Page 2 of 3
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.