There’s a joke in the movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations in the film; everyone laughed. I think that probably says a lot about the crowd in the theater when I saw the movie, but I also think it says something about the film itself. The Expendables looks like it should be a stupid fun romp, and it certainly succeeds at the fun part. But it’s also something pretty magical, in that it concentrates decades of action movie talent across a wide gamut of subgenres (Stallone, Statham, Li, and DOLPH LUNDGREN!), along with lesser-known actors (Terry Crews and Randy Couture) who’ve made their names in other areas (Being a huge muscly black guy and UFC, respectively). The middle field is also stocked with classic character actors like Eric Roberts, who can’t help but be the villain whenever he’s on camera, and Mickey Rourke who, frankly, gives the most moving monologue of the entire film.
But what praise is that last statement, really? It’s a valid question. The Expendables is not a thinking man or woman’s film, and doesn’t spend overmuch time beating your head in with moral lessons and geo-political commentary. Even The Losers worked harder to establish just why the bad guys were bad and the main characters were just misunderstood. None of that takes away from Rourke’s speech, though, and the little details (The focus on his ravaged grill, the way his voice catches and chokes) sell that this is a man who went into Hell, came back out, but was never quite right thereafter.
I feel, though, that all you need to know about the film is this: Arnie and Bruce Willis are uncredited for their appearances in this film. You know they’re going to show up, you’ve seen them in commercials and trailers, but it’s still awesome when they do. The exchange between Schwarzenegger and Stallone condenses what one assumes is a lifetime of familiarity by association, and a recognition of one another’s physical changes. It sets a tone for how I, at least, want to take the film: as a gathering of men who punch, stab, and shoot things on film. I’d like to envision that between takes Dolph discussed kicks with Li, Stallone and Statham talked about how loud blanks sound when they’re going off right by one’s head, and so forth. Everyone seems to have been having fun, and even Crews and Couture give performances that make up for in amusement what they might lack in thespian ability.
Ability, though, is on display. There is nothing The Expendables reminds me of so much as Tango and Cash, and not just because the characters have such improbable names (Barney Ross, Toll Road, Ying Yang). Tango and Cash is another film where nearly every line any main character speaks is, in itself, a one-liner; usually met with another one-liner from whomever else is in the film. Everything the villain says oozes menace and contempt, and everything the three female characters in the entire film say….doesn’t amount to much.
However, what was somewhat painful in Tango and Cash has largely been remedied here. It’s not that the jokes are necessarily more amusing (short of the book sight gag, it was all pretty trite). However, the actors are much, much better. They’re universally large men (Though some are shorter than you’d expect, and it was a surprise to see Willis tower over Stallone) with one exception, and Jet Li has a charming monologue where he makes much of his struggles amidst such company (“I’m smaller, I work harder.”). They are, in most cases, veterans of the kind of film that requires punching someone over and over while the director yells cut, repositions, and shoots again. In a film directed and co-written by Stallone himself, the crew he’s assembled gives a loving send-up to violence, gunfire, and the camaraderie that develops between crews of lovable misfits who don’t belong in polite society. I think you already know whether or not you’ll enjoy the movie without reading a word of this review, or even seeing a second of the trailer. If the list of names in the film made you say “Fuck YES!” then you’re in.
The other advantage that The Expendables has over Tango and Cash is that fight choreography in American cinema has improved by leaps and bounds (Sometimes literally. Thanks David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli!). Statham, Stallone, and Li all get their respective spotlight solo fights, and there is something magical in seeing how different a type of action film each man represents. Stallone is a slab of meat murder machine these days, but that’s presented much more engagingly here than in the last Rambo movie, which felt like punishment to watch. He’s in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that feels a little Rocky, even if he’s not punching Lundgren. Statham doesn’t go up against any significant character, but he gets to take on a whole slew of them instead, and do so stylishly and while championing a lady; very Transporter without all the oil and shirtlessness. And Li…well, I won’t say much about Li’s fight, except that it adds a little bit of humor (in the tradition of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Li himself) without ever failing to be deadly serious. It’s telling that Statham and Stallone both have stunt doubles, yet Li has an entire fight team plus a choreographer.
All of the fights are entertaining, and the climactic battle lets every actor show themselves impressively in some way. They mix guns, blades, and knuckles with liberal explosions, are highly kinetic, and rarely flinch-worthy (again, I’m thinking of John Rambo here). I watch for a few things in action movies, like places where a quick cut suggests something went wrong. There is one shot where an explosion seems like it must have gone off too close to Stone Cold Steve Austin (yeah, he’s up in this piece too) but, ever the consummate self-stunman, he barely flinches. There’s also a single shot where one of the characters, I think Statham, kills a soldier who barely looks 18; I imagine that it’s a scene they wish they’d cut from sooner than they did, but it doesn’t break the movie.
Like I said, you already know if you like The Expendables. But maybe there’s a sentence in here you can use to justify that appreciation to a dubious headshaker in order to get their butt in a seat for the big screen experience.