REVIEW: Sylvester Stallone and Co. Make Tired Gruntwork of Expendables
In Sylvester Stallone's boneheaded action extravaganza The Expendables, it's not just the characters who are expendable: The actors may as well be tossed out with the garbage, too.
It was a stroke of semi-genius to gather Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke -- not to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in small, uncredited roles -- into what should have been one kick-ass action picture. But almost no one in The Expendables, besides Stallone himself, has anything to do. Between the action sequences, which are numerous and meaningless, the actors wander listlessly like escapees from the old folks' home, prattling on about the good old bad old days in Bosnia, back when men were men, and so forth. And while almost everyone looks "good," at least in the nipped, tucked, buffed-and-polished sense, no one -- save Statham and Li, who actually resemble real human beings -- looks particularly cool. The whole exercise has the trying-too-hard vibe of a bad toupee.
The plot, not that you could really be induced to care, involves a group of mercenaries who have long been, as the press notes cheerfully tell us, "living in the fringes of the law" -- that makes me think of mites hiding out in the dangly bobbles on a dusty Victorian couch, but I doubt that's the intended effect. Anyway, these pals -- who are loyal to one another even when they can't stand one another -- include knife-thrower extraordinaire Lee Christmas (Statham); sniper Gunner Jensen (Lundgren); Yin Yang (Li), who, aside from having the cleverest name of the bunch (I guess "Ching-Chong" was already taken), is a pro at hand-to-hand combat; and two truly extraneous dudes, demolition king Toll Road and weapons guy Hale Caesar, who wander through the movie like chiseled, chunky ghosts. (They're played, respectively, by Randy Couture, who has the perfect name for an S&M costume shop, and by former NFL star Terry Crews.)
The whole gang is led by Stallone's Barney Ross, who, when he's not getting his ink spruced up at the tattoo-parlor hangout run by his old pal Tool (!), played by Mickey Rourke, is busy rounding up various permutations of his other old pals to overthrow ruthless South American dictators and such. In between, he takes time to romance a sexy, spark-plug freedom fighter (played by Brazilian actress Giselle Itiè), never realizing that a CIA turncoat played by Eric Roberts (who's criminally good at playing this sort of character) is setting him up. Because, really, what else does a character played by Eric Roberts ever do?
Explosions abound in The Expendables. Limbs are lopped off, leaving blood-spurting stumps behind. Groins are kicked, heads are smashed in, chests are stabbed. The action moves fast, thanks to lots of indistinct, choppy editing, and yet the whole exercise gives off a vaporous "So what?" ennui. A few of the actors are fun to watch: Statham has a great moment, firing some guns from a little airplane turret -- there's something pleasingly symmetrical about the sight of his cueball head and cast-iron shoulders emerging from the surface of that shiny bullet-shaped plane. And Li moves -- still -- with the grace of a spider monkey. He also has some of the picture's funniest lines, explaining to Stallone's Barney why he deserves to make more money than the others. (He's smaller, so he needs to move faster to cover the same amount of ground.)
But beyond that, there's no wit in The Expendables; the most you can hope for are a few obvious self-referential jokes. The picture is far less entertaining than Stallone's last entry as a director, the 2008 Rambo, a shameless piece of work that at least had the courage of its own sick convictions. And there's no way around it: Stallone just looks weird, and he sounds weird too. Whatever he's done to his face has made his elocution -- never that precise to begin with -- into a parody of itself. The first line he utters is "Here's your money -- release the hostages," but it comes out as "Heaz yo money, releaz da hoshtages." He swaggers through the movie wearing a punch-drunk, sozzled look. Sometimes his strangely shaped mollusk lips look as if they've been sewn together -- he's like a Madame Tussaud version of himself.
But there is one area in which The Expendables excels. Forget the fact that this week's other big release, the woman-finding-herself, Julia Roberts vehicle Eat, Pray, Love, has an attendant line of tote bags, pillow shams and other assorted rot available on the Home Shopping Network. (Perhaps even more horrifying, the movie also has its own line of perfume -- I just cannot go there.) If there were an Academy Award for Best Jewelry, The Expendables surely deserves it. These guys have great taste in bling, and some of them are decked out more ostentatiously than Liz Taylor: Rourke sports a bolo tie worn, quite daringly, sans shirt, along with a dangly charm bracelet; the relatively understated Statham wears a single, tasteful neck medallion.
But Stallone wins the glitter prize, with an assortment of hyper-masculine silver adornments including what is referred to as his "lucky dragon ring," a giant glob of metal so shiny and excessive that it could almost hypnotize you into thinking it's 1982 again. Stallone himself seems to be perpetually under that spell. And if that's what keeps him going, more power to him.