Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Harmony Korine has got to be bummed. Surely he expected that Trash Humpers would be 2010's only theatrical release conceptualized as found VHS footage of mindless destruction and antisocial behavior carried out by a coterie of facially deformed troglodytes. But no. In that esoteric subgenre, The Expendables is without a doubt the movie of the year. If it had one or two of Humpers's bar rolls or PLAY glyphs, Stallone's action-super-group-grope might've been this infant century's movie to beat. Stallone's film may not formalize its high-concept lowliness to any trash-humping degree, but it doesn't need to—The Expendables's status as a sincerely artless artifact is borne in the bone, its disposability announced in the title.
The premise is simple: mercenary Barney Ross (Stallone) is a leathery, "I ain't dead yet" bag-of-bones. He leads a squad of hulking badasses who couldn't pass the G. I. Joe psych eval into some banana republic dictatorship to strafe the local population with the hot blasts of freedom. Together these he-men learn that with a little heart and bro-down loyalty, some feverish massacres are just sweeter than others.
Brass tacks: Sylvester Stallone is looking out for you, even if you've been less than supportive of him. Acutely aware of the severe shortage of balls at your local multiplex, he is also mindful of the hard times that currently befall us. There's a recession on, and you don't have enough loose cash to roll the dice on any old flick that promises just one shirtless dude kicking maybe a meager handful of asses. Well, friends, has Sly got a deal for you. You've seen the subway promos for The Expendables, right? One poster, almost a dozen badasses. For the cost of a $13.00 movie ticket, that's like $1.19 per badass—and you can be sure as shit those shirts will come off. And that the beatings will drop straight off the vine, as if the heady, halcyon days of Reagan-era plenty never ended, because Sylvester Stallone never quit on you. Like John Rambo says, "Nothing is over!"
Don't you want to go back to that place? Where the only just force was brute force? Where only the bad guys had computers? Where post-'Nam American narratives found tidy catharses in the seething bosoms of a giant men with giant guns? Things were simpler then, and a dollar was a dollar. Sly's just sayin'...
So it is in the endless parade of meta-manliness that is The Expendables. The film proclaims its precarious reflexivity right there in its epically self-effacing title. What can one say about a movie that's already beat you to the punch? Herein lies the singular, consummate artistry of Sylvester Stallone: for all his unerring accuracy in totally missing the mark, his career has been nothing if not self-aware. 2006's Rocky Balboa and 2008's Rambo were each (relative to the self-spectacularism of their franchise cohorts) sober meditations on a writer, director, actor, and character who spent his life returning to the same well, only to realize he had become the well. The Expendables is a fearsome burnt offering to dry-running wells everywhere.
The Expendables keeps insisting it's about comradeship, but the lady doth protest too much. The jibing almost-banter is amazingly forced and unfunny. It's as if the English language is totally alien to these characters. Perhaps it's because the stale quips they shoot back and forth can't make anybody explode. Every joke attempted in The Expendables goes over like a lead balloon, and it makes you long for actual flying lead. For the better part of two decades Stallone's career has been regarded as one big joke, and in trying to get in on that joke, The Expendables becomes a vacuum wherein every would-be laugh is strangely stillborn. The reason, it seems, is that a joke within a joke just isn't funny. The movie keeps choking on its own tail because, as Dolph Lundgren winsomely rumbles beneath his thousand-inch stare, "Life's a joke, fuckhead."
When Lundgren aims a gun point-blank at challenger and asks, "Want a facelift?" are we to take this as the same kind of in-joke-everyone-is-in-on as the quips about weight-gain and presidential aspirations swapped between Stallone and a cameoing Schwarzenegger? I mean, clearly everyone in this movie wants a facelift, all the time, whenever possible. The skin in this movie is so tight it looks like the whole thing was shot inside a centrifuge pushing 4Gs.
The Expendables is chock-a-block with similar lines which confound clear intention and throw you into this strange headspace where it's unclear how distant what you are watching really is from what Stallone thinks he's showing you. As the team cracks wise while stomping around bodies in the aftermath an early bloodbath, one gunner fleetingly chimes, "A little compassion?" Sufficed to say, the suggestion is ignored for the duration of the film.
Eric Roberts's rogue CIA puppet-regime-master is given little to do besides slither up to his obligatory last-ditch, evil-desperation speech, in which he tries to convince Sly that they aren't so different. Both outmoded men, he claims, were mere pawns used up and tossed aside, just trying to get by in this fickle world. And just as you're thinking, "Hmmm, that's a pretty reasonable assessment," well, I don't think it's exactly a spoiler to say that if you ain't on the poster, you ain't gonna survive to the sequel. These and so many other exchanges throughout seem like troubled notes scrawled in the margins of the shooting script and then mistaken for dialogue.
The totality of The Expendables exists in this same self-negating arch-surreality. The movie is devoid of any real sense of urgency, chemistry, suspense or guile, just a series of empty gestures in those directions. There are no cleverly contrived moments of peril, no last minute ad-libbed escapes, no details buried in the first act arriving spontaneously in the third (unless you count knives and bullets finally uniting as separate but equal methods of killing). The Expendables seems to always act as if these blockbuster conventions are automatic. But whatever presence they might have is swept away by the film's relentless torrent of gunfire and bloodlust anyway. These tropes simply cannot hold because this isn't really a movie in any traditional sense—it is the distilled nectar of some cosmic uber-testicle set ablaze on the screen.
Sly's idea of caper-style resourcefulness consists entirely in materializing firearms from unseen holsters, revealing successively bigger knives, using bullets that are actually little bombs, and killing a person in multiple ways from multiple directions all at once. Cartoonish as it is, The Expendables's giddy violence is also disturbingly unhinged in that no one resorts to it—it is always the jumping-off point. There are no improvised weapons or deaths by out-witting a la John MacLaine. There are only harder and faster ways to kick someone's head off, dislodge someone's torso, or gut someone's esophagus.
The majority of The Expendables is lip service en route to a grand finale of just such unmitigated runaway slaughter. The climax lays waste to what is ostensibly the bad guy's HQ, but in its death-trip of berserk, all-consuming carnage, the film seems poised to annihilate the screen itself, and then salt the scorched remains. At certain moments, amidst the fiery hail of dismembered corpses and crumbling palace walls, it appears the heavens themselves have been blanketed with napalm.
Hamony Korine imagined his movie as having been discovered in a ditch. The Expendables is something you'd find if a long-defunct Blockbuster Video exploded, and every straight-to-video release remaining in the "Action" section hit you in the nuts, and going into shock, you peered inside the smoldering crater where the videos landed to see that fire and speed had fused them all into one mangled mega-tape... and then it blew you up.
Opens August 13