Do you remember 200 Cigarettes? You know, the ‘80s nostalgia-fest about the ultimate New Year’s Eve party being thrown by Martha Plimpton, and the various vignettes involving those who will end up at said party? The 1999 film where Kate Hudson spends a lot of the movie covered in dog poop, Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman try on Brooklyn accents, and Paul Rudd trying to court Courtney Love? It’s not your fault; the movie is totally forgettable, notable only for its enormous cast of upcoming actors, which, along with those mentioned above, includes Ben and Casey Affleck, Dave Chappelle, Janeane Garofalo, and Jay Mohr. The fact that all of these actors signed on to such a nothing script is more likely because it was the feature directing debut of casting director Risa Bramon Garcia. Whether they were trying to get on her good side for her relationships with much bigger name directors would be a functional excuse for embarrassing themselves; Garcia had already put together two of the best casts ever assembled, JFK and True Romance, and there’s no reason she wouldn’t use her clout in the future*.
Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is a movie Garcia would be proud of, filled to the brim with almost every low budget action star of the last 20 years, all standing around waiting for something to do. And really, after signing up Jet Li, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Gary Daniels, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, etc., how can you blame Stallone for being at a loss as to what to do with them? Either they’ll all get some sort of character development, guaranteeing the movie would be almost three hours, or strip the film of everything but the essentials, and just try to line the actors up for an Ocean’s Eleven style group photo.
The answer for Stallone is that he did a little bit of each, cheating us on all fronts. The only character with any subplot or backstory is Jason Statham, who goes after his ex-girlfriend’s conveniently abusive boyfriend (in movies like, this there’s no such thing as the new boyfriend who’s just a boring accountant), but Terry Crews is playing someone whose name isn’t even clear until the closing credits and you can read it off the screen. Crews is given a scene right out of Predator, fetishizing his manly penis weapon and blowing things up. Mickey Rourke, who spends his screen time talking like Hulk Hogan, isn’t even involved in the action, he’s just some sleazy bare-chested guy named Tool (not one joke at his expense because of it?) who shows up to finish some tattoos on Stallone and play knife darts with Statham.
The resulting imbalance causes you to want extra time with certain characters who were probably far more important before the editing hammer came down. Dolph Lundgren**, as an out-of-control drug addict mercenary proves that he would make a fantastic villain in some other movie. Gary Daniels is in the film’s best action sequence, but he’s just a lowly henchman, and has almost no dialogue. So concerned with condensing everything was Stallone that the first minute of the movie features no less than four dissolves, suggesting there were several deleted scenes at the head of the film that might have explained a lot more.
And it isn’t that the story is important and that it was well thought out; all we get is another in a long line of cold-hearted dictators running drugs out of a poor South American country. Stallone and his team are sent in to rescue the anonymous brown people, chaos ensues. The laziness of the plot would have worked if Stallone, as writer/director, had been willing to really make a throwback to ‘80s action films that The Expendables seems to promise***. But he seemed to forget that the movies he made his name on, such as Cobra, are so dated and godawful as to be hilarious. Stallone, who gives a completely wooden and sincere performance, actually tries to turn The Expendables into a real movie, and his patented puppy dog sentimentality takes over. Stallone just wants to be loved; it’s obvious in the Rocky films. But he also has an ego and wants to be taken seriously****, hence his recent odes to himself, the entirely self-indulgent duology of Rocky Balboa and Rambo.
If anything The Expendables is a continuation of 2008’s Rambo, which started with an hour of boredom and padding, and concluded with 30 minutes of cartoon mayhem and a lot of crude CGI. The bullets that cause heads to literally explode are here again, which should have been the tone all along, but Stallone just can’t let his movie be terrible enough to be entertaining. The model should have been Punisher: War Zone, which is a visually stunning movie, filled with ridiculous, physically impossible violence, but with a deadly serious tone and hideous dialogue. Instead, Stallone wants to make the characters lovable, there are a lot of jokes about sensitive tough guys, and plenty of intentional homoeroticism scored to Credence Clearwater Revival songs.
The only two actors who know what they are doing are Eric Roberts, all sunglasses and appropriately hammy and over-the-top, as always, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has a quick cameo. Arnold shares a scene with Bruce Willis and Stallone, and he walks away with it. Unlike the other two, he’s unforced, charismatic, and not trying to sound tough, therefore he is tough. Roberts is blessed with such smoothness that in the film’s final action scene, as he tries to avoid explosion after explosion, with lots of dirt and foam concrete flying everywhere, he manages to keep his white suit spotless. There’s a sequel to be made somewhere about his dry cleaner*****.
* After 200 Cigarettes, Garcia’s career as a major casting director sort of petered out. Her last feature film was Garfield in 2004.
** Lundgren was the lead in Mark L. Lester’s Showdown in Little Tokyo, a similarly homoerotic ‘80s toned film (though it was released in 1991). Like The Expendables, virtually every Lester film (Commando included) has absolutely no second act, we just go from intro to concluding action scenes. However, Lester understood something very important that Stallone does not. Showdown in Little Tokyo is 78 minutes, with not a frill to be seen, and The Expendables is a bloated and poorly paced 105.
*** The fact that the dictator, played by Dexter’s David Zayas, isn’t named Generalissimo, seems like a missed opportunity.
**** Did you know that Driven, which was written by Stallone, has about 45 minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD that would made the characters fully fledged clichés, instead of just thinly drawn clichés? Director Renny Harlin wisely cut them out, even though Driven is no picnic to sit through.
***** The Expendables was produced by Avi Lerner’s Millenium Films. Lerner got his start with infamous producer Elie Samaha (Battlefield Earth, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever), who admittedly knew nothing about movies, and made his money in a dry cleaning business for Hollywood stars. It’s how he met Stallone, which eventually resulted in Samaha producing pet projects for him (like Driven and Avenging Angelo). Samaha and Lerner also produced movies for three action stars curiously absent from The Expendables, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wesley Snipes. All of them still make an occasional film for Millenium.