‘The Expendables’: It’s time for Stallone to act his age

Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone. (Photo by Karen Ballard.)
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Gran Torino, a film about a grumpy old retired auto worker who sits on his porch and growls at kids and immigrants, featuring a quiet, downbeat ending and no blowout action scenes or CGI, grossed over $350 million worldwide.

That's blockbuster money. Its commercial success made sense, though: Clint Eastwood took us on a different kind of ride. Crudely sketched as Gran Torino was, its appeal came from its main character's simple journey from embittered, racist widower to protector-saint. The film's blunt way with plot, exposition and social stereotypes was almost laughable, but its devotion to the very palpable loneliness, suffering and self-sacrifice of Eastwood's old-man character somehow made it irresistible. As with Unforgiven, Eastwood cashed decades of audience investment in his granitic characters and spent it on a creative gift for his viewers.

Sylvester Stallone has accumulated some of the same sort of capital. This guy's been around for so long, trying out so many different (and often absurd) variations on his Rocky-Rambo-Cobra tough-guy prototype, he's like family at this point. We've grown up and old with the lug, except that we haven't, really. He refuses to age. His hair is still jet-black at 60. His face shows evidence of extensive chemical and surgical renovation. He dresses to show off his ropy muscles, like a young Jersey Shore gym rat. He wears his age pretty gracelessly in the most recent installments of the Rocky and Rambo series. Stallone's gifts to his fans after all these years are basically studio portraits of himself flexing in the muscle shirts of his youth. How thoughtful.

Nobody wants to get old. Nobody wants to die. But what our market-driven youth obsession does to aging action heroes is not pretty. Just look at The Expendables, Stallone's latest work as co-writer-director-star. He spends the movie's running time dodging fireballs and dodging the mirror, proving he's still got it. But what's he got, exactly?

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Stallone plays a soldier of fortune who hasn't lost an ounce of finesse in killing junta foot soldiers by the dozen or dangling by one arm off the sides of careening airplanes. But how's his prostate? Does he take Ginkgo Biloba to remember all those mission logistics? How do his knees take those hard landings?

We love Sly. We don't know him personally, but we like the guy with the slurry voice and droopy left cheek who's shown us hundreds of instances of charm, vulnerability and honor in various great-to-atrocious flicks. We'd like him if he were bald and paunchy, sitting in a deck chair bragging about his grandkids. He doesn't have anything left to prove to us.

But his concept of heroism has become so narrow and contingent upon personal trainers and gun permits that he's missed the point.

Just the other day, a deeply un-tough Jet Blue flight attendant became Rocky of the week for quitting his job and sliding down an escape ramp to freedom. On TV, "CSI" geek William Petersen (and, later, Laurence Fishburne) made the ladies swoon and the fellas jealous just by peering into microscopes while intoning about crime scene DNA. Occasionally the guns came out, but the real attraction—the thrill, even—was in watching our heroes puzzle their way through a dilemma.

The Expendables is like every other project Stallone has personally written and directed—great, pop-savvy ideas; cautious, vanity-coddling execution. It's a special shame here because, deep down, the screenplay by David Callaham and Stallone has a lot on its mind. As the story of C.I.A.-funded mercenaries attempting to overthrow a Latin American dictator barrels along, team leader Barney Ross steals moments to talk about women troubles with his ace knife-thrower, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham).

Lee's still aching for his ex. Barney tells him to get over it and suck it up. He's been down that road so many times himself, Lee's whining only reminds him of his own isolation. So, for a couple of moments, we witness a man approaching middle age and one who's already past it commiserating over their lost loves. These guys are professional killers, so they accept their loneliness as a consequence of all the evil they've done. Nothing new here, but the potential for pop poetry is in the air.

Stallone doesn't do poetry, so he leaves it to Mickey Rourke, as Tool, Barney's regretful black-market arms dealer-turned-tatoo artist. Recalling a shameful incident from his own Third World plunder days, Tool sheds a tear over a civilian woman he could have saved but didn't. Now he doesn't fret being washed up so much as he does being "dried up." "What has dried up?" Barney asks. Tool says, "This belief. This belief in the soul." He stammers and fights back tears.

In Stallone's hands, these moments are every bit as cliched as they sound. He cuts with the speed and indifference of a director half his age. He's kept up with the times, flitting through dialogue scenes as if glancing at his iPhone while directing. Brian Tyler's musical score is the standard off-the-shelf thriller drumbeats-and-orchestral swells (parodied so well in the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading), flattening every scene it touches.

Stallone's Rocky IV opponent Dolph Lundgren comes out of the woodwork to play a turncoat merc who temporarily sides with the bad guys. He and Stallone have the closest thing to an elegiac, Sam Peckinpah moment, at the end of one brutal fight between Lundgren and kung fu-fighting group mascot Ying Yang (Jet Li, looking bored and distracted).

Stallone took care to make the action scenes dynamic and non-CGI authentic in this one, because, he says, "I never know when it's going to be my last film .... I try to put my imprint on it and try to do my best." The care shows in his intricately choregraphed action scenes (including a badass/giddy aerial assault that made me feel 12 again) but not in his relationship with his overgrown fanboy audience, which is strictly business.

Everything else shakes down as expected: Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), the band's weapons specialist, does his big black Mr. T thing (and, incidentally, Stallone and Callaham should get an Oscar just for coming up with that name); Eric Roberts plays the same kind of secondary villain he essayed in The Dark Knight; veteran character actor David Zayas puts on a cumbersome accent as the dictator of fictional Vilena; U.F.C. champ Randy Couture and wrestler Steve Austin grimace and talk shit while waiting around for their big third-act confrontation. Bruce Willis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger drop by for laughs. As hyped, this flick is a standing-room-only testosterone party.

It feels silly, then, to ask that a film this absurdly macho be anything more than that. But whenever lovely Gisele Itie, as the inevitable girl, appears, rendering Stallone's character almost speechless with longing, we get a glimpse of what's really troubling these fading Adonises with big guns. Mel Gibson, who should have been drafted to do some light acting in a loose-cannon role, recently said it best, shrieking into a telephone from the depths of his soul: "I need a WOMAN!"

The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone, director, from a screenplay by David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone, opens Aug. 13; run time 103 minutes; rated R.