Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review - The Expendables

Near the start of The Expendables, one member of the titular mercenary group, played by Dolph Lundgren, threatens to hang a Somali pirate by the neck and is subsequently admonished by the team's leader Barney (Sylvester Stallone). "We don't kill people that way," Barney reminds him, which sounds like a noble sentiment, but when you consider the myriad ways in which The Expendable do kill people, it rings pretty hollow. During the course of Stallone's latest film people are riddled with bullets, dismembered, set on fire, stabbed and decapitated – in fact, Stallone's cry for restraint comes mere moments after Lundgren's Gunner Jensen has blown the top half of a person to pieces, leaving his legs standing beneath a bloody hole.

So perhaps one might say that The Expendables' moral code is somewhat uncertain. You could also fairly argue that it's a movie populated by one-dimensional characters, full of cheesy dialogue and driven by a simplistic plot. On paper, it sounds risible – a testosterone-fuelled last hurrah for a macho bunch gaining a temporary reprieve from straight-to-DVD purgatory – but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a lot of fun watching it. The question is, why did I get so much enjoyment from this film despite its flaws, when I so recently loathed Joe Carnahan's similarly styled The A-Team? Maybe it's simply a case of honesty. Whereas The A-Team was coated with a smug layer of self-consciousness, The Expendables feels more upfront about its aims. Stallone and co. have set out to make a real, old-fashioned action movie, delivered without a hint of irony, and for better or for worse, that's exactly what it is.

Stallone seems determined at every turn to give the fans what they want, and if the atmosphere at the screening I attended was any indication, the fans will love what he's giving them. Each member of the absurdly muscular cast list received his own cheer as their credit appeared on screen, and the audience went wild during the much-publicised 'Planet Hollywood' scene, which reunites Stallone with Bruce Willis and The Governator himself. Beyond giving the viewers a few chuckles, the purpose of this scene is to lay out the upcoming mission for Barney and his team. They're asked to liberate a small South American island which is being ruled by a harsh dictator, but when Barney and right-hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) recon the location, they realise General Gaza is just a puppet, and American drug kingpin Monroe (Eric Roberts, on fine villainous form) is the man holding the strings.

It's an impossible mission, and The Expendables are ready to walk away, but the capture of local girl Sandra (Giselle ItiĆ©) prompts Barney to do a little soul-searching. At least, I think that's what he's doing – the fact that Stallone's rubbery features tend to settle into the same weary expression no matter what he's supposed to be feeling tends to undermine his stabs at emotional depth. Ultimately, the film is held together by the camaraderie of its central team, and there's no doubt that this cast is The Expendables' trump card. Stallone does a commendable job of marshalling his actors (Rourke, Roberts), action stars (Statham, Lundgren, Jet Li) wrestlers (Steve Austin, Randy Couture) and one ex-footballer (Terry Crews) into a cohesive unit, and his democratic direction gives everyone an opportunity to shine. The revelation of the movie is Lundgren, who is surprisingly terrific as drugged-up wildcard Gunner, but it's Statham who emerges as the film's true star.

Statham is at the centre of the best sequences, from the air assault on General Gaza's army to a fight on a basketball court that comes with a funny punchline, and Stallone directs these scenes with a satisfying sense of efficiency. Actually, that's the most pleasing thing about The Expendables as a whole; the film is so direct, straightforward and unencumbered by anything superfluous to the action. It's a tight and surprisingly smooth experience, and Stallone – clearly aware of the risk that his film might outstay its welcome – keeps things moving all the way up to the explosive climactic battle. As I watched this ending (during which Stallone and his crew blow up everything), I realised that the film's ludicrous action and old-school sensibility had managed to keep me entertained, amused and occasionally excited for 100 minutes. It may not be great art, but taken on its own unashamedly unreconstructed terms, The Expendables surely has to be considered a roaring success.