Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Expendables

The Expendables? Surely The Expandables is a more appropriate title given the enlarged waist-line of director/star/co-writer Sylvester Stallone? But while Sly's age may be catching up with him, it's obvious he can still stage mindless carnage with aplomb. The Expendables is a man's film with a capital M: a pint of Stella lined with Tabasco and Bovril. With raw steak as main course. In an era when blockbusters are boasting even more cross-gender appeal, Sly's throwback to masculine 80s excess (in a year that has already seen a stream of riffs and remakes) is somewhat refreshing, uniting several generations of talent in a package featuring more testosterone than one can shake a testicle at.

Of course, it's been victim to a very present-day hype machine, the early buzz and posters proudly lining up all those names (Statham; Li; Lundgren; Rourke; Willis; Schwarzenegger) as if indicating they'd all be on-screen together. The end result is noticeably more cynical and manufactured. Willis and Arnie appear for about 5 mins in what appears to be a complacent Planet Hollywood in-joke; while Rourke is privileged above other cast-members by being granted a scene of actual depth and emotion, but doesn't take part in any of the action. The flimsy narrative is pure exploitation (Stallone and co overthrow a dodgy Eric Roberts-funded banana republic), apparently designed as much as anything to deliberately keep the stars apart so nostalgia fans can punch the air when they finally come back together.

The problem is that nostalgia can't be bottled; films only gain such a status over the course of several years. The Expendables therefore is cursed with an uneven tone that wants to romp all over the screen in rampantly un-PC, 80s fashion, but also wants to play safe by the rules of the current decade and wrap things up in a cosily commercial package. Hence all the bone-braking, shotgun-blasting action feels a bit too...neat. As Team America might say, what we really need is a montage. Thinking about it, the entire premise of the movie is a bit of a con: very few of the stars are actually over-the-hill just yet, and most have maintained a successful level of exposure (if not star credentials).

It's still a blast though, in every sense of the word, and Stallone shows a degree of wit (if smugness too) in playing up to the unseen aspects of his ensemble's personas. Statham's Lee Christmas for instance (thankfully devoid of his cod 'American' accent) is really a big softie, struggling to keep his job a secret from girlfriend Charisma Carpenter. Lundgren meanwhile as the rogue element in the group gets to perform a more conflicted variation on his lunk-headed persona, and Sly himself seems unafraid to shy away from his advancing years. Li, however, gets the short-end of the stick, coming under fire simply for being short.

Well, that's Hollywood for you isn't it, biting the hand that feeds but patching it up with a Band-Aid after. Still, when our heroes unite to stick it to Roberts' deliciously sleazy corporate villain, just barely leaving enough explosives for Michael Bay to work with in the next Transformers, it's hard not to turn off the brain and just go with it. Future installments may fly under the flag The BusPass-ables, but for the moment, The Expendables is competently expendable entertainment.

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