After reviving both the “Rambo” and “Rocky” franchises in the past few years, you might have thought that Sylvester Stallone had gone as far as he could coasting on his 1980s glory days.
Guess again: This month sees Sly sharing screen time with grizzled ’80s icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Dolph Lundgren in “The Expendables,” an old-school, spine-snapping, gut-stabbing, skull-blasting action flick that wouldn’t have seemed out of place had it opened somewhere between “Commando” (1985) and “Cobra” (1986).
Written by, directed by and starring Stallone (the Vincent Gallo of the oiled-torso set), “The Expendables” follows a small group of uber-macho mercenaries who can be relied on to solve any tricky situation — like, say, a recalcitrant Somali pirate — by blowing it in half with a grenade launcher. Call them the “A-Team” sans tongue in cheek, a Soldier of Fortune reader’s wet dream.
Joined by relative youngsters Jason Statham and Jet Li, this hard- freaking-core of cinema’s veteran action heroes seems to be missing only Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, both of whom reportedly turned down parts here. (Van Damme supposedly complained that his proposed character had “no substance”; Sly must have chuckled, as would anyone who’s ever watched “Street Fighter.”)
Stallone and Statham play the alpha dogs in this group of guns for hire, with Li, former wrestler/martial artist Randy Couture and NFL veteran Terry Crews rounding out the team, while Lundgren is the loose cannon who goes rogue after a violent difference of opinion. Rourke, playing a retired soldier who’s now working as a tattoo artist, doesn’t get any action scenes, but he does get to act, and schools everyone within his radius.
Schwarzenegger gets a brief, zingy cameo, but Willis’ role is meatier, playing the shady operative who gives the mercs their next job, a dirty one that involves assassinating the dictator of a small Latin American country (David Zayas).
Turns out El General is in bed with some sort of American-backed organized crime outfit, including sneering suit Eric Roberts and no-neck human-bulldozer Steve Austin (who actually fractured Stallone’s neck while filming a fight scene). When the mercs scout out their target, they discover that their contact with the local antidictator rebels is none other than the leader’s beautiful daughter (Giselle Itie). After their reconnaissance goes all wobbly, the mercs decide to back out of the mission, but Sly — impressed by the daughter’s courage and/or total hotness — decides to go back and save her, which leads to an armageddon of “Rambo”-esque proportions.
This is a movie about very big guys on even bigger motorcycles who carry big-ass guns and chomp on fat cigars, which is about as many phallic symbols as one can cram into a film without actually dropping one’s pants. Of course, all this signifying of male potency is necessary, due to the locker-room atmosphere of guys putting each other in head scissors, and the near-total absence of women.
OK, so Rourke sports a bombshell in Daisy Duke hotpants on the back of his bike like some sort of prop, while Statham gets paired with an unfaithful ex, but that’s mostly an excuse for him to beat the crap out of her new boyfriend. The sublimated homoeroticism is typical for this sort of film, but it’s almost a “Brokeback Mountain” moment at the end when Sly blows off the girl and rides into the sunset with Statham. 007 would so not approve.
Mercenaries aren’t exactly the most popular people these days, what with employees of U.S. paramilitary contractor Blackwater being accused of rape, murder and graft in Iraq. (The company has since changed its name repeatedly to avoid scrutiny.) “The A-Team” probably got it right when it cast the contractors as the greedy, strutting bad guys, but “The Expendables” has nothing but admiration for mercs. The film’s depiction of them as lone wolf, rock ‘n’ roll renegades couldn’t be further from the truth of a corporate entity with a profit-seeking agenda like Blackwater.
The film seeks to hearken back to earlier, more romantic times of tropical adventure, as seen in postcolonial mercenary films such as “The Wild Geese” (1978) or “The Dogs of War” (1980, an early Christopher Walken classic.) In terms of bad guys, even, the evil dictator depicted here is less Hugo Chavez than the bogeyman of a generation ago, Manuel Noriega. Interestingly, Sly’s one political statement lies in his unequivocal depiction of waterboarding as a form of torture.
Stallone’s direction here is competent but lacks the insane intensity of the last “Rambo” flick, though it’s nearly as violent. “The Expendables” will satisfy your basic shoot-’em-up needs, but it’s all too disposable, and will fade into the ranks of other generic action flicks rapidly.