[16 January 2012]
With the hit ensemble action movie The Expendables, now a year and a half old, and its inevitable sequel, not due out for months, it seems like an odd time to release an extended director’s cut on Blu-Ray. But the way star/director/co-writer Sylvester Stallone tells it on his video introduction, the timing is a product of the filmmaker’s whims: after he had a chance to live with his theatrical cut of the movie, he watched it again and felt the impulse to take another crack at editing it, eventually adding about ten minutes to the running time. (The new version premiered over the summer via some cable On Demand systems prior to its Blu-Ray and DVD.)
Stallone explains, with characteristic effusive clumsiness, that this cut restores some moments from the original script and hews closer to his “original concept”. The specific nature of said concept remains unexplained. Perhaps a director’s commentary (present on the original DVD, but not re-recorded for this version, as Stallone is busy making his sequel) would have offered more context.
But given Stallone’s way with words, perhaps not. His ultimate men-on-a-mission movie is clearly a labor of love, but not a well-articulated one. He wants his assemblage of mercenaries to have a chops-busting rapport, but the tough-guy banter often comes out garbled. In a scene where Stallone meets up with a cameoing Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to discuss a possible job, Schwarzenegger and Stallone wind up sounding like goony 12-year-olds (sample exchange: Arnold says, “Let’s have dinner.” Sly: “Sure. When?” Arnold: “In a thousand years!” Sly: “Too soon”).
Faced with the movie’s mush-mouthed writing, we’re left to puzzle out for ourselves what additional complexities Stallone feels that he’s offering, here. The differences in the director’s cut are relatively subtle, at least for such a noisy movie; a new version of the opening credits, for example, lingers on the team’s mournful faces, suggesting a more haunted version of the story. That may be the elusive “concept” Stallone mentions: killing makes these guys sad, when it’s not making them at worst, accepting, and at best, absolutely elated.
That dichotomy fits with Stallone’s recent work; in his older age, has become a weirdly sentimental gorehound—more interested in CG-assisted body explosions than the logistics of combat, yet cloaking the ultraviolence, as in the fourth Rambo movie, in a shroud of reluctant world-police righteousness. It’s this half-amusing but sometimes uncomfortable mix of splatter and seriousness that keeps The Expendables from the top tier of ridiculous action movies.
The mix continues throughout the director’s cut. The extra running time doesn’t include more explosions (it scarcely could) but rather more sensitivity: a shot of bit team member Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) looking lovingly at photos of his kids, and some additional woman-trouble talks between Barney Ross (Stallone) and a broken-hearted Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, asserting himself as a solid second in command, but nowhere near the action dynamo seen in the Transporter series), which aren’t much sharper than any of Stallone’s other dialogue exchanges, but have a cute old-guy weariness.
Most of these changes are applied to the first half of the movie. Once the team goes back to the fictional South American island of Vilena to rescue freedom-fighter Sandra (Gisele Itié), it’s mostly the same action as the original version, though the extended running time does serve to highlight just how little happens in the movie between the opening blowout and the closing super-blowout.
Despite that lack of incident for much of the running time, the movie keeps busy. The Expendables values excess; it just doesn’t show any judgment about how to employ it. Sometimes this means the movie will, as anyone watching The Expendables might reasonably hope, stage a glorious climax featuring explosions upon explosions, explosions within explosions, explosions as far as the eye can see. Other times, this means that Stallone, already having hired a murderer’s row of B-movie badasses, will not only add in mixed martial artist Randy Couture, a nonactor even by this cast’s standards, but actually give him a full (yet entirely pointless!) monologue about his cauliflower ear.
For better or worse, it all comes from the same brawny, dunderheaded instinct. The dunderheadedness is, to a degree, part of the movie’s charm. This is a late-‘80s nostalgia act, not a chance to display the leaner prowess of a true eighties action classic like Stallone’s First Blood or Willis’s Die Hard. But the movie’s bloat – its refusal to go lean and mean – also overwhelms Stallone’s limited talents as a writer and a director; towards the end, he amps up the action to hard that he winds up frantically cutting between three hard-to-distinguish, close-up-laden fights at once. Any thoughts that perhaps the fights were cut fast for pacing reasons are dashed by the director’s cut, which preserves bone-crunching and stabbing over suspense or even coherence.
Suspense and coherence aren’t necessarily the point (although they’d be nice), and on the level of dopey team-up slash throwback, The Expendables does a lot of things right. It casts Eric Roberts, for example, as the villain, just inches away from MacGruber style parody when he monologues that “emotions are the cancer of the intellect” and tells the hero that we aren’t so different, you and I. It has Mickey Rourke for no good reason (and also given a monologue). It pits Jet Li against Dolph Lundgren in a knock-down drag-out fight (not particularly well-choreographed or well-shot by Stallone, but it’s the thought that counts).
Speaking of Lundgren: he overcomes drug addiction, a gunshot to the chest, and being pure evil to – spoiler alert? – end the movie laughing with his friends with only a tiny bandage betraying the fact that he should probably be dead two or three times over from both a physical and thematic point of view. That’s The Expendables in an extremely beefy nutshell: given the circumstances, it shouldn’t make it all the way to the end, but it does, with stupidity you might secretly love.