With The Expendables, a rejuvenated Sylvester Stallone set out to make not just an action movie, but the action movie. To aid his quest to create the gold standard by which all other cinematic bloodbaths should be compared, he assembled a cast straight out of a 12-year-old boy’s fevered fantasies, bringing together multiple generations of action heroes, including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Gary Daniels, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, and more. He even managed to snag a much-ballyhooed cameo from a towering icon who seemingly abandoned Hollywood to pursue lesser work, like governing California. The once-in-a-lifetime cast has raised the expectations of ultra-violence fans to almost prohibitively high levels, but The Expendables delivers pretty much exactly what its audience wants and expects: big, dumb, campy fun so deliriously, comically macho, it’s remarkable that no one in the cast died of testosterone poisoning.
Freed from direct-to-DVD purgatory by the unexpected success of Rambo and Rocky Balboa, Stallone co-scripted, directs, and stars as the leader of an elite team of battle-hardened mercenaries so tough, one member—Statham—single-handedly beats up an entire basketball game in his free time. Stallone and company generally pimp their services to the highest bidder regardless of ideology or morality, but when the fiery, idealistic daughter of an intended target needs their help, Stallone finally realizes he believes in something beyond his bank account and the homoerotic camaraderie of his brothers-in-arms. Consciously or unconsciously, The Expendables perfectly captures the ultra-manly, grimy, dimly lit, explosion-heavy, gleefully over-the-top aesthetic of a mid-’80s Cannon film like Stallone’s own Cobra. The Expendables feels throughout like the best B-movie of 1985. In that respect, it’s both 25 years too late and right on time for Gen-Xers eager to relive the bloody mayhem of their misspent youth. Stallone and Dave Callaham’s script doesn’t seem to care whether the film is funny intentionally or otherwise: the tongue-in-cheek comic moments are amusing, but the heavy dramatic scenes are often hilarious. Like its trigger-happy, knife-slinging anti-heroes, Stallone’s goofy exercise in self-parody is very good at being very bad.