Aging dogs of war go to camp
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 13, 2010
It would be so easy to hate "The Expendables," a super-stoked action thriller written and directed by Sylvester Stallone that injects a whopping dose of steroids into the term "vanity project." Drenched in mayhem and machismo, overstuffed with stunts, explosions, strutting and fretting and risible dialogue, this is a movie designed to leave filmgoers feeling not so much pumped as pummeled into submission, grateful for having survived an all-out assault on their senses and sensibilities.
But just when "The Expendables" threatens to sink under its own considerable weight, Terry Crews blows a guy's brains out, silhouetted through a backlit doorway, and the entire groaning enterprise levitates on a ludicrous plume of pure camp. Stallone plays Barney Ross, leader of the titular gang of mercenaries with names like Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren); Crews himself plays -- wait for it -- Hale Caesar. Hired by a mystery man named Mr. Church to unseat a despot in South America, Ross and the boys use the opportunity to lay waste to everything they see: At one point Ross, after literally catching a seaplane, strafes and sets fire to a pier, reducing it to a smoldering cinder. Later, in the film's interminable climax, bullets, knives and bare hands fly in an incomprehensible vortex as arms and heads and body parts get thrown into the melee.
Stallone gives himself a love interest -- played by the earthily sensuous Giselle Itié -- but mostly they glower at each other in a who-has-the-fullest-upper-lip competition. Primarily "The Expendables" is about bros and the bros who love them -- and, in the case of Stallone and Statham, the old dogs of action passing the baton to a younger generation. The movie's signature scene, featuring two chattered-about cameos, has the nice feel of a self-mocking riff, but there's an unmistakable sense that these are three men who just left off talking about their prostates, or maybe their investment portfolios, snapping to attention just in time to smirk knowingly for the camera.
There are laughs galore in "The Expendables," some of them even intended. Eric Roberts, in a smooth portrayal of a villainous shadow figure, makes the most of a joke about families during the holidays. But mostly it's a showcase for action pieces, whether it's Statham beating a romantic rival to a pulp on a basketball court, martial arts star Jet Li getting the better of a man twice his size or World Championship Wrestling star Steve Austin going mano-a-beefy-mano with Stallone. (If you pay attention, you can even see the scene where Stone Cold broke Sly's neck -- for real.)
But perhaps the most jaw-dropping scene in "The Expendables" -- which may be this year's most mistitled movie, the only thing expendable in it being believability -- features Mickey Rourke, who as a tattoo artist named Tool dares to commit serious acting within an otherwise unintelligible stew of jousts and japery. With the camera just inches from his face, it's possible to see the beginning of a tear as Tool recalls a harrowing episode in his life as a soldier of fortune, and for a moment there it looks like Rourke is delivering a credible performance. Within the adrenal grunts and high-five guy talk swirling around him, Rourke's reflective moment is nothing short of a death-defying stunt.
Contains strong action and bloody violence throughout, and some profanity.