By Carl Kozlowski
August 18, 2010
Love or hate them, the 1980s had an impact on pop culture that the world has never quite shaken. From the advent of music videos to ridiculous hair to flashy films and TV shows, everything seemed bigger, louder and brasher back then.
But no other genre of that time divided people’s loyalties as much as the decade's testosterone-fueled action films. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris were three of the muscle-bound wisecrackers laying claim to the title of World's Toughest Man. But none of those guys ever held a candle to the toughest guy of all: Sylvester Stallone.
With the Rocky franchise going full bore and Rambo first making the scene in 1982, it was a great time to be Sly. But then came the ’90s, and moviegoers were offered a menu of sensitive heroes and spectacular special effects taking the place of stars and stuntmen risking their necks onscreen. Stallone himself actually blames the ability of Michael Keaton to put on a suit full of fake muscles and become Batman as the moment that his own juiced-up muscles ceased to be important to audiences.
But if there is one thing Hollywood loves more than a mere winner it is a successful comeback. And in the past three years, Stallone's been slowly building one, mainly through reprising roles he created and knows best, first in 2006's Rocky Balboa and then Rambo in 2008.
Now, Stallone has single-handedly pumped new life into the sagging careers of nearly every otherwise washed-up action star of the ’80s and ‘90s—among them, briefly, Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger—in the ridiculously entertaining film The Expendables.
Boasting a lineup of Stallone, his Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, wrestling stars Steve Austin, Randy Couture, ubiquitous ’80s villain Eric Roberts, plus Willis and Schwarzenegger in cameos, this film makes it clear from the casting that it's not going to be vying for any Oscars. Stallone also directed the film and co-wrote it with Dave Callaham, meaning success or failure will be directly tied to Stallone’s ability to maintain his comeback and finally pull off his dual dream projects of portraying mobster John Gotti and Edgar Allen Poe (yes, Poe).
Based on this third entertaining film in a row, Sly's succeeding. The Expendables, much like The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven before it, is about a bunch of tough guys on a mission. This time, a team of mercenaries is called to save a fictional South American island nation called Vilena from the ruthless American (Roberts), who's bought his way into total control of its people.
The man who talks Stallone's character Barney Ross into the job is a mysterious figure who goes by the name Mr. Church (Willis). However, Ross only gets the job after another tough-talking mysterious European figure (Schwarzenegger) engages him in a battle of one-liners before turning down the gig. This cleverly done five-minute scene, featuring the Holy Trinity of ’80s action superstars together onscreen for the first time, doesn’t have any action, but its witty verbal sparring could be the scene that draws the most action fans into theaters.
After the team’s efforts go awry and they fly away with their mission distinctly not accomplished, Ross is morally conflicted over the fact the woman who hired them to topple Roberts and his minions chose to stay behind rather than escape certain peril. The team gets back in their private cargo plane and rides back into high-octane action that barely makes sense and requires little explanation to follow.
One thing that's refreshing about this film is that there's relatively little profanity for this kind of movie—almost none, in fact. And the heroes' sense of honor and quest to defend women at all costs, including in a highly entertaining fight by Statham on behalf of an ex-girlfriend who was beaten by her new boyfriend, also lends some humanity to the proceedings.
Basically, if you love seeing stuff blow up—including bad guys—this movie is for you. The Expendables is by-the-book action filmmaking that still does the job with panache. Every one of its stars looks thrilled to be back on the big screen and—with lots of bangs and booms—make the most of their second chances.