stumbles into it. This baby is his brainchild and he assembled Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Mickey Rourke for a jaw-droppingly high testosterone film outing.

Sylvester Stallone and one of the rare female presences in the film, Giselle Itié.

Lionsgate

Above: Sylvester Stallone and one of the rare female presences in the film, Giselle Itié.

Both behind the camera and in front, Stallone is the organizer of all the action. On screen he plays Barney Ross, a mercenary of sorts but one who still has a vague sense of right and wrong. His right hand man is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), a specialist with knives. Rounding out his crew are Ying Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Tool (Mickey Rourke). These guys got some history together and their latest mission looks to be one that’ll be tough to get out of alive. It involves going to a little island where a puppet dictator, his rebellious daughter, and some American thugs are tangled up in political and social upheaval.

There’s actually way too much plot here. You just need the most basic set up to get an action film like this rolling. Yet Stallone actually spends time attempting back stories on the characters and suggesting a complicated covert CIA operation in a foreign country. We don’t want depth or sensitive monologues. Hell no! We just want to get to the ass-kicking. Stallone does get to the action fairly quickly and keeps the pace pretty brisk. But he does make one nice side stop for a scene involving cameos with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He even takes a moment to poke fun at Arnold’s political ambitions. That tangent was worth pausing the film for.

Say hello to my little friend... Terry Crews in "The Expendables"

Lionsgate

Above: Say hello to my little friend... Terry Crews in "The Expendables"

Anyway, Stallone does get to the action and for the most part delivers. Crews definitely steals the show with his massive automatic weapon that can take guard towers down. There’s also a funny running gag about Jet Li’s short status. He has a fight with Lundgren in which Li forces the Swedish giant into a low clearance area in order to put him at a disadvantage. We also get a face off between Couture and Austin that’s fun. Plus there are some ridiculous action scenes involving blowing massive amounts of stuff up. In one scene, the blowing stuff up also involves having Statham hanging out of the front of the plane so he can spray gasoline and then ignite it as the plane flies over. There’s gun play, knife throwing, and lots of close quarters fighting. Thankfully the studio allowed the film to take an R rating so the action could be effectively over the top.

Jason Statham in "The Expendables"

Lionsgate

Above: Jason Statham in "The Expendables"

But I do have one complaint about the action: why does everything have to be fast and jerky? Shakycam has its place and so does rapid fire editing. But when everything is handled in the same way it gets old. Plus, when you have someone with the physical grace and skill of Jet Li, you really just need to pull back, put the camera on a tripod, and let the action play out uninterrupted. It’s like a Gene Kelly dance number. Don’t mess with, just stand back and watch in awe. Stallone is smart enough to hire action choreographer Corey Yuen to stage Li’s fights but all that work is wasted when the action is chopped up and shot with jerkycam. American films need to learn from Asian films about how to shoot and edit action. It’s not all about speed. It’s also about grace, skill, and style. Stallone also needed to let Li shine more. To have a martial arts action star like him in your film and to not let him work to his full potential is like putting ankle weights on Gene Kelly and telling him to dance. What a waste. So although the film kicks a lot of ass and blows a lot of crap up, the action could have been kicked up a notch.

The story proves serviceable. It does what it has to do but it lacks the grit of something like “The Dirty Dozen.” The title “The Expendables” leads us to believe that these guys have been tossed aside and forgotten, and that no one gives them a second thought (kind of like some of these older action stars now). They are paid for jobs where clients don’t really care if the men they hire come back dead or alive. But we never really worry about anyone’s safety like we did for the characters in “The Dirty Dozen.” Now the guys in “The Dirty Dozen,” they were truly expendable. So a little more grit and edge would have been nice.

Stallone’s big score of course is the cast. Getting this much brawn and testosterone on the screen is an accomplishment. Then add in Willis and Arnold for cameos and it’s pretty darn impressive. It’s also great to have Eric Roberts (remember “The Best of the Best?") as the slimy villain. There’s a fun scene where he’s lecturing the dictator/general about his wayward daughter and suggests that these family struggles have to end. Then he calls it “bad Shakespeare.” Roberts makes that line work. And when the general says you don’t kill family, Roberts suggests coming around his home for the holidays. Again, Roberts plays this so well.

Eric Roberts and Steve Austin are the baddies in "The Expendables"

Lionsgate

Above: Eric Roberts and Steve Austin are the baddies in "The Expendables"

There is definitely more brawn than brains on the screen so mercifully the dialogue is kept to mostly one-liners. Rourke, however, stops the film for a touchy-feely monologue about losing their souls and ideals. He manages to make it work for him but it really slows down the film.

As a director, Stallone lets the bromance flow as these guys hang out with each other, rib each other, and then save each other's butts. There's not much style to the film and definitely no subtlety but then what did you expect. This is definitely a check your brains at the door film and has nothing on its mind but wanting to deliver a fun ride. And on that count it succeeds.

“The Expendables” (rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language) is nothing more than big, dumb, fun in the vein of “Live Free and Die Hard.” It has absolutely no connection to the real world and operates completely on its own terms. The film is summed up in a scene where Stallone comes to the rescue and a shocked woman asks how come he’s here and he simply replies: “I just am.” And that’s the film. It just is. Take it or leave it on its terms.

By the way, after seeing the film, my friends and I couldn’t help but think about all people we want to see in the sequel. Here are some of the names that came up, feel free to add a few of your own: Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris (he could play an evil Texas sheriff that the expendable team crosses paths with), Carl Weathers, Danny Trejo, Michael Madsen, Cynthis Rothrock…

Companion viewing: “The Dirty Dozen,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Inglorious Basterds,” "Live Free and Die Hard"

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