The film is short and loaded with characters. As such there's not too much development on any of them, especially peripheral roles. Stallone is the glue that holds the film together. Sly has great chemistry with everyone here. There's a sense of vulnerability about Barney Ross, and a sense of personal struggle here. Stallone's hound dog eyes bringing the soul of the character through, despite little in the writing, or the mumbled dialogue that suggests it. Statham as Lee Christmas is also solid. His arc comes from a somewhat needless subplot with his on-off girl friend. That extends to little more than him coming back one day to find she has a new boyfriend, and then coming back later to find new boyfriend, has smacked her around. It's Frank Martin again in truth, with the deep raspy drawl and erratic Brit-American accent shift again in evidence. But I don't care, because Statham is badass and that's what counts. He's got presence. Jet Li seems utterly redundant in the film though. Serving little purpose and given no dimension.
The characters, with limited arcs devoted to each, mean that the more theatrical roles stand out. Mickey Rourkes brief appearance is excellent as Tool, a former Expendable. Mickey gets to swoop in and steal all his scenes, and none more so than his monologue, that in part provides Ross a catalyst to risk it all to save Sandra, and his soul. Rourke nails it, giving Tool's character a sense of tragedy and poignancy. He's a ghost of a man now. By the same token, Dolph Lundgren manages to upstage his co-stars when he gets screen time. Gunnar Jensen is unpredictable, uncontrollable and difficult to read. In one hand he likes to play the joker, but there's darkness and intensity behind the façade. Years of too many drugs and too many kills have taken their toll, and Lundgren embodies the character brilliantly. Like Rourke, you just wish there was more, especially as Li, Crews and Couture (they do well with what little they have though) have even less depth and impact. Retrospectively, two or three could have been trimmed from the cast, to devote more time to Stallone and Statham's characters, and especially Rourke and Lundgren. Elsewhere Eric Roberts delivers a vintage Roberts bad guy. It's easy, yet perfect casting and he revels in chewing his scenery. Stone Cold adds menace, while B-movie veteran Gary Daniels delivers his best performance ever, with the benefit of having real direction for the first time. It's a small role but his performance reaches competence for the first time, while his fight with Li and Statham is memorable.
The big selling point of this film of course, is action. There's plenty of it. The opening is all too brief, seemingly trimmed down, so an extended DVD release may deliver even more carnage. Still, it packs a punch and sets the violent tone of the film. Then there's an array of vehicular set pieces and fights, before the finale. The finale is what will really have 80's action fans cart-wheeling with joy. It's nearly half an hour of unrelenting, old school, carnage! Like a combination of Commando, Invasion USA, Red Scorpion and Rambo 2 and 3's end action scenes, it's insane, and brilliant. It's a total antithesis to most modern action films too. We've all the classics here, brutal fights, gung-ho attitude, explosions (and jumping away from) and although grounded, with a sense of unreal, Reagan era glee.
In all, The Expendables delivers what fans will want. Unashamed, 80's style carnage. It's not one for the critics, who'll continue to judge on plot and character, and dismiss a need for a movie 20 years outdated, but it's for the fans and on the whole, will delight. There is a sense that dramatic moments are forced in, but that was also a trait of the 80's action film in any case, and the now completely unsurprising scene with Willis, Stallone and Arnold has lost any enigma for first time viewers, which is a shame. The scene is still a geeks delight though, and brimming with star power. Despite some faults, the film has plenty of star power and charm to ride on. In a strange way, the faults just seem to make it feel a little more 80's and add more to the charm. It's just great to watch an old school action film again, and to see a collection of tough guys doing their thing. The Expendables does what it says on the tin, and for that, Stallone deserves thanks and praise. Roll on the Extended cut on DVD!