For a film that trades fantastical B-movie fun for deadly seriousness, The Expendables needs a reality check. It thinks that the actors have on-screen chemistry. They don’t. It thinks that the script has plenty of witty banter. It doesn’t. It thinks that there’s thought-provoking pathos in the story. There isn’t. At best, The Expendables is misguided and at worst, it’s an over-confident mess that fumbles completely except for a few action beats.
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his crew of mercenaries (played by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews) are known as “The Expendables”. They have their own logo and everything. After showing us their acumen at killing the fuck out of Somali pirates, the crew is hired by a shadowy figure/cameo (Bruce Willis) to take down a general (David Zayas) and end his authoritarian rule over the fictional country of Vilena, but it turns out that the general is just a puppet of a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and his burly henchman (Steve Austin). This is a workable set-up for a kick-ass action movie.
“Now you have more time to feel sorry for yourself.”
But The Expendables has higher aspirations that are unreachable with the limited talent of its cast and lazy script. The closest the film comes to a moment of honest pathos is when Mickey Rourke, who plays a retired, wise-old-sage figure to the group, gives an overly-earnest speech about killing countless people but being too beaten-down to save one. This speech inspires Barney to return to Vilena after originally ditching the plan to liberate it when he discovered that the Expendables were being set-up by Mr. Shadowy Figure. Barney’s reason for returning? He wants to save the General’s daughter who is actually a freedom-fighter. It’s a suicide mission and his team gladly joins Ross in his quest for salvation by helping him save a woman he briefly met a week ago.
Oddly, the plot remains the same: take down the bad guys. But this time they’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because Ross feels sad. This new premise would be laughable if the movie wasn’t such a chore. I don’t mind the attempt to add depth to a shoot-em-up, but The Expendables completely fails at reconciling the over-the-top action with its aspirations of heartfelt drama. The sobriety kills any joy in the film as these characters don’t seem to enjoy themselves beyond making remarks on which hapless enemy they’re about to kill and how. The Expendables are haunted, existentially lost, and they can only raise their self-esteem by killing lots and lots of South American soldiers.
When The Expendables isn’t busy boring you with sadness, it’s absolutely cringe-worthy at its attempts to be fun. The film constantly throws around banter and one-liners that reach a new apex in falling flat. It’s baffling to watch Stallone and Statham pretend like their characters have any chemistry. The movie wants you to see old pals who have been to hell and back and have the jokes to prove it. Instead, all you see are two actors reciting awful dialogue to each other.
“What’s wrong with this picture?”
It also doesn’t help if you can define every character in five words or less. Stallone: Sad Guy; Statham: Sad Guy with Knives; Jet Li: Wants More Money Guy; Randy Couture: Recommends Therapy Guy (I would also accept “No Acting Ability Guy”); Terry Crews: Giant Gun Guy. This is your team of bad-asses.
The characters may not have much in the way of personality, but they admittedly do know how to tear it up. There are some really fun kills in The Expendables, but when you’re wiping out what appears to be half the population of a small country, the kills start becoming redundant. The most common cause of death in Vilena is either getting shot with 23 bullets in two seconds, getting sliced up, or getting your neck snapped. The kills aren’t clever but they’re bloody and you’ll be satisfied with some of the fight moves and life-enders, but then that moment will pass and you’ll go back to sleep.
The Expendables wants to be Rambo and Pals, and that intent is an insult to Rambo. There’s nothing in The Expendables that comes close to the crazy, bloody mess of fun that Stallone created a couple years ago with Rambo. It’s laudable to make a confident movie, but Stallone has nothing to be proud of other than a few action beats and getting Rourke involved. The film is a sorrowful mess of maudlin pathos, lethargic writing, and non-existent characters. And the vaunted cameo scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis took me out of the film faster than Planet Hollywood went out of business. The only remarkable thing about The Expendables is how it fell so short of its less-than-lofty aspiration to be a dumb-fun action movie and instead ended up as a cure for insomnia.