[13 August 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“She wasn’t your type.” Barney (Sylvester Stallone) sighs when he’s thus advised by his best buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), but he know it’s the truth. As beautiful, bright, and brash as Sandra (Giselle Itié) may be, she’s still a girl. And so she’s not going to be an appropriate “type” for any of the boys in The Expendables.
That’s not to say that Stallone’s latest actioner is particularly homoerotic or homophobic. It is to say that it is a boys’ film through and through. Even as this girl and another (Charisma Carpenter, a.k.a. Cordelia) serve the usual purpose—helping you believe that Barney and Lee, at least, are straight—they doesn’t detract from the primary point, that these boys love their weapons, their friends, and themselves, a lot.
This premise allows for The Expendables’ many vehicle chases and explosions, shoot-outs and mow-downs—the business that comprises plot in such films. It also allows for a series of mas macho encounters within Barney’s team of expert killers and pointedly named hard-asses. These range from actual fights (Gunner [Dolph Lundgren] has it in for Ying Yang [Jet Li]) to pissy stare-downs (Gunner, an addict of some kind, resents like hell being fired by Barney) to bouts of nostalgia: Tool (Mickey Rourke) doesn’t go out in the field anymore, but likes to remember the good old days in Nigeria and Bosnia while he designs tattoos (and yes, his name is pretty perfect).
Barney’s own history is apparent in his bulging veins and caved-in physique. As most of his men are leftover heroes from the ‘80s, Barney does his best to keep their increasingly fragile self-images intact, tracking down work through his many connections, so they can continue to slam-bang-and-gun-down squads of inept goons while doing some vague good. The movie’s first scene establishes their pattern: they board a ship to rescue blindfolded, whimpering hostages (and while we’re on the topic, where is Chuck Norris, anyway?), and in the process whomp on very bad pirates. It’s here that Gunner steps over a line and so winds up with Barney’s handgun in the back of his head. When Gunner ends up bloodied and complaining that he hates stitches, Barney sighs, “Everybody does.”
Barney’s world-weariness (Lee sums up, “You’re a bleak bastard”) doesn’t exactly set up for careful gig selection. “Let’s just keep it simple,” he tells a mysterious CIA agent seeking his services (Bruce Willis), “If the money’s right, it doesn’t matter what the job is.” (You know, like this movie.) This one takes the team to “the island of Vilena,” where a General Gaza (David Zayas) is planting coca and running drugs with ex-CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts, aptly creepy). Things are going wrong in this once mutually beneficial relationship, a crisis just dawning on Gaza as he deciphers that Munroe is just another U.S. profiteer with access to arms and aggressive lunkheads like Paine (Steve Austin).
Tensions accelerate when Munroe decides to punish the general’s rebellious daughter (that would be Sandra), who is furious that her dad has sold out the homeland to a bunch of stereotypical Americans (whom he deems, rather colorfully, “this American disease”). Despite her suspicions, Sandra is won over by Barney’s charms, equal parts mumbly, bumpy, and existential: when he arrives just in time to rescue her from anther round of abuse from her water-boarding captors, she wonders, “How are you here?” and Barney assures her, “I just am.”
It’s an intriguingly godlike response, and she buys it. You might as well, too, as he and team turn all Rambo III on Munroe’s compound, leveling the landscape and coming at the darkly faceless (“South American”) soldiers with assorted knives (Lee’s specialty), martial arts moves (courtesy of Ying Yang), and lots and lots of guns. Between Barney’s impressive speed-reloading and the huge AA12 shotgun wielded by Hale (Terry Crews, as the Black Guy). With each round packing an explosive, Hale’s performance borders on the surreal. Buildings, armored vehicles, torsos—they all go boom.
This, of course, is why the Expendables exist, why they go on and on. The resurrection of such noisy, ponderous excess amid today’s sleek and psychologically angsty heroics is almost quaint. These boys don’t ask questions about who they are or why they do what they do. They just are.