This one's for you, Glenn01!
Take some of the most monumental egos on the planet and add more testosterone than can be sponged from the floor of a cage-fighting tournament, sprinkle on some ripe cheese and you've got yourself either the biggest gay party ever, or The Expendables. The Most Awesome Action Movie Cast Ever Assembled proclaims the billboard posters and, hype and teeny-bopper giggles aside, they're not wrong. Sort of blending together The Wild Bunch, Extreme Prejudice (which was, of course, Walter Hill's virtual remake of The Wild Bunch) and Commando, with a hint of The Magnificent Seven thrown in for good measure, Sylvester Stallone's eagerly awaited knuckle-fest about mercs on a mission arrives after much net speculation and fanboy salivation. For months we were playing the “who's in” and “who's out” game, and were teased by on-set stills of flaming piers, an exceptionally swarthy Stallone hot-footing it, lopsided grimace firmly in-place, and buffeted by seriously butt-licking coverage from a certain Ginger-Jabba. It seemed so easy to believe that the resulting testament to bloodshedding excess would ultimately fall flat on its rugged face. Certainly the critics were awaiting Stallone's OAP to go DOA, despite their pretend enthusiasm for someone who is, let's face it, genre royalty.
But The Expendables came, saw and, I'm sure you'll agree, conquered. Cutting a bloody swathe through the either tame or just dull action-adventures that have limped through multiplexes of late - Clash Of The Titans, Knight and Day, Centurion - this incredibly lean, honed and toned yarn actually comes as a breath of fresh air. Aye, it would have been cool to have laboured on the angst of a squad of old mercenaries trying to come to terms with their warmongering ways in the modern world and finding that their only way to break the cycle was to go out in a final blaze of glory. But where's the fun in that? Stallone, who co-wrote the film with David Callahan, clearly wants some longevity out his gypsy-like gun-for-hire, Barney Ross, and he's got enough sense to realise that he's already done the haunted soldier shtick to death with Rambo, so he needs some new blood to fire up those old legs if he wants them to keep on running.
“What happened to you?”
“I got my ass kicked!”
With this crew of gym-living muscle-heads there was no chance of the film ever being called The Expandibles, was there. Just like having the craggy-faced Daniel Craig playing Bond (come on, guys, sort this MGM farce out and let's get back to business!!!!), there is something extremely rewarding about these older blokes huffing 'n' puffing their way through endless set-pieces, something that gives not only hope to those of us action-geeks who have hit the forty-mark, but a veritable cause for celebration. And a celebration is precisely what this is. Of carnage. But not just the hand-me-down machine-gun taking out a thousand inept goons. Not just the once-nifty wire-work chop-socky. Not just the CG shower of cartoon blood amidst the “why don't you just shoot him?” parkour. This is down 'n' dirty nasty-tactics. On steroids. This is daft and over-the-top, yes, but it also has the look and, more importantly, the feel of real. Impacts that actually make you wince. High-velocity rounds that shriek through their own thunderclap. Explosions that knock the wind out of you. But before you go thinking that I've just had a Private Ryan flashback, this is the greatest intermingling of action fantasy with the starkly realistic shock of bodily destruction that it has been my pleasure to squirm through.
“Are you crazy? You could've killed me!”
Stallone is possibly the most user-friendly, audience-savvy filmmaker/star that Hollywood has ever raised. This is a guy who approaches his public with ideas and listens to what they want him to do with them. The fourth Rambo instalment was a major case-in-point. “Yo, do you want more blood and gore? More violence? You got it.” With The Expendables there is more variety to the action, more characters, humour, chases and all-round excitement. Plus there is no underlying message, unless the message is don't hit girls, and don't mess with the Expendables. The jury is out on whether or not this film is actually more violent than Rambo 4. But whilst it is safe to say that Sly's Burmese eye-opener (and eye-popper!) has the edge when it comes to shock value - the horrific abuse that the tyrannical soldiers dole out to innocent villagers takes some beating, even if those scenes were eventually cut down by Stallone - the depiction of wanton, ball-busting, bone-breaking, body-shredding uber-mayhem witnessed here is as viciously visceral and as sadistically satisfying as any blood-lusting brawl-buff could ever wish for. Do not be put off by that snooty 15 certificate -The Expendables kicks every known shade of ass that is known to man and beast, and even creates a few new hues just for the sake of putting the boot in a little further.
Hired to overthrow the murderous dictator of the small South American country of Vilena, Stallone's lethal mercenary, Barney Ross, leads his team, affectionately known as the Expendables into a conflict that is a little bit bigger than even he anticipated. When a recon mission goes slightly awry, Ross and his second-in-command, ex-SAS blade expert Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) are forced to leave their rebel contact Sandra (Giselle Itie) behind to face what must surely be the death sentence. This doesn't sit well with the conscience-stricken Barney, who then leads his skilled group back into the maelstrom to save the day .. and the girl. But, as ever, things are not what they seem, and an even more malicious and dangerous force is at work behind the scenes. Secrets, subterfuge and sabotage soon give way to royal rumble that makes John Matrix's one man infiltration of a similar South American nation in Commando look like a Cbeebies outing, albeit with more irresponsible use of garden implements.
Let's meet this all-star team that everyone's been banging on about, eh?
Sly's Barney Ross comes replete with biker tattoos, pencilled-on 'tache and goatee (who said eye-liner??) and the type of ripped physique that most mortal men can only dream of. And he's 64, for Christ's sake! A seasoned mercenary, he has the suppressed volatility of many a Stallone crusader, but also the sense of humour that makes them all so likeable. By now the star doesn't fit into these roles, he merely smears them around himself, so Ross is hardly a stretch. But we don't want him to be. We've come to see Sly, and even if he was playing a postman called Norman, we'd buy into it. This is the kind of dependability that makes us comfortable. Don't fix what ain't broken.
Jason Statham sees his profile rise with the attachment to the project. Having already worked with his co-star Jet Li twice before, and having carved out a beautifully Brit-flavoured niche with the Transporter series, the Guy Ritchie discovery now gets a chance to play with the REALLY big boys. Although his couplet of Cranks were wacky and jacked-up, his performance as Lee Christmas is back in Frank Martin mode. Exceptionally cool under fire and pleasantly sarcastic, this is a walk in the park for the cockney ex-pat. In fact, you can see just how much fun he is having - every so often there is a little sparkle in his eyes that gives away his sheer disbelief at who is working alongside. The double-act of Ross and Christmas, brothers-in-arms, is hardly anything new, but the dynamic of Stallone and Statham works to a tee, their comradeship and friendly rivalry - blades or bullets - nicely evoked right from the get-go.
“First of all, I don't talk business with a giant carrying a shotgun.”
As sniper Gunner Jensen, Dolph Lundgren actually seems to be playing the same sort of psychologically malfunctioning super-warrior that we saw in Universal Soldier. A loose canon, the blonde giant provides an unpredictable edge to the team's dynamic that is, on the one hand, quite formulaic but, on the other, gives the mercenary class a welcome jaded appeal - the haunted warrior stuck purely in combat-mode, who just cannot function as a normal human being. Big Terry Crews plays the wildly muscular heavy weapons operative, Hale Caesar, the Expendables' answer to MIF's Ving Rhames. Randy Couture gets to look like former Kelly's Hero Don Rickles when he pulls on his combat gear and floppy jungle hat, but as Toll Road, the demolitions expert certainly knows how to bring the house down when the time comes. Asides from Mickey Rourke's laconic, sage-like ex-member of the team, Tool, now filling out his time as their armourer and tattooist, there is precious little substance to any of these characters, other than that sinuously drawled-out in tough talk between bouts of gun-play and bone-breakage. Randy Couture's oft-told tale of how he got his famous cauliflower ears becomes a neat groan-inducer for the rest of the gang. Barney gets to discover the intoxicating flavour of redemption by going back to the downtrodden Vilena to rescue Sandra from the corruption that inflames her country. Christmas just loves the thrill of action, but also likes to indulge his more peaceful side with a blossoming romance back home with Charisma Carpenter's Lacy. However, the clumsiest shoehorning comes attached to Jet Li who, as the little martial arts dynamo, Ying Yang, gets a touch of “iffy” family back-story even though he is often relegated to semi-comedy sidekick, which is all the more amusing when you consider that the film, despite being so over-the-top as to be almost banging its head on the Moon, actually takes itself quite seriously for much of the time.
“I didn't want to kill him. I was only trying to scare him.”
All that is missing from this truly sleeve-ripping collection of cinematic bad boys is the one and only Chuck Norris. Having long been the macho poster-boy of the US military, the one-expression-fits-all martial artist superstar is, unavoidably, the odd one out when it comes to this pulverising amalgamation of one-man-armies. Always understated, never a showboater, the ginger-ninja made the Delta Force cool again after their colossally disastrous debut mission to the rescue the American hostages from Tehran. He fought a much less neon-signposted war to get the forgotten POWs back out of 'Nam even before Sly took John J back to the hell he called home, in the cult Missing In Action series. But the lack of ego immediately knocked Norris down from the recruitment process that Stallone put into place.
“What's his problem?”
“He wants to be president.”
The famous get-together between Sly, Arnie and Bruce is, thankfully, brief. Whilst it is great to see all three trying to share the screen, only the most dewy-eyed genre-zealot could ever have thought that such a team-up could actually go anywhere other than the cute province of a little nostalgic mickey-take at the expense of one-another's super-ego. Actually, it is Willis who does the scene justice as far as the film, itself, goes. After adopting the moniker of Mr. Church (a nod to the location we find ourselves in) and smirking his way through an introduction, he exudes such an air of unassailable menace that, frankly, makes the “real” bad guys seem like part-timers. But this a vignette that has been fostered in the minds of now fully-grown-up teen testosterone-addicts. That the heroes in question can now only trade verbal side-swipes and personal digs - “I see you've lost weight,” chides Arnie's rival mercenary, to which Sly retorts “I see you found it!” - doesn't halt that stupid grin from yawning all the way across your face when these three gob-off in a triangle of persona-savvy banter. Not as classy as seeing Pacino and De Niro sizing one another up from across the no-man's land of a table Heat, nor as wryly comic as watching Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds butt heads in the forgotten City Heat, but to us action-junkies, just as entertaining.
However, The Expendables is more about reunions than about long overdue screen-hogging. Violent reunions. The kind of thing that certain audiences came of age whilst enjoying. The cinematic children of the 80's, weaned on high-concept thrills, suckled on the ethics of the one-man-vengeance machine, tutored comprehensively in the art of gratuitous violence and then sent out into the world in the staunch belief that the baddies can't put a bullet in the dirt even when their gun-barrel is sticking in the ground, whilst the hero never, ever misses. Sly wants to bring all that back. He may have tossed in a few hand grenades of realism with his depiction of the sheer physical ferocity of firepower with the last Rambo, but the old school style still applies here in The Expendables. And there's no school like the old school, is there? Thus, we get wisecracks in the face of extreme danger. Captured and beaten, Barney still spits quips in his nasty interrogator's mush. We get outlandish stunts that no human being could possibly survive ... at any age. And we get that underlying bravado and swagger that makes us feel ten feet tall when we leave the cinema.
“Bullets are faster than blades ...”
The fighting. Oh God, the fighting! I've seen one esteemed movie magazine claiming that Stallone's delivery of the action was “ham-fisted”. Huh? Well, if that's the case, then those fists of ham were doing some considerable damage, I can tell you. With so many reputable celebrities of brawny battles on the screen - wrestlers, football players, martial artists, all-round human battering-rams - you couldn't expect anything less than mayhem on a grand scale. As well as displaying possibly more explosions than I have ever seen in one film - the final act of the film appears to have been set against an almost inextinguishable wall of flame - Stallone finds time to throw incredibly bone-crunching set-to's across the screen every chance that he gets. A recon-mission early on has both Sly and Statham taking out a truck-load of militia. Statham's Christmas hammers blades into bodies and shatters knees in a jaw-dropping display of aggressive agility - something he will repeat with a blistering salvo of just desserts back home with a gang of girl-smacking bully-boys with even swifter, and far more trademarked dexterity. Stallone snaps necks and puts holes in camouflaged bodies, but this is just a tentative warm-up to the all-out war that will come later when our mob don kevlar, pack enough heat to put the Sun out of business, and bring the apocalypse to an unsuspecting army of ne'er-do-wells.
“You wanna kill yourself, Barney, it's your call.”
With so many tried-and-trusted weapons of mass destruction hogging the screen, you would think that someone somewhere along the way is going to get sidelined. Well, to be honest, you've got to give Sly credit for doing his best to give each of his skull-cracking, bicep-busting, bullet-blasting, blade-hurling crew a chance to do their “thang”. Li gets to whirl about and fling his little fists and feet at the wall of veritable goliaths looming all around him. Crews lets rip with the best piece of hand-held decimation since Ol' Painless deforested a small country in Predator, literally pumping high-velocity shells out with body-exploding, building-toppling zeal. Honestly, the way this “beast” suddenly comes into play is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Couture gets to go mano-et-mano with the man-mountain of villainous henchman, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and this is after Sly's just had a gargantuan masonry-tumbling bout with him. Our boy Statham, good old Jase, is magnificent. Sliding, chopping, kicking, slicing his way through hordes of disposable goons, he pauses only long enough to fling blades, spit out short-burst bombardments from a sub-machine-gun, and to adjust his beret.
But let's not forget the bad team. Under the surly arrogant command of Eric Roberts' callous pantomime rogue CIA agent, James Monroe, we get the aforementioned Steve Austin, as his lieutenant, the aptly named Paine, strutting around like a Titan with a walrus strapped onto his top lip. A huge presence, he positively itches to put the hurt on someone for most of the film, until the big assault on the palace finally lets him off the leash. Pile-drivers come naturally to him, of course, but look at the moment when he transforms into a human torpedo and blasts Stallone through a wall. Then we have a much earlier export than Statham in kick-boxing champ Gary Daniels, as the vicious “Brit” - a delightful cad who lets his boots do the talking. As the military despot, General Garza, David Zayas is clearly an identikit copy of the infamous General Noriega. And a wonderful addition to swell the ranks of the otherwise clearly useless and easily disposed-of enemy troops are a platoon of sadistic Brazilian Red Berets who, with their faces painted eerily yellow and black, present something of clown-like phobia as they grin and leer at their captives. The baddies are a typically generic bunch but, as with the dyed-in-the-wool heroes coming to get 'em, we wouldn't have it any other way, would we?
“Am I gonna die?”
“Shot just a couple of inches above the heart.”
“I'll take that as a yes, then.”
However, this is still a Sylvester Stallone movie, for all of its terrific ensemble bravura and steroid-packed superstar chemistry. And, as such, we get to see him running away from explosions in the time-honoured fashion and diving, complete with lip-curling grunt for cover. Having shed the sheer bulk that made him such a swollen brute in Rambo 4, Stallone is chiselled and lean - and, man, he looks good. You forget that age thing in an instant. He directs with in-yer-face gusto, too. Just as he adrenalised his previous feature, he pumps up the action here without resorting to the shaky-cam or blurring snap-edits a la Paul Greengrass. We get to see the body-blows, the holds, the take-downs and counter-measures. Nothing is sedate, or old fashioned - just look at the nifty shot that turns upside-down to match Barney's sight-line - but the avoidance of so many modern action movie trappings is a definite bonus.
“Who sent you?”
So many little images stick in the mind. Statham, on the deck, shooting out a kneecap and then the chest of the same bad guy as he falls, all in the blink-of-an-eye. The team lobbing grenades as they run, hell for leather, through a wall of blistering lead. Lundgren commanding a foolishly mouthy goon to “Show some respect” after he has slugged him in the kisser. Stallone picking off targets with his automatic and reloading clip after clip in one fluid repetition. After seeing the bruise on Charisma Carpenter's face, Statham casually and ominously asking her “Where is he?” Then there is the vicious mockery of the Somalian pirates who have their hostages lined up ready to be beheaded - a genuine reminder of the all-out eee-vil Stallone had us experiencing with his savage Burmese antagonists in Rambo. This is then compounded during a later torture scene. The pulverising instance when Gunner politely informs the agile opponent who has just spent five minutes laying into him that it's now “My turn!” And our pugilistic director even elbows aside the inter-personal brutality to make room for a wild car chase sequence that is surely a little nostalgic homage to Cobra - even down to the beautiful, beefed-up and chromed muscle-wagon that Barney bombs around in. The entire battle in the tunnel is just stunning, and has you yearning to for that eventual Blu-ray release just so that you replay it over and over again.
This is the warped sphere of cause and effect, expectation and pay-off that we crave. Clunky one-liners, spectacularly unlikely romances, contrived situations and utterly clichéd characters - check. All present and correct. But so what? When you are having this much fun, such genre-staples become immediately irrelevant. Ah, the critics suggest, but would you feel the same way if this had been a vehicle for Steven Seagal? Or for the Rock? Or how about Van Damme? Well ... no. Obviously. They aren't Stallone and they're not as good. The Italian Stallion has personality, and can turn even the most banal and cardboard of characters into someone you can root for. Van Damme tried to break the mould in the weirdly compelling JCVD, but I'll take a lot more convincing than just a little surreal wingeing-to-camera. Then again, if he hadn't turned down Sly's invitation to join the mercenary dance, we could be singing his praises now. With a Stallone movie, and this seems even more relevant now that he is approaching the iron-clad twilight of his years, you are getting a lot of bang for your buck. Rocky Balboa was a fantastic swan-song to a beloved character. As was Rambo 4 if, indeed, that is the last we see of him. But Stallone's energy couldn't possibly quit with such an eloquent signing off to his most illustrious and bankable alter-egos. Thus, we have Sly continuing to do what Sly does best ... making violence so damn entertaining.
I originally had some reservations about the oft-shown sequence when Statham pops up out of a hatch in the nose of the Expendables sea-plane to strafe a pier groaning under the weight of Monroe's army, dousing them with petrol and then igniting a flare-flamed-inferno - it just looked too A-Team-ish to me. But, in the context of the overall ode to chaos that this film is, the scene is actually a stand-out. Sure it's ridiculous, but the sight of Statham's near-bald bonce zooming down from the sky like a rampaging egg is priceless. Even the ultra-corny thumbs-up that he and Sly swap loses the cheese and becomes a thing of dumb beauty. To aid this stratospheric tsunami of now-medically-supplemented testosterone, Sly recalls composer Brian Tyler for scoring duty, and he delivers a typically powerhouse work that very effectively blends his action motifs from Rambo 4 and some of the more elegiac statements from his earlier 300, pouring musical machismo into the mayhem. A couple of cues sound similar to Steve Jablonsky's score for Transformers, but since they emulate the best bits, we'll let Tyler off. One thing is for certain, it makes a great accompaniment to a work-out!
Even if limbs, heads and torsos vanish amid welters of bloody CG, Rambo 4-style, and knives regularly penetrate necks, noggins and backs and carve up “nasties” with “whizz-thunk” aplomb, the censor has, unfortunately, done some cutting of his own in order to secure the “15” rating in the UK. A second or so removed robs us of the sight of Barney twisting a blade in a soldier's throat, but this does nothing to staunch the barrage of rough justice being meted-out by these merciless mercs, so gore-hounds will still be immensely satisfied.
Basically, I love The Expendables. It isn't the greatest action film ever made, but damn it all, right now it is hard to think of another that can rival it for sheer muscular exuberance, extravagant brutality and hard-assed macho magic. With an ending that leaves you begging for a sequel, and the film's impressive success at the box office, it seems impossible to imagine Stallone and crew not following-up on this dynamic throwback formula. And even if Chuck Norris is now a septuagenarian, please, please, please try to bring him on-board for the next mission, Sly!
The Expendables gets a 7 out of 10 for its giddy heroism, purely cathartic entertainment value and, of course, for just getting Stallone back where he belongs. However, those who know me will understand that, officially, this gets a higher mark again.
The best slam-bang, no-holds-barred, ensemble action extravaganza around, The Expendables knocks it out of the park like an Exocet Missile. Stallone proves - as if we ever doubted him - that he is still the grand master of movie mayhem and, more than that, he shows us that his instincts for gathering kindred souls and for giving audiences what they want are second to none.
You can argue about the plot - or the lack of it - until the dust in the blitzed enemy compound finally settles, but that would merely prove that you have missed the point entirely. The Expendables is about carnage, extreme martial arts, ballistic supremacy, brazen camaraderie and mega macho-posturing. If any of that bothers you, then just don't attend.
A startlingly old school approach melds The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Geese and Extreme Prejudice into one bloody stew of hyper-violent excess. With this and Angelina Jolie's awesome Salt about to blast across the big screen, bedlam-lovers everywhere can rejoice in the most irresponsible display of death, destruction and endless derring-do that we've seen in quite a while.
The Expendables is anything but expendable. Go see it ... and be blown away!
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