The Eighties Called...
Gender is not a subtext in this film, it's the text. It's the motivation. They go on a suicide mission not because they got paid (once it's revealed as a CIA set up they initially bail), not because bad men are doing bad things (they see the abuse and tyranny of the island before initially bailing), but because the hot chick gets left behind with the bad men. These men are easily identified as bad not because they've enslaved an entire island for drug production (they do), or randomly execute farmers (yep that too), but because they're willing to hit women. More specifically, they're willing to hit women with pouty lips who give Stallone a ride around the island. It's not something alluded to, it's where the conversation between characters constantly returns. "A man who hits a woman is not a man." Mickey Rourke rambles at length of his regrets about the woman in Serbia who committed suicide while he did nothing to stop it. Statham beats up Charisma Carpenter's new boyfriend and his entire pick up basketball team because of the black eye he gave her.
Would it really change anything if they had tacked on a tough female member of the team? Not really. It wouldn't change the underlying mentality which is a punch drunk attempt at chivalry that gets really blurry around the edges of vision. Looking at this film in combination with the ham handed political statements of 2008's Rambo, it really seems that Stallone is trying to circle around an intellectual point, something about only being able to fight fire with fire, something about a code of honor, but it just doesn't come out with any sort of intelligibility. To put it another way, you don't get to be proud of being mercenaries who'll take any job for the right price and the good guys who do the right thing. These are largely mutually exclusive identities.
Yes, yes, it's just a summer action movie and I'm going off on extended tangents about the underlying philosophy of violence and gender roles. So does it succeed at what it tries to be? An old school eighties action movie? For a movie with more muscles than a chowder cannery, it's surprising that it's at its best when there isn't any action going on at all. Statham and Stallone in particular have a snarky back and forth chemistry that doesn't rely on forced one-liners or catch phrases. Eric Roberts is right at home as the black hearted villain. The cameos of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a long conversation with Stallone are perfect, with just enough meta banter to make them worth it. Hell, the film closes with improvised poetry during a knife throwing contest and Jet Li argues at length that he should get paid more because he's smaller and thus has to work harder.
The structure of the movie is actually pretty interesting. It goes: unrelated opening action scene as a hook, a series of conversations, extended action scene, a series of conversations, short action scene, a series of conversations, extended climactic action scene, closing conversation. There's more jaw-jaw than war-war. And there's not a single blessed montage.
The action though is the least exciting part of the movie. There's a lot of running and shooting and exploding, but with the exception of a couple ludicrous moments that really do hearken back to the eighties action films (throwing a two foot long artillery shell at a helicopter for one), the bulk of the action just doesn't have much heart to it. What made eighties action good when it was good was when it was surprisingly clever. What made those movies memorable was the little things like Gruber shooting the glass, or Dutch hiding in the mud, not just guys shooting a hundred extras without taking a bullet themselves.
It doesn't help much that the overall plot is not just nonsensical by real world standards, but nonsensical by action movie standards. See, it doesn't pass the cell phone and pistol test. If the entire story can be rendered moot by either a cell phone call or a single shot from a pistol in the first twenty minutes, then the plot is really really bad. So for example (and the rest of this paragraph has spoilers, which don't spoil much unless you're owner of the sort of intellect still wondering where the bread goes and where the toast comes from), if you happen to be a banana republic military dictator, but you feel kind of bad about it, wouldn't it be a good idea to shoot Eric Roberts when you already have your pistol drawn in the first scene you share instead of bothering to have the Expendables come blow up your island around you? Or even more specifically, if Eric Roberts starts torturing your daughter in the basement of your capitol and you can't think of a single thing to do despite being surrounded by armed men whom you command, maybe you should shoot the screenwriter and then yourself, because you are both too stupid to live.
So to sum up: it's an action movie with lousy action, but entertaining dialogue when no guns are drawn. If they recut it to leave all the action out, and just let the characters ramble, it'd be brilliant. But as it is? A solidly entertaining hour and a half, but nothing special.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.