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The skinny story doesn’t have enough muscle to make The Expendables the mantastic masterpiece it should’ve been.

Eat Pray Love Not

Luke and Yoda (Sly and Mickey)
Luke and Yoda (Sly and Mickey)

The idea behind The Expendables is brilliant. Sylvester Stallone’s corralled the majority of muscle-bound action stars from the past 30 years of cinema and crammed them all into one movie like a supermodel squeezing into a pair of too-tight jeans.

These are the muscle action stars, the guys who, typically, pumped steroids and iron in equal measure. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Pierce Brosnan need not apply. Yeah, Jet Li is one of the Expendables. But his character constantly points out he’s underpaid because his smaller stature means he has to work harder than the big boys.

The end result provides some scenes of pure man bliss. For one, the dialogue in a conversation between Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is laced with a great sense of humor while the scene is tinged with an overarching sense of tense drama. That’s mantastic! And that style permeates the entire movie; humor is never far away, even during most dire circumstances.

Problem is, while there’s plenty of action, there’s ultimately little satisfaction. The story, which focuses on the ousting of a military coup and drug ring fronted by a vicious businessman and former CIA agent (Eric Roberts, The Dark Knight), feels like a retread of Rambo’s Burma mission. But this time the action takes place on the fictional island of Vilena. The name itself may be a jokey reference to a style of photography that emphasizes the female butt, or maybe not.

The Expendables Strike Back

The Expendables starts fast, furious, and funny. Barney Ross (Stallone) and his testosterone team confront a crew of greedy Somali pirates who are threatening to kill their hostages. It’s tense. There’s weaponry everywhere. Then a cell phone buzzes. One of the guys received a text message. But he’ll read it when he gets a sec.

Moments later, body parts fly.

From there, the high-flying Expendables head home, chomping cigars and swigging beer on their private Albatross.

When the boys aren’t beatin’ up bad guys, they hang out at Tool’s, a garage-based tattoo parlor run by, yeah, a guy named Tool. You know you’re watching a man movie when Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2) is given the Yoda role. And that’s precisely how Tool functions. His battle days are done; he stays in the shop and smokes a mighty stylish pipe.

And he serves as Barney’s conscience, reminding him of a past adventure and a deep-seated regret that still gnaws at Tool’s soul.

Natural Born Predators

The Expendables story was written by David Callaham, who gave the world the Doom screenplay. Stallone and Callaham share screenwriting credit and it’s not hard to spot Stallone’s influence. A lot of familiar Stallone themes run through the veins of The Expendables.

The mission in Vilena is decried as insane by Schwarzenegger, who turns down the job and walks away. For Barney, though, it’s all about soul. It’s about living with your own conscience. It’s about acknowledging what’s right and what’s wrong and then doing something about it. And it’s about rescuing the general’s activist daughter from the hands of evil.

As usual, that part of Stallone’s oeuvre works.

The Expendables is much more lighthearted than Rambo and it’s fun for what it is: an attempt to update an ‘80s genre and bring brawn back. It’s bloody. It’s humorous. It’s likeable.

But, in the end, The Expendables is an over-the-top cast begging for an over-the-top story. It’s a shame the stakes aren’t higher. Like some megalomaniac threatening to speed up global warming or some madman aiming a nuclear weapon at Apple’s headquarters.