Sly and the Family Stallone

“If the money’s right, we don’t care where the job is.” So explains the leader of hired-gun task force the Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone). This credo lands Ross and his team in the Gulf of Aden as our story begins. Somali pirate kidnappers staging a videotaped decapitation are pinned down by dancing laser sights—and the ripped-from-the-headlines baddies are torn apart.

Rocky’s creator is a promoter at heart, and in his career’s third act, writer/co-director Stallone is hawking nostalgia. Tipped by the presence of Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren and cameo favors called in from Planet Hollywood, the movie is a throwback to ’80s run-and-gun action, when Hollywood gym rats made boffo box office depopulating Third World countries.

Stallone and Jason Statham have the lion’s share of screen time here; the full Expendables aren’t together much when not killing and never gel as an ensemble. Lundgren is a fringe presence, Jet Li and UFC vet Randy Couture are awkward outside of a scrap, and in “The Carl Weathers Memorial Role,” Terry Crews, a great comic, doesn’t get the opportunity to create the familiar, relaxed, workaday banter the movie requires.

Between commissions, the gang convenes at the New Orleans tattoo parlor of ex-Expendable Mickey Rourke. Pirates liquidated, the Expendables’ next mission concerns the fate of the South American nation of Vilena, where Generalissimo Garza (David Zayas) grinds the populace beneath his iron heel. This consists of soldiers shaking the peasantry around and literally upsetting their apple carts. Garza is torn between his imperialist yanqui backers (tailored and tanned Eric Roberts and bodyguard “Stone Cold” Steve Austin) and his idealistic, vaguely artistic daughter, played by Giselle Itié.

Itié’s vague Hope gives the Expendables a purpose. Smushed in close-up, Rourke gives a teary, deal-sealing keynote speech about redemption, beginning, “When we was up in Bosnia . . .” It’s a disingenuous sop from a script that recklessly deploys loaded images of napalm and waterboarding as part of its dirty-thrills sensory assault, but Stallone has always had a knack for buffaloing past complexities rather than lingering over them, and a moral compass with erratic bearings is better than none at all.

Though Expendables does not have the last Rambo’s . . . let’s call it focus—it tries manfully to top that film’s berserker, kill-’em-all climax in a siege on Garza’s palace. Here, Stallone’s julienned editing whips up a blizzard of violence. Couture punches a man wreathed in CGI fire, Li snaps a head back with a guillotine kick . . .

It’s surprising to emerge into a still-intact world after this Ragnarök spectacle, as all-in as if it were the last shoot-out ever to be filmed. Or the first? The Expendables ends with a knife thrown at the camera, a parting assault on the audience reminiscent of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. This is action as timeless as the reptilian brain—and if The Expendables is no classic, for about 20 minutes, it blowed up real good.

The Expendables was directed by Sylvester Stallone; written by Stallone and Dave Callaham; and stars Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, David Zayas and Giselle Itié. Rated R. Countywide.

This review appeared in print as “Twilight of the Bods: Sly and the family Stallone get nostalgic for their legacy of brutality in The Expendables.”

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