Five minutes into this movie, which means five minutes into its first action sequence, one of its stars explains to his colleagues he is about to fire off a warning shot. He then blows a guy’s torso into what another character will later refer to as “red sauce and jello.” And then we have a lot of shooting and a lot of stuff blowing up and hand-to-hand combat, and thousand yard stares and boy, do we have a lot of red sauce and jello.
“The Expendables,” is a mash-up of action stars and action movies. It would take less time to explain who is not in this movie (Stephen Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, who both declined) than who is: Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote and directed), his “Rocky IV” nemesis, Dolph Lundgren, WWE superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ultimate Fighting Champion Randy Couture, martial arts master Jet Li, former NFL player Terry Crews, “Iron Man 2’s” Mickey Rourke, and “Transporter’s” Jason Statham — plus brief appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here is the plot: there are some bad guys. The good guys go after them. It doesn’t go so well at first. Bros before hos. Chases and explosions. Very big guns (the muscle kind and the weapon kind) and very big knives. Airplanes, trucks, motorcycles, and various other symbols of manliness. And a lot of red sauce and jello. It’s Tarantino without the irony.
The chases and explosions and shoot-outs are well-filmed, as are the big fight scenes, especially a brutal battle in a tunnel and the opening sequence where Somali pirates suddenly find the thin red beams of automatic weapons touching many parts of their bodies. But the most satisfying moments come from seeing these guys do what they do best, one on one. Couture takes on Austin. The very compact Li takes on the giant Lundgren. “Bring it, Happy Feet,” the big man tells Li. Statham takes on a bully. And then his pals.
Stallone as co-writer, director, and star manages to keep the tone light and affectionate for the genre and its fans without getting meta or condescending. These action heroes take their fun seriously without taking themselves seriously. They have time for some commiseration about the faithlessness of females and some manly banter as they load their weapons. One explains how he got his cauliflower ear and another tells the story of when he lost his capacity to care about anything or anyone. But mostly it’s just red sauce and jello, macho bonding, and silly character names: Hale Ceasar, Toll Road, Lee Christmas.
Following the Somali pirate hostage rescue, our heroes are up for three jobs. “Two are a walk in the park and one is to Hell and Back.” Guess which one they take? Option 3 is a country called Vilena, with an evil Gringo and a puppet general who has a mercenary army. There’s also a brave and beautiful young woman. Various characters are chased, captured, and rescued and a lot of stuff gets blown up. Which, after all, is what we came for.