A group of mercenaries are hired to infiltrate a South American country and overthrow its ruthless dictator. Once the mission begins, the men realise things aren't quite as they appear, finding themselves caught in a dangerous web of deceit and betrayal. With their mission thwarted and an innocent life in danger, the men struggle with an even tougher challenge one that threatens to destroy this band of brothers.
As an homage to the 1980s action flicks that defined the careers of its elderly leads (Stallone, Willis, Lundgren, Li) and led to the careers of the rest of the cast (Statham, Couture, Crews), The Expendables is spot on – but that’s not a good thing. The boom period for blow 'em up mayhem-movies was borne out of the home video market, which needed loud, bloody scriptless exploitation pics to fill VCRs all over the world, especially in the non-English speaking markets. And The Expendables has all three, but little else.
Most action spectacles from the decade were C-grade trash, not cast with A-list talent but churned out by cavemen like Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Don 'The Dragon’ Wilson, Robert Ginty and Steven Seagal (though Seagal, discovered whilst serving as a personal trainer for uber-agent Mike Ovitz, had the backing of Warner Bros). Despite serious '80s action movie credentials, none of these 'real’ action heroes are in writer/director Sylvester Stallone’s hulking behemoth of a film – by some accounts JCVD and Seagal passed and the others were never asked.
Though most agree John McTiernan’s Die Hard is the pinnacle of '80s action, it is easy to forget the film came out in 1988 – nearly a decade after the VHS tape first appeared and well into the home entertainment 'revolution’, as marketers liked to call it back then. The major studios, with big budgets and movie star mojo, jumped on the action wagon long after it had established a stranglehold on the movie-going habits of the decade (Lethal Weapon,1987; Aliens, 1986; Robocop, 1987; Commando,1985).
Stallone was a leading figure in the 1980s action arena: firstly Rocky Balboa, then John Rambo, Mario Cobretti (in George P. Cosmatos’ Cobra, 1986) and finally Ray Tango (in Andrei Konchalovski’s Tango and Cash, 1989). In Rambo, his 2008 relaunching of the Great Leveller, he showed he still understood the principles of '80s action cinema – say as little as possible, find a cause and horribly kill as many of those that stand in the way of said cause (most critics hated it; I thought it was a blast – it made me feel 15 again.)
But all that genre insight has abandoned him in scripting The Expendables. The film is essentially a variation on Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), in which Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of a renegade unit of gun-for-hire mercenaries who journeys with his 2IC, Lee Christmas (the eternally frowning Jason Statham) into a unnamed Latin American enclave to overthrow a dictator. However, their contact (the ogled and mistreated Giselle Itie) is captured and the emergence of rogue agent James Monroe (fellow '80s cast-off Eric Roberts) indicates more foul play is afoot than just violent domestic politics. Armed to the nines with a ridiculous amount of lethal hardware, Ross is determined to make things right and returns with his full unit of Expendables – martial arts assassin Yin Yang (Jet Li), sharp-shooter Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), explosives expert Toll Road (Randy Couture) and combat veteran and all-round nutjob, Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, giving everything in an out-there performance that is both the best and worst thing about the film).
From this point, stunts, carnage, over-editing and cheesy acting dominate the film. There is one fun but painfully self-conscious scene between Stallone, Bruce Willis and the Last Action Hero himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but its enjoyment is fleeting; it feels like meeting up with your old sporting mates and sharing stories, while secretly staring in disbelief at how old they have become. The days when the 'Austrian Oak’, now 63, was described by satirist Clive James as resembling a condom stuffed with walnuts... well, they are long gone. There is no avoiding the fact that he and Stallone look every bit their age; Willis, Lundgren and Li still move well, but close-ups do none of these actors any favours.
Given the amount of excitement (and money) that a generation of mostly male teenage moviegoers shared with these men, the sense of anticipation the film generated whilst in production was understandable. But The Expendables (or 'expandables’, as one web-wag has already labelled them) works far better as a concept than a movie. Any notion that bringing the gang back together for one last mission would somehow result in a cinematic Fountain of Youth now seems misguided. Despite the ocean of testosterone on-screen, the film feels like a withering relic the moment the curtain parts. Before the planned remake of Police Academy goes before the cameras, let’s declare that the 1980s are officially over.