Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Expendables: Flush This Mush

The Expendables (2010) • View trailer for The Expendables
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.10
Buy DVD: The Expendables • Buy Blu-Ray: The Expendables (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

They certainly are. 

On paper, the concept of The Expendables must have seemed like a sure thing: a testosterone-fueled mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, populated by a dream team of fresh and fading cinema action stars. 

On the big screen, the results are dark, dismal and sniggeringly stupid: a clumsy, ludicrous exercise that can't even fulfill the basic requirements of a grade-C action epic. 

Oh, and it's loud. Very loud. Excessively loud. Between supercharged gunfire, bombs and gasoline-enhanced explosions, this flick may be responsible for viewer hearing loss. 
When Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, center) loses his cool and seems poised
to kill his fellow mercenary, Yin Yang (Jet Li, left), team leader Barney Ross
(Sylvester Stallone) has to get equally serious while trying to defuse the
situation. The Expendables is filled with hilariously improbable scenes just
like this one, and they only get sillier as the film unspools.

As noisy as all the pyrotechniques are, though, they don't drown out the tin-eared dialogue. 

More's the pity. 

For once in his life, the egomaniacal Sylvester Stallone should have stepped back and allowed input from other, more talented hands. Sly's participation should have been limited to his starring role; he has gotten pretty good at playing his one-note self. He's a hack writer at best  he shares screen credit here with David Callaham  but he's a truly deplorable director without the slightest idea of where to place the camera, how to light a scene, or how to orchestrate a fight sequence or vehicular chase. 

What is the sense of casting martial-arts fan favorites such as Jet Li and Jason Statham, if their considerable skills are lost amid badly lit scenes and smash-cut editing, which make it impossible to enjoy their work? 

And it's not just Li and Statham. Much (most?) of the hare-brained action is handled by the actors or stunt doubles, rather than being "sweetened" by computer enhancements, and it's vexing to miss the details. This film's sizable stunt team clearly put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this flick, and a lot of their effort goes unappreciated. 

That's the frustrating part: the realization that, all other elements being equal, The Expendables could have been a decent action flick, given a better director and a savvy script doctor. 

As it is ... little more than bumbling junk. 

Stallone stars as Barney Ross, head of a squad of seasoned mercenaries who've retained enough humanity to accept only good-guy assignments. We meet them during a confrontation with Somali pirates; needless the say, the pirates get wasted while our heroes  and all the hostages  apparently suffer nary a scratch. 

Neat trick, that, with so many bullets flying all over the place. 
Stallone's character gets the benefit of a normal name; his men are saddled with the sort of deliberately comic nicknames so beloved by such flicks. Statham is Lee Christmas, a former SAS blade expert and Barney's best friend; Li is Yin Yang, a hand-to-hand combat specialist. Dolph Lundgren is Gunner Jensen, the precision sniper; Randy Couture is Toll Road, the demolitions expert. 

Terry Crews, well remembered as the hapless father on TV's Everybody Hates Chris, is the long-barrel weapons specialist, who goes by  I'm not making this up  Hale Caesar. 

Gunner and Hale have a fondness for weapons with explosive rounds that chop their victims into so much eviscerated blood and bone, a visual treat we're privileged to witness repeatedly. (Yum, yum.) Stallone seems to have confused his film with the next entry in the Saw torture-porn franchise; there seems no other reason why we'd be subjected to so much horror flick-grade gore. 

When between missions, Barney and his boys hang out at a warehouse/chop shop run by Tool (Mickey Rourke), a tattoo artist who fulfills the story's Yoda role with Zen-like psycho-babble. Like everybody else in this laughable mess, Rourke doesn't even try for credible acting; he sorta smirks his way through his "poignant" and "thoughtful" dialogue. 

Bruce Willis pops up long enough to send Barney on his next assignment; Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up long enough  as some sort of rival merc for hire  to decline the same offer and leave it in our heroes' hands. Schwarzenegger exits the room through doors that are blasted with sunlight, turning him into no more than an iconic silhouette. Stallone seems to enjoy nonsense like that. 

For some reason left unexplained in the script, Barney and Lee fly by themselves to the tiny South American country of Vilena, which is being exploited by rogue CIA goon James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who has turned the national crop into drugs, with the cooperation of dictatorial leader Gen. Garza (David Zayas). The general's own daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), is leading some sort of half-assed resistance movement. I think. It's never really made clear. 

Barney and Lee make contact with Sandra; they attract too much attention. Barney and Lee therefore "make a statement"  read: waste a lot of people and blow up a lot of stuff  before flying away. Sandra, choosing to remain behind, winds up in Munroe's clutches, where she's left to the none-too-tender mercies of Paine (Steve Austin). 

We can be grateful, I suppose, that this story's various depredations don't include rape. Indeed, Sandra never even loses her clothes. Such restraint, in this sort of over-the-top exploitation flick, seems odd. One is reluctant to credit Stallone with showing even this much good taste. 

Anyway, memories of Sandra chew at Barney, who decides that he can't leave well enough alone. He magnanimously tells his boys that he's gotta return, but they don't need to come: a cornball speech that was a tired stereotype back in the 1930s, and hasn't lost its eye-rolling ability to induce contempt all these years later. 

Needless to say, everybody piles into the plane for the trip back to Vilena. Amid much macho banter, of course, 

A word about that banter: Rarely has male bonding sounded so forced and felt so unconvincing. The scripted dialogue is the sort of juvenile nonsense that 8-year-old boys might use with each other; coming from grown men, it's hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Genre fans know that Statham  as just one example  has been saddled with a lot of dumb dialogue in some of his films, but he usually soldiers on with his signature blend of presence, attitude and mocking contempt. 

Not this time. Not even Statham can bring persuasive music to these lyrics, and his efforts are far better than what we get from most of the others. 

The one exception is Roberts, adept as always at chewing up the scenery in style. He always makes a marvelous villain, and he's just as wonderfully hissable here. His character is so much more watchably flamboyant than the others, that I began to wish he could win out in the end. 

As for the eventual fate of Lundgren's character ... last week's Sacramento preview screening audience, a capacity house, had nothing but contemptuous jeers for that plot contrivance. 

Charisma Carpenter pops up as Lee's sorta-kinda girlfriend Lacy, who unwisely shacks up with the wrong sort of male companion during one of Lee's protracted absences. This other guy subsequently smacks Lacy around a bit, which has nothing to do with the plot but gives Statham an excuse to uncork some serious whup-ass on the guy and half a dozen of his friends. 

This is pretty much the only satisfying fight scene in the entire film, both because the set-up has a bit of dramatic heft that we can relate to, and because Statham's athletic exploits take place in broad daylight, without quite as much interference from overly enthusiastic editors Ken Blackwell and Paul Harb. 

Earlier this year, while reviewing The Losers, I observed that it felt a lot like a low-rent attempt to undercut the premise and execution of Stallone's film, at that point not due out for several more months. I erred by assumption: Bad as it was, The Losers was a better effort than The Expendables, if only because it was easier to follow the action and see what was going on. How's that for irony? 

And further irony: The meeting of Stallone, Rourke, Statham, Li and all the others should have been a memorable cinematic event, even on a cheesy, B-film level. Stallone has squandered an opportunity that'll never come around again ... and that's the real crime. 

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