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When Aging Action Stars Attack: Sylvester Stallone's 'The Expendables'

From left: Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Randy Couture make a killing in 'The Expendables.'

A Rotten Tomatoes reader described The Expendables thusly: “Its purpose is to be violent.” Mission accomplished. Sylvester Stallone’s long-rumored convening of the Lat Pack – a motley crew of action stars past and present, including Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and, in his first dramatic role since 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – is a love letter to bloody excess.
 
Where is Seagal? Van Damme? Chuck Norris? For every macho icon Stallone failed to recruit, he compensates with serviceable substitutes like former pro wrestler Steve Austin and UFC star Randy Couture. The movie even reunites The Pope of Greenwich Village co-stars Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts (whose best-known bouts have taken place off-camera), though they never share screen time.
 
Perhaps if Stallone, who co-wrote The Expendables, offered a more compelling reason for these street-fighting men to break out their boomsticks, the  mayhem might have unfolded with a greater sense of urgency. Yet his story, about aging mercenaries hired by the CIA to murder a third-world dictator (David Zayas, of TV’s Dexter), is routine in every respect.
 
Does it matter? The audiences for whom The Expendables represents a wish belatedly fulfilled aren’t expecting Shakespeare, but Stallone, once an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, is strictly on autopilot here. He never misses an opportunity to slip in a worn-out one-liner (“Your mama!”) or a hoary cliché, and he keeps the body count rising rapidly enough to warrant a UN intervention.
 
But that’s the point, you say – guns, babes, testosterone and more guns. That’s the formula, all right, one Stallone employed to more rousing effect in 2008’s Rambo. Here, his lack of effort is evident not only in his story, which sputters out of the gate, but also his characters. Their motivations are murkier than the action, which, often shot in extreme close-up, is difficult to watch, much less understand.
 
A little suspense might have helped, but we never sense that Stallone’s all-star hit squad is in any real danger. The question is not whether they’ll survive – that’s assured – but whether they’ll run out of bullets.
 
As a showcase for its stars, The Expendables makes a strong case for Roberts, whose bark has lost none of its bite. Among the wasted are Jet Li, the wushu champion whose acrobatic kicks are missing in action, and former San Diego Chargers linebacker Terry Crews, who, like everyone else, just shows up. Barely.