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The Expendables

“Stallone and company bring the awesome and blow it to smithereens”

So how does one go by recommending a movie like “The Expendables?”  Let’s see: Stallone. Statham. Li. Lundgren.  Couture. Crews. Austin. Rourke. Roberts. Cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger.  There.  That is all.

Okay, so this review could go a little more in depth, but would it matter?  The sole purpose of “The Expendables” is for writer-director Sylvester Stallone to gather the biggest names in action movies possible and have them all star in the ultimate ’80s action movie.  Note that the sentence reads action movie; it does not contain the words “a tribute/homage to” “in spirit of” or “a parody of.”  This movie is shot, looks and feels like it dropped into modern times right out of 1985 or so, a few special effects aside.  Depending on one’s views of those types of films, that could either be a total blast or a horrific nightmare.

In this case, it’s a total blast; “The Expendables” is wall-to-wall violence and sweaty, bullet-ridden action, a true treat for fans of 1980s fun, with one of the best ensemble casts of action heroes ever.  True, besides Stallone, the BIG action names of the ’80s might have skipped out or settled for brief cameos, but after seeing the results and potential for an even larger gathering of action legends, those who weren’t in the movie are probably feeling like they missed out.

Stallone stars as Barney Ross, the leader of a group of hardened mercenaries.  This group of “expendable” outcasts are among the most dangerous men in the world and are quite proficient at taking out evil renegade groups, militants and other bad guys the government won’t touch, for the right price.  But, although they remain buddies on the main lands, their increasingly infrequent adventures with death sees them squabbling more and more.  For Barney and his best friend Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the lack of any meaningful relationships outside of their jobs is beginning to eat at them.

Then one day, Barney receives an offer from the mysterious Mr. Church (an uncredited Bruce Willis): take his team on down to South America and overthrow the dictator Gen. Garza (David Zayas), but more importantly, take out his benefactor, rogue C.I.A. Agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who is the brains behind the weapons and drugs.  Barney and Lee investigate and find that such a mission would be nearly suicide, but something about the resolve in the general’s daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie) gets to Barney, and convinces him that fighting this fight, and helping free her country would give some meaning to his life; something to fight for, other than money and violence.

On one hand, “The Expendables” is a flawed film; the plot is rather standard, even for a throwback to the 1980s, characters outside of Barney and Lee don’t develop much past their primary fighting skills and the acting in some cases is bad (namely Randy Couture and Terry Crews, but hopefully they don’t find out I said that).  There is a long portion of the film focusing exclusively on Barney and Lee’s characters while the other teammates disappear, and while it gives background and depth to their characters, we wish we could see more of the team in action.  But on the other, the film manages to be fun at all times; the cast seems to really enjoy working with one another and provide a good sense of camaraderie and good-natured humor even during intense gun fights with Munroe’s goons or fist fights with one another.

Stallone does a fair job as Ross, a man struggling to find meaning in a soulless profession, and is always ready with a dry wisecrack at his company’s constant macho posturing, while Statham gets to stretch his dramatic acting chops a bit, as he finds himself in an awkward situation, trying to confess his secret life to his one-time girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter), who in turn is dealing with an abusive boyfriend.  Roberts is at his sneering, slimy, best, an irredeemable traitor who’ll order a bullet put in your head and not even have the decency to look you in the eye.  Mickey Rourke plays Tool, a former teammate of Barney turned tattoo artist who coordinates their missions from his parlor back home.  Rourke in an emotional monologue verbalizes the moral struggle Barney finds himself having with his career, in a scene that Rourke absolutely nails.

The rest of the cast don’t have as much, but they make do with what they know and their role on the team.  Yin Yang (Jet Li), is the resident martial artist of the group striving for more respect comparable to his contributions, not his size.  His sense of honor puts him at odds with the bloodthirsty and equally respect hungry sniper Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, another ’80s star that’s probably due a comeback).  Couture as Toll Road and ex-NFL star Terry Crews as Hale Caesar (okay, Stallone’s corny choices in names aren’t his specialty) let their trades – Toll Road’s explosives and MMA fighting expertise and Caesar’s love and affinity for big, booming weapons do their acting.  More impressive are Munroe’s heavies, including Gary Daniels as the Brit, whose martial arts skills are worthy of a match for Li, and Stone Cold Steve Austin as Munroe’s right-hand man Paine.  Austin in particular, doesn’t say much, but makes for an imposing and intimidating presence just by his sheer size and icy stare alone.  When he does talk, he’s credibly menacing, and when he fights, well he backs that up too.

Stallone relies on a bit of the “shaky cam” dynamic of some modern action films early on, but in the climatic half hour battle between the Expendables and Munroe’s men, the camera stands still and lets the old pros throw down a viscerally thrilling pyrotechnic and bullet filled display of righteous violence and glorious mayhem.  It’s scenes like this that were envisioned when rumors of a Stallone-led all-star action cast were first heard, and coupled with some dream fights between Jet Li and Dolph “Drago” Lundgren and, for fans of UFC and/or WWE, Randy “The Natural” Couture versus Stone Cold Steve Austin.

And, then of course, there’s the much overhyped linchpin moment of the film early on: the first-ever on screen interaction between the titans of 1980s action: Stallone, Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  This is much like the scene between Pacino and De Niro in “Heat”: it’s instantly iconic because of the fact that they are in the same scene, not necessarily because of what is said.  In this case, it’s a meeting of a bunch of old friends/rivals exchanging thinly veiled and hilarious back-handed compliments/insults and having a good time ragging on one another.  It’s a compromise due to scheduling conflicts (especially in the now-former Governator’s case), but it provides the film an iconic moment and some more good-natured smack-talking levity.  Not to mention Stallone fires off one of his best one-liners ever.

The aforementioned meeting of those three show “The Expendables” for what it is: a reunion of sorts, a curtain call, a return to form for some, but most of all a teaser.  This film, entertaining, though it is, shows the untapped potential for Stallone to improve on the script and bring in even more of his buddies for the absolute ultimate action film ever.  Imagine: Li versus Van Damme versus Seagal, with the winner getting Chuck Norris?  Or The Rock versus Stone Cold, part four?  Heck, since he’s free now, Schwarzenegger versus Stallone?

“The Expendables” was a reminder of how fun action films used to be, and still, there’s room for even more!

FINAL GRADE: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE STARS)

“The Expendables”
From Lionsgate Films
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Charisma Carpenter, David Zayas, Giselle Itie, Gary Daniels, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Written by Stallone and David Callaham
Running Time: 103 Minutes3
Rated “R” – Strong action and bloody violence throughout and some language