Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham
Runtime: 98 mins
An interesting Belgian film called JCVD was released a couple of years ago. It’s about an ageing action star – played by the actor himself – who is unwittingly caught up in a bank robbery, before being accused by police of being one of its perpetrators. At one moment in the film, the star slowly drifts out of the scene, to where we can see the set and lighting equipment, and suddenly begins talking to the camera. In a single-take monologue, he speaks candidly about the highs and lows of his life so far – his career, drug problems, love life, successes and mistakes – and hopes for some kind of redemption.
One of the many clever effects of doing this is to undermine not just our perception of stardom, but also the sense of a comeback that the plot initially suggests. The actor was Jean-Claude Van Damme. Both him and Steven Seagal turned down offers to be in The Expendables, a film that I found neither as enjoyable in its own right as other action releases I’ve seen this year, nor fun for reasons of ridiculousness. It’s less about comebacks than its successful promotion would suggest, but does unite some actors from director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone’s generation who have starred in similar kinds of films, and even rolls the credits to “The Boys are Back in Town”.
Stallone’s Barney Ross heads up an elite unit of mercenaries who are enlisted to topple a military dictatorship on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. The daughter of the puppet general himself turns out to be their inside contact, and it becomes clear that The Expendables have been dragged into this mess not just thanks to a CIA agent, but thanks to an ex-CIA agent too. Meanwhille, in a plotline completely inconsequential to the rest of the film, Ross’ right hand-man (Jason Statham) must win back an estranged girlfriend.
The fighting backgrounds of the cast vary from karate and wushu to fake and Greco-Roman wrestling, but the hand-to-hand combat is overpowered by excessive to the point of underwhelming guns and explosives. Jet Li in particular feels like he was hired to lose his fights, and only takes out enemies by shooting them. One part of the film that has a sense of humour about the coming together of these actors is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scene (which is also Bruce Willis’ only appearance, though from the way it’s played you expect him to re-appear if there’s a sequel), an appearance that’s kind of self-important and not especially funny, but which also contains a spark, albeit a cheesy spark, noticeably lacking from the rest of the film.
The only character other than these cameo roles with any charisma is the villain played by Eric Roberts, recognizable most recently for his small role in The Dark Knight. Statham and Stallone get the most scenes, and as a pairing they seem like nothing more than colleagues. There’s an understanding that to just replay the style of dialogue used from the action films of twenty years ago wouldn’t work in The Expendables, but neither Stallone or main writer David Callaham provide the characters with banter anything less than forced, boring and stilted. Those who enjoy it know that an action film of this kind should never be any of those things.