Since the release of The Bourne Identity action cinema has gone all realistic , martial arts, and spies, overtaking the more traditional vein of big men with guns blowing everything up. So God bless The Expendables for trying to claw back the genre through rose tinted specs.
The Expendables sees the self titled elite mercenary gang (led by Sylvester Stallone, Rocky) take on a rogue FBI agent (Eric Roberts, The Dark Knight) and his hired revolutionary army in Latin America. On the way, dealing with disruptive team mates, and their love lives.
The main selling point here of course is the cast; from the classic action cinema era we have Stallone and Dolph Lundgren (Rocky 4) as leader of the team Barney Ross and loose cannon Gunnar Jensen respectively, and from more recent action movies we have martial arts based Jason Statham (Crank) and Jet Li (The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor) as fantastically named Lee Christmas and Yin Yang respectively. Already these four give the film credibility, in it’s remit as the best and hardest mercenary force, because they are great action stars. Familiar faces like Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2) add to this as well, and when you pepper in a few bad-ass sports stars like American footballer Terry Crews (Are We There Yet?) and ultimate fighter Randy Couture, this motley cast bleeds machismo!
To be fair, the villains of the piece don’t really stand a chance when led by Roberts and David Zayas (Dexter), and their only method of defence is the ageing wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin (The Condemned); quite good names to add to the minorly impressive list though. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger even appear in cameo roles, but massive boos go out to the marketing department for making them a major part of advertising campaigns and the DVD cover; they’re both in the same scene one minute tops. The amount of credibility The Expendables gets by having a cast that are masters of action films and sports is great, but there were more famous and notable actors that could have slotted into the cast too.
Straight off the bat it’s easy to see The Expendables has something that modern action cinema has been missing for years; character. Not the actual cast roles, but the feel of the film, and what it does to stand up and get noticed; tough-guy machismo and good banter between The Expendables’ team make the characters engaging straight away, and when you compare it to something like Safe House (which is played straight with it’s Jason Bourne-esque “realistic” action), it’s miles ahead. What are you going to be more interested by, the boring mismatched master-student couple, or the ridiculously built up macho men trading quips with each other?
Being a throwback to the action films of the 80’s/90’s (in the nicest possible way), the ludicrous amounts of action scenes and fights will satisfy anyone. Every member of the Expendables’ team has a moment to shine in a movie with no shortage of stand-out moments; Crews gets to run riot with a rapid firing shotgun in an enclosed space, Couture busts out some UFC fighting before setting a man on fire and delivering a knock out blow, Jet Li gets the best of the giant Lundgren in a low ceiling factory before Dolph returns the favour, and Austin even gets the upper hand of Stallone. The list of fantastic, memorable, moments goes on and on, and as the superheroes have been running riot a the cinema recently, are a welcome addition to a genre which was crying out for something like this to come along.
But, despite loving the cast and the ridiculous action sequences, it’s hard not to feel let down by the direction and production values; as while Stallone can usually deliver a tight script and direction on the crew side of his work, his vision of a movie here is a letdown; there are silly moments that distract from the action on offer too easily, curious cuts where one moment there’s a car chase going underneath a motorway bridge, and then suddenly they’re in the suburbs. CGI and digital blood effects (which there were many of) were both far overused in a genre which is built on more practical effects. There’s nothing like the real thing, and so it’s a shame to see these new-school tricks in a film designed as a homage to the traditional action movie heyday. Sure it’s “easier” to produce effects like squirting blood nowdays using computers, but when you see a shining dark red blob layered over the actual recorded footage, it looks awful and massively shoots down any interest the film has built up.
Looking ahead to this summer, Expendables 2 should fill in the gripes with stellar casting; Willis and Schwarzenegger have been promoted to full roles, and there’s more action star power being added with Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris giving the franchise more name value alone; and hopefully Stallone can get over his overuse of digi-blood and go with more real effects to reinforce the traditional values of the action genre. Van Damme should at least give The Expendables a real challenge when the only threat in the first movie is a broken down wrestler.
The Expendables could then be viewed as something of ‘a good start’; there’s a lot here that could be improved on, but as it is, it’s a better than average action film compared to what’s out currently populating the genre. Watching the Expendables run rough-shot all over their foes is entertaining, but not as much as some action fans hoped it could be; mainly due to them overpowering everything in sight, and not really coming up against any true challenge afforded by the antagonists. Excellent blueprint, but little development from that.
The Expendables is probably Stallone’s worst directed film, and unfortunately the fact it’s a technical bust is made even clearer with all the overused green screen and crap effects showing up as clear as day on Blu-ray. There are a couple of extremely odd moments of bad focus, a panning shot over a city which was like a horrible moving pixelated image blown up on screen, and a couple of other examples that are shocking simply because it shouldn’t be possible to do something so horrible looking in this day and age.
There are some shoddy and noticeable bits of green screen which are simply laughable; in a modern aeroplane, cutting to a side shot looking outside and seeing a hideous outside sea back screen (that looks like it came straight out of a 60’s James Bond film) is a real joke. Add to that the very bad blood effects and it’s a shame to see the HD format get treated with such a horrible presentation such as The Expendables. Despite there being some genuinely well shot and presented action scenes with real depth, detail and spot on lighting, it’s a bust.
Being an action film, there’s no end to the tough guy banter and gruff voices. However, it’s a bit of a problem in places having the soundtrack and musical themes blow over the oddly quiet gruff interactions. Still when it’s clear, the DTS-HD Master Audio Surround sound aspect in 7.1 is a treat getting out The Expendables’ audio, and Terry Crews’ super shotgun booming at you is something to behold in this format.
Credit is also due to rock soundtrack, with some quality but obscure tracks making it onboard, and Although the video game franchise Rock Band may have helped with some song selection, the ending credits with Thin Lizzy’s ‘Boys are back in town’ is particularly apt, and composer Brian Tyler does a satisfactory job with the film’s score; which helps set the tone, in a movie where it’s low down on the list of priorities.
A slightly poor offering extras wise, there should have at least been some ludicrous featurette on guns (with the main menu clicking away with gun barrels and the like). Instead we get a 26 minute post-production documentary called “From The Ashes” where Stallone admits his style of filmmaking is “winging it”, which people could label the quality of The Expendables movie. Stallone has his own director’s commentary too; where he reveals information about how Van Damme turned him down the first time around to appear in The Expendables franchise.
The ‘Ultimate recon mode’ featurette is the film replayed but with on screen clips of production in a mini screen with Stallone’s commentary playing in the background, and cast and crew interviews splice in as well; creating a boggy mess of information, pulling your eyes everywhere. A reasonably funny gag reel, picture gallery and one deleted scene complete the more interesting extras.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, whilst it’s a decent tribute to action films of yesteryear, Stallone couldn’t have been happy with the entire finished Expendables product, and, truth be told, a lot of fans won’t be either. Still, it’s exciting enough to warrant a fair amount of goodwill towards the upcoming sequel; provided the necessary adjustments are made which Stallone seems to acknowledge in his commentary. If you want a massive testosterone slab of the 80’s and 90’s action cinema in your Blu-ray player, you can’t go wrong with The Expendables.