It’s not so much that the characterizations exist on a single plane. It’s not so much that the dialogue amounts to restating the plot, blatant motivation baiting, shouted taunts, and “one-liners.” It’s not even so much that The Expendables stingily doles out its action scenes.

No, the biggest offense of Sylvester Stallone’s casting-ploy-cum-movie is that, when the movie finally tosses in a shootout or car chase or fistfight or all-out war, it gives the distinct impression of cinematic vomit. Certainly, the opening standoff with pirates (yes, seriously — pirates) is too early to really get a sense of it, and a fight between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren (let’s face it: there’s no question of who will/would win) has an amusing bit of physical comedy involving the former’s stature. Still, there’s the car chase preceding that fight that is so sloppily edited that it’s incomprehensible, and the final assault on a tropical palace hasn’t the slightest bit of worth.

Here Stallone (who, in addition to directing, also co-wrote the piecemeal screenplay with David Callaham) might be pining for the glory days even more so than his revivals of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. In The Expendables, he plays Barney Ross, the leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries, whose primary trait is being the leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries.

It’s almost as though Stallone is pleading with the audience that, yes, he can still star in a movie and not as a character he’s famous for portraying decades ago. He can still run (now, jog) after an airplane taking off. He can still pull himself (now, very slowly) into the hatch of said airplane as it’s flying (near the end of the movie, he seems to have more trouble getting into the same hatch when the plane is still). He can still shoot a pistol, although now — making up for the sluggish nature of his other stunts — he does it with unlikely speed and accuracy.

Joining Stallone are the likes of Jason Statham, Li, Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Mickey Rourke (as the team’s tattoo artist and advisor). Characterizations respective to each actor are lady problems, needing more money, drug addiction (and predictable betrayer), cauliflower ear, and shouting random, odd one-liners. On the other side are David Zayas, Eric Roberts, and Steve Austin, who play, in order, the evil, tyrannical General; the eviler, greedy rogue CIA agent; and the evilest, water-boarding-a-lady henchman. And speaking of ladies, Charisma Carpenter plays the ex-girlfriend of Statham’s Lee (who suggests gets what she deserves when her new boyfriend gives her a black eye), and Giselle Itié is Sandra, the General’s daughter, who ends up water-boarded for helping Ross.

Roberts’ James Munroe is causing havoc on the island nation off the coast of South America, although what it constitutes is relegated to the execution of three traitors and a basement full of cocaine. Callaham and Stallone find it unimportant, because Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger turn up in one of the many exposition scenes. That one, with Stallone and Schwarzenegger trading quips about the other’s careers (Schwarzenegger: “Give him the job. He needs the money.”), is at least funny.

Otherwise, characters start conversations with lines like, “You mean, we’re going to…,” or “You want us to…,” and the action is punctuated with the obligatory shouted “Come on,” or “My turn.” Rourke’s Tool has a monologue about losing his soul and passing on the chance to save it with the only purpose of giving Ross the motivation to go back and rescue Sandra.

This leads to the final, extended sequence, in which Stallone fights Austin, Statham dives and poses before shooting his gun, Crews shouts “Remember that next Christmas” to a bunch of mangled up bodies, and everything blows up (it’s a laughable shock Ross actually orders them to detonate something else after the flaming carnage they’ve unintentionally caused). It’s an incompetently hideous sequence: Green-tinted explosions, black or discernibly digital (this problem exists throughout) gobs of blood, and an over-reliance on navy blue lighting.

Yes, there is a sort of undeniable fun as each actor first appears in The Expendables (although seeing their names listed in the credits elicits a similar feeling of enjoyment), but the movie assumes the unsustainable attitude that casting will rule the day. Not with this lack of effort, it doesn’t.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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