This is without a doubt the most frustrating movie of 2010. Believe me, there are few people on this planet who would like nothing more than to see Sylvester Stallone make a big career comeback. After the successes of ROCKY BALBOA and RAMBO, anticipation for THE EXPENDABLES had reached a boiling point for me. Stallone was going to make another film and continue his comeback success, he had gathered the most badass action stars money and influence could buy, and it was going to be Stallone’s first original, non-sequel film in a long time. When I read about the story I was intrigued by the premise, especially given the cast of actors scheduled to be participating in the mayhem. I then read that the film would be an homage to 80s action movies like COMMANDO, COBRA, and MISSING IN ACTION. Ok, fine, I can live with that depending on how it turns out. However, I’ve heard a filmmaker describe his movie as an homage or spoof of a popular genre before when it was really code for “my movie blows so I’m going to salvage this horrible piece of shit as best I can by calling it an homage.” Despite all this, Stallone was finally being given carte blanche to make the kind of movie he wanted. Verdict: underwhelming and forgettable.

Let me first say that no critic’s badmouthing of this film will matter a whole lot for the tough guy crowd. For them, THE EXPENDABLES is critic proof and a testament to that is the number of guys that packed the theater at yesterday’s screening. This film is like an extension of getting together with your buddies on a Friday night at the local dive bar and playing darts and getting drunk. However, instead of going to the bars, the characters in this film go to God-forsaken countries to pull off insane missions for money. Afterwards, they go to their own version of a bar, which is Mickey Rourke’s tattoo shop (and yes, they play darts). This film doesn’t offer anything in the way of originality of plot and I don’t think it tries to. The underlying intent of THE EXPENDABLES is to see what happens when you put the best action movie stars together in one movie against a familiar action movie backdrop.

Given that, the film’s success entirely depends on the appeal of the actors and their chemistry together, which is something that THE A-TEAM and THE LOSERS also tried to do with varying degrees of success (put simply, THE A-TEAM failed at this and THE LOSERS succeeded at it). I felt that here you’re not so much as seeing characters specifically developed for THE EXPENDABLES as you’re seeing the actors playing up an image the public has of them. Its like each was asked to portray the essence of what makes them popular among their fans. I can accept even this because when you come right down to it, you’re mainly buying a ticket to see all these actors sharing the same screen. What I did expect, however, that I did not get was chemistry. I don’t know how many movies I have seen this year where my biggest complaint has been a lack of chemistry among the lead actors. THE EXPENDABLES tries to get by with just putting these movie stars together, but that novelty only lasts so long (5 minutes to be exact) before you begin seeing people phone texting inside the theater. This movie reminds me of another, much more successful film that had an all-star ensemble cast, OCEAN’S 11. Although that film didn’t have a whole lot of character development and the actors, like here, merely served up their popular image to the audience, they all worked well together. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and the rest of the cast bantered around with clever quips that made the film memorable and enjoyable for the audience. THE EXPENDABLES, on the other hand, simply throws its actors onscreen and we’re expected to be content with just that.

I think the major source of the problem with this movie is Sylvester Stallone’s ability to write. Aside from ROCKY and FIRST BLOOD, I wouldn’t exactly regard Stallone as a prodigious writer. He seems to have possessed writing talent early in his career, but as much as I enjoyed ROCKY BALBO and RAMBO a few years ago, I wouldn’t exactly regard them as exemplary pieces of screenwriting. Stallone can craft a story, not a high-concept or award-winning one, but a passable story nonetheless. As for character development, Stallone got a pass with ROCKY BALBOA and RAMBO because those characters had already been developed and the world they inhabited was also already there. Stallone just had to come up with a story that showed those characters’ progression and those elements that made those franchises popular with audiences. With THE EXPENDABLES, Stallone is finally faced with crafting an original story with original characters and I think his limits as a writer are finally exposed here.

To begin with, I’m not going to treat THE EXPENDABLES as an homage to 80s action movies. This will allow me to attack the film’s narrative elements instead of accepting them as characteristic of that type of movie (as I said before, I’m a little suspect that Stallone really intended this film to be an homage). For one, do we really need to have a mission take place in South America? Just as a shipyard dock has become a clichéd and oft-used setting for an action sequence (see THE LOSERS and THE A-TEAM), an action movie set in some fictional South American country is just as clichéd. Other continents do exist, other political conflicts for mercenaries to mess with are out there, and other types of villains are available for these characters to deal with. All it takes is a subscription to The New York Times and there is plenty of material for screenwriters to mine for their stories. Furthermore, a CIA-run scheme with a military general serving as a puppet leader? Even if this did sound like an interesting setup, I was never told what kind of tomfoolery the villains are up to. Considering we’re in South America and there is a scene with Eric Roberts chewing out the general over the poor crop yield of his cocoa field, I would guess there’s a drug operation afoot. Still, Stallone simply skips a pebble in giving any backstory or clear motivation to the bad guys.

I can be easy to please at times and so I can even disregard the above narrative problems. I understand what this movie is, which is a balls-out action movie. Fine, but you know what? Sadly and most unfortunately, without the movie stars that populate this film, THE EXPENDABLES would be nothing more than a late-night Cinemax action movie starring Steven Seagal. It has a few moments that rise above mediocrity and offers a glimpse of what this movie could have been (I’m thinking of the corridor scene inside the fort where Steve Austin takes on Randy Couture). Other than that, the rest of the film could suck dick. First, why, why, WHY would you employ the use of shaky-cam for your fight scenes, especially when you hire someone like Corey Yuen to choreograph Jet Li’s fight scenes? Half the time I couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on and I especially couldn’t see much of Jet Li’s character in action. Stupid. Second, I get very annoyed when filmmakers shoot their action at night. You tend to not get the full scope and effect of the action because everything is shrouded in twilight (IRON MAN had a huge problem with this). Whats worse, the climax action sequence takes place in a field full of a couple of tents, trucks, and a watchtower. Granted, its not shipyard docks and I can thank Stallone from sparing us from enduring that kind of setting, but this type of setting is no better. You’re in South America for fuck’s sake! Set that shit in the jungle or inside the village or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, there was an action sequence that took place in the daytime and inside the village and I thought that was far more exciting than the climax scene. If there is anything good to say about the action, at times it gets very intense and violent, which is what I wanted. Its not as violent as RAMBO was, but there is some extreme violence, especially when Jason Statham and Terry Crews are unleashed on the bad guys.

I haven’t said much about the actors and there’s really not a lot to say about them. I guess I can tell you who were my favorite stars, which other than Stallone would be Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, and Steve Austin. I felt Jet Li was underused and his fight scenes didn’t pack the kind of punch and excitement I was expecting to see. I was also looking forward to seeing Dolph Lundgren, but after seeing this movie I can now see why he’s been absent for these many years. For one, he looks like he’s done a LOT of drugs and drinking. Furthermore, I could barely make out what he was saying. Either he doesn’t speak proper English or he just mumbles everything like he’s in a drunken stupor. Eric Roberts was another poorly used actor in this movie. I don’t blame him as much as I blame his poor character development. He certainly hams it up, but I guess that’s in keeping with the spirit of the movie (ironically, his sister’s movie EAT, PRAY, LOVE opened on the same day. Sibling rivalry.). I wish Mickey Rourke had accompanied the crew on their mission so I saw that as a missed opportunity. As for the famous cameo from Bruce and Arnold, its short, but surprisingly effective and funny. It elicited the biggest laugh from the audience, especially when Stallone makes a comment about Arnold’s presidential aspirations.

So there you have it. THE EXPENDABLES isn’t remarkable by any stretch of the imagination and it ranks as one of the most highly anticipated films to disappoint this year. It continues the trend Hollywood has set this summer of putting out one disappointment after another. With the way this summer has gone, I cringe at how the rest of this year will play out despite some very promising fare coming out over the next few months.