Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reel To Reel: The Expendables

Hail! Hail! The gang's all here!

Going Rate: Worth full admission.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense violence and gore, heavy language in a couple of scenes

The Expendables is the All-Star Game of action pictures, bringing together a huge cast of action figures into an brisk ensemble flick that shoots, kicks, and blows up as much as it can get away with. Who's got time for backstory or characterization? Let's just bomb the whole place. Sylvester Stallone co-wrote and directed this picture, which plays like a throwback to his Rambo days. But unlike the 2008 Rambo film, which was an atrocious and grotesque end to the franchise, Stallone seems to realize madness needs more method. It's still big and dumb, but that's what people want in a shoot-'em-up film.

As Barney Ross, Sly leads a gang of mercenaries who bum around a tattoo parlor when they're not shooting and exploding things like a gang of pirates in the film's opener. We don't know if they're ex-military, ex-assassins, reformed terrorists or what, but that's not the point. If you've got a job, and the money's right, forget about the A Team; you need these guys.

Like all well-oiled wrecking crews, you've got action stars matched with their specialties. Ross is good with just about anything, even in his aging body. Ditto for Lee Christmas (Statham), who is refreshingly less profane and also the only character who reveals some semblance of life outside the job. Ying (Li) is the martial-arts specialist, no surprise. Gunner (Lundgren) is big, unstable and dangerous. Hail Ceasar (Crews) likes to shoot big guns and look cool. Tool (Rourke) doesn't get in on the action, but he does get to play the film's equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobe, providing a workable moral compass inside a grizzled old soldier turned tattoo artist. He's the only character allowed to have multiple dimensions, and that's all the film needs.

Ross is hired by a mysterious "Mr. Church" (Bruce Willis in a memorable cameo) to take out General Garza (David Zayas) the dictator of a fictional South American country, a job passed over by another suitor (Arnold Schwarzenegger in another memorable cameo). Lee and Ross head to the island and meet up with the compulsory action film element of a key girl. This one's named Sandra (Giselle ItiƩ), who has an inside line to the top. She should: she's his daughter. However, we learn Garza is really the puppet of James Munroe (Eric Roberts), a smarmy ex-spook who's there to cash in on the country's cocaine supply while walking around in a tailored suit acting like a movie villain caricature.

Stallone and Statham's characters can kill enough people between the two of them to fill Forest Lawn. But when they put the team together... oh man. We get a big, loud, brutal takedown at Garza's palace, where seemingly nothing is left alive or undemolished. It's the over-the-top ending people want to see in an action film, and Stallone knows it. And at one hour and 43 minutes, the film economizes.

You can look at The Expendables as a torch-passing -- or maybe grenade-passing -- film where Stallone, Willis and Ah-nuld officially realize their testosterone days are over and they gladly hand the legacy over to the next generation of action heroes while going out on just one more mission. It's heartwarming in a gutsy way, for those guys who love ripping people's guts out.

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