just now looking at the poster on the left, a wave of excitement still come over me even though i’ve seen the movie. it’d be hard for anyone familiar with the action genre to not get excited based on the poster alone, not to mention the nu image/millennium films logo.  in fact, the expendables actually has a workable premise featuring all the stars listed on the poster. granted, it mostly focuses on stallone as the leader of the mercenaries, jason statham as a knife expert, and jet li being jet li. this supposedly expendable team also includes terry crews (the dad on everybody hates chris and former nfl player) as a weapon expert i think, randy conture (ufc), and dolph lundgren as a hothead. the opening scene has them in a hostage situation involving samolian pirates (timely. topical.). the plot of the movie, appropriately, involves the team overthrowing a third world corrupt government. totally 80s. totally unrelatable to today’s geopolitical environment.
after the anticlimactic opening action sequence, there is a nice scene featuring cameos from two major action stars that was somewhat diminished in awesomeness by the fact that it was featured in every trailer for the movie. this short church scene with the three major stars is more amusing and winking to the audience than actually funny or entertaining. it’s no ocean’s eleven but it also doesn’t seem forced or too self conscious. and we’ve all seen worse one liners from them.
the villian side includes the bad-but-not-really-bad dictator, his daughter the macguffin, eric roberts as al pacino as the main villain, along with stone cold steve austin and gary daniels as his happy henchmen.
the imbalance of screen time isn’t really a surprise. with this many stars it’s bound to happen and i would not fault the movie for that. the screenplay is good enough for something like this and so is the acting. i didn’t really find any laughable/so-bad-it’s-good moments. though the ultimate goal of the team (and plot climax) takes place in the last 25 minutes or so, getting to this point is pretty entertaining–there are just the right amount of excuses to link up all the required action sequences and somehow end up back in the story by the end. sure it’d have been nice to have more back stories and jokes than jet li being short or stallone being old or arnold being in politics, but it all works on a self aware level. i think this is what prevents it from being so-bad-it’s-good level. everyone pretty much acts accordingly.
stallone actually stays in the backseat for most of the movie. in fact, it’s not until the end of the film that he’s in a fight scene. acting as the film’s “godfather” of sorts, he wisely lets his costars do most of the dirty work. maybe he’s too busy directing the shit out of the movie, or maybe, with such premise, it would have turned out to be just another rambo movie if it was all about him. for most of the movie we only see him piloting, driving, and reminiscing with old friend like mickey rourke (who is more memorable here in three scenes than all his scenes in iron man 2). in fact, rourke’s second monologue raises the acting value of the film to a much higher standard than the movie might have been intended or capable of handling. (rouke’s character is named tool , a tattoo artist and agent/old friend of some sort to the expendables. all his scenes are very well composed and filmed, a contrast to the action scenes. he also does all his scenes sitting down or leaning.)
but no one come see this movie for the acting or writing, let alone mise-en-scene, so we will get to the main course. man, is it disappointing. this is where i mostly judge the movie on. all of the action scenes in the movie seems to tailor to the stars. so we get statham in luc besson mode on a basketball court, it was rather bland until the very end. we get jet li and dolph lundgren punishing each other in a somewhat more memorable fight scene choreographed by li’s frequent collaborator corey yuen. too bad it’s the latter joel silver era jet li, and not the fist of legend/once upon a time in china jet li. stone cold yells/declares something before he gets into a fight (the ring).
all of the action scenes in the movies are so overedited and shot so close that you can’t make out who’s doing what to whom and what had happened until after the action. it reaches its lowest point during the last 25 minutes of the movie, when the whole team takes out the corrupted dictator’s dimly lit mansion in which everyone wears dark clothing. (also, since he actually says he doesn’t have a plan for the final mission in the movie, we in the audience don’t either. so the final act is actually the most boring parts of the movie).
yes, the cuts aren’t as insane as say, domino or michael bay movies, but when you have this cast in your movie, actors with real fighting/combat skills, you’d think you’d want to show some amazing fights to maximize their talent. i am not exactly sure what it is but this kind of cutting didn’t bother me in say, the opening of saving private ryan or the bourne movies. but it seems like a lot of wasted opportunities here. the only reason i can think of is that unlike a tom hanks or matt damon movie, one’s expectation adjust accordingly for a movie starring stallone, statham, li and others. and don’t get me started on the cgi blood and gunfights. whenever someone gets shot in this movie, their body parts automatically explode mega piranha style.
with this many 80s stars, i don’t know why stallone didn’t go the whole way and just edit the film 80s style, with squibs and steady cameras. what might have been crisp, watchable, somewhat believable action movie was trumped by highly-stylized sequences as an artistic choice. it’s more like a hollywood jackie chan film than a hong kong jackie chan film. and i’m not the only one who noticed this(it doesn’t seem like a fair fight, comparing peak jackie chan to 90s bond, but the point is still valid).
blames can’t be placed on the cinematographers or editors either, since in an interview with american cinematographer magazine (sept. 2010), there were apparently multiple cameras running as A cameras with stallone telling them to do their best (now what would sean connery say about people “doing their best”).
“I don’t think many action scenes are shown from the character’s point of view,” muses Stallone. “They are more from the director’s point of view. On Rumbo, I thought the most economical and original way to shoot [the action] would be through Rambo’s eyes – if” he were directing, what would his style be? But The Expendables is an ensemble picture, so it’s somewhat of a blend. I thought, ‘This is not supposed to hang in the Louvre.’ I wanted it to be disjointed and rough, not choreographed. If you really were filming a big battle with five cameras, [their footage] would not all flow together, so we set up the [cameras] to film the action we’d scripted and told the operators they were on their own. We said, ‘Do the best you can, and we’ll use the most interesting shots from the characters’ perspectives.”
i don’t quite understand why he thought that a disjointed, non-choreographed style was the best way to go for this movie. i understand that he wanted a rough look, but these qualities are not mutually exclusive. for a team of supposedly experienced expendable mercenaries, fight scenes that are both rough and choreographed seem perfect. and since he’s already ripped off jackie chan before , why not do it again, for the greater good. maybe he thought it sounds too commie so he settles for mediocrity instead, which is an enemy when you are trying to make an all-out action movie. afterall he did defeat communism with his f.i.s.t. 25 years ago. or maybe he wanted a more modern look for the post-matrix/cloverfield audience. or maybe he’s not as sane as we’d like to think he is.
it’s interesting that even though the film received mostly negative reviews from professional critics and made over $100 millions, the blog critics are the ones giving the movie a pass . most of them, while admitting all the flaws mentioned above, are giving it a pass for the novelty of seeing all these guys together in one movie. unfortunately, the flaws here far outweigh the nostalgia, which is pretty much the only thing it has going for it. as much as i love 80s/early 90s action films, remembering all the good, bad, and in-betweens during that period, i can’t quite give this reunion extravaganza a pass. now that he’s set the thing up, maybe it’ll get better in the sequel(s), or at least the director’s cut that’s supposedly coming early 2011.
p.s. there’s a 91-minute making of available on netflix instant stream. unfortunately it doesn’t include anything about post-production.
1. nu image/millennium films also produced our last movie reviewed, the steven seagal/treach from naughty by nature vehicle today you die. seagal refused to appear in the expendables due to his problems with a producer from today you die and two other films produced by nu image/millennium films. jean claude van damme also declined to be in this movie for the lack of character development.
2. every character in the movie has intentional funny names. other characters are named: christmas, ying yang, gunner, toll road, paine, general garza, and hale caesar.
3. for those who’ve seen jackie chan’s police story:
and for those who haven’t: