"The Expendables" is an exercise in nostalgia for the bygone era of muscly, macho action films. It's willfully out of date, like an aging hair band that can't pack away the spandex.
Sylvester Stallone, the director, co-writer and star, has said he set out to make a movie "with brains and brawn, not modern technology."
Stallone thus comes across as a kind of Rip Van Winkle, had Van Winkle only been a die-hard Guns 'N Roses fan. "The Expendables" is awash in motorcycles, tattoos, black leather, glistening biceps and big guns. Though the "Rambo" star's suggestion that contemporary movies have lost something of their masculinity and authenticity bears some truth, surely the answer isn't to pretend the last two decades never happened.
But here we are with "The Expendables," which immediately - and without irony - announces its defense of such kitsch with, yes, a fade to a full moon.
Stallone is Barney Ross, the leader of a group of mercenaries who are played by most of the remaining defenders of high body count, testosterone-filled action: the British action star Jason Statham (blade expert Lee Christmas), the Chinese martial artist Jet Li (as Yin Yang), WWE wrestler Steve Austin (Paine), ultimate fighter Randy Couture (Toll Road), former NFL player and Old Spice commercial actor Terry Crews (as the absurdly named Hale Caesar) and Dolph Lundgren, famously the Russian boxer Ivan Drago from the "Rocky" films (as the loose cannon Gunner Jensen).
But the "all-star" action lineup also includes cameos from Bruce Willis (as a contractor) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (as a rival mercenary). Schwarzenegger makes a brief appearance, entering through a light-soaked doorway like an action film angel. The scene is played for as many wink-wink laughs as possible; as he exits, Willis' character wonders what his problem is, while Barney wryly replies: "He wants to be president."
The most respected actor to be summoned for duty is Mickey Rourke, who plays the group's job hunter, a grizzled former mercenary named Tool. It's a testament to Rourke's abilities that he somehow manages to move through "The Expendables" enlivening it with old warrior wisdom (in a monologue, he says he's dead inside, "Dracula dead") while still maintaining his dignity.
The crew is hired out to storm the fictional Caribbean island of Vilena, where a corrupt general (the usually comedic David Zayas) and a villainous, rogue CIA agent (the well chosen Eric Roberts) are in power. The general's daughter (Giselle Itie) is leading a resistance, and she quickly becomes a focal point of the mission ("Bad Shakespeare," notes Roberts' character).
There are the slightest of political undertones: The mercenaries - perhaps like America - have become too soulless in their warring occupation. There's a gratuitous waterboading scene, as well. The possibility of redemption hangs in saving Vilena.
But the world of "The Expendables" has shockingly little connection to anything like the real world. The principle setting on Vilena is a military compound like that of any "Rambo" movie or shoot 'em up video game: cargo boxes, sand bags and watch towers - all of your cliche fodder for explosions.
"The Expendables," too, has the shallowest of world views. There's little room for women (Charisma Carpenter plays Lee Christmas' cheating girlfriend, who quickly recedes from the film) and the men are most comfortable bantering with each other and cheering knife throwing contests. Morality isn't complicated, the only really firm rule being that hitting women is intolerable - quite the moral stance.
Frequently, "The Expendables" is so incoherent, even on its own terms, as to be laughable. Menacing one-liners (like the one after a traitorous minion is shot: "Now we can see the inside of him, and I see lies!") and poor production values made me wonder if I walked into not a movie theater but a time warp. This is a movie world where irony never happened.
But that Stallone can be so ardent about returning to this kind of film gives "The Expendables" a strange charm. It's absurd, easy to make fun of and remarkably out of touch. But one imagines it's exactly the movie Stallone wanted to make. He loves this stuff, and one is inclined to allow him his quixotic, boyish dream where he is forever leaping through explosions and killing bad guys.
"The Expendables," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language. Running time: 103 minutes.