If ever a test case were required to prove the theory that shit in quote marks is still shit, this is it. ‘The Expendables’ is a sluggish, derivative, witless farrago which is laser-targeted to the nostalgia set and would surely have gone straight to DVD were it not for Stallone’s recent run at the box office with belated sequels to his ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rambo’ franchises.
‘The Expendables’ is – once again – about ageing fighters who remain happily out of sync with the modern world, though it’s more ‘Wild Hogs’ than ‘No Country For Old Men’, concerned less with growing old gracefully than with clinging to a state of perpetual adolescence in which fast cars, tattoos and knifes all remain indescribably cool. Sly is Barney Ross, the stogie-chomping front man to a ragtag, cosily diverse unit of jaded, muscle-bound mercenaries who accept jobs that no-one else in their right mind would touch. Stallone has lost much of the loveable-lug lustre of his early years and seems to have turned into his own ‘Spitting Image’ puppet, spending the entire film looking like he’s watching a fly perched on the end of his nose.
We open on the gang dealing with a fleet of Somalian pirates, revealing that – unsurprisingly – diplomacy is not a term in their lexicon. Before you can say, ‘Hey, what’s Dolph Lundgren doing with that 12-gauge?’, a hostage-taker has been shot through the torso and the whole vessel is submerged in gunfire. And so the depressingly reactionary tone is set, offering the first hint that the title of the film refers as much to the group’s view of other human beings as it does to themselves.
Settling for the most rudimentary of save-the-maiden/topple-the-dicator plotlines and wheeling out tough-guy clichés by rote, innovation and skill are notable by their absence. And as if things weren’t bad enough, Stallone mysteriously opts to photograph the entire film in extreme close-up, which a) allows you to see just how shallow all the characters are, b) alerts you to the shoddiness of the effects, and c) means that all the action scenes look like an indiscriminate tangle of bloody body parts.
Elsewhere, pickings remain slim. Cameo appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger serve no function whatsoever bar allowing Stallone to make a cheap allusion to Arnie’s day job (a Planet Hollywood gag would’ve been funnier), while the inclusion of a romantic sub-plot exists solely to allow Jason Statham to furnish retributive justice on the local wife-beater. There’s even a fight scene inspired by a racial stereotype, as Jet Li engages in a warehouse tussle with Lundgren and gains the advantage because he’s so short.
Even if Sly’s sense of irony hadn’t been lost in the mail, ‘The Expendables’ would still be unsalvageable. It’s a film that exists in a cultural limbo, where life, history and filmmaking appear to have ceased at the moment Ronald Reagan left office. Still, if you like watching men with no necks thumping each other, this could be your ‘Citizen Kane’.