In a summer full of proudly digitized sound and fury, it's understandable why moviegoers might welcome the bulging biceps and collective crows' feet of Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Eric Roberts and Steve Austin (not to mention fleeting appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger). On paper, The Expendables sounds like a throwback to their kick-ass heyday, and on screen, it pretty much fits the bill -- maybe not directed with any particular verve or wit by Stallone himself, but still satisfactory of the lowest common denominators and the highest possible decibel levels.
Most of these guys work together as the Expendables, as you may have guessed from the title or their tattoos or the detailing on their motorcycles. Mercenaries for hire led by Barney Ross (Stallone), they're first seen taking out Somali pirates in gruesome fashion and soon seen taking assignments from tattoo artist and former compatriot Tool (Rourke). A young woman (Giselle Itie) wants them to help her Latin American town by eliminating both her father, a military general and would-be dictator (David Zayas), and the man pulling his strings, a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) looking to get into the drug trade.
Until the climactic assault on their compound, though, we have to deal with subplot after subplot (Lundgren's junkie gets kicked off the team, Statham finds his old girlfriend being abused by her new boyfriend, etc.) and plenty of stilted banter. From the start, our crew is just tossing off line after line of half-hearted macho dialogue (co-written by Stallone), either comparing their weapons of choice or reciting stories that the team is sick of for the sake of an audience that's never heard them before. The winks and nudges come hardest during the Willis-Schwarzenegger-Stallone meeting, an extemporaneous scene included more to fill out the poster than to fill in the story.
Since there's hardly any text to speak of, maybe it's too much to ask for some subtext acknowledging the increasingly obsolete state of our heroes or embellishing the iconic suggestion of the title, but beyond a tear-eyed monologue by Tool about Barney finding himself a woman to love before he loses his soul to all this killing -- an awkward tonal moment that's nonetheless well-delivered by Rourke -- Stallone isn't interested in anyone's past nor their future. The team is the team because those who aren't there as a favor to their friend probably need the money (even the characters admit as much).
Stallone and Statham suggest a formidable team and passing of the guard in their scenes together, while Li makes and endures wise cracks about his size, Crews waxes rhapsodic about his latest gun, Couture insists that everyone gives therapy a try and Lundgren lumbers around, bringing to mind of all things Vincent D'Onofrio's alien-possessed performance in Men in Black. In an ensemble that doesn't do deep, his speaking scenes easily stand out as the most embarrassing.
Then again, any ticket buyer's here less for the conversation and more for the action, and Stallone basically delivers. I say basically because every fight and chase is on the verge of being shot too close and cut too fast to enjoy. Without any established geography, a car chase comes off as far more busy than exciting, and every other shot in a brawl soon after appears to come from the far end of the warehouse rather than right among the metal beams that our combatants are knocking each other against.
But sequences like the dispatching of guards during an escape early on and the eventual all-out assault on their compound at the climax work just well enough to convince us more of the pain being brought than the CGI blood spray does (seriously, whatever happened to good old-fashioned squibs?). These guys may overdo it on the C4 at times, keen on taking out every last pillar in a nigh-laughable montage, but when backs finally meet brick walls, when knives enter necks, and when artillery gets literally chucked at the bad guys, it's all convincingly loud and, yes, maybe even a bit exciting.
I know that it sounds like faint praise to say that this ranks somewhere above the straight-to-Spike outings that litter many of these guys' resumes, and maybe it is. For many viewers, The Expendables will hit its target, but for many reasons, it's easy to think that The Expendables wasn't aiming that high to begin with.