“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.