Though made in 2010, Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables has more in common with action pictures of days gone by. That’s not to say that the film is marooned in the late ’80s, and Stallone seems aware of how far removed the days of Rambo and Commando are from current forays into the genre. The movie is something of a resurrection of the era, though, harking back to America’s testier times with Cuba and casting its villains and action from the same mold: South American Generals and hefty guerrilla warfare. The “expendables” themselves are a group of mercenaries hired by dodgy American agencies to eradicate powerful, heavily guarded guys who take blazing weapons and tons of ammo to conquer the weak. Although most of the stars have (admittedly) seen better days, there’s no denying the onscreen presence of Stallone, Mickey Rourke, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Accompanied by plucky daredevil Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Barney Ross (Stallone) flies to the island of Velina to scout its dictator and, upon arrival, meets the group’s contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié). When local guards kick up a fuss, Ross and Christmas are forced to flee the island, leaving Sandra at the mercy of government officials — which ensures they must go back to finish the job they started.
The presence of a feisty heroine notwithstanding, The Expendables is often turgid and not as shrewd or easy to tolerate as it should be. One might say it’s more of a Jewel of the Nile than a Romancing the Stone, sacrificing narrative intricacy and thought for a familiar 101 depiction of corporate villainy (even if that depiction comes courtesy of a dynamite Eric Roberts). The rapid-fire encounters which the group enjoys are interspersed with occasionally witty banter between bromance duo Ross and Christmas — largely welcomed because it requires the gunfire’s aural saturation to subside for a few seconds. Aside from an interesting-but-nowhere-to-go subplot involving Christmas and his would-be missus, Stallone is fairly stubborn in maintaining that this story is all about the men and their mission. The men in question are endearing and slick at a stretch, but the mission lacks composure and structure. As it is, I’m inclined to believe that barging your way through a castle with guns hardly constitutes a “mission” anyway.
While the badass credibility of the meaty cast celebrates genre convention, the array of commodities on offer — from the martial arts exploits of Jet Li to the ice-cold arrogance of Dolph Lundgren — suggests that, while courting box-office pull, The Expendables is also attempting to play above and around the genre. The inter-generational nature of the personalities suggests a family tree of action pile drivers, a genealogically linked tribute to how the genre has evolved since Stallone roamed the jungle. The film feels particularly indulgent whenever it draws attention to the actors’ renowned traits, going so far as to satirize Schwarzenegger’s retirement and foray into the world of American politics with the denunciation, “He wants to be president.” The group acts as if taking down a general is akin to an evening at the local bar, but the suggestion of a world outside of social alienation is often ridiculed. Like a tacky but trustier reaction to the Oceans films, these Expendables are a bunch of pariahs, and they embrace it.
Dubbing the group as “expendable” implies that they are flirting with death and that their demise is unimportant in the grand scheme of the world. The underlying motif of the film, however, pretends towards the notion of the actor as expendable. An action movie is rarely an actor’s movie, but The Expendables, as an homage to fifty-year-olds and their perpetually bulky guns, bucks the trend. In Hollywood terms, the actor is as expendable an article as civilians in wartime, necessary casualties of the bigger picture. The lengthy absences from the screen of Sly, Mickey, and Arnie serve as an observation of how one’s profile can flounder from decade to decade.
With all their experience in wielding weapons on the filmic front lines, the ensemble in The Expendables feels like a 21st-century version of the jam-packed cast in the 1962 epic, How the West Was Won. Indeed, the movie often reads like an upgraded version of erstwhile depictions of factional warfare with its heady nostalgia and sense of camaraderie. While cultural overhaul was on the mind of John Ford, individualist tendencies and general disdain creep into The Expendables, and the film adopts a cynically diminished attitude towards nationalist ideals, blaming bureaucracy and the misdemeanors of Western philosophy for foreign instability — even going so far as to reference the pain of the Vietnam War. If rumors of a sequel are right, it doesn’t look as if The Expendables is one final hurrah. The tongue-in-cheek remarks of Stallone et al. only half-mask the remonstrations of “Look at us! We can still do it!” The film, however, is another matter, and The Expendables is a prime example of a picture coasting on star power. Even if the charm offensive isn’t wholly unsuccessful, it’s a matter of quantity over quality, and I’d gladly expend of most of the former.