The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.


Watched: 6 October 2019
Format: A DVD bought from the Rochester, Kent, branch of Oxfam.
Seen before? Yes, on TV a few years ago.

Review: Featuring a cast of grizzled, ageing action stars, this rather laughable film pays homage to the tough-guy movies of the 1970s and 80s – both top-end fare such as Commando and First Blood, and the kind of exploitation knock-offs like Missing in Action and Invasion USA. It’s headlined by Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the script and directed this first instalment of what became a trilogy. Assisting him are old war horses such as Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Jet Li as they take on Eric Roberts’s bad guy. It’s a midlife-crisis Ocean’s 11, with the comparatively fresh-faced Jason Statham as the Brad Pitt to Stallone’s George Clooney.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s involvement is minimal (just one day’s filming, actually). Early on, lead character Barney Ross (Stallone) is hired for a dangerous mission by a shadowy man known only as Mr Church – so named because that’s where, for some reason, their meeting takes place. Mr Church is played by Bruce Willis, but before he and Ross get down to business they have to wait for the arrival of a third party. Right on cue, Trench Mauser – an old adversary of Ross’s – walks in. Schwarzenegger’s entrance into the scene of course means that the three most famous backers of the restaurant chain Planet Hollywood are in the same room. It’s quite a collision of movie stars, but cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball doesn’t seem keen to frame more than two of them at the same time. (You wonder if Willis shot his coverage separately.)

Quite why Mauser shows up at all is a bit of a mystery. He stays less than two minutes and is happy to let Ross take the gig on offer because he’s too busy to do it himself. When Mr Church wonders why, Ross says, ‘He want to be president.’ This in-joke references the fact that Schwarzenegger was still the 38th Governor of California when this film was made. The US Constitution actually barred him from going one step up the political ladder, because to be President you must have been born in the United States, but Arnie was then lobbying for a change to the law.

Compared to the stories it’s evoking, The Expendables is stunningly lacking in any irony or flair. As violent and harsh as some of those old movies could be, there was often some substance, some self-awareness or a heightened sense of popcorn entertainment. Here, though, we get ludicrous macho posturing; videogame-style fight scenes edited to within an inch of their stunt doubles; a grimy, dour colour palette; and earnest actors taking themselves seriously as they wade through a humourless storyline about mercenaries hired to destabilise a crackpot dictator on a fictional Central American island. An interesting comparison can be made with the rival Fast and Furious series, which also gives us overblown action and tough-guy characters – but does it with a knowing smirk.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Humor was what made me stand out from other action leads like Stallone, [Clint] Eastwood, and [Chuck] Norris. My characters were always a little tongue in cheek, and I always threw in funny one-liners.’

Five half-ass governments out of 10

Next: Commando

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