‘The Expendables’ movie review: Stallone’s ode to Golan-Globus and Cannon Films

Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is the 2010 equivalent of a 1985 Golan-Globus production, a Delta Force or Missing in Action or Cobra (which Stallone starred in). No irony or any kind of pretense: this is a bad mid-1980’s actioner through-and-through, in the no-apologies you-know-if-it’s-for-you vein. 

That’s precisely what Stallone was going for here, and he pretty much perfectly achieved it, which I give him a lot of credit for. Even if it doesn’t make this a good movie.

The cast is quite clearly the big draw for The Expendables, a who’s-who of tough guy action heroes: Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, UFC star Randy Couture, WWE star Steve Austin, NFL star Terry Crews, kickboxer Gary Daniels, B-movie villain standby Eric Roberts. 

Not enough? Bruce Willis shows up for an extended cameo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up for a shorter one.

Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger feature in the best scene in the movie, where they just chat for a few incredible minutes (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the cameos if they weren’t featured so prominently in the film’s trailers.) 

I wasn’t even following the conversation, the star power ignites the screen like when Brando, Pacino, Caan and Duvall would share a scene in The Godfather. Just a different, ahem, style of acting on display.

It’s a good thing Stallone got all these names to jump on board, because he (and co-writer Dave Callaham) forgot to write actual characters for them to play (a no-name version of this film? Golan-Globus Hell.) 

Only Statham, as Lee Christmas, has anything resembling a backstory, a rather half-assed storyline involving a girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter). Even Stallone, who fills the screen throughout 90% of the film, has nothing to play off of besides his own image.

Stallone ‘plays’ Barney Ross, commander of a team of mercenaries composed of Lundgren, Statham, Li, Couture, and Crews (character names? Irrelevant – I don’t think Crews or Couture are even referred to by name during the movie.) Shady government agent ‘Church’ (Willis) assigns them the task of assassinating a corrupt dictator of a fictional third world country (David Zayas), who happens to be the puppet of American James Munroe (Eric Roberts).

Make no mistake, this is a bad movie – almost indefensible on any level, it fails to match Stallone’s previous Rambo film for visceral excitement, and slogs through a been-there, done-that story peppered with hand-to-hand combat scenes, gunfire, and many, many explosions. 

But who am I kidding? I had a blast with The Expendables, and would wholly recommend it if not for two key failings. It’s the kind of authentic piece of it-what-it-is action that I never thought I’d see in the cinema again, and the kind of bad movie that’s OK because it’s exactly what they set out to make.

But two key problems I cannot forgive. The action scenes are a disappointment: Greengrass-style rapid-fire editing, nauseous camera stuff. Not the worst I’ve seen, and fine for pseudo-art and visceral thrills, but not appropriate here. There’s also some awful use of (incredibly) poor CGI. 

The explosions look fake, the bloodletting looks fake; when one major character buys it, I was shocked at how awful and unconvincing a simple knife through the chest was. A major letdown, and one thing 80s Golan-Globus has over this film in spades: real explosions, and practical effects that had a real weight to them no matter how unconvincing they might have appeared.

You know what you’re getting with The Expendables, and if you think you’ll like it I doubt even the movie itself will change your mind. Fans of professional wrestling should enjoy it most, with dream matchups of action stars: Stallone vs. Austin, Li vs. Lundgren, Statham vs. Daniels, etc. Not excited by the cast? Steer clear.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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