The Expendables

About forty minutes into The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s thoroughly stupid tribute to the heyday of 80s action heroes, the film makes an unexpected and surprisingly scathing attempt to review itself. Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone stand in the shadows of a doorway, taking photographs of the generic South American country that the infuriatingly over-familiar plot requires them to infiltrate. Statham breathes heavily, turns to his sweaty 64 year old companion, and asks, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Then, in a moment of uncharacteristic intelligence and candour, Stallone confesses, ‘Everything.’ This seems a rather unforgiving assessment of his own film, and perhaps overstates its meat-headed awfulness. Still, as pithy self-reviews go, it’s not entirely inaccurate.

The plot – so groaningly over-familiar that it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own clichés – follows a titular group of mercenaries, led by Stallone, who are offered the job of putting an end to the rule of a cruel dictator in the fictional South American country of Vilena. Not that the name of the country matters; it could have been called Genericnationia or Kerplunkistan and you wouldn’t notice the difference. Still, the evil general must be stopped, and so the team accept the job. Statham and Stallone scout out the country and meet the general’s beautiful, disloyal daughter, Sandra, whose introduction genuinely involves a soft-focus shot, slow motion and some romantic music. The army soon start attacking our heroes, who manage to escape, but in doing so they leave Sandra to her fate. Stallone can’t bear this (he’s fallen in love with her since they met half an hour ago) and so the team return to finish what they started.

At its heart, this film seems to be a mastubatory and self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia, harking back to the good ol’ days where action films lacked any hints of depth or moral ambiguity. The production notes confirm this, boasting that the film aims to resurrect a time in movies ‘when men were men, combat was mano a mano and the story was believable.’ Well, two out of three ain’t bad. It’s certainly true that men are indeed men in The Expendables, and there’s plenty of ‘mano a mano’ action to go around. It’s like watching several raw slices of thick, vein-covered steaks punching each other and mumbling frequently indecipherable dialogue. Yet the occasional (and presumably unintentional) result of this abundance of testosterone is the rise of unmistakable undertones of homoeroticism. Men shoot each other, men stab each other, men punch each other, men tattoo each other, men even recite poetry to one another. It’s Team America meets My Beautiful Laundrette. And the dialogue doesn’t exactly help matters – lines such as, ‘You two aren’t going to start sucking each other’s dicks are you?’ make the innuendo of Carry On Matron look positively Shakespearean.

In interviews, Stallone has boasted how the script went through over 100 drafts. This is worth dwelling on for just a moment. It took 100 drafts to come up with something this headache-inducingly stupid, with characters so one-dimensional that no amount of 3D retro-fitting could possibly save them. Crucially, Stallone seems aware of the stupidity of what he’s doing – there are sporadic bursts of self-awareness, most notably when the anonymous army his team are about to fight and, predictably, slaughter are made literally faceless by the application of face-paint – yet this only compounds one’s frustrations. The action simply isn’t good enough for the film to be thrilling or exciting (much of the blame for this lies with the sub-Bourne ultra fast editing), while the levels of self-aware humour and irony in the script are so basic and predictable that it falls a long, long way short of satire. As a result, The Expendables falls between two stools, just slightly too self-aware to be a big dumb action flick, but far too moronic to become an intelligently ironic tribute. Couple this with several staggeringly bizarre moments – the highlight of these being the film’s ending, with Jason Statham reciting ‘poetry’ – and some frankly repellent and simplistic political standpoints, and the result is a great, incoherent, mumbling mess of a movie. It’s not quite true to say that ‘Everything’ is wrong with this picture, but Stallone tries his best to make sure it comes pretty damn close.

Originally published by Cherwell Online, 14/08/2010.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Follow me!