Old dogs, old tricks
Rating the aging he-men in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables
Never in the field of filmic endeavour has so much aging testosterone been funneled into one motion picture. Rumours are that a third of the movie's $85-million budget was spent on insurance policies for the actors. This was presumably offset by product placements for Grecian Formula, Viagra and Depend.
All kidding aside, The Expendables is defiantly old school, flaunting a panoply of clichés as grizzled as its stars. The plot is a Dirty Dozen/A-Team scenario about a band of misfit mercenaries recruited to overthrow a right-wing Latin-American dictatorship (remember those?). It has token black and Asian characters with names like Yin Yang, and a crude women-as-chattel subplot. Add to that a soundtrack of gnarled rock oldies by Thin Lizzy, Mountain and CCR and one can only describe it charitably as an exercise in macho nostalgia.
While action buffs of a certain age are sure to get misty-eyed, others might wonder who the heck all these old dudes are. In the interests of enlightenment, here's a rundown of the seven Expendables. We've also given them each an Expendability Rating, from Totally Necessary (0) to Totally Expendable (10).
Character in The Expendables: Barney Ross
Description: Ross is the ringleader for this badass posse. Like The A-Team's Hannibal Smith, he has a taste for stogies. Like every other Stallone characterization, he's a man of few words — most of them gruff. But under his tough, tattooed hide beats the heart of a romantic willing to risk his neck to rescue the dictator's nubile daughter (Giselle Itie).
Previous tough-guy experience: From the moment he chugged those raw eggs and sprinted up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Stallone's boxer Rocky Balboa has been a symbol of brutish determination. Sly cemented that status in the 1980s as John Rambo, a Vietnam vet with awesome survivalist skills, in the Rambo series.
Career high: Shooting to stardom as the writer-star of Rocky, which won the 1976 Best Picture Oscar.
Career low: The revelation that the Rambo films were used to train child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
Expendability rating: 0 out of 10 (i.e. totally necessary). Stallone not only headlines The Expendables, he also co-wrote the screenplay (with David Callaham) and directed. Without him, there would be no movie.
Description: Ross's right-hand man. The go-to guy when you need someone to strafe enemies with machine-gun fire from atop a flying seaplane. A Neanderthal in the ways of love, he shows up on the doorstep of his girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) once in a blue moon, and then gets angry when she isn't faithful to him.
Previous tough-guy experience: A former athlete and model, the British actor broke into films with Guy Ritchie's crime comedy-thrillers Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He parlayed that success into starring roles in the Transporter and Crank movies — becoming, in the words of film critic Jason Anderson, the 2000s' "pre-eminent icon of two-fisted virility."
Career high: Playing the pivotal figure in Snatch, Ritchie's starriest crime caper.
Career low: Playing the lead in Revolver, Ritchie's 2005 box-office bomb and the first sign that the director was a one-trick pony.
Expendability rating: 2 out of 10. As Sly's comparatively eloquent sidekick, he's indispensable — if only to keep the dialogue from descending into grunts.
Description: Despite his unfortunate name, he's the most entertaining of the Expendables. A stringy-haired biker and baroque tattoo artist, his talents also include existential musing and knife throwing. He sits out the action back home, preferring to deliver dark-night-of-the-soul soliloquies as if they were Ibsen.
Previous tough-guy experience: Rourke's wildly erratic career included a stint in the early 1990s as a professional boxer. His brooding bruiser sensibility has been most successfully tapped of late in Sin City and The Wrestler.
Career high(s): Making his mark in Diner, Barry Levinson's 1982 coming-of-age ensemble piece, then coming back to acclaim and awards with 2008's The Wrestler.
Career low: Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, his 1991 biker buddy movie with Don Johnson — a resounding flop that hastened Rourke's retreat to the boxing ring.
Expendability rating: 3 out of 10. It's debatable whether an action movie needs an introspective, artistic type, but Rourke is valuable if only to remind us: some tough-guy movie stars can act.
Character: Gunnar Jensen
Description: The team's loose cannon. He sports a crescent scar on his face and an I-like-to-torture-small-animals glint in his eye.
Previous tough-guy experience: Despite being multilingual and the holder of a master's degree in chemical engineering, the six-foot-five Swedish actor has spent most of his screen career in musclehead roles. His specialty is psychopathic heavies (see: Universal Soldier, Johnny Mnemonic).
Career high: Slugging his way to a film career as Stallone's Siberian-hearted Russian nemesis in Rocky IV.
Career low: Embodying the He-Man action figure in 1987's risible Masters of the Universe.
Expendability rating: 4 out of 10. Lundgren still plays the grinning psycho with zest.
Description: A touchy martial arts fighter who is sensitive about his height.
Previous tough-guy experience: The Chinese Li took a flying leap onto North American screens in 2000 with the Shakespeare-themed punch-up Romeo Must Die. By then, the five-foot, six-inch martial arts champ was already well established in Hong Kong and mainland China, with more than 20 films to his credit.
Career high: Starring in Tsui Hark's 1991 historical/martial arts epic Once Upon a Time in China.
Career low: Quite possibly this movie.
Expendability rating: 5 out of 10. He provides a sprightly rival for Lundgren's homicidal hulk, but his banter with Sly is stilted and enigmatic.
Character: Toll Road
Description: A touchy ex-wrestler who is sensitive about his cauliflower ear. In a curious The More You Know moment, he explains how such an ear is incurred.
Previous tough-guy experience: Couture's a former Ultimate Fighting champ and that cauliflower ear is for real. 'Nuff said.
Career high: Winning the UFC championship a record five times.
Career low: Appearing in last year's Big Stan, a direct-to-DVD Rob Schneider stinker about prison rape.
Expendability rating: 8 out of 10. Ear riff apart, the poor shlub has barely any screen time.
Character: Hale Caesar
Description: The team's African-American member, he's particularly proud of his personal arsenal. It includes one beaut of a straight razor — too bad his engraved name on the blade is misspelled "Ceasar."
Previous tough-guy experience: Ex-NFL linebacker Crews has spent the past decade settling into a second-string film and TV career. Not surprisingly, he tends to be picked for sports comedies (The Longest Yard, The Benchwarmers, Who's Your Caddy?, Balls of Fury).
Career high: Quite possibly this movie. Hey, it ain't a Super Bowl ring, but it could shove him out of the sports-comedy rut.
Career low: Appearing in Norbit, Eddie Murphy's Golden Raspberry delight.
Expendability rating: 10 out of 10 (i.e. totally expendable). Sorry, Crews, but any of the other Expendables could wield your weapons.
The Expendables opens Aug. 13.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.