Sometimes, people will have you believe that a film is anticipated or becomes a success because it represents "something different," that somehow a film has broken "from the norm" to deliver plots, characters and settings we've never seen before. This is never the case. If something isn't readily familiar to a moviegoer, then their desire to see a film based off promotional materials and the like is ALWAYS based on a movie looking either like something they enjoy that's massively popular or, most likely, something they enjoy on their own that may not have universal awareness, but does carry universal resonance: "The Matrix," a game-changing blockbuster if there ever was one, gained popularity because to everyone it represented familiar elements from movies, whether it be kung-fu, high concept science fiction, Keanu Reeves' body of work, "The Terminator" or even "Neuromancer."
"The Expendables" is a different breed of familiar movie that we find familiar because, if we're fans of the action genre, we've played it out in our heads for years since the mid-80's. Just as many have speculated the nature of the dream rock concert, or more specifically people fan-casted the "X-Men" movies years before they happened, "The Expendables" is the result of action fans being rewarded for their dedication to the b-action movie, a genre that had no artistic integrity like the horror world, and no real rebellious, transgressive attitude like the flophouse violence oddities of the seventies, leading to various carbon-copies of monotone action heroes firing one liners in the face of easily stoppable danger, the Reagan-era bullies completely ignoring innocents in order to bring "justice" to the world with the elimination of cartoon bogeymen.
However, unlike the similarly fan-demanded "Snakes On A Plane," another insta-movie anticipated by a rabid cult who had long played the movie out in their heads, the fans of this genre are not without their classics. There certainly is merit to works like "Commando" and "Cobra," especially as products of a bygone era- these real (and/or steroided) superheroes have been replaced by ineffectual special effects and conflicts with meek "moral dilemmas" that somehow have more merit than the danger present in "
Synopsis/Tagline: They eliminate those hard-to-get-at stains.
Plot: Barney Ross is the head of an international gang of mercenaries who call themselves The Expendables. They exist in the shadow where bureaucratic government agents dare not tread, and they never kill anyone who didn't have it coming. However, they may have bit off more than they can chew when they find themselves tasked with freeing island nation Vilena from the grasp of the evil General Garza.
Keepin' It Topical "The Expendables" begins with a surprising pirate attack, the mandatory Big Action Opener. The villains, described as Somalians, take control of the ship, and even record events so they may be able to demand a ransom. But no pirate could have anticipated the Expendables! The team comes down hard on the scavengers, a little too hard in one Expendables' sake, and after an action-heavy confrontation, the Expendables vanish, one member less. These dudes are capable, and have done this more than a few times -- the body count is high, as one theatrically beheaded pirate early on confirms that they are going for blood, but with plenty of space for instant PG-13 cutaways -- as the producer recently said -- though the language is decidedly light either way...
The Chain Of Villains: Early on, it appears that the Expendables are tasked with removing the unstable General Garza (David Zayas) from his position of power, as they are are granted a generous offer from a mysterious man named Church who's daughter has been killed by Garza's soldiers during a peacekeeping effort. Turns out, however, all wires are crossed- early on, we find out that Garza is somehow in league with renegade CIA agent Monroe (Eric Roberts), who has his own strongman assistant in aptly-named Paine (Steve Austin). But what's this? We also learn early on that Church is also involved with the CIA, and might be the big bad pulling the strings. Rumors peg Bruce Willis as Church, a role that requires about four brief scenes, which would be excellent casting considering the firepower onboard this movie.
After Ross takes on the expendables' new, lucrative assignment in Vilena, they get to have some interplay between each other, and its good to know Stallone understands that, while not exactly deep, a little contemporary humanizing of these larger-than-life characters goes a long way.
Barney Ross: Stallone doesn't write much about him, but his interactions with the other characters explain much without dialogue. Essentially, Ross is by far the oldest of the group, and as such is sort of a mentor to the others. he has individual scenes with each character, where they all end up revealing their insecurities to him through rambling, stop-start macho dialogue. Ross isn't interested in playing armchair psychiatrist, but rather smoothing out the bumps so that the mission could go smoothly. There's no origin or flashbacks for this or any other character, and you know Stallone "gets it"- everything you need to know is on the page.
Lee Christmas (Jason Statham): Second-in-command- takes it upon himself to bust every one's balls, which carries a nice, compensatory weight when we learn he's having terrible relationship problems with the his flaky lady love Lacy (Charisma Carpenter). He's also lethal with knives, and carries the most sour disposition of the group- expect scowling.
Bao Thao (Jet Li): A private sort, the Chinese martial artist uses his feet as often as his guns. He is the most lonely of the Expendables, and clearly doesn't seem to be friends with many of them. He takes quiet moments to speak about his displeasure with their jobs and how he wants a larger cut to sponsor his own charity.
Hale Caesar (Terry Crews): Probably the most comical role of the Expendables. Crewes won't entirely be left in the dark -- he gets to make a speech about how the government has misapplied themselves in worldwide politics, but he also gets to quip wise, and he's the one member of the group with the heaviest artillery.
Toll Road (Randy Couture)- A new character not in previous drafts, he's a slightly amended version of the "gay Expendable" that has now been excised from the script. He's designated muscle, but in his off-time, we get to see him feeding an addiction to crossword puzzles.
Gunnar Hansen (Dolph Lundgren)- Reportedly the role Jean Claude Van Damme was to play before he turned it down. Hansen is in the very first scene deliriously bloodthirsty and ready to take out all the pirates, but Kong puts him down, and he's expelled from the team for his drug use and wanton disrespect for authority. Needless to say, he shows up again, but he's not necessarily part of the main plot.
Levity We read a seriously early draft before getting our hands on the newer version, and its a definite improvement, mostly because of the humor. The plot, featuring shady backroom dealing and double-crosses were also streamlined, but the movie earns points for its interest in quiet moments. There is a street scene where Christmas gets to put the smackdown on his ex's new beau that ends up as a slugfest between Statham and a few goons, a definite crowd-pleaser. Most interestingly, though, are the moments with Tool, the ex-Expendable written into the new script for Mickey Rourke. Tool, now retired and owning a tattoo parlor the group meets at, is a mellow, philosophizing character who gets a number of juicy lines and provides a lot of male camaraderie in his brief scenes. He never goes into battle, but we see he still maintains his skills when he chucks a knife into a wall poster of, you guessed it, Jean Claude Van Damme.
New Material For The Script Since we had the liberty of comparing two separate drafts of the script, we are happy to report that all changes are for the better. The "gay Expendable" never had a real function and only caused friction within the group, so he was understandably excised, while a female CIA agent on the Expendables' trail felt too rote and predictable, so she was also eliminated, her partner Monroe being elevated into becoming a more straightforward villain character. The addition of Tool is probably the best addition, and the revelation that Church is with the CIA is a nice change to accommodate a big actor in the role. Sandra, the token damsel in distress, who ended up in the arms of Christmas, has been turned into the generals daughter, and she ends up merely sharing respect with Ross while Christmas ends up in the arms of the lover who spurned him in the earlier draft. And Garza became a much more interesting villain- the key is how Zayas plays him, but on paper, the character is a delirious, power-mad, and not entirely competent general who's dangerousness comes from his reckless unpredictability. We're still wondering where the Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo would go -- no sign of that in the script, though that seems like it would be an improvised affair anyway.
Verdict There were never going to be any surprises with this project in the first place. The trick about the script was that it had to convey that the actors weren't playing avatars and that the action was five star quality. As is, the character work is strong considering the material, and the action stands at a four star quality- you'd have to believe Stallone and co. will have amped up the action tenfold, especially considering how grotesque and bloody "Rambo" was. If he can't use a portion of the budget on squibs, the scale of the action is suitable enough that at least there will be enough explosions. All-in-all, "The Expendables" reads like a script from a man, Stallone, who seems to have finally cracked the code on how to make a crowd-pleasing action film that will bring in the hardcore genre nuts alienated by the Jason Bournes and Spider-Men populating the marketplace.