Sylvester Stallone would like to fancy himself an auteur on the order of Clint Eastwood: a director/writer who happens to act and who, eventually, could step behind the camera full-time.
But as “The Expendables” shows, he is, at best, a journeyman filmmaker. He’s capable of assembling a movie that is mildly coherent, but not one that engages the audience emotionally or intellectually. Instead, it’s all about the big-bang theory: the bigger the bangs (explosions, gunshots, mammoth fireballs), the bigger the box-office. In theory, anyway.
Certainly, given its lineup of action stars aimed at all generations and nationalities, “The Expendables” should do pretty well overseas, where audiences subscribe to the more-is-more theory of action films. For all I know, there’s an audience for it here as well. There certainly hasn’t been an action film of this sort so far this summer.
Which doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, merely a serviceable one. Stallone wants “The Expendables” to be a valedictory, perhaps: a meditation on the way men of violence live their lives and live with themselves. But “Unforgiven” it ain’t.
Neither is it “The Wild Bunch” nor “The Dirty Dozen,” two other titles that come to mind. It wants to be, but, again, there’s not that much depth.
Stallone plays Barney Ross, leader of a crew of mercenaries, first glimpsed taking out a gang of Somali pirates on a freighter the raiders have held for three months. Stallone and friends show up with the money – but it’s not as much as the pirates asked for. When the pirates get chesty with Stallone and Co., bang, no more pirates.
Stallone’s crew includes Jason Statham (the only character with much of a life outside the job, it seems – or at least that we see), Jet Li, Randy Couture of UCF fame, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren. They have names like Toll Road, Hale Caesar, and Ying Yang - apparently Stallone’s idea of wit.
There’s also Dolph Lundgren as a guy named Gunner (or, perhaps, Gunnar), but he’s excommunicated from the group for disobeying orders and trying to hang one of the pirates. Stallone’s posse hangs out at the combination garage/tattoo parlor belonging to a guy named Tool (Mickey Rourke), who gave up the mercenary life a number of years earlier. Apparently, he did it so he can deliver a blue-lit monologue about a moment in Bosnia when he could have saved his own soul and didn’t, meant as a goad to Barney, who is having a similar quandary.
Barney, you see, has been offered a gig taking down a tinpot dictator (David Zayas) on a small island republic in Latin America. A reconnaissance visit, however, shows him that, in fact, the dictator is being run by a former CIA operative gone rogue, and played by Eric Roberts with lip-smacking disdain.
(No, unfortunately, Roberts and Rourke never share screentime – so there’s no “Pope of Greenwich Village” reunion, no chance for Roberts to scream, “They took my talent” – er, I mean, “my thumb.”)
(And, no – the commercials and trailers to the contrary, there is only one short, jokey scene that features Stallone with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s good for a quick laugh, if that.)
Anyway, Barney decides it’s a losing cause to take the job – though he’s moved by the selfless courage of a female revolutionary who was his guide during his visit. She stayed behind to face certain capture and torture; the fact that she’s made that sacrifice eats at him – which it’s meant to, since we see Roberts and henchman “Stone Cold” Steve Austin waterboarding her.
Still, it’s not until Gunner and some of Roberts’ other hirelings try to take out Barney on his home turf of New Orleans (love those tax credits for filming in Louisiana) that Barney decides to go for it and take out the dictator.
This is all fairly economical: a little action, a few stale wisecracks – and then one huge blowout at the end. But two things keep the film from rising past the level of middling (which is generous).
The script is the main problem. Written by Dave Callaham and rewritten by Stallone, it wants to have humor, action, thrills and drama all jostling for your attention. But aside from the action itself, the rest of it – from Barney’s conscience-stricken decision to go back to the island to the attempts at banter involving Jet Li – seems sketched out, rather than written.
That’s particularly true of Li, whose character spends a lot of time complaining about needing a raise. If it’s meant to be played as comedy, it’s not written that way. The anemic dialogue barely gestures toward wit. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth – between chief bad guy Roberts and his resentful Hispanic puppet, Zayas – is either flat or florid, but never given enough juice to work as melodrama.
The other problem is the editing. Stallone purposely constructs this film to build to a mix-and-match set of showdowns: between Stallone and Austin, between Couture and Austin – and, most especially, between Li and Lundgren (a black belt who also has an M.A. in chemical engineering).
But the editing by a two-man team (and, no doubt, Stallone) succumbs to the chopped-salad school of film cutting. None of these face-offs is ever given a clean, clear look. Rather, the action is sliced into fragments so that you never have a sense of how the action builds; instead, it’s all pay-offs – punches that connect, kicks that deliver, body-slams that raise a cloud of dust. Or else, as in the Stallone-Austin and Couture-Austin fights, that diced-up action is intercut further with scenes of what the other characters are doing at the same time. There’s no continuity to the action, and so no sense of fulfillment.
I wrote a couple weeks ago about how it’s possible to buy into an implausible movie like “Salt.” “The Expendables,” however, is both implausible and ridiculous, a formula on to which other formulas have been carelessly grafted. I’d say that I already can smell the sequel, but I believe that odor is coming from this film.