Well, you can imagine how I would place this review into the larger context of the wussification of the culture after the 1992 peak in the crime rate, and how action movies differ between dangerous vs. safe times, so I'll cut to the chase.
This has to be one of the worst movies ever made, as in not even watchable. The errors are so basic that it's hard to believe it got made, let alone that audiences liked it enough for it to get a 7/10 rating at imdb.com.
Most people don't realize how cultural cycles work. They think that after the glory days of some phenomenon, things will stall out and it won't innovate anymore. Shoot, I'd be happy with stagnation! It's much worse, though -- things actually devolve, losing the wisdom that had been accumulated over years or decades. Given how apparently simplistic the conventions of the '80s action movies were, you'd think it would be impossible for movie-makers to forget them -- but The Expendables proves that even simple wisdom is easily lost. Here are the major mistakes and some no-brainer solutions.
- None of the good guys die. To make the audience sympathize with the main hero, they have to feel that he's in real danger, and nothing signals that like seeing your fellows drop like flies. If everyone around him is doing just fine, then his environment isn't threatening at all. Instead, we feel like we're watching Stallone play a video game with his buddies online -- and not a hard game like Contra where you get your ass kicked, but one of these newer games for pussies, where after taking a lot of damage you merely hide in the corner and your health automatically recovers. Solution: have the bad guys pick off his buddies one at a time, leaving at most three, though perhaps none. See Predator, Aliens, Rambo II, etc.
At the very least, a lot of innocent people have to die in order for us to feel that the world they've gone into is dangerous. In Die Hard, most of those killed are not the official good guys but innocent bystanders at an office party. They can't be faceless (one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, or however that goes), though, and the makers of Die Hard make sure to humanize and personalize the individuals who are about to be killed. The Expendables didn't even show the up-close effects of a reign of terror in a Latin American dictatorship, which should not have been too hard to pull off.
- The good guys are mercenaries who never get chastised. The audience wants the heroes' action to serve some larger moral purpose, and mercenaries never meet that requirement unless they undergo a transformation as a result of the mission, becoming a true band of brothers. Otherwise, as with The Expendables, we never get the sense that they're devoted to one another. Solution: give them a real danger to run into, which will force them to adopt a strong Us vs. Them mindset. The soldiers in Predator and Aliens are technically in a state military, but they come off as jaded and complacent mercenaries -- until the Predator and the aliens start picking them off. That wakes them right up and makes them stick together to serve the larger purpose of preserve Us and exterminate the evil Them.
- The girl's role is pointless. None of the mercenaries have any reason to be connected to her, so it feels totally bogus when Stallone goes back to rescue her. The real connection she has is to her kin and especially male kin -- like her father, the dictator. The writers do dip their toes into this obviously better storyline, by having him speak out against his corporate master about her torture, but they abandon it because it seems too Old Testament or Shakespearean and therefore gripping. Solution: they should have junked the entire story about the mercenaries and made it a modern-day Faust legend set in Central America. An idealistic revolutionary makes a Faustian bargain with an American drug lord, whereby he'll rule as puppet dictator in return for allowing the drug lord to run his business there. The dictator then pays for it with the life (or at least the welfare) of his only child, who inherits the zealous idealism of her father and stirs up a group of rebels against the American invaders. Haunted by her ghost, and seeing what a foolish pact with the devil he's made, he plots to avenge her death, rape, torture, or whatever her punishment was, but is himself slain in the act. The highest ranking male in the group of rebels who'd been stirred up by the daughter then assumes the new dictator role (still no democracy or cheery ending), vowing not to let the American drug lords do business there anymore.
The other solution is to keep the main story about mercenaries but have a lengthy courtship and mating relationship between Stallone and the general's daughter, as lengthy as could be squeezed into a short time anyway. Even better -- he gets her pregnant. Now he has a real motive to watch out for her, like with Ko in Rambo II. Also as in that movie, the girl has to die to give him a morally righteous motive to kill the head villain. At the very least she must be kidnapped, like the wife in Die Hard or the teenage daughter in Lethal Weapon.
These are just the major three mistakes, but they're so glaring and so easily corrected that further discussion would be pointless. Still, I'll add for the record how hard the so-called special effects of the past 10 to 15 years have failed to pull the audience in. Maybe in a million years, CGI blood and fire with look more like the real thing than real-life special effects, but not now. Even watered down ketchup would look better than video game blood. And do they not have stuntmen in Hollywood anymore who set themselves on fire? With as much money as they blew on The Expendables, you'd figure they could at least hire a real person to get set on fire. Jesus, A Nightmare on Elm Street had that -- including a long shot where he climbs and falls down a set of basement stairs -- and that was made on a budget over 25 years ago.
By the way, this shows just how much the story does matter even in a blow-shit-up action movie. Terminator 3 and The Expendables are not even watchable, while Rambo II and Aliens are a thrill. It may not take the greatest story, but it does need to be there. The pathetic excuse that "testosterone-fueled action flicks don't need a story" is no better than the Modernist pretension that being able to paint or tell stories didn't matter, that the makers and consumers are like so above those petty concerns.
I went into seeing this movie knowing how strong the zeitgeist determines the quality of the movie, album, or whatever, but I didn't expect that it would go wrong in so many places so badly and so foolishly. Even the cheesiest, low-ranking action movies from the '80s, such as Kickboxer, outscore the most popular blockbusters of the safe times on the above measures, let alone how these would fare against the best ones from dangerous times like Dirty Harry, Rambo II, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Aliens, etc.
My brother, who received this movie from Netflix during Thanksgiving weekend and who I watched it with, always gives me a ribbing about preferring older movies (ones from dangerous times). But it's never hard to point out that this is because those movies are better, and to give him a ribbing back about how old greats beat new garbage. At that point, you either concede the point or admit that you're just following fashion even when it leads in degenerate direction.