Saturday, August 14, 2010

Going Over-The-Top With THE EXPENDABLES - Stallone's All-Star Action Flick ... Reviewed!


- At some point in time, the underlying idea of THE EXPENDABLES was a near-magical thing. As more and more details about the movie came to light, fans of old-school action films couldn't help but dream about a movie that promised to be the ultimate badass action flick, with an all-star cast of larger-than-life icons. This could be the movie that would bring back the kind of gritty, rough n' tumble cinema that has become all too rare in this age of less-than-inspiring big screen heroes. This was the movie that would kick our collective asses seven ways to Sunday and leave us begging for more. There was plenty of reason to buy into the hype: after a rough patch in the cinematic wilderness, Sylvester Stallone seemed to have found his mojo again. Rocky Balboa was a triumph. Rambo was old-school action at its finest, and badass to its core. Just the idea of Stallone and Jason Statham co-starring in a balls-to-the-wall action film seemed to have nearly unlimited potential.

But, as time passed, the cracks in the master plan began to show. The concept of an all-star dream cast of action icons never *quite* came to fruition as many had hoped. Sure - Stallone, Statham, Li, and Rourke (and, okay, Dolph ... sort of) are all legit A-list action heroes. But Steve Austin? One of the best performers ever in the WWE, sure, but not exactly a movie star. Terry Crews? Incredibly charismatic and funny, but his best work has been on a TV sitcom. Eric Roberts? Great as a go-to supporting player, and always willing to ham it up as a villain. But as your Big Bad? And Randy Couture? The guy is legit tough as nails - a flat-out scary dude. But as an actor? Has he done anything that's shown he's anywhere near as legit as an actor as he is an MMA fighter? Here's the thing - I think we all wanted to buy into the hype and convince ourselves that Stallone DID in fact assemble an all-star lineup of action icons. That was, after all, the movie's main marketing hook. And seeing all of those names together is enough to get the ol' adrenaline pumping, no doubt. But do all of those names thrown into a cinematic soup make for a great film? That was my biggest question going into the movie. I didn't want to overthink this one. I wanted to just sit back in the theater after a long week and watch some hardcore action. But - in order to have great action, you need great CHARACTERS. You need a great REASON for the action to take place. You need stakes. You need motivation. You need emotional involvment. When you look back at the great action films - Predator, Conan the Barbarian, Robocop, Escape From New York, Terminator 2 - they all started with a great premise, followed through with larger-than-life, memorable characters, and then delivered on dialogue, attitude, and epic story beats that got your blood flowing. Hell, Stallone is the star he is because of two of the all-time great CHARACTERS of cinema - Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. And part of the reason why the latest entries in those franchises worked so well was because they focused so much on character. THE EXPENDABLES has fun moments. It has a couple of badass and brutal action scenes. But considering all of the big-name talent involved, it's surprisingly bland and forgettable. There was no moment organic to the film that made me want to smile and cheer.

There is one truly awesome scene in the film, and that's the glorious meeting of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis towards the beginning of the movie. It's a very brief scene, but the sheer novelty and badass-factor of seeing these three legends together on film makes this sequence a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The writing in this scene feels like Stallone just cutting loose and having fun, and you wish that the rest of the script had that same sort of sharpness and sense of humor. It also doesn't hurt that the Governator can still deliver a one-line with the best of 'em.

But, especially given that the movie does have a couple of really fun moments like the one above, it's a shame that so much of the film's script is completely lifeless and, at times, just plain stupid. It's a very schizofrenic movie, to be honest. There's a scene where Mickey Rourke - the only guy in the film who seemed to have his acting shoes on - delivers a pretty damn cool monologue that almsot feels like it's from a different movie - one that actually has some character and soul. But it's weird - the monologue, about the emotional price Rourke has payed for living the life of a mercenary, almost comes off as unintentionally funny because it's this epic speech in the middle of a movie that has to that point mostly been filled with go-nowhere dialogue and do-nothing characters. It's like Stallone was sitting Rourke down to do this scene as some sort of random acting clinic for the other guys in the film. Rourke nails it, but he so outclasses everyone else in the movie in a two minute span that the effect is almost comical.

Meanwhile, the movie's plot is pretty ridiculous, but not good-ridiculous in a way that would actually help a movie like this to be kickass. Like I said above, an action movie doesn't need an ultra-sophisticated plot - I didn't go into The Expendables expecting Inception or anything. But, again, give us a REASON to root for these characters - something, anything. Instead, we get a bunch of mercs on a mission to take out a CIA guy gone rogue in some godforsaken third-world republic. Okay, decent enough start, right? You figure the movie will be all about how this band of brothers is chewed up and spit out, about how they learn to find something to fight for and take on a cause rather than just a paycheck. Well, that's sort of what happens, but it unfolds in the limpest, most weaksauce manner possible. The whole plot boils down to Stallone deciding to take his team back to this hellhole of an island-nation and seemingly kill everyone in it and blow the whole place to hell, all so that Stallone can "save" this one girl who he met for about 5 minutes during his initial mission. Trust me, it makes even less sense in the context of the actual movie. More than anything else though, you just want those huge, larger-than-life, widescreen moments in a movie like this. You want the equivalent of Arnold staring down the predator, of Rambo rising from the ashes to wreak unholy vengeance, of Robocop confronting Dick Jones, or Snake Plissken telling everyone who gets it wrong to "call me Snake." You need those iconic characters, those classic moments, that memorable dialogue. The Expendables just feels ... empty ... in that regard.

To the movie's credit, it definitely has a couple of genuinely kickass action scenes that are just plain entertaining. The sewer scene that I first saw at Comic-Con remained ultra-intense and hardcore upon second viewing, as did the scene where Jason Statham swoops in to wreak havoc on some unsavory locals via some heavy-duty airborne ballistics. Some of the over-the-top carnage on hand is downright crazy, and it's during these shock-value moments that the movie is at its best and most jaw-dropping. There's also a pretty amusing scene in which Statham beats some sense into some thugs who've been messing with his girl, which includes the movie's best and funniest one-liner. There's a fun confrontation between Dolph Lundgren and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin where you can practically hear Good Ol' JR screaming "bah gawd!" in the background. And Eric Roberts is always entertaining to watch - he's so effortlessly slimy and smarmy, like some sleazy uncle you're glad you don't have to see very often.

That said, one thing that bugged me about this film is that it never quite felt like a classic Stallone movie. What I loved about Rocky Balboa was that it went back to the original Rocky and had that more intimate feel, that slower pace, that emphasis on character. Same goes for Rambo - it really felt like old-school filmmaking. It was bloody and brutal, but the overall rhythm of the movie was very classical ... a throwback. Not so with The Expendables. Stallone seems to want to make a Jason Statham movie and not a Stallone movie. The cuts are quick and jumpy during the action, and it more often than not detracts from the film. When you have so many great action vets on hand, why go this route? Why make it so that we can barely even make out the moves performed by martial arts master Jet Li? Really, there've only been a couple of directors who have truly been able to make the shaky-cam style of action 100% work for them. I don't know why Stallone felt the need to adopt this style in a movie that is, in so many other ways, decidedly old-school. It makes sense in some scenes, but other times the action just starts to feel impossible to follow and completely devoid of rhyme or reason. By the tail-end of the movie's breakneck climax, you really have no idea what's being blown up or why.

Maybe the biggest disappointment of the movie is Stallone himself. I love Stallone as an actor - he's such a great personality. I also give him all the credit in the world for doing what many thought impossible and giving both Rocky and Rambo each one last blaze of glory worthy of their cinematic legacies. So it makes it especially disappointing to see Stallone go from playing Rocky and Rambo - two all-time classic characters - to just playing ... some guy. According to IMDB, Stallone plays "Barney Ross" in The Expendables, but you likely wouldn't know that from watching the film. His character is just sort of there. We never care much about him. He just goes through the motions, and that is a shame. So, yeah, "Barney Ross" won't be taking his place in the Stallone cannon alongside Rocky Balboa or John Rambo anytime soon.

Despite a lot of pretty glaring flaws, The Expendables still manages to be a pretty entertaining and enjoyable movie, especially if you're an action junkie who's likely to get a kick out of seeing this all-star squadron of badasses team-up and try to out-badass each other (the Stallone-Willis-Schwarzenneger scene alone might just be worth the price of admission, for novelty value alone). That's the fun of the movie, but those big names on the marquee only go so far. You need something, some sort of glue, some sort of reason for existing, to hold the movie together and actually get you, the viewer, invested. As it stands, The Expendables never lives up to the potential of the fanboy dream movie we all had hoped for. Maybe a Part 2 could deliver. Maybe. But Stallone is going to have to go back to the drawing board if he wants to create a new franchise on par with the movies that made him a star. The Expendables shouldn't have been this clunky and forgetable.

My Grade: B-

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