On a tiny island in the Gulf Of Mexico, a team of grizzled mercenaries, led by Barney Ross (Stallone), take on a rogue CIA agent-turned-ruthless drug lord (Roberts) and his puppet general’s army — with, naturally, a vengeance.
In 2030, the indomitable Sly Stallone, along with the surviving members of the eight-strong action ensemble which make up his titular team, will unite with the common goal of wiping out, once and for all, the dreaded Meatloaf Night at their nursing home. Until then, there’s The Expendables, the action movie equivalent of a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame ‘super group’, or one of those Doctor Who episodes where all the old Doctors turn up in the same show. (With Eric Roberts, late of the unloved Doctor Who movie, as the villain, the illusion is almost complete.)
If The Expendables had been made a decade ago — and if Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme had answered Stallone’s casting call, as the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger did — the film could have been a poignant, life-imitates-art examination of a group of once-great action heroes, finding themselves washed up, out of step with the touchy-feely times — like Space Cowboys, but for meatheads. After all, we live in a world in which the movies’ biggest action heroes are played by pantywaists like Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Bale, proper ac-tors whose biggest muscles are inside their heads. If nothing else, such a film would have given much-needed employment to its dole-drawing stars.
As it turns out, things haven’t quite worked out that way: although the title of Arnie’s 1993 flop, Last Action Hero, seemed unintentionally prescient, the past decade has been good to the ’80s action stars. The careers of The Expendables, you might say, have proved anything but. Stallone has gone the distance, largely thanks to Rocky Balboa, a critical and commercial hit; Rourke parlayed an Oscar-nominated comeback (The Wrestler) into a meaty villain role in a hit franchise (Iron Man 2); Steven Seagal sent himself up — at least, we think he was in on the ‘joke’ — in an Orange ad; even Jean-Claude Van Damme, the once-proud “Muscles From Brussels” pulled off an exercise in postmodern existentialism in the film that bore his initials, and — Gott im Himmel! — Ah-nuld was elected, and then re-elected, Governor of Kah-lifornia, and is a constitutional amendment away from a tilt at the White House.They are, however, “getting too old for this shit”. Clive James once described Arnie as looking like “a condom filled with walnuts” — now it’s the other way round. Perhaps that’s why Stallone (64) has recruited young upstarts like Jason Statham (38) and Jet Li (47) to accompany fellow fossils-with-muscles Lundgren (52), Bruce Willis (55), Rourke (57) and Arnie (63) to take down the bad guys (and possibly the insurance premiums). If only Sly had spent less time on the phone to his mates, and more on the script.
Instead it seems that, having assembled his dream cast — and thrown in wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Ultimate Fighting Champion Randy Couture for the ‘kids’ — Stallone clearly felt that such fuddy-duddy film staples as story, characterisation and dialogue that makes sense were, well, expendable. Sure, there’s some direct-to-video-level plotting (see above), and an attempt at creating motivation for Stallone and his fellow cigar-chompers to care — in a nutshell, “The general’s daughter is a hottie” — but that’s really as far as it goes. As the film lurches from scene to scene, one becomes increasingly convinced that not only is everyone making it up as they go along (director Stallone shares a screenwriting credit, so it’s entirely plausible), but that Sly could only convince his cast to jump on board if he agreed to very specific, and often very strange, demands: ‘I want a scene where I kick Jet Li’s ass.’ ‘I want to blow up a dock from the open-air gun turret of a giant seaplane.’ ‘I want to meet Charisma Carpenter, can you fix us up?’ (And apparently, in the case of the much-ballyhooed on-screen team-up between Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis, ‘I want a scene with all the verbal and visual fireworks of a Planet Hollywood annual general meeting circa 1993.’)
That said, The Expendables does what it says on the tin: it delivers a super-size portion of bone-cracking, bullet-spraying, muscle-flexing, head-exploding action, thankfully with the kind of tongue-in-cheek ironic distance which was fatally absent from Stallone’s last directorial outing, the ill-advised, ill-fated Rambo. Although the set-pieces are hardly on a par with the man-fires-tank-falling-out-of-plane antics of the all-new A-Team, the fight scenes prove that the almost-all-old ‘E’-Team can still cut it when push comes literally to shove.
If nothing else, it gives the audience a chance to answer the perennial question, who would win a no-holds-barred fight between Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li?
More The Wild Geese than The Wild Bunch, The Expendables is not a wasted opportunity, but more one not fully exploited. For action fans raised on Commando and Cobra, the ensemble cast and ’80s-style violence will be pure wish-fulfilment — but even they could have wished for something better.