The Expendables screens at Toronto Underground Cinema Friday, October 1st at 7:00pm, Saturday, October 2nd at 9:00pm, and Sunday, October 3rd at 7:00pm and 9:30pm.
The Expendables is a film that, much like last year's House of the Devil, should be released on VHS when it is made available for home viewing. It should come in one of those over sized cardboard boxes that MGM used to release all of their acquisitions from Cannon Films. I fear it might be the only box that could contain just what kind of awesomeness The Expendables has in store for the viewer.
By now, you have probably heard what everyone has said about the film; that it is a return to a straight up kind of action film that hasn't been around since the 1980s. I wouldn't necessarily go that far because I don't think those films ever stopped getting made and have been kept alive sporadically by people like Michael Bay and Tony Scott. I do have to say, however, that The Expendables is definitely the purest form of homage to those films that have such a special place in the heart of genre fans. The Expendables is quite simply a bunch of Rambos or a Delta Force thrown together to help out a country in need. It might be the simplest and most overused story template from the 1980s action filmmaker's handbook, but it is pretty effective and very easy to play with. It doesn't need to be rigidly adhered to at all times.
But also, and this is something that upon initial analysis that I think a lot of people missed, The Expendables is also far more progressive feeling than its 1980s counterparts. The rigidly right wing politics of writer/director Sylvester Stallone's earlier efforts (particularly Rambo III and Cobra) seem to be replaced by a far more humanist view of the world. This is a 1980s film made for a post 9/11 society, and damned if the changes don't end up working for the better. If this were the 1980s, it might have easily been one of the best action films of that decade. As for the one we just entered, it is going to be a tough one to beat.
Stallone plays Barney Ross, a leader of former soldiers turned mercenaries for hire, who is propositioned by a government spook (Bruce Willis) to assassinate the dictator of a small South American island rich in natural resources that the U.S. could use (read: exploit for fun and profit). It also appears that the dictator is in the pocket of a wealthy ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts, who excels at sleaze) who is pushing the ruling class in the country to rule by fear, not in the traditional 80s fashion that states that Communism was a bad thing, but in the new millennium way of showing a dictator that simply wants to keep everything for himself no matter the cost to the country or its inhabitants. Oh, and Roberts has a right hand man quite aptly named Paine (Steve Austin).
Barney assembles his team with the help of logistics expert/tattoo artist extraordinaire Tool (Mickey Rourke). The team includes a close range weapons expert (Jason Statham), a hand to hand combat master (Jet Li), a grunt (Randy Couture), a high calibre weapons specialist (Terry Crews), and a drugged addled, more than half psychotic burn out (Dolph Lundgren). They all have ridiculous names. In typical 80s movie fashion, one of these men will betray Barney and his team, and it should end up being a surprise to no one. Once on the island they are aided by the daughter of the dictator named Sandra (Gisele Itie) who is leading the resistance because she understands that everyone around her father is simply using him.
Of course things go wrong and shit goes down. There wouldn't be a film if it didn't. But where the film seems oddly progressive is in a place where 1980s films sorely lacked. The Expendables has very strong female characters to balance out what should have been an all out testosterone festival. Sandra is a character that is very strong and you get the sense that she would carry on with or without the help of Barney's crew. In fact, Barney and his crew almost don't return to the island after their cover is blown, and he even acknowledges that while Sandra probably doesn't need help, they go back because they want to. There is also the matter of Statham's ex-girlfriend in the film (Charisma Carpenter) who is being abused by her current boyfriend. Punishing males who abuse women is a common 1980s motif, but in the films of that era the woman couldn't handle things on her own and the abuser was quite often a WASP-y type who wouldn't know how to be macho if Randy Savage gave him lessons. In this film, the abusers are the worst kind of douchebags in today's society: the fake macho men who buy Tapout shirts and think they can take anyone at any time. Needless to say, the payoff of this subplot is exactly what the audience would expect from such a film.
I could also express a few concerns about the film, but to take The Expendables to task for being unrealistic and chaotic (the editing in some sequences is downright atrocious, but Stallone has recently gone on record saying he is fixing this for the DVD release), but that would be like complaining that it rains occasionally. It is entirely counterproductive and if you wanted to talk about those problems you probably wouldn't be watching this film in the first place.