The very first kill in The Expendables is a Somali pirate having his entire torso blown to pieces after one of the muscular good guys shoots him with an explosive round. Welcome to The Expendables – an excessively violent and excessively silly throwback to 1980s action films. Co-written, directed and starring Sylvester Stallone, who is clearly now fully embracing his almost parodic action-star persona, The Expendables is ludicrous fun. The characters are an elite team of mercenaries who are tasked with overthrowing a South American dictatorship. In order to avoid any political readings, the dictatorship is being propped up by American investment (boo capitalism) but the investor is an ex-CIA man (boo manipulative government agencies).
The cast of new and old action stars (OK, mostly old) include the core team of Stallone with Jet Li and Jason Statham. While Li doesn’t get to shine nearly as much as he should considering his extraordinary pre-Hollywood roles in Hong Kong martial arts classics, Stallone and Statham bring plenty of tough guy charisma to their roles. Eric Roberts also appears and has a wonderful time as a scenery-chewing bad guy, Mickey Rourke is in there to provide some ‘serious acting’ moments and Dolph Lundgren is also in the mix, possibly to make everybody else’s acting look good by comparison.
There are also a couple of female characters for the boys to save and fall in love with to remind audiences, in a slightly over-compensatory way, that despite the muscle-rippling, sweaty, intense male-bonding throughout the film, these guys are 100% heterosexual. No really – they are.
While hardly essential viewing, The Expendables does work as a guilty pleasure because it does feel so much like a 1980s boys-own B-grade action film. It operates as a loving homage to a bygone era of filmmaking and while it never out rightly makes fun of itself, it doesn’t take itself too seriously either. It also mostly works better than the similarly plotted The A-Team because its shorter running time and simplicity means that it never feels laboured. Plus, unlike The A-Team, which peaked early, The Expendables saves the best stuff for the end. Both films have similar regressive values but The Expendables, with its cartoonish violence and grotesque hyper masculine bodies, is so clearly a tough guy fantasy film that it really is impossible to take seriously on any level.
If you believe that being able to leave your brain at the cinema door is something to be proud of then you may regard The Expendables as a masterpiece. However, if you are a little bit more discerning but are nevertheless happy to appreciate a film simply for what it is then chances are you will find something to enjoy about The Expendables in all its ultra-cheesy glory. It’s a pity that a lot of the blood and destruction is clearly CGIed but otherwise watching The Expendables is like watching professional wrestling but with guns, knives and a whole lot of death.