Movie review: ‘The Expendables’

How expendable is “The Expendables”? That depends on who you are and why you’re asking.

If that sounds a little Zen-like, that’s because the new action opera co-written and directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone exists in a “Twilight Zone” dimension of its own outside of normal critical time and space.

In other words, if you want to see old-fashioned nonstop mayhem with stars so venerable that “The Leathernecks” (and I don’t mean Marines) might be an alternative title, reviews are going to be superfluous. If you don’t want to go, no review can change your mind. Certainly not this one.

A cartoonish symphony of muscles, bullets, tattoos and cigars, “The Expendables” is so determinedly old-school that its brisk action and bracing explosions take place not in the real world but on a mythical South American island named Vilena. If it does nothing else, it will make you nostalgic for a time when its more august actors, including Bruce Willis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in tiny cameos, were at least age-appropriate for their roles.

With its roster of action stars listed on posters like a high-powered team of urologists — “Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Couture, Austin, Crews and Rourke” — “The Expendables” is also a place where lines like “Friends don’t let friends die alone” and “Don’t talk to me, cockroach” can find a happy home.

“The Expendables,” in case you couldn’t guess, are not urologists but top-of-the-line mercenaries whose motto is “If the money’s right, we don’t care what the job is.” Barney Ross (Stallone) is first among equals, followed by Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang ( Jet Li), Gunnar Jensen ( Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (mixed martial artist Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). Names, like the rest of the film, not to be taken seriously.

The gang is introduced by co-writers Stallone and David Callaham in a flashback involving the expeditious rescue of a group of hostages from Somali pirates. The Expendables turn out to have a penchant for bickering with one another, however, and Jensen has to be let go for attempting to murder a prisoner. They have standards after all.

Back home, the gang members find themselves restive in civilian life. Christmas, a whiz with a knife, is especially irked that his girlfriend Lacy ( Charisma Carpenter), inexplicably peeved at his disappearing for months at a time with zero explanation, has taken up with someone who’s an even bigger lout than he is.

So no one is unhappy when, in a scene that for no clear reason involves Schwarzenegger as yet another mercenary named Trench Mauser, the team gets offered a new job by the shadowy Mr. Church (Willis).

The job means going down to that fictitious island and taking on not only the evil general who runs it (David Zayas) but also his nefarious American enabler (Eric Roberts) and his brutal right-hand man, Paine (Steve Austin).

Ineptly disguised as members of the Global Wildlife Conservancy, Barney and Lee go down on a recon and find the island too hot for them to handle. The only bright spot is their local contact, the sultry Sandra (Giselle Itie), a woman with an agenda of her own. When Barney is forced to abandon Sandra in a tight spot, he vows to return.

For the Expendables would have you understand that they are not just behemoths with biceps as big as the Ritz; they have hearts and souls and, yes, tarnished ideals. Their attitude is expressed by Mickey Rourke as Tool, a tattoo artist and retired Expendable who smokes a long-stemmed pipe and bemoans a woman whose suicide he walked away from years ago in Bosnia. Friends may not let friends die alone, but bogus philosophizing is apparently business as usual.