The Expendables is a classic example of a film giving an audience exactly what it wants – whether that is a good thing or not. In its defence, for the large part that does seem a good thing: Sylvester Stallone’s deliberately generic film brings back and recreates a specific sort of testosterone-filled 1980s action cinema for which he was one of the main stars. At the same time 2010 is not 1986, and at least a few acknowledgements of passed time and changed culture might have been a good idea. It is also the case that the kind of superficial, gung-ho action Stallone recreates never really went away; it was already comfortably subsisting in the direct-to-DVD market with several of the co-stars he rounds up here.
Barney Ross (Stallone) is the leader of an elite team of mercenaries, hired to eliminate the dictator ruling over the island nation of Vilena. When he and his partner Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) arrive on the island, however, they find themselves in the middle of a CIA operation gone terribly wrong. Discovered and force to flee, they return with teammates Yin Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) to rescue their contact: the daughter of the general they were sent to assassinate.
The character names alone are a good indication of where Stallone’s thoughts were headed while making The Expendables. Toll Road. Hale Caesar. Elsewhere in the film there is a violent henchman named Paine (Steve Austin) and a mechanic named Tool (Mickey Rourke). This is essentially G.I. Joe: The Movie in all but name, following up the actual G.I. Joe movie by about a year and exceeding it by a considerable distance. Unlike that deeply flawed blockbuster, The Expendables refuses to treat itself seriously. It features the minimum of plot required to generate chase sequences and shoot-outs, and is populated with characters little more elaborate than walking cartoons. You can fault the film for lacking depth, but at the same time must acknowledge that depth was not one of the targets for which Stallone was aiming.
What is left, then, is the entertainment gleaned from watching a group of mostly late middle-aged men indulging in regular bouts of screen violence. It is a knowing, cheerful sort of violence for the most part, featuring wholly unrealistic explosions, fountains of computer-generated blood, and a typical 1980s-styled disregard for physics. Some of the cast are pushed pretty heavily into the background, such as Crews and Couture. Others feel like active highlights. Dolph Lundgren is visibly having a lot of fun in his first theatrical film since Johnny Mnenomic (1995), and that fun is infectious. Mickey Rourke makes the most of a small, contained support role. The film foregrounds Statham and Stallone as if they are in a buddy comedy, rather than an ensemble, but the banter is pleasing and the partnership works. It is a real treat to see Eric Roberts, the bastion of direct-to-VHS cinema, hamming it up as the film’s ultimate villain: rogue CIA agent James Munroe, as well as Steve Austin and Gary Daniels as his sidekicks.
Sadly the film stumbles with its female characters. There are, in effect, only two of them. Giselle Itié plays Sandra, a local resistance leader and contact attempting to overthrow her own father. She begins the film in a relatively assertive fashion, but the needs of Stallone’s plot require her to be captured, tortured, and left to be rescued during an overly explosive climax. The only woman to hold a speaking role is ex-Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Charisma Carpenter, playing a girlfriend for Jason Statham. She is required to abandon him for a new man, who then physically assaults her. It feels crass and dismissive. It is designed to showcase Lee Christmas as a tough, no-nonsense hero, and effectively abandons her character to be a cypher and victim. While casual sexism is an unfortunate element of the kinds of action film The Expendables emulates, it is not a necessary one. A film in 2010 owes its female characters much, much more – and it lets down the film terribly.
The Expendables is a film that knows what it wants to be, and – critical flaws aside – generally fulfils its end of the bargain. It is up to the viewer to meet it halfway, and take it in the spirit intended. It is imperfect, but the right audience in the right frame of mind will likely get their money’s worth.