Like one of those packaged concert tours made up of a bunch of old acts nobody wants to see, The Expendables features a rogue's gallery of tired action stars that, when thrown together, suddenly holds the promise of a good time.
For a while, The Expendables lives up to that promise too — then the story kicks in and we find ourselves with just another routine action movie.
It's another one about mercenaries. What's the deal with that? Mercenaries are the contract killers of the military world, the evil Hessians during the Revolutionary War, people without principle, only after a buck.
Yet movies keep selling these guys as fun-loving adventurers, bound only to each other in brotherhood and loyalty. Are male spectators so lonely for fraternal bonding that these fantasies hold appeal? Have we grown so skeptical of causes that we believe in nothing but self-interest?
No, that's not it. Here's the real reason: A mercenary story replicates a teenage boy's conception of the power structure: A tight band of close friends versus all the adult idiots in authority. Most of the guys in The Expendables are over 50, but this movie's mentality is more like 15, as in sophomore year, first term. That's the real audience for this movie.
Sylvester Stallone directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Callaham from Callaham's original story. The temptation, upon seeing that credit, is to attribute every good line to Stallone and blame everything wrong on Callaham. To be sure, the movie feels like something mediocre that was spruced up after the fact — with a sprinkling of clever dialogue and with the kind of star line-up that only a veteran with major connections could haul in.
Still, there's no one to blame but Stallone for action sequences that degenerate into incoherence, to the point where it's impossible to know whose truck is exploding and who's shooting at whom. One clue, which might help: All the bad guys wear red berets that never fall off and that they never take off, lest no one will know it's OK to kill them. Wearing a red beret in The Expendables is as dangerous as wearing a red shirt on Star Trek.
For a while, seeing all these action stars in one movie is in itself a pleasure. Stallone heads the merry band of mercenaries, which includes Jason Statham as his right hand man, plus Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren. Bruce Willis, as a CIA front man, hires them to go to South America and deal with an American businessman, played by Eric Roberts, who is pillaging a small island. And Roberts is backed by the muscle of none other than "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. There are more cameos, and the effect of all this is to make us expect a fun movie bordering on satire.
But no. It turns self-important. The guys discover a cause. Stallone finds a woman (Giselle Itie), who is oppressed, courageous, and in need of rescue, and in the process of asking us to take her seriously, Stallone asks us to take his movie seriously, but this is not possible. Still, Stallone never bores his audience. Within its genre — that is, the lousy movie genre — The Expendables is one of the better ones.
I've saved Mickey Rourke for last. He plays a former mercenary, now working as a tattoo artist, and in the few scenes he's in, there's nothing else on screen. Even with second-rate material, Rourke blows into the film, wonderfully at home with himself and complete in his characterization. He has a monologue that might have sounded like nonsense in another actor's mouth, about fighting Serbians in Bosnia and the spiritual toll of warfare. He's amazing.
And give credit to Stallone: He just leaves the camera on Rourke, in the tightest of close-ups, cutting only once, to himself, for a one-second reaction shot, but keeping the focus on his actor. A great actor.
Advisory: This film contains lots of violence.