Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
Sylvester Stallone's Rambo was my favorite film of 2008. Disturbing in its combination of Saving Private Ryan-style war-atrocity gore with might-makes-right anti-heroism, practically confrontational in its abandonment of traditional peaks-and-valleys action-movie plot structuring, it felt like the searingly personal product of someone who was mentally ill. By contrast, The Expendables feels like the product of someone who's sustained an impairing head injury. Should've expected it, I guess; no one assembles enough aging action heroes to stage their own private Royal Rumble with the intention of exposing their own heart of darkness, or really doing anything but remaking Tango & Cash with more ampersands. But I was still surprised by just how spastic and disconnected everything felt--characters, scenes, dialogue, basic narrative cause and effect, everything. It was like watching an action movie written by Samuel Beckett.
Not that you even need to know this, but the plot is that Sly and his fellow mercs, to whom we are introduced during an in medias res rescue of hostages from Somali pirates (conducted with rather callous disregard for the hostages, I must say!), are hired by a mysterious company man (that's Bruce Willis's cameo; Stallone's group takes the gig when Arnold Schwarzenegger passes on it) to depose the military junta ruling a tiny island nation in the Gulf of Mexico. Stallone and Jason Statham (there really is no point in using their character names--Stallone and Statham are their character names) scout the place with the help of the rebellious daughter of the ruling general, who refuses to leave with them after they're discovered. Touched by her loyalty to her people and her home, , Stallone overcomes his reluctance to take a surefire loser gig like this, and he and his team travel to the island, murder its entire armed forces, kill Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin (the rogue spooks secretly running the show), leave the daughter in charge, and go have beers with Mickey Rourke. Cue both "Born on the Bayou" AND "The Boys Are Back in Town," The End.
Alright, so with a little effort I can make it sound coherent, but you've got to cut a buncha subplots to do it. Dolph Lundgren is featured as a member of the team who goes Section 8 during the pirate attack and is kicked off the squad; having read the location of Sly's next gig over his shoulder, he presents himself to the island junta and leads a team of assassins in a fleet of SUVs to take out Stallone and Jet Li (here playing a character called, no I'm serious, Yin Yang). Just before he can kill Li, Stallone shoots him, and in his dying breath he gives Sly the entire layout of the presidential palace they'll need to raid. Only he's not really dying, he actually gets better, and in the final scene all is forgiven and he's having drinks and riding motorcycles with the gang again. Phew! Meanwhile, Charisma Carpenter is briefly poured into a minidress and paraded around as a Lifetime Movie-worthy domestic-abuse subplot so that Statham can pound the shit out of her asshole new boyfriend and his pick-up basketball playmates during his off-hours as a way to show her what she gave up by dumping him. Li wants more money for his family, which he doesn't actually have, and he's angry because as the shortest member of the team he gets shit-on a lot, and all his fights are so choppily edited you're left to wonder if they were removing his walker in post. Mickey Rourke, team member turned team manager, runs a tattoo parlor or an auto body shop or both, enjoys sex with anonymous women, and cries because this one time in Bosnia he could have stopped a woman from killing herself but didn't. Next time you see him after that he's whooping it up with the team with John Fogerty chooglin' in the background. The general who rules the island nation is chafing at having to take orders from Roberts and Stone Cold and this other British merc with a Fu Manchu mustache, and he's a painter, so he has all his goons paint their faces like scary warriors, so Roberts shoots him to death in front of all his men; none of this changes anyone's behavior in the slightest.
Again, not a huge surprise that an action movie consciously constructed as a throwback to the '80s heyday of its writer/director/star and several of its supporting cast members and cameos was going to feature a lot of cliched go-nowhere barely-sketched-out subplots featuring characters for whom the jump from one- to two-dimensional constitutes an arc. The really shocking thing for me was how incoherent the basic stuff of storytelling was here. Remember in Tango & Cash how nearly every line of dialogue was a one-liner, and after a while it felt almost absurdist, like there was no real connective tissue between any of them and Sly and Kurt Russell were just taking turns spouting zingers from some sort of checklist they had? This was like that, only the zingers had no zing. I'm finding this so difficult to describe...it's like, you'd see a reaction shot from Stallone when one of his teammates said or did something, he'd be smiling and he'd make some wisecrack, but nothing that the teammate said or did actually merited the specific thing he said. They could have said or done something totally different, or nothing at all, and it would have had the same bearing on what the next line was. This black-box-theater experimental-theater tone carried over into the lines of dialogue that actually purported to have some sort of import for the story: After Sly pops Dolph during his heel turn, he asks him "Who sent you?", and then before Dolph even answers he asks "Is the girl still alive?" as if he already knew the answer. During the climactic raid on the presidential palace, Stallone announces that the team has three minutes to infiltrate the place and do...something, I forget what, but it doesn't matter, because we never learn or are shown why there's this three-minute time frame--nothing happens three minutes later, there's no timers involved in the explosives they're planting, there's not some big event the general is launching in three minutes, the plane's not taking off in three minutes, nothing. Like, you can poke fun at the motivational shortcomings these movies always have--for instance, Stallone being so moved by the daughter's courage and loyalty to her nation and people, something he'd apparently never encountered before despite alluded-to adventures everywhere from Bosnia to Nigeria--but it's the fundamental disconnect between any two points in the film that's the real marvel here. It's Mystery Science Theater 3000-level material at times, even aside from Stallone and Rourke's Rondo Hattonesque visages.
But the action is fabulous, I'll give it that. Not necessarily the hand-to-hand combat scenes: There are some memorably brutal bits toward the end with one of the key goons getting his neck snapped back with a downward kick, and Statham is a joy to behold in close-quarters brawls as always, but for the most part these are old men, and Stallone Christopher Nolans the bejesus out of their fight scenes just to make them look like fight scenes. The firefights, on the other hand? Wow. Stallone announces his intentions here from the start, when a "warning shot" at the pirates from Lundgren literally blows a man in half, sending his entire torso splattering against the wall behind him. Stallone's a poet with CGI splatter, and the big battles make the most of this by combining it with novel weaponry--Terry Crews's automatic shotgun gets some real animated-GIF-worthy killing done, while Stallone and Statham's "well, while we're here, we might as well..." biplane strafing run against a dock full of army dudes had me laughing and cheering. There's even one memorable bit seen through heat-vision goggles, great gouts of yellow blood spraying everywhere like the Sesame Street Chain Saw Massacre. I've often said that the great '80s action movies treat the action like a Busby Berkeley dance number--it's spectacle, and the spectacle is pretty spectacular here once it gets going. Problem is that when no one's getting killed, the movie's nearly unwatchable.