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."