The one thing in Hollywood that people tend to overlook is that it’s hard to be a tough guy anymore. Everyone wants to be a tough action hero but it’s rather hard to believe that someone like Matt Damon is a badass in actual life. He’s a great actor, and the Bourne franchise was excellent, but the one thing missing from that (and most other action films of the last 20 years) is that deep down inside we really don’t buy Matt Damon as a tough guy. He’s a pretty boy acting like he’s spent nights in jail for bar fights when in reality he was the guy huddled in the corner, praying for the police to come so he can resume drinking his wine spritzer.
You don’t think of Matt Damon as a guy who played football or wrestled at a high level, then became an actor. He’s a guy who became an actor and then acts like a tough guy; most Hollywood types are like that. It’s why the action film is not what it once was. You can buy a guy like Sylvester Stallone being a tough guy because he actually is one. Hence the reason why The Expendables works as well as it does; at its heart these “men on a mission” are legit tough guys as opposed to actors pretending to walk the walk when they’re really merely talking it.
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) leads a team of mercenaries into some of the worst places in the world. He is joined by his second in command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture), weapons expert Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li). With Tool (Mickey Rourke) coordinating their jobs from a tattoo parlor, this is an elite group of commandos that get paid well for the dirtiest of jobs a mercenary can do. When a job from a CIA front man (Bruce Willis) leads him to a small South American country led by a dictator (David Zayas) and a rogue CIA operative (Eric Roberts) they want dead (and the odds stacked against them) Ross and his team go in to save a girl (Gisele Itie) that represents something more for Ross.
And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of The Expendables; it’s that there’s something more to it than just two hours or so of zealous action work. It has heart to it. The film’s main focus is on Ross, not shocking because Stallone directed & co-wrote it as well as stars in it, but the film focuses on his redemption as a character. He’s been a killer across many continents and there’s a weariness to him that Stallone brings out in him that’s understated. This is man who’s been hardened by years of doing dirty work. This is his opportunity for him to do something good to still hold on that part of him that still has a soul worth saving. It’s in a conversation with Rourke, a quiet scene between the two, where this comes out.
It’s a small bit of brilliant acting by Rourke, and a large (and almost unnoticed) bit from Stallone allowing Rourke to dominate a scene and let him non-verbally play off of it. It takes a lot from an actor to allow another to dominate the scene, to stay out of his way and let him bring out more than what the screenplay demands, and Stallone the actor is in sync with Stallone the writer/director in letting this small but crucial moment happen. It’s the impetus to the film’s final act and without would feel like something tacked on because the film needed to justify its explosion budget.
And it adds to the greater story being told; this is a genre film that elevates itself because of two things: its heart and its cast. There’s something deep inside the soul that this film appeals to beyond the excessive violence and brutality. Stallone does have an Oscar for writing Rocky, one of the more emotionally involving films of the last 50 years, and he taps into a similar dynamic for this. There’s something raw and powerful he taps into in an otherwise stale genre he taps into with simple things, like how he brings a sense of immediacy into the proceedings. This is a film that lives off the adrenaline of the action scene. But it wouldn’t work without the cast assembled.
Stallone doesn’t have the most talented cast of protagonists the “men on a mission” films this year (Red), nor does he have the one with the most chemistry (The A-Team), but he does have one thing that elevates the material beyond the genre: guys who make the most sense. The “Expendables” team move athletically and with a purpose; this is a team that moves in the field well enough that the Hollywood style of action doesn’t become irritating. Considering that his team comes from guys who excelled in other fields before becoming actors it’s not shocking; Randy Couture, for example, doesn’t have to do much to be a badass because he already is. Being a multiple time UFC champion affords you that and even the guy they make fun of in the film for his diminutive size (Li) is a tough guy in his own right.
This is a team that looks and feels the part of a team of badass mercenaries who roam the planet, collecting checks for breaking necks, and it gives the film a prestige that other films in the genre haven’t had in a year where the “men on a mission” motif has been out en masse. It’s one thing to be a group of wacky guys who pull off the impossible. What The Expendables has that none of these do is that they are intimidating on screen. It’s one thing to look like a tough guy but these ARE tough guys. It allows for a lot less exposition and more action; we don’t need to know these guys are tough by there talk. We can feel it and sense it from how they handle themselves. The best comparison would be to the team from Predator, which this film borrows several elements from. But it’s not only the good guys that make for compelling cinema.
Eric Roberts chews scenery as the main villain, giving us someone who desperately needs the removal that the team has been paid for. There’s nothing to like or admire about Roberts as Monroe, who has plenty of blood on his hands and has no problem having others shed it for him. Stallone has written a really great part for Roberts, who doesn’t disappoint. It’s campy and over the top but manages to work because Roberts is exactly the right actor for the material. This is Shakespeare to him and he just seems to be having the time of his life; it’s the sort of twisted glee one finds from Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. With Gary Daniels and former pro wrestling superstar Steve Austin providing him with the appropriate level of menace as his muscle, Roberts has a rather plum role that allows him to take an otherwise ordinary genre villain and elevate it to something fun.
In an era where everyone wants to be a tough guy, The Expendables proves that one of the things you can’t fake with CGI or a personal trainer is actually being a tough guy. It’s also why The Expendables is one of the best films of 2010.
Presented in a Dolby Digital surround in a widescreen format, the film looks and sounds terrific. This is a film with lots of great visuals and in need of great audio and it delivers every step of the way.
Before the Battle is a 15 minute narrative by Stallone about the film’s production. Delving a bit into EPK territory, it does provide some insight into the film about where Stallone came from and why he chose his cast like did.
A Deleted Scene is included but it’s more like an extended scene. It doesn’t add much back into the film but is rather amusing.
The usual Promotional Materials and Gag Reel are included.
Few films lived up to the hype this summer and The Expendables far exceeded it.
Lionsgate presents The Expendables. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD and Blu-ray: November 23, 2010.
Tags: Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables