You’ve got to give props to Sylvester Stallone — the guy doesn’t stop trying.
In a world — please read this paragraph aloud in the most stentorian, movie trailer-like tones possible — where action heroes seem a relic of the 1980s and early ‘90s, he is the one man determined to see that the genre survives.
While other action stars long ago hung up their automatic weapons and switched to playing superheroes or tough guys in crime dramas, or to becoming the governor of California, Stallone stolidly remains a true, unrepentant action hero.
Not that there’s been much call for that lately. Stallone is doubtless hoping “The Expendables,” as generic an action picture as any fan could want — automatic weapons! bone-crunching punches! chase scenes involving planes, trucks and automobiles! — will change all that and revitalize a career that has pretty much gone poof.
And in many ways, the movie is a pure distillation of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Stallone persona.
The strengths: He’s a tough guy with a sensitive side.
The weaknesses: He has never been much of an actor, and he has a sentimental and self-aggrandizing streak, which bleeds into all of his iconic roles, as wide as the Mississippi.
Indeed, the best scene is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one in which Stallone holds a summit meeting with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who both have cameos. One almost expects the brawny trio to start dipping madeleines into their teacups and reminisce about things past.
And some of “Expendables” is just downright embarrassing. Stallone and Mickey Rourke, playing a tattoo artist who serves as Stallone’s sounding board, have a self-conscience moment in which Rourke delivers a mawkish soliloquy — shot mostly so that we’re seeing his face reflected in a mirror — about realizing too late what matters in life.
It’s all actory showy and reverent, you keep waiting for an on-screen subtitle to flash, “Hamlet audition! Hamlet audition!”
Stallone burst onto the national consciousness more than three decades ago, with a low-budget boxing movie about a mentally slow, raw-egg-swallowing beat-up boxer called “Rocky.” The “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” of its day, it turned Stallone into a star and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Beating out “Taxi Driver”!
He tried to stretch, playing a Jimmy Hoffa-like union leader in 1978’s “F.I.S.T” and directing John Travolta in 1983’s “Staying Alive,” the abysmal sequel to “Saturday Night Fever.” But it was only as Rocky and an ornery Vietnam vet named Rambo — so tough that he actually stitched shut his own wounds — that the public wanted to see him.
In his prime, he made a total of five Rocky movies (the character was dim only in the first movie; he seemingly made a miraculous mental recovery, gaining IQ exponentially, between the first and second films) and three Rambos. And, earlier this decade, when it became clear nothing else was working for him, he returned to those signature roles with 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” and 2008’s “Rambo.”
But the man is 64. Granted, a fit (and seemingly surgically tweaked) 64, but six decades of wear and tear have taken a toll. It would strain credulity to see him climb yet again into a boxing ring to slug it out or to run around the woods with his shirt off and wearing a headband. Enough, already.
So what’s an action star who really only can be an action star to do? Surround himself with some slightly younger action stars and keep doing what he does best.
That’s the formula Stallone applies to “The Expendables,” of which he is co-writer, director and star. He portrays the leader and head strategist for an elite gang of mercenaries, whose members include Jason Statham, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren.
The plot, such as it is, involves Stallone and his hard-muscled buddies being hired to overthrow the brutal, drug-trafficking dictator of a wee South American county. Once there, Stallone befriends a lovely local rebel (Gisele Itié), Eric Roberts turns up as a sneering, rogue CIA agent, and much firepower is expended.
It’s all fun in a campy throwback way but, like the title says, the movie is expendable. The characters are cardboard, the explosions humongous and the soundtrack loud. A day after seeing the film, you’d be hard-pressed to recall much beyond how eloquently Stallone grunts when his throat is being crushed.
But muscle-bound as ever, he presides over the ridiculous goings-on with a faintly amused grace. It’s as if he knows it’s all a little ridiculous but, hey, it’s what knows so he’s going to keep doing it.
Then again, isn’t there a vacancy coming up at the governor’s mansion in Sacramento soon?