I quite like action films. I think most people do, regardless of their official line in slightly self-conscious snobbery – yes, they’re lowbrow, but they’re also exciting and funny and make your heart race in a way that Leaving, bless it, never could. And since we are encouraged to believe that more, irrespective of context, is definitely better, surely a film trailed as a genre-redefining instant action classic is guaranteed to be world-class?
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. It’s more than thirty years since jack-of-all-trades Sylvester Stallone has directed himself in a film which wasn’t part of either the Rocky or Rambo franchise, so he’s charmingly decided that writing himself a new character would be too much trouble. I don’t mean that he reprises either of his most well-known roles – he simply doesn’t bother with a character brief which extends beyond ‘hard nut’. In fact, he had so much fun rampaging with a blank face and a gun that he decided to scrap the rest of the (presumably) intricate script, and instead just plump for making everyone else a hard nut and giving them an island to blow the shit out of.
As far as I could make out, the plot goes like this. The Expendables are a legendary team of mercenaries, headed up by beret-clad Barney ‘The Schizo’ Ross (Stallone) and his wingman Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), an ex-SAS blademaster with a penchant for slutty brunettes and whingeing. The other Expendables include diminutive martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li), drug-addled behemoth Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), armourer Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), therapy-obsessed demo man Toll Road (Randy Couture, Christ help us) and a posse of other boring, stereotyped and dreadfully named macho idiots.
When we first meet the team, they’re slaughtering pirates in Somalia, as you do. Then they pick up a job from the secretive Mr Church (a massively overhyped cameo from Bruce Willis) – basically, they’re to invade the fictional Gulf island of Vilena, comprehensively mess it up, and kill both the tinpot dictator and the rogue ex-CIA man pulling his strings. Barney and Lee very sensibly decide that the attack would be a suicide mission, but then a feisty babe / dictator’s daughter gets wedged into the mix and suddenly ‘this is clearly impossible’ becomes ‘let’s wade through several hundred guards without losing a single man’. They kill everyone in inventive ways involving loads of, like, really cool explosions, and then they go home. Job done.
65,000 bullets. 300 inept guards. 7 mercenaries. 0 original ideas.
For a $70m production, it’s amazing how little effort actually went into The Expendables. It’s all very well to harp on about it having an ensemble cast, but this isn’t much cop if two of the only decent actors in the film appear for one lacklustre cameo fifteen minutes in and then disappear. Mickey Rourke’s supporting turn as a retired Expendable crippled by regret was superb, but it only served to highlight just how startlingly talentless the other bozos cluttering up his tattoo parlour were. Even Sly seemed like he was going through the motions – he of all people should know the difference between a good action film and one which is simply successful, but there’s no sign of his immense experience and savoir-faire in this laboured rubbish.
Despite the guns and knives, the hair and breasts, the fire and explosions and bloody sea planes, The Expendables – ‘the ultimate action film’ – is boring. So boring, in fact, so unremittingly tedious and predictable, that I actually dozed off during the climactic assault scene. Mind you, I did wake up in time to see Stone Cold Steve Austin become Red Hot Steve Austin when he was inexplicably set on fire, which is amusing but hardly enough to justify the whole film. Unless you’re particularly up for watching his horrible sloping shoulders crisp, do yourself a favour and just rewatch Commando.