Once he'd gathered his impressive cast, Sylvester Stallone didn't have to do too much to please the audience that would flock to The Expendables. It was meant to be a B-movie at best, a collection of over-muscled actors and expensive explosions in some cheap and exotic location that, when you squint, could pass for the jungles of Rambo II. But the beauty of good B-movies was always that they were efficient, putting together a tight plot that included as many action scenes as possible and never bothered with actor egos or, well, acting. The Expendables, though, is a bloated mess, a bunch of guys past their prime punching and kicking each other and pretending its for our benefit, when its really just one last self-congratulatory hurrah.
The movie starts exactly as absurdly and violently as you hope, as the mercenary team consisting of Stallone, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham and Terry Crews rescue some hostages from Somali pirates and blow up a lot of skulls. But the warning signs are there even then-- we spent forever on the boat before we understand what's going on, and Stallone and Lundgren get into an argument so awkwardly placed that you just know it's there to set up some third-act conflict. Things slow down for a while so the guys can shoot the shit at a bar owned by Mickey Rourke (going by the astonishing character name Tool), while on an unnamed Caribbean island, Eric Roberts is a slimy American convincing a dictator to whore out his people for economic gain. Someone's gotta stop this guy… but who can they call?
It's hilarious when Bruce Willis shows up as the guy to give the assignment, and doubly so when Arnold Schwarzenegger pops by as potential competition who hates Stallone's guts, but from there the self-referential fun largely gives way to the slog of a predictable action movie, full of incoherent action and groaner lines that remind you why the 80s action classics didn't seem as awesome once you passed puberty. Stallone has an eye for spectacle and stages some truly insane set pieces-- a dock explosion and Statham shooting bullets from the top of a seaplane comes about 30 minutes in, and it's fantastic-- but not only does none of it fit into a coherent story, but you've got no reason beyond nostalgia to care about this group of self-satisfied roughnecks and their desire to track down a criminal, even one as sleazy as Eric Roberts (who is probably the film's acting MVP, though that doesn't say much).
The giant list of beefy male names is the major draw of The Expendables, but it's also what kills it. A movie about Stallone and Statham's lead characters kicking ass and taking names in a foreign country might have gone somewhere, but the movie is utterly overstuffed, making room for a Lundgren vs Li fight scene, an entire subplot about Randy Couture's cauliflower ear, and worst of all, a 10-minute Mickey Rourke monologue in which he looks mournfully into a mirror, makes up an absurd story about his heartbreak on a previous mission, and silently cries. All of these will make for hilarious YouTube clips in the coming months, but they're frustrating to watch in context as a movie with actual potential constantly kneecaps itself because the director and the cast had no idea when to give it a rest.
Is The Expendables the manliest movie of the summer? Probably-- it is ridiculously violent, fetishizes male strength without being too homoerotic, and treats women as pure, perfect beings who exist to be rescued. That kind of old-school machismo is missing from most modern action movies, and fans of old-school Stallone and Lundgren and company will likely flock to the Expendables with their bros, ready to watch the blood and guts fly. But if you were old enough to love Rambo III un-ironically the first time around, you're way too old now to be fooled by the dull and desperate Expendables.
For an alternate take on The Expendables read Josh's Review.