The Expendables will probably turn out to be the summer's most meta movie. It's a balls-to-the-wall action flick that never lets you forget — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — that it's an action flick. I'm surprised director-star Sylvester Stallone didn't go the extra yard and hire Adaptation's Charlie Kaufman to write the script.
Of course, making an action movie that's too smart for its own good might scare away the red-meat-eating alpha-male types who see these kinds of movies. There's a difference between winking at the audience and flat-out mocking them — a lesson Expendables co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger learned the hard way with 1993's Last Action Hero. Or perhaps Stallone just wasn't quite ready to deconstruct his image yet. He's certainly devoted enough time manufacturing it.
No question about it. If Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis had teamed up for a summer action movie in the late '80s or early '90s, it probably would have been one of the most eagerly anticipated event films of the year. But since all three of the former titans have seen better days (Willis and Schwarzenegger have cameos as a personal favor to pal Stallone), The Expendables is instead receiving a last-gasp-of-summer release on Friday. How the mighty have fallen.
Certainly the camp value of such a testosterone-heavy assemblage (whose ranks include Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, and — drum roll, please — Mickey Rourke) can't be denied.
The big question is whether anyone will take The Expendables seriously, or just laugh and shrug it off as a dumb, macho joke. Stallone's decision to revisit his most popular characters, Rocky and Rambo, in recent years brought nostalgia-minded fans into theaters — at least for their opening weekends. But crossover business was nil, and neither movie attracted a new generation of fans.
Since Stallone's career is currently all about nostalgia anyway, it's only fitting that The Expendables plays on memories of the Reagan-era bone-crushers he, Willis, and Ah-nuld were famous for. But where's Chuck Norris? I refuse to believe Walker, Texas Ranger was too busy to at least do a walk-on. And where's Jean-Claude Van Damme, for that matter? Speaking of the Muscles from Brussels, if Stallone had visions of meta, all he had to do was watch Van Damme's J.C.V.D. That might not have been such a bad idea, really.
Still, considering the retro vibe being sold by The Expendables, it's not surprising that a flood of memories — some good, mostly bad and ugly — intrude every time I see a spot for it on TV. The '80s and '90s really opened the floodgates for every Stallone and Schwarzenegger imitator, and there were about as many crappy action movies unleashed on an unsuspecting public (to feed the nascent home-video market, no less) as there were dead-teenager flicks in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th.
For Stallone's sake — and I've always had a soft spot for the big lug — I'm hoping The Expendables is better thansome of the throwaway duds he's tossed off between the many Rocky and Rambo sequels. Because nobody really wants, or needs, Cobra Part Deux.
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