Considering that 1980s cinema has over the years garnered a rather unflattering reputation, it’s bizarre to find a film which flaunts the decade’s shoddiest conventions with something almost like pride. That the Expendables does so without a hint of irony is symptomatic of Stallone’s fondness for an era most of us would rather forget.
The story, built upon the sort of foundations a child could construct, still manages to fall apart in the hands of a director punching far above his considerable weight. It’s hardly rocket science - hell it’s barely GCSE level, yet in an effort to intellectualise the material, the plot becomes obscured by double dealings and hidden agendas. Of course, criticising the narrative in a Stallone film is like criticising the direction in a Stallone film, which in this case consists of little more than pointing the camera at things and shouting 'action!' Speaking of which, the much touted cast is a veritable wish list of action stars that spend so much time spraying the screen with testosterone there’s little time left for acting. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering most of these guys wouldn’t make the grade in a school nativity. Rocky, Jason Statham as Phil Mitchell, a guy who looks like Phil Mitchell, Jet Li and the Dad from Everybody Hates Chris; even a microscope would struggle to find chemistry within this group. Three of its members are absent for much of the film’s running time, the focus instead falling upon Sly and Statham’s humdrum bromance, which is a shame as Jet Li is arguably the only interesting participant.
Still, this will all mean little to those experiencing a mid-life crisis for whom this movie is clearly intended. The real draw is the excessive action which practically defines the term guilty pleasure. Unfortunately the framing is wildly unstable, particularly in the martial arts sequences which require a greater appreciation of camera choreography and the jarringly frenetic close-ups only highlight the director’s inability to stage battles convincingly. Even less successful are the cross cuts between parallel scenes which lack the desired adrenaline rush. There’s nothing wrong with being superfluous, but here the body count clearly takes precedence over content.
Surprisingly, between the bouts of violence, The Expendables is incredibly sparse. What feels like an overly long prologue constitutes the entire first half as scenes don’t so much progress as flop into each other. The material doesn’t fare much better, feeling less like dialogue than a pile of words accidentally caught on the actors’ feet and dragged along for two hours. The occasional stab at humour falls flat, no more so than in a downright baffling exchange with Schwarzenegger whose walk on/walk off appearance is a dead cert for the least subtle cameo of the year award. Despite Mickey Rourke’s efforts to provide an emotional counterpoint, any attempt to get inside our protagonists' heads seems out of place in a film more concerned with blowing them up. The fact that former betrayer Dolph Lundgren reappears at the end to little or no fanfare with a miraculously cured drug addiction is testament to just how messy this all is. In a film where so much is expendable, it’s certainly a fitting title.