Riding a wave of growing publicity based almost entirely around its cast – Sylvester Stallone! Jason Statham! Jet Li! Steve Austin! and so on – The Expendables has arrived at last and delivered pretty much exactly what most people would have expected: an amped up, grizzled actioner that, like The Expendables themselves, is positively bursting with testosterone and not much else.
The film follows a narrative that suits being summed up in one sentence, so here it is: some Americans join forces with a power hungry warlord on an island and oppress the people, so an elite group of mercenaries KILLS THEM ALL. The outline of the plot is delivered mainly in two scenes. Firstly, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger show up in a scene written precisely for them to show up, in which Willis tells our hero about the mission (in very vague terms) and Arnie tells him he’s an idiot if he does it. At which point both of them disappear from the film forever. This is a scene that is so stupid you can almost forgive it. It, like much of the film, is self-reflective to a fault, but that doesn’t seem to matter quite so much because of sheer ludicrousness of it all. Later, Stallone proceeds to figure out the entire plot by himself in a twenty second voiceover that is nothing if not efficient.
To give the film its due, it may be stupid but it certainly has muscle, with a ramped up body count spread over a series of proficient and sometimes even impressively choreographed action sequences. Statham probably gets the best of it, dispatching knives all over the place whilst rolling and shooting at the same time. There are also plenty of scenes that will cater to fan-boys of various tastes: watching ex-UFC man Randy Couture face off against Steve Austin is bound to please many, and gun fanatics will have plenty to swoon over. But the crucial thing is, whilst all of this is going on, you’ll have the unmistakable notion that none of it means anything. There are no characters in this film, just a group of heavyweights doing what they do. Mickey Rourke gets one throwaway ‘emotional’ scene that to his credit isn’t too cringe-worthy, but it’s like watching a man trying to remind himself that he’s a serious actor amidst all the chaos. Elsewhere, women barely get a look in. Charisma Carpenter shows up in the film’s only real subplot which is pointless but admittedly has a rewarding conclusion, and Gisele Itie plays the damsel in distress with vigour, but most of her screen time is spent pouting, screaming or getting tortured.
So there you have it. The Expendables, at times, is undeniably entertaining, but it’s always in that gimmicky, ‘this is very silly but let’s go with it’ kind of way. Unfortunately, once all the gunfire dies down (if you see this in a cinema with a powerful sound system, your eardrums may explode), what’s left is one simple truth: strip away the modern day polish and the bluster of its gimmicky (though admittedly satisfying) cast and you’re left with a fairly standard 80s-esque action spectacle. That’s the point, of course, but it isn’t enough to earn the film a genuine recommendation.