Watching Sylvester Stallone's testosterone-filled, '80s-style shoot 'em up, one can't help but think of the former action stars who are MIA. Jean-Claude Van Damme wanted too much money. Wesley Snipes is facing the taxman. Steven Segal is ... well, by most accounts, a pudgy prick. Nicolas Cage will take any job that pays, so why he's missing is a mystery. It's an easy-to-compose list, and, without their presence, this exercise in rah-rah Reagan-era nostalgia feels a bit half-baked. The incoherent script, incomprehensible editing and unfocused direction don't help either.
Still, you can't help but root for Stallone, a star who always seemed a bit smarter and more soulful than his moronically muscle-headed movies. His filmography is a textbook example of all that was wrong with Hollywood in the '80s, and yet there were always interesting detours. First Blood, Nighthawks and Rocky III all had their virtues. Sly's '90s bid for legitimacy with Copland hinted at the actor that might have been. But his career has been mostly one of cinematic excess.
The Expendables is no exception. This third installment in his trilogy of self-congratulations (Rambo and Rocky Balboa were the first two) pays homage to Stallone's stupider efforts. (Think: Cobra, Tango & Cash, etc. Come to think of it, where the hell is Kurt Russell?)
And The Expendables could've worked in a Commando meets The Wild Bunch sort of way. In the right hands, it might've delivered an ironic and even poignant statement about the shelf life of Hollywood action heroes. After all, if Van Damme can touch on it in JVCD, then why not Stallone? Instead, his retro-actioner is a humorless and nonsensical mix of booming violence and schmaltzy melodrama that lives up to its throwaway name.
Does anyone really care what the plot (as delivered by Bruce Willis in a profanity-laden cameo) entails? Suffice to say that Stallone's gang of rogues — Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Terry Crews (Idiocracy's President Camacho!) — are sent south to take out Hugo Chávez ... er, General Garza ... who's been doing the bidding of ex-CIA baddie Eric Roberts and his bodyguard Stone Cold Steve Austin. Arnold sneaks in for a winky walk-on while Mickey Rourke appears to deliver a lip-quivering monologue about his lost humanity. Most audiences will use these instances of downtime to calculate the film's plastic surgery-to-mindless explosion ratio. (The parade of facelifts, cheek implants, puffed lips and sculpted noses is truly astounding to behold.)
For the action die-hards, there's plenty of throat-slashing, knife-throwing, gun-dueling and neck-breaking. Most is rote, but there are inspired flourishes. An aerial attack run on a dock shows where the budget was spent, and a mano-a-mano brawl between giant Lundgren and tiny Li has moments. Too bad Stallone's direction is so spastic. So often his roving handheld captures every angle except the one that'd make action scenes pop. The film's final assault is 20 minutes of eardrum-testing noise punctuated by brief flashes of kick-assery.
Worse, there's no chemistry; lines are spoken but the high-priced he-men might as well be performing in their own movies. Rourke's the only real actor in the bunch, and he almost makes his boneheaded dialogue bearable. Almost. Even funny Terry Crews is de-balled, left to earn laughs with a giant shotgun that explodes enemies like blood-filled water balloons.
The Expendables is the kind of genre film that begs for Quentin Tarantino to give it a postmodern ass-kick, remaking the forgotten careers of its elder stars. Too bad Stallone's glum, too-serious treatment only reaffirms their irrelevance.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].