Film Review: The Expendables

Is 'The Expendables' a self-conscious joke or a sly throwback to grindhouse fare like Enzo Castellari’s 'The Inglorious Bastards,' which pitted the B-list likes of Fred Williamson, Bo Svenson and Peter Hooten against a pack of barking Nazis?

Mercenaries Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) have been all over this dirty world, collecting hefty paychecks to kick ass from Mombasa to Sarajevo and keep their mouths shut when they come home. They may be getting a little long in the tooth, but they’re impressively lean and mean without being heartless bastards. Really—they fall out with longtime companion Jensen because he wants to hang him a Somali pirate, and that’s just not their style. They garrote, gut and blow bad guys to smithereens, sure, but hanging a man is barbaric, Neanderthal crap and they don’t roll that way. Oh, and they don’t roll with junkies either, so strung-out Jensen gets the heave-ho after the gang finishes rescuing a bunch of bedraggled hostages in the Gulf of Aden.

After getting his lavish tattoos touched up by former Expendable Tool (Mickey Rourke), Ross gets a new gig from the mysterious “Mr. Church” (Bruce Willis, uncredited despite the fact that he’s featured prominently on the movie’s poster), after trading barbs with best frenemy Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who declares the job a fool’s errand. The assignment involves deposing Third World dictator General Garza (David Zayas of TV’s “Dexter”), who, with the help of sleek Americano John Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his sadistic sidekick Paine (Steve Austin), has turned the banana republic of Vilena into an insanely lucrative, ruthlessly efficient cocaine-producing machine.

Ross aborts the mission when he realizes that Church is CIA and they’re all Agency pawns in some cynical, black-op power struggle, but not before being profoundly moved by the efforts of Garza’s tough-yet-idealistic daughter (Giselle Itié) to help her brutally oppressed countrymen. Haunted by the fact that she refused to abandon them to save her own skin, Ross resolves to go back into the mouth of Hell and polish up his tarnished karma.

Yes, the marks of tongue-in-cheek snark are all over The Expendables, from those ludicrous names (none of which is as slyly preposterous as “Randy Couture,” and that one’s for real—no wonder the guy became a mixed martial-arts fighter) to Christmas and Ross’ cover for their reconnaissance trip to Vilena. Sure, they’re ornithologists from the Global Wildlife Conservancy, and love that logo stenciled on their company plane—a glowering raven perched on a wireframe sphere (the ultimate insider’s nod to Stallone’s long-languishing Edgar Allan Poe biopic). And let’s not even get into the bits of business meant to humanize the muscle-bound anti-heroes—Li’s constant complaints about money (he deserves a bigger cut because he works harder than the rest, on account of being so small), Christmas and Ross’ ongoing debate about whether a blade is more efficient than a bullet, Road’s sensitivity about his cauliflower ear, Caesar’s fetishistic love for exotic ordnance...they're shorthand so short they barely register.

But when push comes to shove, The Expendables plays it straight. The action is tight and tough, the aging stars (at 38, Statham is the baby of the group) look every bit as battered as they should, and Rourke singlehandedly turns the film’s most maudlin moment—his regret-soaked recollection of a life he could have saved and didn’t—into something genuinely affecting. Stallone has never been subtle—not as an actor, not as a writer and not as an action icon—but The Expendables walks a slippery line between macho headbangers’ porn and nostalgic metafiction with remarkable roughhewn grace.