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Review: "The Expendables" (Sylvester Stallone, USA)

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 BalboaThe 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.

I’m not too familiar with Stallone’s general editing practices, but some of the cutting here struck me as a bit odd. Statham and Stallone are repeatedly shown talking/flying the plane, the camera so close to them that even a medium shot feels like a close-up. Conversations in scenes like that (particularly in cars) are normally just filmed in one take, framing both actors in the shot, but Stallone repeatedly fragments the space and shoots the conversation with a shot-reverse-shot mindset; close-ups on each man’s face as he talks. Come to think of it, a lot of the talking scenes, especially at the tattoo parlor with Rourke’s speech, or when the whole group is together, are patched together with close-ups. The man loves faces.
Big, meaty faces with bulging veins in the neck! The Rourke speech is a really strange moment — because Rourke’s face is an extreme close-up (you can barely even see his forehead), all the detail and crags visible in his face and those big puffy lips, but even though only one person is talking, Stallone still edits it as a two-shot — he cuts back to himself, framed from the chest up, leaning against a wall, listening (also: the scene where Rourke, Statham and Stallone are discussing the idea of tattooing Statham’s bald head — each actor has his own ‘scope frame that he slouches in the middle of with none of the others visible). I think this style really takes off in the last Rambo — which is a whole lot of close-ups. As much as he’s always liked faces, even in Rocky Balboa he’s usually framing 2 or 3 ugly mugs at a time.
You have to love this comment,, In a 2009 press conference, Van Damme recounted pretty much the same story, adding that he’d advised Stallone that, instead of doing “The Expendables,” Stallone should make a movie where Sly plays a “tough priest.” According to Van Damme, Stallone found this “insulting.”
To Van Damme’s credit, I believe the part he was offered was the Dolph Lundgren role, which wouldn’t really have worked. Van Damme’s a great physical actor (maybe the greatest living, along with Denis Lavant) and can do a lot with looks and slouches, but it’s a dialogue-heavy role that works better with Lundgren’s more traditional acting chops. Also, JCVD is right: Stallone should play a “tough priest.” Maybe when he stops dyeing his hair.
“Big, meaty faces with bulging veins in the neck! The Rourke speech is a really strange moment — because Rourke’s face is an extreme close-up” Sounds like Stallone stole a page from Sergio Leone. I was watching “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” the other night and I had forgotten how extreme the close-ups were.
Dzimas, Certainly — and the Rourke speech is really a landscape shot (or, with the surface of Rourke’s face, more of a moonscape), which is also true of some of the close-ups in Leone’s Westerns.

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