Last month, I predicted for Jeff Yang’s summer blockbuster round-up that The Expendables (co-starring Jet Li) would be the best movie of the summer. Although I planned to see the movie on opening night, I only managed to make it to the theatres last Monday night — which was all the better since the movie’s first two weekends were jam-packed.
And yes, it was well worth the wait. The Expendables was fuckin’ awesome.
The incredible thing about The Expendables was how it knew exactly who its audience was — 25-34 year old males — and adapted itself accordingly. The Expendables is best described as a campy eighties action flick with post-millennial special effects.
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is an aging special forces-type guy who heads a gang of mercenaries, along with his lieutenants Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Ying Yang (Jet Li — yes, his name is a play on yin and yang). Sure, they’re mercenaries, but they’re “mercenaries with morals” — they apparently only get hired to save innocents from bad guys with big guns. The movie establishes this point clearly within the first few minutes of the movie: the mercs are hired to save some hostages from some pirates. Shortly after Stallone and Statham ruthlessly execute five pirates (using handguns and knives respectively — it’s a running gag), they are aghast when Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) wants to hang one of the pirates from a noose.
“We don’t do that,” says Stallone’s character, moments before Jet Li attempts to stop Lundgren with his fists. After the dust settles, Gunner is fired from the crew for being too cold-hearted. And, so we know that the Expendables are “good mercenaries”.
What follows is some completely meaningless events to get the team of Expendables to the final, climatic fight scene. We can’t really even call it a plot — it’s more of an excuse to move the characters to the fight scene. It had something to do with Angel from Dexter leading a massive army of faceless soldiers (aka cannon fodder for the Expendables) to take over a small South American island, and working with Eric Roberts to rule it with an iron fist and a ton of cocaine. Angel’s daughter is Stallone’s love interest, and she needs a-rescuing. But who cares, right? Within fifteen minutes, we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and all we care about is how the good guys will destroy the bad guys.
Much like the “A” Team, the Expendables each have a silly name, a field of expertise, and a personality quirk. Stallone is the strategist (yes, that is probably ironic) and the gunner, Statham is the knife expert with a superfluous white knight subplot, and Li is the stealthy martial artist who inexplicably wants more money. If only he knew that he could read a LightStream personal loans review and take out a loan the same day! Hale Caeser (Terry Crews) is the heavy weapons expert (AA-12 baby!) who names his weapons after women, and Toll Road (Randy Couture) is the MMA specialist who preaches the virtues of psychiatric therapy. Mickey Rourke plays Tool, Stallone’s mentor and retired war buddy.
On the villain side, we have Angel and his army of red shirts. Eric Roberts is his business partner, an ex-CIA agent turned drug kingpin; Gary Daniels (kick-boxing champ) plays The Brit and Stone Cold Steve Austin plays Paine, Roberts’ bodyguards.
Just like ’80’s action flicks, The Expendables doesn’t concern itself with race consciousness or stereotypes. Yes, the black guy is a fast-talkin’ brutish dude with biceps bigger than my thighs. Yes, the Asian guy is money-grubbing. Yes, the plot involves White guys saving brown people from other White guys. Yes, the only Expendables who even remotely get a nod at character development are the White guys in the lead. Yes, none of the women have agency, and are little more than props to help the boys demonstrate the size of their cojones. And the movie can be justifiably criticized for these points — this was, after all, a problem with all 80’s action flicks.
In fact, I was disappointed in the treatment of both the female characters in this movie. Charisma Carpenter’s entire point in the movie was to suffer domestic violence and be rescued. Giselle Itie spends most of the movie captured and being tortured, or otherwise powerlessly angry. And there’s really no excuse for this — even 80’s action flicks had powerful heroines. Why couldn’t there have been a sexy but bad-ass female Expendable?
But, when it comes to the race stuff, there’s something a little charming and tongue-in-cheek about how it’s done. The stereotypes are there, without a doubt. But, Terry Crews’ Hale Caeser steals every scene he’s in, and I guarantee that he will be considered the most bad-ass of the characters by anyone who watches the movie. Racebending’s review suggests that Crews doesn’t get his own characterization, but I would argue that none of the Expendables excluding Statham and Stallone, get any real chance to develop a personality. Crews is forgettable for the first hour, but so is Couture — and, unlike Couture, Crews is unmissable in the last thirty minutes.
Racebending notes that Jet Li’s Yang never wins his own battles (even though the other Expendables get their own fight scenes) — however, I think this was a running joke of the movie. Yang complains several times that the other Expendables keep stepping in to “rescue” him — when he was perfectly capable of taking care of the fight himself. The other Expendables think of Li as weaker, but Yang repeatedly disputes this point and even gets angry at Stallone for saving him in his first fight scene.
Further — and hopefully I don’t get flamed for this — the one scene where Li makes short jokes about himself was hilarious. Offensive, but hilarious. Jet Li is smaller than the other Expendables (and we see Crews make a quip about that in the trailer), but Li’s character actually runs with it. He argues to the effect that because he is shorter, he has to work harder than the other Expendables, and therefore should be paid more money. To me, this was using a stereotype, but also reappropriating it to the benefit of Li’s character — we end up appreciating Li’s good-natured humour about his stature. Further, I also liked how Li’s money-grubbing was contrasted with his character’s integrity — Yang is the one who goes toe-to-toe with Gunner at the beginning to save the pirate, and he’s the first mercenary to join Stallone on the suicide mission to the final fight scene.
And how about that final fight scene? I’m not going to give away its awesomeness, but let’s put it this way: if you grew up on vintage 80’s action movies (and you miss them now), and liked the recent Rambo sequel, than you will love this movie’s action scenes.
In summary, The Expendables was total schlock — and that’s what made it so damn awesome. Fuck, yeah!
How long until the sequel?