THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Sly Stallone and pals throw a sausage party, and you're invited.
I have a theory that it's actually a bad idea to put too many actors of the same specialty in the same movie. The end result rarely lives up to the initial promise. Put multiple comedians in the same film and they all start competing to see who can be the funniest, which leads to serious overacting. Put too many action stars in the same movie and you end up with The Expendables, a film in which everyone has to be given their heroic "moment," typically at the expense of coherent storytelling. Sure, this movie sounds amazing on the surface, as it brings together just about everyone who's ever starred in an action movie in the history of cinema, but watching it is just a letdown.
Sylvester Stallone (who also co-wrote and directed) plays Barney Ross, the leader of a group of mercenaries. They're hired to go to a small South American country where rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts) has taken over a major drug cartel, in cahoots with a dictator. Barney assembles his team - which includes the improbably named Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) as well as Yin Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) - and sets off on the mission. While there, Barney decides he needs to "stand for something," and so he tries to help Sandra (Giselle Itie), a local freedom fighter with ties to the dictator. Of course, Munroe has his own muscle, in the person of former pro wrestling champ "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
It bears mentioning that Barney and his team often make visits to their mentor, a motorcycle/tattoo enthusiast played by Mickey Rourke. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger show up in cameos, which would be a spoiler if not for the fact that all the advertising has given this scene away.
The idea of watching so many macho men engage in a perilous adventure sounds like a lot of fun, but The Expendables badly fumbles the ball. You might reasonably expect Ocean's Eleven with action heroes, where each guy has his part to play, and with a sprinkling of humor at the expense of the stars' well-developed personas. No such luck. Most of the characters - save for the ones played by Stallone and Statham - are pushed into the background almost immediately, never given enough screen time to really do much of anything. (Stallone's character, of course, gets the most dialogue, the most scenes, and the most development.) By the time Randy Couture came back on screen for the finale, I'd forgotten he was even in this thing. There's little humor either, unless you think it's funny that Jet Li's character keeps asking for more money. I'm at a loss to explain how so many cool guys could be put in the same film and then so shamelessly wasted.
Of course, this wouldn't matter if the action was great, but it isn't. Stallone has never been a particularly competent director, and that really shows here. The action scenes (which, incidentally, are not as frequent as you'd expect) are sloppily staged and clumsily edited. Stallone almost seems to be taking a cue from someone like Michael Bay, i.e. believing that the more quick edits a scene has, the more exciting it will be. Half the time, particularly in the big finale, I couldn't even tell what was going on or who was fighting whom. If the chief selling point of your movie is high-testosterone action from an all-star cast, the audience should at least be able to follow along.
Each of the actors does get one big scene, but it doesn't add up to a very satisfying whole. Stallone isn't much of a director, and he's not much of a writer either. The individual star moments would work within a well-conceived story, but The Expendables is a lot of half-baked nonsense. Munroe is a generic bad guy with confusing motives, and Sandra's fight for change in her country is basically just a set-up to make Stallone's character look noble. The film's sympathies aren't with her, that's for sure. Because of the lazy nature of the story, the action scenes don't hold much weight. Stuff blows up, guns are fired, and people get killed in all kinds of gruesome ways, yet it's largely snooze-inducing.
I won't lie: there's some ground level fun to be had just watching these guys share space on the screen - enough so that one wishes there had been more moments of on-screen camaraderie. The Expendables is admirable for bringing these actors all together, but shameful for not having the integrity to do anything of value with them.
( out of four)
The Expendables is rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.