Sure, this movie is eleven years old at this point and has had two sequels.
Plus, it’s a shameless action movie with a lot of gunfire and explosions, with a plot driven entirely by violence with very little in the way of character development. The body count in this one is off the charts. The scripted dialogue is cringe-worthy so often I’m not going to bother to give you examples. This film may not have any redeeming qualities at all, now that I think about it.
Except that I enjoyed it.
True confession time: I’ve always watched movies that many people would casually dismiss as “trash.” Lots of B-movies, especially old-school horror and science-fiction. Violent action movies which transcend genre also own some real estate in my psyche. The John Wick movies, for instance. Countless martial arts films. And, films such as The Expendables, which are essentially military porn.
During this four-month stretch chronicling the last of my personal quarantine time, I’ve watched the following movies which I believe fit into this particular guilty-pleasure genre: Enter the Dragon (1973); Forbidden World (1982); Johnny Mnemonic (1995); Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998); Salt (2010); The A-Team (2010); Seven Psychopaths (2012); Safe (2012); Guns Akimbo (2019); and, the first two entries in The Expendables franchise. Plus, I’m currently watching The Expendables 3.
In spite of my predilection for such violent, often-brainless fare, you won’t read reviews for any of these movies here. I made a vow with myself to never write reviews for any forms of entertainment that didn’t earn at least a C in my inconsistent and rather capricious Firewater Report Card grading system. In my mind, a C equates to “average, nothing special.” Often, I won’t review anything less than a B, because “average” doesn’t usually encourage me to write about it. At a glance, I doubt any of the movies I listed above would have been graded above C-level, including Enter the Dragon (I know, blasphemous). Four of them (at least) would have been Ds or Fs. I’m not going to say which ones. Enter at your own risk.
Why am I wasting your time by writing a review of The Expendables?
Wasting your time, I mean. I’m not wasting your time.
The Expendables is a testosterone-drenched action movie that hearkens back to the 1980s. There’s no real plot, just violent action sequences strung together with flying bullets and pyrotechnic explosions. The heroes seem to lack consciences; in fact, they’re not so distinguishable from the story’s bad guys.
It is, in fact, the type of movie that made stars out of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, all of whom appear in this one. Arnold and Bruce have speaking parts, not ass-kicking roles in this, but all three actors temporarily share the screen in one scene. There can be no doubt that this is a Stallone vehicle from start to finish. It was co-written and directed by Stallone, as well as featuring him in the lead role.
The Expendables are a group of elite mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and based out of New Orleans. They have a clubhouse, of course, in the form of a tattoo parlor, run by Tool (Mickey Rourke), who smokes a long-stemmed briar pipe and spouts incomprehensible bits of philosophy and wisdom.
Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) is a former SAS soldier and blade specialist. He is Ross’ second-in-command, I think. I’m not sure that this is ever made explicitly clear in the movie, but I assumed this to be the case by the way the two men acted towards each other. Statham is still a bankable action movie star, even ten years after this movie, and he’s sublimely good in this role. I’ve watched most of Statham’s movies over the years and I feel comfortable saying that he seems to elevate any movie in which he appears. It’s clear that he doesn’t believe this is a parody of 1980s movies starring a group of over-the-hill action stars.
Other members of the team: martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture). If you called this an R-rated version of the G.I. Joe cartoon, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
The movie opens with a sequence pitting the Expendables against a group of Somali pirates. Somalia, pirates, and the Gulf of Aden play absolutely no part in the rest of the movie. This is merely a teaser to introduce our mercenary team and show them in violent action.
Then we get to the real story. With rival mercenary Trench (Schwarzeneggar), Barney Ross meets with Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), who is offering a contract to eliminate dictator General Garza (David Zayas) on the fictional island of Vilenia. Trench tells Church he’s too busy, so the contract goes to Ross and the Expendables.
Ross and Christmas travel to Vilenia to do some reconnoitering that turns into another bombastic action sequence. During this trip, Ross meets General Garza’s daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itié), with whom he seems to have an immediate bond that isn’t creepy at all. His feelings for Sandra seem more paternal than romantic. Barney Ross’ only loves are his weapons and his teammates.
Ross does find out that this mission isn’t really about General Garza. It’s about rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who—with his henchmen Paine (Steve Austin) and the Brit (Gary Daniels)—is propping up Garza in power as they reap all of profits of the drug trade.
Sandra isn’t the only female in the movie. Lee Christmas has a girlfriend, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), who cheats on him while he is fighting in Somalia. This leads to the breakup scene, of course. Then, later, Lacy’s new boyfriend Paul turns out to be abusive. Christmas comes to her rescue, beating up Paul and a few of his friends, winning the hand of his woman again. The woman who cheated on him.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s not even romantic, except in the most caveman of ways. In the world of the movie, women are either damsels-in-distress or femme fatales. This is not a rom-com, and it does not star Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie. The women in this male-driven movie are little more than accessories.
Ross decides he has to return to Vilenia to rescue Sandra, the pretty artist and taxi driver he met once. He can’t ask his team to join him on this personal mission, but you can probably guess that they do. All of which leads to our final violent act, where our tiny band of mercenaries faces off against the army of an entire island-nation. I’ll leave it up to you to write the rest of the script.
This movie reminds me of every FPS video game (that’s “first-person shooter,” for the noobs out there) I’ve ever played. In fact, I can’t swear that I haven’t played at least one game with this identical plot. Maybe more than one.
It’s not anything new to you either. While this is one of the truest examples of a plot-driven story, with characters who change very little from movie to movie, let alone within the same story, the plot itself is merely the frame upon which we hang our action set pieces and two-dimensional characterizations. This film is unabashedly about shiny metal, military carnage, and macho iconography.
What makes this movie stand out from all others of its ilk are its cast, who do the job they were paid to do, and its $80-plus million budget, which is all evident in the star power and the violent special effects that manage to seem both realistic and cartoonish at the same time. Everything in this movie is big and loud.
As a cisgender white male, I’m probably not the authority on whether any of the many stereotypes presented in this story are offensive. When you have an Asian martial arts expert called Yin Yang, it makes a person wonder. I could understand if some women found the portrayal of the distaff side to be offensive. Sandra and Lacy may as well have been princesses locked in a castle tower.
Speaking for only myself, The Expendables was a harmless bit of fun to pass a little time. Instantly, it was something new and nostalgic at the same time. I won’t recommend it for children or the highly-sensitive, but I do recommend it for those of you who enjoy this sort of movie. You know who you are. Blood, bullets and booms.
Firewater’s I’m-Gonna-Die-for-Something-that-Counts Report Card: C+
It’s maybe a cut above the usual action-adventure trash, but it’s still trash. Doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it, though.