When Eric Roberts, dressed as Vince McMahon, summarizes the insecure-dictator-with-a-daughter-conspiring-against-him plot of The Expendables as "bad Shakespeare," he's just touching the tip of the iceberg: bad pacing, bad timing, bad greenscreens, bad ideas. And yet, and yet, and yet. The first thing you notice about The Expendables is what a disarmingly casual movie it is. Like some later Hawks, it feels like an excuse for the cast to hang out together and shoot the shit; it's a low-key El Dorado with James Glickenhaus' McBain taking the place of Rio Bravo. Some old friends put on an exhibition match; some will be faces, some will be heels, and after a day's filming they'll all go out for drinks. Everybody does their own thing: Sylvester Stallone turns himself into John Wayne, doing it all for a girl he knows he's too old for; Jason Statham reprises the killer-worrying-about-his-unsuspecting-girlfriend bit from Crank; Mickey Rourke does some improv voodoo with a monologue about death; Dolph Lundgren, a vastly underrated actor, gets some character work in as a drug-addicted oaf. The second thing you notice, then, is how the movie slips and slides in and out of tones and intentions (violent summer air-conditioning entertainment, character comedy, over-serious action movie philosophy) and then ends up exactly where it started, as if for the characters, the filmmakers, and the audience nothing has (nor should be) changed.
A minor film on this sort of scale is always a major gesture. Try as he might to be anonymous—and he always seems to be setting out to do just that, to get behind the camera and cease to be Sylvester Stallone—Stallone's too sad, too pensive and frankly too much of an artist (in the sense that he'll change only if his art does) to do so. Besides a taste for Pynchonesque names (Hale Caesar and Toll Road are right up there with Mason "The Line" Dixon, Kid Salami and Apollo Creed), what's always distinguished Stallone as a screenwriter are the weird specifics of his characters, who are more like concoctions of backstories and tics than genre archetypes; the self-consciously mythical material of this script (originated and co-written by Dave Callaham) has caught him off-balance, and only Rourke's burnout Beat biker—who utters lines like "I don't wanna die for a woman, I wanna die next to a woman" while thoughtfully smoking a pipe—seems like a genuine Stallone type. But though it ain't Paradise Alley or Rocky Balboa, The Expendables is still a noble endeavor, a small film full of big men trying to shrug off their stardom. Unlike those two working class downers, baroque in sickly neon, it sets out to do nothing (structurally, formally, etc.) except get to the end, and there are probably a lot of people who'll hold a grudge against it for treating its ensemble of familiar meaty faces as if it was just another cast (exception: a horrible cameo by a shrunken Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose machined delivery stops dead within the jazzier rhythms of Stallone's own corny humor). Stallone is by no means a classical filmmaker (not in the sense that Johnnie To or Clint Eastwood are); however, he takes his slapdashery more seriously than a lot of people take their rigor. Better his bad Shakespeare than Branagh's.