‘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.


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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