The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Expendables.
The Expendables is a definitive action film from one of Badass Cinema's greatest pioneers. And no, that doesn't mean it's perfect; this is a flawed movie. First, there is the heinous, unforgivable sin: the sin of shaky cam. Please, please, please stop using this horrible method of covering fight scenes and car chases. There are directors who can do this ably and effectively. Doug Liman comes to mind. But for the majority of directors and cinematographers out there, listen: you just aren't doing it right. It's ruining your movies and I wish you would Just. Fucking. Stop It.
Thankfully, there's enough good stuff in The Expendables that I can ignore the shaky cam (as we have to so often these days) and try to evaluate the movie as a whole. And as a whole, I stand by my opening sentence. This is a seminal film. Rambo 4 was just a test run; Rambo 4 had something to say. The Expendables is not saddled with so much responsibility. I recognize I'm not saying anything new here, but this is a film about manly guys doing manly deeds. That doesn't excuse it from being lazy or ridiculous, though: films that require you to "leave your brain in the car" are just a waste of time. I don't want to be distracted, I want to be entertained, and I want to feel all right about being entertained. Guilty pleasures are for squares.
The Expendables is not a guilty pleasure. There's some real thoughtfulness bubbling beneath the surface, and if you do decide to bring your brain into the theater you'll be treated to some delightful (if unsubtle) character work from some of the more grizzled badasses working in cinema today. Yes, I'm talking Mickey Rourke, but I'm also talking Jason Statham. Both of these guys are given some serious, unexpected emotional beats that not only drive the plot (yes there is one) forward, but they also give the film a little gravitas. But not in that serious way like we're trying to expect from our "action" films these days.
You've got Rourke as the catalyst, first of all. He gets to prove that The Wrestler wasn't a fluke in a tiny scene that sets Stallone's character on the right path. Contrary to a lot of the articles I've been reading about this movie, there is a distinct, straightforward plot. It's very Western, actually -- a group of guys heading into harms way on a rescue mission they shouldn't give a shit about. The politics of this movie are blurred out intentionally: as I said, we're not trying to get all serious and shit. No, these guys are on a straight Kill The Bad Guy and Rescue the Girl type of mission. But Rourke gets a moment with Stallone and does a little reminiscing about a time when he had a chance to do the right thing and said "fuck it", and this is a scene that is balls-out emotionally. Severe closeup on Mickey Rourke's weathered face, lips trembling, eyes tearing... this is a moment that in the wrong hands would've been laughably out of place. But Rourke's delivery and the placement of the camera give it an immediacy that fits right into this "manly" universe. We've all got regrets, and it ain't always a bad thing to voice them out loud.
Next is Statham, who is able to turn a badass fight scene into a genuine emotional moment with just a few lines of dialogue. After giving his ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend (and friends) a brutal and uncompromising basketball beatdown, he shoots her a vulnerable look before strapping on his motorcycle helmet. "Now you know what I do," he says as she stares at him with a mixture of fear and awe. "You should've waited for me. I was worth it." And then he drives her home without another word and for all I know she never sees him again. Maybe they get back together, maybe not, but Statham's reaction to first her refusal to see him anymore because of his nomadic ways, and finally to her plea for help sheds a light on the way "being a man" is presented in this film. Women are not objects to be possessed: the only two guys who try that shit in this movie end up broken, bloody, and/or staring at a large knife in their chest. For the Expendables, being a man means doing what's right, treating people with respect, and beating the shit out of anyone who says differently.
Okay, maybe there's a couple things they have yet to learn... but it's a hell of a start.