The Expendables is genre action at its most generic. Stallone brings along a sense of professionalism and elevates the material through workmanlike directing into something that feels a step above a straight-to-DVD release, which is more than can be said about the quality of his script. And for their part, the crew of action actors all contribute performances slightly beyond what you might expect. Dolph Lundgren is actually pretty good as a hopped-up, drugged out mercenary, and wrestler Randy Couture has a few small acting moments to play. These guys are obviously jumping at the chance to be in a theatrically-released film, and making the most they can of the opportunity. Then there’s David Zayas, playing a South American dictator, who’s worked so much lately on Dexter and other premium cable shows over the last few years, becoming such a solid and dependable supporting actor in the process, that he really knows how to walk a tightrope and find the right balance to make his character something beyond the skeletal archetype he’s been given to play. And of course, Eric Roberts is the king of delivering a good, or at least a non-embarrassing performance, no matter what he’s surrounded by. And that’s the big problem here; Stallone the director works well with his actors, but Stallone the writer has given himself nothing but garbage to work from.
Not only are the setup, dialogue, and plot generic, but anything resembling character development is laughable. Jason Statham’s character Lee Christmas is the one who gets a love interest. But all that involves is two scenes: one where he comes back after having been out of town for awhile on a mission only to find his girlfriend with another guy, and a second where he discovers the other guy has hit his ex-girlfriend so he goes and beats the tar out of him. Other than this proving him loyal, hot-headed, and violent, qualities which we already know the character has, this whole little romance serves no purpose. Most of what we learn about these muscleheads is that they ride motorcycles, smoke cigars (or in Mickey Rourke’s case, a really long pipe), hang around in a tattoo parlor having knife-throwing contests, and date women who look like strippers. There’s really only one true acting moment in the script, and Stallone is smart enough to know that it’s out of place amid the rest of the film, so he puts Rourke in such extreme close-up that all we’re left with are the words themselves, and it’s slightly easier to suspend disbelief and take them to heart without being faced with the ridiculously 80s action cliche setting surrounding them, which would sabotage what little truth there is in the speech. At point Jet Li says he needs to make more money for his family, and it seems there might in fact be one instance of a little character development. But later while being chased he confides to Stallone that he doesn’t really have a family, and Stallone replies “I know.” Potential character development terminated.
The action is decent, but generally completely forgettable. Statham and Li have one pretty cool fight scene together. There’s been some disappointment about the fact that the movie really focuses on Stallone, Statham, and to some extent Lundgren and Li, and isn’t the big action team movie it’s being sold as. All of that is true, but it hardly matters. Either way, Stallone has served up such a bland, empty product that you’ll hardly remember much of what happened by the time the credits roll.