Friday, 27 August 2010

Film Review: The Expendables

(Directed by Sylvester Stallone, running time 103 minutes)

Big guns, big explosions and big muscles, what some journalists have dubbed the “big dumb action flick”, this pseudo-genre is one of the more noticeable critical divides between critics and audiences. On one hand the critic is right since their only drive is to cause on screen havoc and cheap thrills, yet on the other the audience is right since there’s really nothing wrong with a little pure mayhem once in a while. It was popular throughout the 80s and early 90s and now such demands have resonated once again with The Expendables, an ensemble 80s throw back starring real 80s throwback action stars while tossing in a view recent “manliest men” archetypes for good measure.

From the various incarnations of movie posters, The Expendables boasts a near perfect action ensemble cast. Action veteran Sylvester Stallone is fresh off the killing floor from 2008’s Rambo, this time driving the cast as both lead star and director with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lunggren, Mickey Rourke and a whole convoy of muscle men that either haven’t been blowing up bridges and turning over trucks for as long or as memorably for me to mention in the same sentence. As with the “big dumb action flick”, the plot is supposed to be as straight forward as the many, many bullets going through the many, many disposable cronies. The low down on the synopsis is basically “agency wants to kill maverick in hostile country, mercenaries hired for dirty work”, simple as A to B and you don't care. How we eventually get to that conclusion however is not so much needlessly complicated, rather postponed for the first half hour. Prior to this set up, it’s a slog between establishing the entire parade “built like a brick-shit house”.

The first scene invokes memories of John Rambo’s notorious hyper death extravaganza with a crime boss getting a chest of projectile explosives before having to be wiped from the shaken faces of the nearby hired goons. Yet quickly the film already exposes a fatal flaw; BBFC 15. Despite Stallone at helm, The Expendables is far from the meat grinder that was Rambo. In fact, the first death of this film is probably the most violent and with the entire cast’s filmography having an on-screen body count large enough that could populate a small country making it genocide, you’d expect overkill to be an understatement in his next project. Instead the piles of bodies prior to the climax (that I will get onto later) is rather tame, with generic explosions, shot outs and punch ups making up most corpses. On top of that, between action scenes are sparse between exposition. With the exception Mickey Rourke (who gives an excellent yet out place within the film speech about death), the characters naturally are, how you say “meat heads” so of course the dialogue is equally simple. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was enough “big dumb action” to make up most of the “flick”. Between the opening and climax, the action is rather basic and in all fairness not that over the top either. Sure it’s fun but more to the point, it’s all been done in the 80s and early 90s, in some cases by the same cast members.

On top of that, the cast is regulated to Stallone and Statham, with the average on screen time for the rest of the ensemble before the climax amounting to roughly 5 minutes each. Even Jet Li who actually mostly appears in genuinely good films has a somewhat limited role and the much touted Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are cameos at best. Now granted, Schwarzenegger was always going to be nothing more than a quick walk in and wave given his focus now being world conquest (of which they even joked about in the film) but Willis, who is still alive and kicking in acting was billed as an important role. For the man who played the immortal John McClane, that was a downright tease. It may seem like I’m being harsh on something that’s not supposed to be taken seriously, but things like that are supposed to be consistently entertaining... well, I wasn’t consistently entertained.

Ah, but don’t call me out just yet. I wasn’t not entertained either, like I’ve mentioned previously the climax was a check point before the flip flops between dumb fun and mediocrity. What seems like half an hour, the last stand of the rag-tag band and two-dimensional antagonists is the over the top ultra violence everyone came to see. It’s here and only here where each member of The Expendables earns their standout moment. We’re talking wide spread demolitions, gruesome dismembered, violent bone breaking and plenty of good old fashion cannon fodder on display. All past groans and yawns were rolled up in rug and thrown off a bridge as the insane massacre unfolded.

Yet there also lies the problem that it was pushed up against the wall from the get go. Unlike Rambo and even the very recent The A-Team, the build up was less than expected in the context of the “big dumb action flick”. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely down right mad at times (the notable case being an explosive get away in a plane), but when it’s the throwback to cheesy action greats, moments of serious exposition that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously and general lack of bloodshed, I can’t help but feel disappointed at times. Despite the climax being the most of the promise of over the top action expected from such a cast, everything else pales in comparison. Sure, some movie goers might lap up the action for the sake of it being action but they should also admit they saved the best till last. Best usually does come last in films, but Stallone failed to take the best bits and scatter them throughout. It’s definitely a “big dumb action flick”, where it aims to please it's an absolute success but not really a great one, and given the ensemble it really should have been just that. But now I won't SHAME it.

Now lets wait for, Machete.

Also starring... *sigh* a lot.

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