By Armond White
Past meets present in The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s not-so-sly exploitation of action-movie aficionados that unites 1980s action heroes—the incongruously named Sly (himself), Bruce (Willis) and Arnold (Schwarzenegger)—with a few contemporary action-figure he-men: Jason Statham, Jet Li and the wrestling world’s Steve Austin and Randy Couture. But proof that Stallone is living in the past isn’t the HGH vascularity or his stretched, tightened face. The real sign is that The Losers and The A-Team already preempted his concept. The Expendables repeats the same gang-of-rogues plotline.
Unfortunately, when the ’80s meets the Aughts, nostalgia isn’t enough. Although director Stallone—or whomever—stages action scenes better than Chris Nolan in Inception or Phillip Noyce in Salt, it is the style of action that has been outclassed. When Stallone pals around with Statham, it’s a desperate example of corniness hanging on to the coattails of efficacy.
Described here as having “one of those perfectly shaped muscular heads,” Statham displays his specialty—group kills—in a b-ball slam-dunk scene that is also a show of true chivalry. Statham has already refined the action-movie hero into a stylishly lean MMA fashion plate and his set pieces marvelously recall at least the surface of Luc Besson and Paul W.S. Anderson’s elegance and political savvy. “Now you know what I do for a living,” Statham declares. His proficiency cuts through Stallone’s sap with a gleaming, piercing blade.
Sly’s attempt at “heart” (“We’re both mercenaries; we’re both dead inside,” laments Eric Roberts as an old warrior-agent-traitor) seems embarrassingly “sincere” yet verges on cynicism. Or is it shamelessness? Guest-star badasses Roberts and Mickey Rourke seem drafted-in from a different level of ’80s audacity—the Actor’s Studio branch. But Stallone betrays them with unworthy material. The camera focuses on Rourke’s nose as he delivers the depressing confession: “It all dried up.” At least Dolph Lundgren is let off with a simple, “Remember that time we were in Bosnia?”
The Expendables isn’t an inherently bad idea. It could have worked—perhaps as karmic commentary on Hollywood’s dispensable attitude toward looks, youth, dignity and the Screen Actors Guild. (This is the sorriest gallery of cosmetically ruined faces since Diane English’s film of The Women.) But worst of all: There’s none of Tarantino’s respectful genre form or his well-publicized love for resurrecting has-been actors. None of Larry Cohen’s understanding of genre as life and actors as political icons, which he demonstrated with Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Ron O’Neal, Roscoe Brown, Paul Winfield and Pam Grier in the similarly plotted 1996 Original Gangsters. With Stallone’s propensity toward violent schmaltz, our movie fans’ hopes for rejuvenation cannot be met. The Expendables is third-rate.
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