Sunday, August 15, 2010

Grumpy Old Men: THE EXPENDABLES


The Expendables isn’t quite the battle of the action has-been all-stars that the advertising seemed to promise. That’s just as well, allowing this action movie to escape the fate of seeming like a B-movie sponsored by Madame Tussauds. As a muscle-headed action movie directed, produced, and co-written by, and starring Sylvester Stallone, it can’t help but play like a throwback to bad, overblown 80’s action, right down to the bad. It has one-liners so terribly unfunny that they loop right back around into being funny. It has a certain junky flair, and one or two worthwhile action sequences, but it’s otherwise dead in the water.

Stallone starts things off well enough, leading a group of mercenaries in a rescue mission, saving captive sailors from menacing pirates. A mix of current and forgotten action stars, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren, join Stallone as he blasts his way into a captured freighter. And when I write blast, I mean blast. Lundgren uses a gun so powerful it splatters half of a pirate against the wall. A little later, Satallone and Statham will take out nearly a dozen anonymous baddies in seconds. It’s likably absurd, but in all the gunfire I lost track of whether or not the hostages are saved.

No matter. I think the movie forgot about them too, for soon enough we’re back in the States. Stallone heads over to an empty church to meet with Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), a shadowy suit who proposes a new mission. Another mysterious tough-guy with a team of mercenaries shows up too, but he decides he’d rather not take the job. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays him. Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger trade awful wisecracks and wink at the camera while standing in an awkward semi-circle. Believe it or not, it’s the campy high point of the movie, which sooner rather than later turns into depressingly generic fare.

The actual plot kicks in when Stallone and Statham head to a fictitious Latin American island to do some reconnaissance. They have a kind of awesome action moment in which they blow up a whole bunch of stuff in a cool way. (I’d rather not spoil it, but let’s just say it involves an airplane and a really big fireball). The actual plot will involve the guys gearing up to take out a slimy Eric Roberts as a rogue CIA operative who has a vaguely defined grip on the island nation and who hides behind his right-hand-tough Steve Austen.

The acting is mostly pose-and-scowl, but Statham carries the picture. He’s also the most talented actor in the cast to get any screen time of note. He’s dynamic and exciting to watch, even though his fight choreography is miles from his incredibly staged fistfights in the Transporter movies or the kinetic gory free-for-all of Crank. The movie is essentially a buddy movie with Statham and Stallone front and center for most of the action. Stallone, for his part, doesn’t let his painfully obvious plastic surgery distract from his wooden delivery. He’s too tough a guy to let apparent facial paralysis get in the way of his emoting.

Mickey Rourke wanders through the movie for a few scenes, spouting dumb dialogue and one nearly effective monologue. (It’s the one that starts “Remember when we was in Bosnia?”) I really don’t know what he’s doing here, but he certainly adds to the mottled ensemble that’s been assembled, as well as personifying the movie’s lack of knowing how to use the cast well.

The action smashes forward in ways increasingly dumb and dull. Terry Crews gets a very loud gun that’s good for a few interesting moments. Jet Li gets an obligatory martial arts fight that’s shot in a way that undermines its visual interest. Eventually, the movie culminates in a non-stop explosion of a climax that gets more and more incomprehensible the longer it runs. The violence, which starts strikingly exaggerated in its gore, becomes routine. The action grows wearing instead of exciting.

Still, The Expendables makes for a diverting couple of hours. It’s uncomplicated and proudly excessively macho. It’s goofy, sloppy, and ridiculous while still becoming a little too self-pleased with its perceived awesomeness.  It has its moments. Not many of them, but enough to make the movie a perfectly adequate watch on, say, a sleepy wintery weekend when it’s the only movie playing on cable that happens to be starting while you’re channel surfing.

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