The Expendables: Action Figures

I’m not sure whether it was when I first read about Sylvester Stallone’s latest testosterone-fest on some movie gossip site, or if it was when I saw the trailer, that I decided I should probably get a little drunk when I eventually went to see it. But, whatever the case, I found myself nervously sneaking a mickey of Jim Beam into a commercial movie theater after buying my ticket on Friday, curiously being carded for the first time since high school (for the R-rated movie, but not the liquor I’d bought just prior).

My feeling is that alcohol proportionally increases the effect of cheesy action movies on the human pleasure center. When I lived in a house full of dudes a few years ago, we whiled away a few memorable nights swilling beer and enjoying stupid, violent romps like Taken and The Marine.

It was a bonding experience and a time of revelation: I’ve always taken exception to the notion of enjoying culture ironically, but a close relative of that dubiously real process is enjoying culture while under the influence.

Thusly, this new Stallone picture is geared directly toward the viewer of great spirit and little distinction of taste. The film’s pantheon of burly marquee stars is its main (only?) draw, and I must admit I’ve only halfway invested in the oeuvres of those involved. I’ve not seen many of Stallone’s heyday hits (although one lazy afternoon viewing of the what-the-fuck classic First Blood Part II left me intrigued), nor have I seen either of his previous directorial efforts – sequels to the Rocky and Rambo franchises which were inspiring or boring, depending on whom you ask.

I suppose my main interest in the film was just puerile curiosity, a wonderment at how this surreal summit of old-dog filmmaking would turn out. It’s similar to the fascination with Snakes on a Plane, except for the fact that this movie isn’t just some joke that was taken too far.

A week ago, I remarked to a friend that I would be disappointed if the movie were either any worse or any better than I’d expected it to be, so I can say with some satisfaction that it was more or less the experience that I went in for.

The requisite beats and moments hit as hard as they need to—Jet Li does kung-fu! Jason Statham cracks wise! MMA star Randy Couture tussles with WWF bruiser Steve Austin!—and the whole thing feels at once rewarding and empty for it. I’m not talking some staid film-critic cliché, like “Why should I care about the characters?”, or whatever. Readers, that’s not me. It’s just that there seems to be something missing which keeps The Expendables from achieving true guns-and-gore nirvana.

On the drive home, my friend wondered aloud whether Stallone
had recently suffered a stroke.

I think my main issue with the movie is a relatively trivial one — it overuses CGI in order to complete its over-the-top production design. Stallone tries to evoke the excess of hard-line 1980s action flicks, but he falls short of the goal because he doesn’t value the tactile worth of physical objects. As any film nerd worth his stripes will tell you, practical effects > computer effects. No matter how advanced they become (not that the ones employed here are all that good), it’s not the same. Call it Geeks’ Intuition.

Apart from the fakery, the Mt. Rushmore-of-Action faces which comprise the cast aren’t really given much to do outside of some world-class punching and shooting. Though, upon reflection, I can’t think of what else I might expect. Some of them are such big stars in their respective fields, it’s impressive that Stallone corralled them into parts with few lines and approaching-zero substance. But, hey, I’m sure they had a lot of fun. What I cannot say is if, a week from now, I’ll remember any of the bang-bang set-pieces or “clever” lines and characters – though I did enjoy Dolph “I Must Break You” Lundgren as a cheerfully deranged shotgunner named, um, Gunnar.

On the drive home, my friend wondered aloud whether Stallone had recently suffered a stroke. “No,” I replied. “I think it’s some of that … botox … collagen, whatever they call it.” Mainly, we agreed, it’s just that he’s really old and weathered. In a charming gamble, Mickey Rourke – similarly afflicted with weirdface – is given the film’s longest and most intense close-up during a plaintive monologue which I was later informed was more or less the plot of Camus’ The Fall. It is the character of those chiseled-from-rock-and-rubber bodies that is the real soul of The Expendables, and really the only reason I would recommend it. It’s the new school of the cultural aura, the pure, giddy realization that at one moment, The Terminator, Rambo and John McClane stood in a room together and said some stuff.

And, by the way, having bourbon in a movie theater is surprisingly fun and probably more affordable than regular movie snacks. I recommend it. Just make sure to offer a pull to your neighbors. A drink and a flick are best enjoyed in good company. TC mark

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