They’re aren’t many movies that can take a critical licking and yet can keep on ticking, but those that do are usually deemed “critic proof” for a various amount of reasons. One such movie that has proven to be just as durable as that grizzled Hollywood tank we know as Sylvester Stallone is his whacky labour of love, The Expendables, a movie that tried to live up to the ludicrous and foolhardy boast of having the “most awesome action cast ever assembled”. Still flying high from the success of Rocky Balboa and still juiced from slaughtering half the population of Burma in the fourth Rambo, Stallone endeavored to write, direct, star in and get dangerously close to being paralyzed by a movie that had an awful lot of hype to live up to. So did this ballsy attempt at a last hurrah for some of cinema’s greatest geri-action heroes succeed in living up to their ridiculous promises or did it crash and burn while it was busy burning and crashing everything?
Barney Ross leads an impossibly grizzled group of mercenaries with similarly stupid names who call themselves The Expendables. Making up this team of head breakers and workd shakers is knife man Lee Christmas, lightning fast martial artist Yin Yang, heroin addicted gargantua Gunnar Jensen, touchy human pitbull Toll Road and bulging strong man Hale Hale Caesar and we join them as they relieve a group of Somalian pirates of both their hostages and large chunks of their own anatomy. Despite being successful, there’s obviously tension within the group thanks to Gunnar blatantly being in the rather unstable side, so Barney gives him his marching orders and meets up with his tattooing buddy Tool who sets up regular gigs for the hulking collective. It seems that the CIA wants the dictator of a small island in the Gulf of Mexico expunged with maximum bullets on the downlow and Ross accepts, but after travelling there to recon the place with Christmas, they find out that the general is actually a puppet, and pulling the strings is James Munroe, an ex-CIA operative who overstepped his boundries in order to carry on with his own profiteering schemes. The plot continues to grow as unnecessarily thick as Stallone’s bicep when their contact on the island is Sandra, the dictator’s daughter who is striking out against her father and his shifty boss in order to liberate the downtrodden people.
Hastily getting the fuck out of town, but pausing long enough to detonate some beach front property to send a message, Ross is perturbed by Sandra demanding to stay behind even though she is guaranteed to be tortured for her efforts and rounds the gang together to go off mission to retaliate. However, a disgruntled Gunnar has switched sides and has clued Munroe into Barney’s operation – can the Expendables prove their worth and do a good thing by liberating the island with enough firepower to shatter the moon?
The Expendables is one of those curious little movies where the more I find out about what went on behind the scenes, the more I bizarrely respect it, which is kinda of a good job considering how laughable it often is. Take the ballsy claim about the insanely muscular cast for example: yes, it’s technically true that this film boasts Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger appearing, not only in the same movie, but in the same scene, but cruel reality drives home when their highly hyped moment consists of a snarky chat that’s so badly shot you wonder if they were ever on set at the same time. Similarly, it’s boast of the “ultimate action cast” might fall foul of trading standards too as genuine bodycount legends Jet Li and Jason Statham are joined by an underused Terry Crews and UFC fighter Randy Couture who despite there various talents (and Crews’ massive frame containing an endless supply of charisma) hardly count as action heroes. On top of that we have entertaining extended cameos for Dolph Lundgren who looks like he’s sub-letting the bone structure of Frankenstein’s monster and a jobbing Mickey Rourke who dresses like Billy Ray Cyrus has had a massive identity crisis and who suspiciously seems to be making up all his dialogue as he goes along – however, in a neat touch, joining WWE legend Stone Cold Steve Austin as a henchman is forgotten, direct to video, 90’s superstar Gary Daniel’s, so Stallone’s eclectic casting isn’t as random as it first appears…
The point is, The Expendables is a fucking mess that was never going to achieve it’s lofty goals, but when you except that and actually examine the alarmingly patchwork movie you have left, you start to notice little bits of dopey genius seeping through the admittedly enjoyable crap.
The best example of this is when I found out that the reason why the film feels so much like it was made up on the fly is because it actually fucking was, you find it taking on a whole new life of it’s own. Thanks to Stallone’s sheer iron will keeping things moving, when you consider the huge scheduling effort it must have taken to just to get any three of these guys to align on set at any one time you realise it was a miracle the film got made at all and everything then slots into place. That’s why everyone has such jarring, half-baked subplots thrown at us like hand grenades loaded with pure random that are dropped at a moment’s notice – Jet Li goes on and on about needing more money for a family that doesn’t actually exist, Statham has to deal with a cheating Charisma Carpenter and Rourke gets his own Robert Shaw S.S. Indianapolis style speech where he blubs and drools about dying in the mud and the blood that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Again, when it hits you that Stallone desperately made up all that shit (possibly on the day of filming) to actually give people stuff to do apart from kill bad guys, gives you a perverse feeling of awe at how hard he must have worked to make this thing even halfway coherent and almost gives things a guerilla, independent feel.
The action is just as weird. Stallone turns out to be quite a generous co-star these days, handing out action beats and hero moments to his pals that he might have kept for himself back in the 80’s – Austin definitively whups Sly’s ass in a climatic fight (while actually fracturing the actor/director’s fucking neck in the process) only to fall to Couture later on while Crews is the only one strong enough to hurl an explosive shell at a helicopter. Also, it seems Stallone can’t help throwing his buds a bone in real life too as Lundgren’s character, last seen expiring after taking one of Barney’s bullets two inches above the heart, makes a miraculous recovery having shaken off a fatal injury and his heroin addiction in around a week just in time to qualify for Expendables 2. It’s good to have friends.
The whole enterprise feels very much like the awesomely high concept bilge that maniacal movie studio Cannon Films used to sling out during their heyday which again goes to explain why the whole film feels as uneven as the results of a far-sighted bricklayer – but once again just adds another layer to a wonky movie that just won’t stop fascinating me on every level except the one where it’s actually a good movie.
Less a rousing action classic and more a disparate collection of scenes, characters and explosions lashed together by the almost-fanatical devotion of Sylvester Stallone, it’s actually far more interesting after you’ve watched the feature length making of which expertly shows off how much he was willing to sacrifice himself in order to make a film where his opponent from Rocky IV blows a man in half with a shotgun blast.
The Expendables ultimately proves to be exactly that, but dig a little deeper and just might unearth one of Hollywood’s most herculean filmmaking efforts…