'The Expendables': Blasts From The Past, By Kurt Loder

Sylvester Stallone, back in action.

"The Expendables" isn't a parody of an '80s action movie, you'll be relieved to hear. No, "The Expendables" actually is an '80s action movie, its cast groaning with back-in-the-day authenticity. Sylvester Stallone, who also directed, leads a team of mercenaries that includes such vintage marquee names as Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li, with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger passing through in don't-blink cameos, Jason Statham adding whippersnapper appeal, and a real-life action man — ex-wrestler Steve Austin — playing a stone-cold character called (inevitably) Paine.

The picture opens with an appetizer of modern-day-pirate carnage in the Gulf of Aden before zipping back to the States for a quick breather at the team's headquarters, a seedy tattoo shop run by retired teammate Mickey Rourke (peekabooing beneath stringy streaked hair, as usual, but also smoking a thoughtful pipe). After receiving a new assignment from a tight-lipped CIA agent (Willis), the boys relocate to Vilena, an island country so remote we never quite figure out where it's supposed to be. (The sequences were shot in Brazil.) Here we meet the plot: A corrupt general (David Zayas) is oppressing his people at the behest of a rogue, coke-dealing CIA agent (Eric Roberts, heavily armed with smirks and snarls), and their only opposition is the general's rebellious daughter (Giselle Itié).

This rickety narrative scaffolding is entirely sufficient to the movie's purposes, which are largely pyromaniacal. As in the old days, the focus here is on big sweaty men running in a crouch through fields of automatic-weapons fire, slapping wads of C4 explosive onto soon-to-be-smithereened buildings, and laying into their adversaries with knives, guns, fists and whatever else may be at hand. Detonations are unending, and the bodies pile up like cords of winter firewood.

Need it be said that women are extraneous to such testosterone hootenannies? An occasional ambient babe passes through the proceedings almost subliminally, and even the relationship between Stallone's character and the general's daughter turns out to be platonic. Plausibility is also a notional concern. Midway through the movie one character is rendered definitively deceased — but then he reappears again at the end with no explanation given. "He's back from the dead," says another character, and that's that.

This is all part of the retro fun, of course, as is the coy-dumb dialogue ("We'll die with you, just don't ask us to do it twice") provided by the script (which Stallone co-wrote). The movie is a good-humored affair, and it delivers exactly what the action audience wants (or once wanted, anyway): maximum damage. In the production notes, the star emphasizes his avoidance of CGI in rendering the fiery mayhem, and he claims the actors did their own stunts (although in one furious beat-down scene in which he takes part, you have to wonder). This dedication to a faded action-flick ideal is rather touching, and you wonder how long Stallone, now 64, can keep carrying the old-school flag. When he pops up unexpectedly in the midst of one of the film's many conflagrations, the general's daughter turns to him and says, "How are you here?" Says Sly: "I just am." Welcome back, champ.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Expendables."

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