½*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke
written and directed by Sylvester Stallone
by Walter Chaw After the remarkably tough and uncompromising Rambo and the almost-unbearably poignant and transparent Rocky Balboa, it'd be fair to nurse a healthy anticipation for Sylvester Stallone's paean to the '80s blockbuster, The Expendables. Alas, what's on display owes more to Stallone's Rhinestone than to his venerable Rocky series. A redux of Wild Hogs as embarrassing, boring, and ineptly- shot and edited as the original, The Expendables even ends the same way, with geezers riding off into the sunset on the backs of their four-fifths-life-crisis choppers. Tattoos and plunging v-neck Ts the rule of the day, it's more Rogaine commercial than action movie, making fun of itself in the way that old guys who are genuinely insecure about their age make fun of themselves. It's awkward. It's also, in addition to being almost entirely free of excitement or a single line of dialogue that isn't some syncopated mix of grunting and tough-guy cliché, maybe a no-shit adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano". That's the only way to explain how it is that a film tits-deep in dialogue could have not one exchange that makes any sense whatsoever. The way the movie's put together, too, is a model of the Theatre of the Absurd's occasional dabbling in non sequiturs--something The Expendables seems to address at one point when the horsey-looking, freshly-waterboarded damsel (Giselle Itié) wonders how Stallone's Barney has magically appeared as her saviour in a Caribbean (?) dictator's dungeon. "I just am!" mumbles Barney. Who am I to argue with that?
Barney is the head of the titular team of noble mercenaries, which also features Gunner (Dolph Lundgren, still looking to break someone) and limey bladesman Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), whose name leads to a weird moment of vertiginous, gay misunderstanding when black lunk Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) declares his giant gun to be "better than Christmas." It's not the only homoerotic detour, as Lee is seen in one once-seen-never-unseen moment appearing to go down on Barney in the cockpit of a plane, emerging to fire a few thousand rounds from the nose of said plane, then re-emerging from betwixt Barney's thighs to a throaty "That was good!" from Barney. As far as really gay images go, the only thing gayer would've been Stallone and Statham as animated dolphins erupting from the tip of the Washington Monument. More team members include token Asian pussy Ying Yang (Jet Li--completely emasculated), sensitive lug Toll Road (Randy Couture), and personal tattoo artist Tool (Mickey Rourke, channelling Randy "Macho Man" Savage for some reason). And then of course there's Bruce Willis as a spook who hires the boys to murder a bunch of Latinos and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a rival sextuagenarian bounty hunter with pretensions to the (chortle) White House. It's as clever as the film gets en route to our boys flying off to some backwater to blow shit up, Dirty Dozen-style, before allowing Sly to have a showdown with Eric Roberts, of all people.
The Expendables is a complete head-scratcher. It's not smart enough to be a commentary on itself (much less pull off the Unforgiven riff it hints at now and then), and it's not good enough to compete with any of its own stars' classics of the meat-stick action genre. It just comes off as sad, really, especially considering that Stallone demonstrated there's still heat in the furnace with his last couple of resurrection projects. The enduring aftertaste of the picture is that it doesn't like itself very much and likes its audience even less. If it is indeed modelled after Ionesco's frustration with meaning, then it's a particular kind of asshole move, with Stallone intimating that the people who love actioners ostensibly like The Expendables are fucking cattle. It'd be forgivable perhaps if there were even one galvanizing action moment not edited to total shit, but alas, it's only ever the sort of movie that demonstrates a deep lack of respect for itself and its audience, clarifying this feeling inescapable that Stallone has always thought of himself as just a bit better, just a bit superior, to the popular perception of him as a blocky, midget-handed chunk of muscle. When he does stuff he believes in (such as the last Rocky and Rambo flicks), the results can be timely and galvanizing; when he decides to flex his brain-muscle, the results are defensive and frankly more than a little pathetic. Originally published: August 13, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers If there's a reason to pick up either incarnation of The Expendables on Blu-ray, it's not the feature itself but rather the supplements, specifically Inferno: The Making of The Expendables (92 mins., HD). Directed by John Herzfeld, who mysteriously dropped out of radar range after giving the world the mediocre but hardly cataclysmic 2 Days in the Valley and 15 Minutes (points, at the very least, for discovering Charlize Theron), this is a gripping account of the Expendables shoot as filtered through the persona of writer-director Sylvester Stallone. I love Sly, and though the artistic and commercial success of his comeback vehicles Rocky Balboa and Rambo seem to have gone to his head a bit, he's quick to remember and own his humble beginnings and copious career missteps. The best moments catch him reminiscing about, for instance, the humiliating if character-building treatment he received on the set of Farewell, My Lovely--an anecdote capped by a damningly accurate Robert Mitchum impersonation. Only Stallone, a few key crew members, and, um, Harry Knowles are interviewed, but fly-on-the-wall footage offers plenty of drama, including harrowing glimpses of Giselle Itié being waterboarded for real in implicit solidarity with Stallone soldiering through after spraining his ankle, dislocating his shoulder, bruising his spine, and contracting shingles. The production damn near killed Sly, and the piece ends with his young daughters sweetly bidding him goodbye in his hospital room. Spoiler: he lived.
The newer "Sylvester Stallone: A Director in Action" (20 mins., HD) is a talking-head with Stallone that focuses on his efforts as a writer-director. Consequently, it feels a lot fresher than most latter-day interrogations of the star, with Stallone at one point looking back in wonderment at the in-all-ways inexplicable Staying Alive. HiDef remastered clips accompany the Cliff Stephenson piece and manage to make even Paradise Alley look momentarily appetizing, but I disagree with Stallone--and, apparently, the entire free world--that his melancholic Rambo became a better movie with a bunch of previously-elided Rambo speeches restored. Ironically, in the Inferno doc he tells this great story about trying to buy the negative to First Blood so he could burn it, then realizing the solution to his problems with the film was to cut the dialogue out of his performance.
Rounding out the infotainment portion of the disc, the SPIKE TV special "Action: The Expendables" (20 mins., HD) is the dumb cousin to the segments discussed above, as unkempt host David Chokachi--remember when television hosts had vanity? (Stallone, at least, is dressed to the nines)--individually probes Stallone and his co-stars for plot details and little else. As for the main course, The Expendables docks in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of the "Extended Director's Cut," which, yes, attempts to counter-balance the explosions with a lot of chatter, none of it particularly witty, intelligent, or profound. Some of it--like the Jason Statham character's adolescent whinging over his lovelife--stops the movie cold, but I went along with it. While this version of The Expendables runs 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, much of the "new" footage apparently consists of alternate angles and music cues, and I'm afraid I'm just not familiar enough with the original to pass judgment on any of these revisions.
Despite being a dark film, this presentation of The Expendables isn't a dim one. The filmic, purposefully grainy image is impressively rich in shadow detail, (more often than not) sharp, and handsomely saturated, honouring a candy-coated palette. I appreciate that Stallone and DP Jeffrey Kimball more or less eschew a teal-and-orange colour-grade, and the Expendables' red berets, their neon-drenched milieu, and the verdant territories to which they travel have real pop here. Depth abounds, while the updated material is seamlessly integrated. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track (complete with a DTS soundcheck app) blows the doors off but is, in my opinion, very well managed, never becoming so clogged with pyrotechnic thunder as to sound like white noise. Dizzying and pummelling in equal measure, it's a hoot. In an optional 2-minute video intro (HD) taped on the set of The Expendables 2, Stallone champions this cut of the film, claiming it has more "heart." If I didn't know better, I'd think he was doing satire. Officially capping the special features is the video for "Sinner's Prayer" by Sully Erna; trailers for Set Up, Conan the Barbarian (2011), Rambo, and Pulp Fiction cue up on startup of the platter, distributed in identical configurations by Lionsgate in the U.S. and Alliance in Canada. Originally published: January 9, 2012.