During the closing seconds of The Expendables, Thin Lizzy’s 1976 iconic single “The Boys Are Back in Town” provides a send-off for Sylvester Stallone and his crew as they ride off into the moonlight on their chrome-polished hogs. It’s a ceremonial toast to a boy’s club of the biggest action stars of the last 35 years, and it appropriately sums up the film’s spirit of camaraderie that is its raison d’être. Coming on the heels of this summer’s other action blast-fests The Losers and The A-Team, this Stallone-directed tale of mercenary justice gets everything right that those inferior movies never had a clue about how to deliver.
Judging from its frequent conversational scenes of macho charisma, Stallone and his co-writer (David Callaham) have learned a thing or two from Quentin Tarantino’s talky cinema of character disclosure. When one character reminds another of his motto that “A man who gets along with women is the man who gets along without them,” it’s the kind of streamlined logic that speaks volumes about a specific generation of male identity.
Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team (including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture) kick things off with a hostage-rescue mission aboard a pirate vessel. Night-vision visuals press the laser-dot-guided sniper gun play into a video game style of violence that includes decapitation and body-splitting. Gunner Jensen (Lundgren) goes beyond the pale of the group’s ethical code when he tries to “hang a pirate.” Going off the deep-end is viewed as an inevitable certainty among the group. Jensen gets apprehended by his own men and kicked out of the squad because of his loss of focus. It’s these kinds of colorful details that help give a modicum of meaning to the obligatory chase sequences and complex battles that come at regular intervals.
Yin Yang (Li) has a complex about his height that he tries to compensate for by perpetually asking for a raise. A brutal hand-to-hand fight between Yang and Jensen proves to be a tougher competition than you might imagine for such a martial arts master as Li. It’s just one example of how the filmmakers resist clichés by planting little surprises of combat intrigue.
Mickey Rourke gobbles up his chance to add thematic subtext as Tool, a womanizing tattoo artist whose shop plays clubhouse for the gang of misfit mercenaries. Rourke’s earnest monologue about a defining moment of crisis decision in Bosnia gives the movie a dramatic anchor that works in spite of its conspicuous nature.
Keeping with the fashionable trope of rogue CIA agents, the narrative is set on the fictional South American island of Vilena. Mystery man “Church” (Bruce Willis) offers Ross $5 million for his team to break up Vilena’s dictatorial government. The meeting with Church affords an uncredited cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger whose presidential aspirations are comically alluded to. On Vilena CIA bad apple James Monroe (Eric Roberts) is the local puppet master for dictator General Garza (David Zayas), whose free-thinking daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), thaws Ross’ frosty heart.
Lean, mean, funny and chockablock with fast-twitch demolition spectacle, The Expendables represents a grand finale for several generations of action cinema stars. Although there are obvious political influences at play, the film walks a fine generic line of idealism that errs on the side of graphic novel cartoonishness without succumbing entirely to style. When Ross and Lee Christmas (Statham) do a recon mission on the island, their war plane is camouflaged as a “Global Wildlife Conservancy” vehicle. You don’t get much wilder than this particular crew of big-screen badasses.
The Expendables (R) ★★★☆☆