Stallone and his band of macho men
‘Rocky Balboa’’ in 2006, “Rambo’’ in 2008 — Sylvester Stallone has been trying to recapture his youth, or comment on his distance from it, for several years now. With “The Expendables,’’ the writer-director-star may have finally found the magic formula. A testosterone-fueled all-star action orgy that wouldn’t be out of place on the Cinemax late-night schedule circa 1986, “Expendables’’ is the closest thing to movie Viagra yet invented. It’s reprehensible. It’s stoopid violent. It’s a lot of unholy fun.
As the film opens this weekend, it’s easy to picture lobby crowds splitting by gender, women streaming in to see “Eat Pray Love’’ while the men queue up for Stallone’s all-you-can-eat red-meat buffet. “Expendables’’ wastes no time: The opening scene is set aboard a Somalian pirate ship, with the rough, tough mercenary team led by Stallone’s Barney Ross using extreme prejudice to rescue US hostages from badly accented, badly acted villains. Bodies and knives fly through the air, limbs are separated from their owners, obscene amounts of ordnance are deployed. It’s all so . . . uncomplicated.
Barney’s team is made up of a who’s who of meathead culture: “Transporter’’ star Jason Statham as Christmas, a hotheaded British blade expert; Dolph Lundgren, who came to fame fighting Stallone back in 1985’s “Rocky IV,’’ as unreliable psycho Gunner; martial arts legend Jet Li as Ying Yang (!), getting all the short jokes they didn’t use up on Shaobao Qin in “Ocean’s Eleven’’; former NFL man-mountain Terry Crews as gun-crazy Hale Caesar (!!); Randy Couture, the UFC mixed-martial-arts topliner, as the amusingly neurotic Toll Road.
So it’s half “Dirty Dozen’’ remake, half ’80s class reunion; Bruce Willis and a certain bodybuilder-politician are among the surprise alumni who put in unbilled appearances. As Tool, Barney’s semi-retired best friend, Mickey Rourke mostly sits around tattooing the other characters and indulging in misty, what-does-it-all-mean monologues. He still gets the biggest applause from the audience, as befits the survivor with the most scars.
Stallone, who wrote the script with David Callaham (“Doom’’) and directs the mayhem with flat-footed efficiency, knows the villains in this kind of movie have to be even dumber than the heroes. The Expendables accept a mission to save an island nation — it’s called Mandala or Vindaloo or something — where an evil ex-CIA agent played by a rabid Eric Roberts (yes) has corralled the local general (David Zayas) into basing the country’s economy on cocaine production. Just to even the odds, Roberts’s henchmen include wrestler “Stone Cold’’ Steve Austin and kickboxer Gary Daniels. Before the good guys arrive, the rebel forces appear to consist solely of the general’s lissome daughter Sandra (Giselle Itié).
Itié is on hand to remind us that everyone’s heterosexual here — trust me, some of the dialogue has you wondering — but otherwise this is a boy’s night out all the way, from the preposterous amount of bullets fired and vehicles exploded to the towel-snapping locker room banter to the pump-it-up classic rock goosing the action. (“Mississippi Queen’’? Creedence’s “Keep on Chooglin’ ’’? If this soundtrack isn’t available on 8-track, there’s no justice in the world.)
What makes “The Expendables’’ bearable and even enjoyable is that Stallone and most of the cast maintain exactly the right attitude toward this nonsense. There’s a certain lumbering grace to the movie that comes with age and experience and the urge to not take oneself too seriously. There’s also an awareness of when he-man posturing crosses the line into genuine moral ugliness on the part of the villains. I was not expecting the waterboarding scene.
That’s as far as it goes, but it’s enough. The movie’s macho swill but it’s honest macho swill, and it wears its nostalgia lightly. “The Expendables’’ takes us back to those halcyon days when all you needed to launch an action career was a body, some steroids, and a really bad script.