The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010) – Recently, on Facebook, I found myself having to defend my love of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie career (I defend none of his political career). I got into me explanation of what the difference (in my mind anyway) is between actors and movie stars. Actors try their best to immerse themselves in a character. Movie stars bring their established persona from film to film. I am not disparaging the latter. I am a big fan of movie stars. You can do a lot of good stuff doing the same persona movie to movie. John Wayne always had the same persona in his movies but I don’t think will disagree about how great he was in The Searchers and True Grit. Anyway, a couple years ago, Sylvester Stallone decided he wanted to make a move with ALL OF THE ACTION MOVIE STARS! It started as Stallone, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, then it grew to include Dolph Lundgren, ultimate fighter Randy Couture, Terry Crews, kickboxer Gary Daniels, and pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, plus cameos from action superstars Bruce Willis and then-Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Surely badassitude would follow…

The Expendables are a team of hired guns who are very good at what they do. They’re led by Barney Ross (Stallone) who has to make the difficult choice to fire team member Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren) when he proves to be unstable. The remaining Expendables are hired by a mysterious man calling himself Church (Willis), after a rival and former teammate of Barney’s (Schwarzenegger) passes on the job. They’re to go to the South American country of Vilena (subtle) to take out that country’s despotic leader, General Garza (David Zayas). But a mysterious American named James Munroe (Eric Roberts) is pulling Garza’s strings and he has got muscle backing him up (Austin & Daniels). After Barney and Lee (Statham) take a look around the country they decide the job is too risky, but Garza’s rebellious daughter Sandra (Giselle Itié) inspires Barney to grow a conscience. But Munroe has a couple tricks up his sleeve.

When I first saw The Expendables (which you can read about below) I overall enjoyed it but had some issues with the pacing and writing. They didn’t really bug me so much this time around. One scene involving semi-retired Expendable Tool (Mickey Rourke) talking about a time he could have saved someone but didn’t carries a surprising emotional weight in a movie that’s mostly about people getting shot so hard their heads explode. Some of the characters get a bit short-changed, but what are you going to do with a cast this big?  I’m going to see The Expendables 2 in about 20 minutes. I have high hopes for this franchise. It’s already added a couple more action superstars and the producers are full intent on making a third installment. I know the eighties are long past and a lot of these stars are over-the-hill, but what made them stars hasn’t faded yet. They still got some ass-kicking left in them.

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The following review was original published on 12ftdwende.com on 13 August 2010.

The year was 2008. I was working at the Virgin Megastore and me and a few of my friends had just had our minds blown by a film called Rambo. While I was well acquainted with the series, I was unprepared for just how much ass Sylvester Stallone could still kick in his 60s. I had heard good things about Rocky Balboa as well a couple years prior (though I still haven’t seen it) and found myself wondering “is Sly having a full-scale comeback?” I immediately checked imdb.com to see what was forthcoming from one of the heroes of my youth. I read it. My eyes went wide. I called my friend Joe over to the register area (it was a slow day at the store) and said to him, with appropriate awe in my voice, “Sylvester Stallone is doing a movie with Jason Statham and Jet Li.”

As we followed the news, internet speculation began to grow. What if Stallone just hired every badass in Hollywood to be in the movie? As if in response to our query, Dolph “I must break you” Lundgren was added to the cast, followed by ultimate fighter Randy Couture. Danny Trejo was rumored to be involved for a while but supposedly had to duck out due to scheduling conflicts. Likewise Wesley Snipes’s legal problems prevented him from becoming involved. Another rumor had it that Jean-Claude Van Damme turned down a role because he wanted to focus more on “serious acting” following his rightfully acclaimed performance in JCVD. I’m unaware of how he’s followed through with that… Recent Oscar-nominee Mickey Rourke was confirmed to have a part in the movie, taking it because Stallone cast him in Get Carter when Hollywood wasn’t interested in him anymore. After an acceptance speech by Rourke at the Spirit Awards in which Mickey asked film-makers start casting Eric Roberts in more movies, Roberts was added to the cast too. Rumors also went out about offers to Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, and for some reason 50 Cent. How much of this was random internet speculation and how much was actual deals I don’t know (and frankly am too lazy to research since it doesn’t particularly affect my review of the film itself). The point is anticipation was building to a fever pitch for people like me who grew up on these guys’ movies.

The day has finally come and The Expendables is upon us in theaters. I went in excited. This is the movie I had been waiting for. The film starts with a bang aboard a Somali pirate ship. Then there’s some downtime. I started to worry. The film seems to meander for a bit, supposedly building characterization. Stallone is an able director and crafted a story that works for the movie, but maybe the actual screenwriting should have been left to someone with a better ear for dialogue. During this downtime, we are introduced to the Expendables.

There’s Barney Ross (Stallone), the leader of the group. That’s most of his characterization right there. He’s the leader. There’s his right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham). Statham’s personality, which made him shine in Guy Ritchie movies before he became an action superstar with the Transporter and Crank series, makes him stand out in the cast. He seems like a more developed character, even if he isn’t. It also helps that in a film filled with accented people, he is the easiest to understand. There’s Yin Yang (Jet Li), a guy who can do martial arts (big surprise there). By the way, the names in the movie are stated to be fake names early on. Real names are never given. The team’s most problematic member is Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), whose trigger-happy attitude and drug problems make him a liability to the team. Also on the crew are Hale Caesar (Terry Crews from Idiocracy and Everybody Hates Chris), a gun-loving guy with no other defining characteristics. Given Crews’ background in comedy, I think the character could have better showcased his talents, but the movie is filled with a surplus of characters already. There’s Toll Road (Randy Couture), a neurotic former wrestler who is in therapy. Finally there’s Tool (Rourke), a semi-retired Expendable who helps the gang get jobs while running a tattoo parlor.

Rourke’s character really has the least relevance to the overall plot but Stallone knows he has an incredibly talented actor in his film and gives Mickey a few good moments to shine. Rourke’s scenes mostly paint him as a fun-loving guy, but one scene towards the middle of the film firmly plants him almost at the film’s emotional core. Stallone, an actor who Roger Ebert once said had the potential to be the next Marlon Brando, has a good enough respect for the craft of acting that he lets Mickey do his thing and it works wonderfully.

Now the above-mentioned guys are the stars of the film. The movie is about them. That’s not what the trailers would have you believe. What I really hate about the trailer for this film is that they reveal what should have been an awesome surprise casting. Since it’s already been spoiled I’ll repeat the spoiler here (stop reading here if you’ve managed to completely ignore all marketing for this film and skip to the next paragraph). Sylvester Stallone has one scene alongside Bruce Willis, as the man who hires his team, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Stallone’s rival and former teammate who passes on the job. As a surprise, this would have been the icing on the cake for an already badass-packed movie. But the advertisements for this film are almost ninety percent built around that scene. You’d think the movie was all about Bruce, Arnold, and Sly. Now many have been dreaming about this trio for over two decades and if they think that’s the movie they’re going to see there will be disappointment. Arnold is slightly busy at the moment. In January he will find himself (thankfully) with much more free time and he can get back to what I wish he’d been doing the past seven years: making action movies. If the Expendables does well it could very well become a franchise and then maybe we’ll get the Sly vs. Arnold match-up we’ve always wanted (with possible spoiler Bruce Willis!) but until then this is just a misleading marketing ploy.

The plot of the film revolves around the Expendables’ intervention in a South American drug cartel run by a military dictator (David Zayas from Dexter) and his Federal Agent puppet master (Eric Roberts). In case Roberts doesn’t seem like a formidable enough opponent he is backed up by his two bodyguards, played by wrester Stone Cold Steve Austin and kick boxer Gary Daniels. At first the Expendables don’t wish to get involved in a tricky situation in which they’ll almost certainly be double-crossed by the people who hired them, but soon Barney grows a conscience, in the form of rebel Sandra (Giselle Itié).

The important thing about the movie is the action. It is awesome. Like I said it takes a little while to get going but once it does, this movie achieves exactly what a movie like this should achieve. Every character gets his moment to shine. Jet Li is in the movie and you know he’s going to get to some wicked martial arts battles (and one of the bad guys is a kick boxer). Terry Crews talks about the sound of his guns so you know we’re going to hear them. Ultimate fighter Randy Couture is a good guy and professional wrestler Steve Austin is a bad guy. We see them fight because it must happen. Sylvester Stallone is getting older and he is upstaged in many ways by his younger costars but he still kicks ass (at my dad’s age!) and he doesn’t coast through this movie. Like I said, if this movie is successful it could easily become a franchise. Van Damme, Trejo, Russell, certain soon-to-be-former governors (or for that matter a certain already-former governor named Jesse Ventura): there are a lot of badasses out there who could make a sequel even more awesome. You already know from the set-up if you want to see this movie and if you want to see this movie you will probably like it. It may not be one of the all-time greats as action movies go but it’s a great showcase for some of the best tough guys in the business. Look at this logo! It’s a skull with wings made of guns and knives! This movie is pure testosterone on screen.

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