The best word to describe The Expendables is overkill. In a good way, if good can be defined as 103 minutes of body-gnarling violence and macho posturing, each gratuitous to a grindhouse degree.
Armed with a cast of legendary action heroes — plus a few less renowned — The Expendables is as ballistic and blockheaded as any movie written and directed by Sylvester Stallone deserves to be. Realizing a script that could be Rambo V is squarely in Stallone's sweet spot as a filmmaker.
Stallone brings his guttural line readings and inflexibly reconstructed face to the role of Barney Ross, leader of a merry band of motorcycling assassins called the Expendables. They have little personality beyond physical characteristics — bald, short, whatever — but they have heat vision goggles, laser scopes and knives that could make Crocodile Dundee cringe. And they know how to use them.
The new twist in artillery is bullets that are actually mini-warheads, detonating on contact and splattering movie marinara everywhere. The Expendables needs a few more surprises like those to separate it from the gunpowder pack. Fetishistic shots of gleaming guns and blades don't do it anymore.
Stallone graciously shares the bulk of the mayhem with Jason Statham (The Transporter, Crank) as a cutlery expert named Christmas but his temperament isn't merry. Christmas shows his tender side after getting dumped by a woman who wanted more, but don't they all in these movies? He shows just enough contempt for the new boyfriend to ensure a second, less polite meeting.
Mickey Rourke adds a touch of The Wild Bunch melancholy as Tool, a former Expendable running a bike-in tattoo parlor. For all his yee-haw bravado, Tool can't get over that bad scene in Bosnia when his soul ran dry, recounted in a long, gun-metal blue tinted closeup. Tool sets up Barney for the strong arm summit for which The Expendables will be remembered: Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger mano a mano a mano.
It's only a two-minute scene but a doozy of an inside joke, with Ah-nuld playing a mercenary competitor handing off the dirty job offer from Willis' CIA operative to Barney. Stallone gives everyone closeups to study the tough guy smirks, and can't resist surefire jokes like Willis' vulgar sarcasm about the tension and Barney claiming Schwarzenegger is ill tempered because "he wants to be president."
The Expendables could use more of that self-awareness of its action flick posterity. Instead, we get a typical plot of South American narcotics trade with the obligatory double crosses, ambushes and warrior music crescendos. Style points are earned by casting oily Eric Roberts as the U.S. puppet master in Barney's crosshairs; he should have bragging rights over his sister Julia (Eat Pray Love) when weekend box office totals are announced.
If anyone gets a career boost from The Expendables it will be Dolph Lundgren, playing a drug-addicted loose Howitzer booted from the team and flipping to the bad side. (Ivan Drago vs. Rocky again!) Lundgren plays a loony sadist well, and can still crush windpipes with the best of them. Of course, when your career is direct-to-video anyway, a boost is easy in this company.