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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Expendables (review)

Bad Shakespeare

“Bad Shakespeare,” one badass notes with a sad shake of his head at a particularly cheesy revelation about the other badass standing in front of him, and that’s the moment when a little bell in my head went off: Bingo. It was the phrase I’d been searching for myself to describe the accretion of manly male melodrama that passes for character development here, and the pile-on of cheesy revelations that pass for plot. It is the fact that cowriter-director Sylvester Stallone recognizes this himself, down to putting those words in someone’s mouth, that is The Expendables’ saving grace. But just barely.
When it isn’t bad Shakespeare, this throwback 80s action movie — way more of a throwback than this summer’s actual 80s action throwback, The A-Team — is like what we might see if Solider of Fortune magazine decided to get into the business of pornography. Not the sex kind, of course, but the violence kind. The only hard weapons these guys need are machine guns that ejaculate multiple rounds per second. Or maybe an enormous knife for thrusting. And the orgasms! I mean: The explosions! They go on and on and on in cascades of eruptions of hot plasma. Stallone winks at the homoerotic pornification of the action movie, too: I won’t spoil the joke, but it’s a sure bet that if anyone other than Bruce Willis said what he says to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone himself, he would be exiting the movie in a body bag.

The winking self-awareness of everyone involved is another tiny saving grace. But just barely.

Arnie and Bruce make only cameo appearances here. The rest of the movie is a veritable Roman orgy of other musclebound bad boys with a lower paygrade: Jason Statham (Crank: High Voltage, Death Race), Jet Li (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Forbidden Kingdom), Dolph Lundgren, and a whole bunch more whose “acting” experience consists of howling in professional wrestling rings. And Stallone (Rambo, Rocky Balboa), of course. He’s the leader of this little club of mercenaries who pretend to be from the “Global Wildlife Conservancy” — that’s painted on the side of their airplane — but are really there, wherever there is, to bust some heads and come in a riot of massive C4 detonations. It’s a good thing you don’t really need to “understand” the action, as in just whose head is getting busted by just which mercenary at any given time, because you won’t. Stallone mostly cares that you can tell that that one minion of evil was beheaded in the coolest way he could imagine.

Where there is this time around (you get the sense that this is installment 12 or so in a film franchise that’s been knocking around since 1987 or so) is an unnamed island of Spanish-speaking brown people who are under the thumb of the scary General Garza (David Zayas: Michael Clayton, 16 Blocks), who is in turn under the thumb of CIA operative gone rogue James Munroe (Eric Roberts: The Dark Knight, Phat Girlz). Apparently subjugating Spanish-speaking brown people and making them live in 1950s Cuban-style deprivation is good for business for whitey, or something. Plus, it ensures a neverending supply of fruit carts that can be knocked down during chase bits. Stallone’s Barney Ross — I’m not sure the character’s name is mentioned even once in the film, but that’s what the IMDB says his name is — wasn’t going to help the island people, because messing with the CIA is never a good idea, but he just can’t forget Sandra (Giselle Itié), the very pretty Spanish-speaking brown young woman who is so fiercely dedicated to helping her people that she couldn’t even be swayed by the manly appeal of Stallone to escape to safety. (One wonders whether there would have been a movie if it had been an elderly priest or a plain middle-aged woman who was so fiercely dedicated to helping his or her people. Tip to oppressed unnamed South American peoples: Be sure to make the face of opposition a beautiful female one if you want some mercenary assistance in your fight for freedom.)

You almost can’t hate a movie where the mercenaries get to hang around in between missions in a totally badass tattoo parlor/motorcycle garage and listen to Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2, Sin City) reminisce about that time they were up in Bosnia. Sure, it’s bad Shakespeare, but Rourke sells it. If only just barely.


MPAA: rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Can’t wait! Eeeeeeee!!

  • Bill

    i’m tickled that this got a ‘just barely’. i’m there.

  • deering

    “…you get the sense that this is installment 12 or so in a film franchise that’s been knocking around since 1987 or so…”

    Hee. So, there’s hope that Tugg Speedman will do one last SCORCHER? ;)

  • Rykker

    “Just Barely” works just fine for my inner Golan-Globus/Cannon Group fan-child.
    The action films to which this film is a throwback are like pup tents. The tent poles provide just enough of a basic framework over which to stretch some fabric to keep the weather off you as you relish some time in the outdoors.
    However, it would be just plain silly to pitch a pup tent in the path of a hurricane and expect to have an enjoyable camping experience.
    That is to say, when this film is released to DVD, I won’t be looking for it in the Criterion Collection section.
    But I sure will have a ‘splodey-good, popcorny time being entertained.

  • RogerBW

    MaryAnn rightly complains about “films about men” as the default position. But this is really the only one this year that’s appealed to this particular man…

  • Paul

    “Tip to oppressed unnamed South American peoples: Be sure to make the face of opposition a beautiful female one if you want some mercenary assistance in your fight for freedom.”

    Hey, works in American politics, if you define mercenary as voters out for tax cuts. I also suspect it’s an old trope to have a bad ass become a good guy motivated by the beauty of a heroine.

  • YuppieScum

    Feminazi much?

  • Just returned from seeing it.

    Didn’t have too much of a problem with the film. I had issues with the poor CGI effects for the laser sights and the body gore (we’ve gotten to the point nobody does makeup effects for exploded body parts anymore. Sigh). Second biggest problem was that the script didn’t give much more in the way of character development for some of the characters to better explain their motivations… but then again that all takes away from the shoot-ups and blowouts.

    No, my biggest problem with the film? SHAKY CAM! Again! I’m getting sick of BLEEPING Shaky Cam effects during the hand-to-hand fights! Did Bruce Lee rely on Shaky Cam? Hell no! We had crisp clean views of the kung fu fighting! Now anymore we get zoom ins and close ups and shuffling feet and flinging shoulders and can’t see a damn thing! We can’t keep track of which stunt double is fighting the other stunt doubles! Damn it all. Dear Hollywood: NO MORE SHAKY CAM! I MEAN IT!

    Huff. Sigh. Had to be said.

  • MaryAnn:

    Stallone’s Barney Ross — I’m not sure the character’s name is mentioned even once in the film, but that’s what the IMDB says his name is…

    Oh yes, they say it at least a half-dozen times, and you see his passport.

    Just got back from this and I am blown away. The Expendables is the definitive action film from one of badass cinema’s greatest pioneers! Put that on your DVD box! Yeah!

  • CB

    No, my biggest problem with the film? SHAKY CAM! Again! I’m getting sick of BLEEPING Shaky Cam effects during the hand-to-hand fights!

    So, they were like “Hm, we’re going to make a throwback 80s action movie. But we can’t just ignore the last twenty years entirely… What innovations should we incorporate? I got it! Shaky cam!”

    Ha!

    I was so pleased that Inception dropped the ridiculous frantic camera-man-on-paint-mixer style of the Batman films. Sad to hear Expendables does it.

  • Just to note the three big dueling blow-em-up 80s retro action movies – The Losers, The A-Team, The Expendables – I have to compare and contrast.

    Losers: had decent actors, lots of slow-motion instead of shaky cam, good-humored self-awareness. Was the funniest of the three.

    The A-Team: had improbable stunts, some half-hearted attempts at pathos and emotion, and great Murdock craziness. Does get bonus points for the Flying Tank bit. Was the most outlandish of the three.

    The Expendables: had a good concept for a plot (which was “let’s go in and blow sh-t up, who cares about plot!”), a willingness to dial everything up to 11, and probably the better staged final shootout of the three. Just too much shaky-cam. Is the one most likely to get three more sequels out of it before everyone starring in it are in their 90s.

  • Fuggle

    I don’t get it. This sounds snarky or just sarcastically socratic, but I really don’t. How does Scott Pilgrim get pretty much trashed for only, apparently, its treatment of women – but Expendables gets by with all but a pass on how it does?

    Having seen both movies, Expendables seemed a lot worse. At the very least, no better.

  • MaryAnn

    How does Scott Pilgrim get pretty much trashed for only, apparently, its treatment of women – but Expendables gets by with all but a pass on how it does?

    Seriously?

    *Scott Pilgrim* is supposed to be about one man’s relationship with women, and the women are all but absent. Half the story is missing.

    *The Expendables* is not about women at all. Here the one female character basically *is* the MacGuffin (as one commenter in the *Scott Pilgrim* said about Ramona, thinking this was a defense of the film), but that’s okay, because she really is just the impetus to set the plot in motion: she, herself, is not the central focus of the plot.

    I’m mystified that this needs to be explained. Isn’t it obvious? Can you honestly not see how very, very different the stories of these two movies are?

  • Fuggle

    I see that they’re different, I just don’t see how the Expendables isn’t also bad. It’s not about women, yes: because in that universe, they only exist to either be saved by or abused by men, and through such be used to ‘define what kind of man he is’. They exist and suffer entirely, only, to enable the villains to be shown to be villains, the heroes to be shown to be heroes, and to help bring the main character his helpful revelation that improves his life – not by having any part of it, but just by being abducted and tortured and abused until rescued.

    No. I see how it’s different, but I don’t see how it’s not, also, offensive.

    Though by the another view, does a movie with female characters have to be about women, if the main character and primary focus of the story is male? Is it better, if a movie focuses primarily on a man’s story, that it has no women at all? I guess I don’t see how it makes it better. The movie is about this mercenary, and to a lesser extent, his one mercenary buddy, and they’re both men, but since it’s not “about” the two briefly-seen women who motivate them and who only exist within the story to be reacted to, that’s okay?

    No, I don’t really get how that’s the case.

  • MaryAnn

    Though by the another view, does a movie with female characters have to be about women, if the main character and primary focus of the story is male?

    No. But as I have explained many many many times in the comments thread following my review of *Scott Pilgrim,* that movie is about a man’s relationship to women. That’s not a story about a man you can cut the women out of.

  • Fuggle

    I saw a couple hundred replies and didn’t actually read the Scott Pilgrim comment thread.

    I’m not sure if I agree, either on what you can do with a story or how much it happened in Scott Pilgrim, but that’s also a completely different discussion.

    Can we lay Scott Pilgrim aside, and focus on just The Expendables? I still don’t see why it’s not offensive, and I think comparing it to Scott Pilgrim has distracted from that core question.

  • Calamity

    You know what? I’m sick and fucking tired of hearing this crap about women. The entire point of this movie was to bring a whole bunch of uber-badass action stars like Stallone , Statham, Crews, Li, Lundgren, Willis, Swarz..(I’m not even going to try to spell his name.), Rourke, and Austin. It was meant to be a love letter to the old Eighties BLow shit up movies! Not a chick flick with fricken love and emotion bonds and crap! Just because the women In the movie get captured and a abused, doesn’t mean it’s meant to be offensive!
    The first woman is the generals daughter, so they captured her to get info from
    her because she was helping the expendables.
    The second woman was in an abusive realtionship, so Statham’s character, Lee Christmas, went after him to teach him a lesson, not to fuck around with his woman!

    The Eighties and ninties were, in my opinion, the best time for the film industry.
    Where the hell are we when a movie called Beverly fucking hills CHIUAUA, can be number one in America?! This movie was awesome. Sure it lacked depth, but it wasn’t meant to have much in the first place.

  • MaryAnn

    The hilarious and scary thing about comments like Calamity’s is that it’s impossible to tell whether it’s serious or whether it’s meant to be some sort of parody.

    I just don’t see how the Expendables isn’t also bad. It’s not about women, yes: because in that universe, they only exist to either be saved by or abused by men, and through such be used to ‘define what kind of man he is’. They exist and suffer entirely, only, to enable the villains to be shown to be villains, the heroes to be shown to be heroes, and to help bring the main character his helpful revelation that improves his life – not by having any part of it, but just by being abducted and tortured and abused until rescued.

    No. I see how it’s different, but I don’t see how it’s not, also, offensive.

    You’re not wrong, Fuggle, in what you say here. But this is true of 80 percent or more of movies. It is offensive in the larger scale that most movies are about men and most movies relegate women to the status of prizes for men, as motivation for men, and existing only in relationship to men. It is offensive that few movies allow women to be fully human characters with their own stories and their own character arcs.

    It’s totally fair and valid, I feel, to criticize Hollywood on the whole for this.

    It’s harder to criticize individual movies on this basis. If the overall treatment of women in movies on the whole were more equitable, would you feel this way about this particular film? I mean, no one is suggesting that *every* film must have an equal ratio of male and female characters. There *is* a place for stories that are mostly about men, just as there should be a place for many many more movies that are mostly about women. And it would be nice, too, if at least some movies allowed us the luxury of seeing male and female characters being treated as fully human at the same time.

    But I would never say, “We must eliminate male-dominanted movies like *The Expendables.*” I don’t know of anyone who would say such a thing.

    *SPOILERS BELOW*

    That said, *The Expendables* is better than some other films in how it does treat the few women onscreen. While the general’s daughter *is* tortured, the violence is not sexualized: she isn’t treated any differently than would have been the case had the character been male. (I was afraid she would be threatened with rape or actually raped, which did not happen.) And while it is she who draws the Stallone character back to the island, there actually isn’t any romance between them, and we are spared the ridiculous sex scene that other similiar movies invariably give us. It seems to be an instance of Stallone — as writer and director — acknowledging that while an older man might well find a woman young enough to be his daughter attractive, there’s no guarantee she’s going to feel the same about him, and maybe even that it’s sort of ridiculous that these kinds of movies always seem to go in that direction.

    I liked, too, that Statham’s girlfriend doesn’t take his shit, and let’s him know that it’s not cool to not be in touch for a month and then turn up and act surprised and hurt that she’s seeing someone else. He may act possessive, but she refuses to let him treat her that way. And while the whole “he beats up the new boyfriend” thing later is a bit more regressive, he doesn’t beat up the other guy in order to “win” her back — she has obviously already gotten rid of the guy and thrown her hat back into Statham’s ring. He does it to give the other guy a taste of his own medicine.

    It’s probably not the healthiest romantic relationship ever. But the point of demanding more feminist attitudes in mainstream movies isn’t to deny that some men really are violent or that some men really do think of women as possessions or to deny any other reality of how real relationships sometimes work in the real world: it’s to ask that the negative or dark aspects of how men view women don’t get a stamp of approval in stories about them. I don’t think that happens here.

  • Paul

    I’d say the Statham-Carpenter relationship was the realistic relationship in the movie; not a good relationship, but like others I’ve seen before in real life. Statham was a bad boyfriend, but cares about her, but not enough to change to fit a relationship. It’s the sort of relationship I would see in economically challenged, socially conservative parts of the country, including the occasional violence. I had one friend in particular a lot like Statham (aside from the profession), right down to the cluelessness (Statham’s character didn’t even realize Carpenter had company until the guy showed up).

    Aside from two scenes I wished I could have rewound and watched again (the basketball court scene, and the first fight on the island), I thought the action was pretty standard stuff.

    I do wonder if they will do a little re-editing to allow Li to kick Lungrum’s ass for the Asian market. It’s happened before; in the old King Kong vs. Godzilla movie, different endings were shown in the Western and Eastern markets. Li spent most of this movie looking pretty unhappy, playing the little guy in a movie when I suspect Statham would be the only one who could give him a fight off screen.

  • Anyone who’s watched 1980’s action movies knows that the only romance is homoerotic. Women are just furniture, like seeing a girl in a gay adult film.

  • MaryAnn:

    And while the whole “he beats up the new boyfriend” thing later is a bit more regressive, he doesn’t beat up the other guy in order to “win” her back — she has obviously already gotten rid of the guy and thrown her hat back into Statham’s ring. He does it to give the other guy a taste of his own medicine.

    Yes! This scene (and in particular Christmas’s final lines to her) plays out in such a decent, masculine way that doesn’t stoop to guys fighting to “win” a woman — Christmas accepted her rejection like a man, and then came to her aid when she needed it. I’m not even convinced she’d thrown her hat back into his ring… I think she just knew he would help, and trusted him to treat her with respect even though she hurt him. Not only was it a great fight scene (which it was) but it was also one of the stronger character moments in a film that wasn’t really about character.

  • UGh

    Oh man shut up about the women. Not everything has turn into feminism 101 in this society, contrary to popular opinion

  • Right-o

    Do women ever stop and listen to the narcissistic bullsh*t they spew at every opportunity?

    Let the guy’s have their space, its a crummy action film.

  • LaSargenta

    Let the guy’s have their space, its a crummy action film.

    *scratching head* Ya know? Funny that the whole world feels — de facto — like guys’ space. But, HORRORS!, occasionally a women is heard to be commenting on this phenomenon and, EEK!, she has to be slapped down and told that she has no right to comment.

    Hey, bub. If you were really man enough, women commenting on the obvious wouldn’t piss you off so much.

    Insecure much?

  • MaryAnn

    Obviously, I cannot win. Even when I’m defending a crummy action film from charges of misogyny, I’m still told to shut my mouth.

    A woman simply is not allowed to speak about anything.

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