The Expendables is a prime example of a “because they can” movie: Why do they have a moment where Jason Statham takes on five guys at a basketball court for roughing up his girlfriend? Why do they have Terry Crews marching down a hallway eviscerating an army of South American militants? Why do they have Mickey Rourke give five-minute monologue of complete incomprehensibility? Why? Because they can.
There’s no pretentious want of consistency or deeper meaning other than Stallone wanting to show you that he can still blow shit up and make people laugh when a man’s head gets twisted 180 degrees around (complete with bone-crunching sound effects). When the first scene of the film shows the top half of a man getting blown up in gooey detail, you know what you’re in for. When the camera lingers for a second on the bloody stump of his lower half, you know you’ve got it.
This is the kind of movie reviewers love because the entire plot can be recapped in one sentence: The Expendables are a team of mercenaries sent to some fictional South American country to overthrow the government. That’s about it. At a time when action movies are overly concerned with psychological depth and ponderous plot complications, The Expendables is like mouth-to-mouth from a humongously well-buxomed lifeguard.
First and foremost, it’s a throwback to the mindlessly fun action movies of the ‘80s that were drenched in blood, muscles, and testosterone. Stallone knows this material well, and delights in showing us the innumerable ways in which he and his five-man army (made of himself, Statham, Crews, Jet-Li, Randy Couture, and, for a time, Dolph Lundgren) can kill.
He packs in car chases, huge guns, and so many explosions they nearly match the body count. The violence is so graphic and over the top that when you see a man get shot and then macheted through the back and then gutted, you can’t help but smile. And there’s some cameos by Bruce Willis and a special surprise guest in a scene that, plot-wise, has absolutely no reason to be in the movie, but otherwise is wholly necessary because it’s big, goofy fun.
The special effects are intentionally cheesy. When a man gets his hand cut off, you don’t see a perfectly rendered stump meticulously detailed from page 137 of Gray’s Anatomy; you see (pardon the French) Red Shit. And the blood’s not quite right either, but we get the idea. We don’t have to feel bad about the needless loss of human life, nor do we have to keep track of each character’s home life and feelings—we don’t need to know anything about them other than they’re there to kill things and blow stuff up real good.
I may be shooting myself in the foot here, but I disliked an earlier summer action movie, Predators, because I felt that the action sequences lacked resonance. But the difference between that and this is that Predators’ action sequences felt like they
were written someone who disliked bloody stumps of men and was afraid to get creative with his killings. Stallone is like a child in a blood-and-guts sandbox.
So there’s a lot of holes in the plot (who actually hires these guys? And if they barely make enough money to get by, how can they afford their huge customized cargo plane? And who cleans up/pays for all the property damage they cause? Maybe that’s why they’re always broke), and the jokes are painfully forced and the dialogue is as ridiculous as the premise, but Stallone keeps them to such a minimum that the few times they do show up it’s charming. Mickey Rourke’s speech comes immediately to mind. As does Jet-Li’s little monologue about how he should be paid more because he’s shorter than everyone else, and hence has to do more work than the rest of the team.
Stallone’s also not shy about showing everyone’s age. He, Lundgren, and Rourke look especially weathered in their healthy dose of close-ups—I guess that’s what happens when you’re in the business—but they’re all outrageously muscled—Stallone in particular seems to have freight trains for arms. I don’t know if there’s a reason for this other than to show that despite the majority of the cast pushing 50 to 60, they still got it.
This is the perfect action movie for its time. Will I ever watch it again? Maybe, probably not. It’s not a great movie, it’s not even a three-and-a-half star movie; it’s a old-school three-star movie, which is exactly what Stallone is going for. Why? Because he can.