The danger of 'event movies' is often that the event becomes more important than the actual movie. In some cases, the finished film can almost become surplus to requirement. Remember Snakes On A Plane? We all chuckled at the title and bought into the cheesiness of it, yet only six people saw it at the cinema, and only three of them actually liked it. And one of them was me.
The Expendables is one such an event movie, the event being the reunion of a number of old action war-horses in the B-movie equivalent of a testimonial football match. Sylvester Stallone is team manager and he's roped together a fine starting XI, including: fellow restauranteurs Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in brief cameos; old sparring partner Dolph Lundgren; Oscar-nominee Mickey Rourke; grapplers 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin and Randy Couture; martial arts whiz Jet Li; ex-NFL badass and Old Spice salesman Terry Crews; young buck Jason Statham; and Eric Fuckin' Roberts. Hows about that for a damn cast? It's like the Ocean's Eleven of steroid abusers.
Action fans will almost feel compelled to root for The Expendables - the movie, not the elite band of mercenaries within - without having seen a single second of the movie. Viewed through a fog of testosterone, The Expendables is a glorious throwback to the dumb action movies of the eighties and nineties: where explosions could be outrun as long as there was a large enough crash mat to jump on afterwards. Viewed outside these parameters, it's little more than a fun, made-for-TV movie with a particularly recognisable cast. Frankly though, I find it hard to believe there would be anyone who'd go and see The Expendables without lowering their expectations sufficiently.
I'm of the belief that a movie should not be judged (or rated) against similar films of the same genre, but by how well it succeeded in being the movie it was trying to be. That's why I've scored The Expendables highly: Stallone knew the limitations he was working with (age, credibility, insurance cover), but still pushed to make the best action movie he possibly could. The fact he damned near killed himself in the process is no coincidence.
The plot, unsurprisingly, is as shallow as a puddle, but depth has rarely been a concern in Stallone's career thus far: the man's all about strength of character. After a brief opening smackdown on a ship taken over by pirates, Sly's motley crew of mercs head to a fictitious island in South America to facilitate the removal of a fascist regime, fronted by the Latino guy from Dexter (think Rambo's Burmese General but less swarthy) and backed by Roberts' boo-hiss CIA crook.
Aside from the action scenes, of which there are many, it's the camaraderie between Expendables that drives the movie. Stallone and Statham have kind of an unspoken mentor-mentee relationship that goes beyond Top Gun-esque shirtless volleyball macho back-slapping and into something approaching sentiment. Li's character alludes to a family he may or may not have, and insists to his boss he should get paid more because he's little.
Lundgren, who gets the meatiest role, goes nuts and switches sides after seeing - and partaking in - too many horrors of war. And Rourke? He gets the 'acting' scene, reeling off a (fairly cheesy) sob-story about the demons in his past. He's also the world's fastest and most devil-may-care tattoo artist.
The point being, despite what it looks like - an all-action extravaganza of explosions, fist fights, gun battles and muscle-flexing - there is more to The Expendables than mere macho posturing. There's a fantastic, crowd-pleasing scene in which Stallone and Statham tear a small dock to shreds from a seaplane. After killing the living fuck out of some faceless henchman, Statham - who, for some reason, has his baldy head poking out the nose of the plane in a mini-cockpit - turns to pilot Stallone mid-flight with a huge grin on his face and enthusiastically pumps his fist in the air, like, "Yeeaahhh!" It's awfully cheesy and unintentionally hilarious, but you nonetheless get the impression these guys genuinely love what they do, and love doing it with each other. So to speak.
Elsewhere, it's pretty much business as usual. The action scenes are huge and excessively violent on a scale not seen since the closing scenes of Commando. At one point, in the absence of any buildings to detonate or ammunition depots to destroy, I think I saw an explosion explode. Better, the man-on-man fight scenes pack plenty of punch: Lundgren's mismatch with Li is a belter, and the extended sequence in which Statham and Li double-team some goatee-wearing shithead is a definite highlight: prime your own fists to be pumped.
Naturally, the dialogue is awful as a result. Imagine every action clichÚ rolled into one sorry script and you're not far off: The Expendables will make for a hell of a drinking game one day. My favourite line was delivered by Eric Roberts; having shot a suspected informant who stayed tight-lipped to the end, he whispers, "Now I see inside you... and I see lies
!" With a straight face and everything. What a trooper. The less that's said about the movie's female characters the better.
All par for the course, of course. No one expected The Expendables to rewrite the action movie, so consequently, no one should really feel disappointed. It's big, it's loud, it's dumb and it stars people you love, saying funny things and doing badass stuff. Stallone was under no illusion as to what we wanted to see, and he's delivered a movie he can rightly be proud of - one that lives up to, and even surpasses, the event.