I was watching Commando again on TV a few years ago with my parents. The final act of that movie has Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly taking down a private army in South/Central America, the death toll surely well into triple digits. The carnage wrought by this one-man army led my father to joke that, if we just dispatched a team of Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the Middle East problem would be wrapped up in a day. My mother then added, "And Demi Moore's ex-husband!" My parents' views on the Middle East aside, it at least had the makings of a good movie.
The Expendables is not quite that movie, but its dream team assemblage of Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren is the closest we've ever come. Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis sadly appear only briefly and do not get in on the action, but hopefully we'll see more of them in a sequel. For now, The Expendables may not be the greatest action movie of all time, but it has some damn amazing action moments rekindling that childish glee I used to feel when watching the more mindless Stallone and Schwarzenegger flicks of the 80s and 90s. If you don't have a soft spot for that generation of film violence, however, then be warned that The Expendables is not slick, not topical, not a satire or a deconstruction. Although it knowingly recycles the plot, structure, and every cliche of action movies past, it does so in earnest, delivering a decidedly pre-Bourne Identity experience that feels like it could have come ten or even twenty years ago.
The opening scenes develop at a glacial pace while setting up the characters' motivations and mission. The movie is less than thrilling when the characters aren't killing, and during the stretches between, Stallone's brand of macho humor rarely works. The movie is only 103 minutes, but it felt to me like 20 of those were Mickey Rourke describing some tattoo he wanted to ink on Jason Statham's dome. There are also some attempts at sentimentalism, but Stallone never finds the heart that he got in Rocky Balboa and Rambo, perhaps because the Expendables do not have that sort of history with the audience, even if the actors portraying them do. In fact, the characters at times refer to previous missions, and I wished they would have simply described their old movies as a sort of in-joke, but that probably would have been too cute.
Stallone does do an admirable job of managing the unprecedented roster of action stars, although again, to be fair, he didn't have to direct any egos equal to his own. Dolph Lundgren, Stallone's Rocky IV co-star and only real contemporary among the cast, features prominently and seems perfectly cast as an unhinged veteran merc. Supposedly, Lundgren only made it in after Jean-Claude Van Damme passed on the role, although, the way Van Damme tells it, the part hadn't even been developed into a character yet at the time it was offered to him. Van Damme, whose recent characters have all been defined by regret that has seemed more than a performance, would probably have taken this movie truly into Unforgiven territory. Lundgren seems a better fit for this old, cracked soldier--haunted yet amused by his own joke of an existence.
As for the other stars, if you're a Jet Li fan, then this is certainly not the best display of his abilities, but it is cool to see him in a supporting role where, no longer having to carry the dramatic burden with his limited acting range, he is in his most no-nonsense, surgically lethal form. Jason Statham, the young buck of the crew, as the only Expendable under 40, is meanwhile as abrasive as ever while speaking, but Stallone has a good handle on the Englishman's performance style, building the character around that in-your-face attitude. As the team's knife fighter, Statham is the most spectacular killer of them all. And while I'm sure nobody is going to the theater for role-players Terry Crews and Randy Couture, they too get their action moments.
But the whole point of this movie is to show these guys operating together, not separately, and the final act is where The Expendables really lives up to its promise, piling on more action and action stars than the screen seems able to contain. There is an instantly classic shot of these icons all charging out together, guns blazing, but my favorite scene had to be Jet Li and Jason Statham double-teaming an enemy lieutenant. In the past, pitting a foe against a single John Rambo or John Matrix was already a bloodbath, but here the guy doesn't even have time to feel the first fist against his face before he's spun into a kick from the other side.
In one key departure from the 80s and 90s, Stallone, now mindful of his age, or at least his mortality, tries to get across that the Expendables are human, that the odds are against them, that they only succeed because they work together. Schwarzenegger's character in The Expendables turns down the mission because he says only an idiot would take it on, even though it is basically identical to the scenario that he yawned his way through in Commando. There's no yawning from the Expendables, who would all clearly rather be enjoying their money. These guys are ruthlessly efficient once the fighting begins, but they do not revel in their own destructiveness with gratuitous one-liners, and in the hairier moments, there is actually a tension that was never present in the likes of Commando or Rambo III.
The most disappointing thing about The Expendables is, of course, that we still don't get to see Schwarzenegger in action alongside Stallone. That remains the dream. Lately, Stallone has been waffling over whether The Expendables will be his last acting role, but hopefully he can make this happen in a sequel. For that, I'll also want Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, maybe even Hulk Hogan in there, and then we'll really have the ultimate action movie. In the meantime, I'll next be looking forward to Seagal's return in Machete.