Jason Statham displays his range in The Expendables

Every now and then I indulge myself with a good old-fashioned popcorn movie. Man cannot live on foreign films, documentaries, and Gus Van Sant movies alone after all, and when promotional teasers for The Expendables began inundating the net earlier this year, I knew I’d found my popcorn candidate for Summer 2010.

The film relates the adventures of a motorcycle club which, when its members are not busy getting new tattoos, hire themselves out as mercenaries. The five are Barney Ross (writer-director Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, Britain’s answer to Clint Eastwood), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and some guy with a cauliflower ear who looks like Ernest Borgnine and wears a bowling shirt with the name ‘Milt’ embroidered on it. I never figured out what his character’s name actually was, but I don’t think it was Milt.

After a pre-credits run-in with some scurvy Somali pirates during which sixth Expendable Gunnar Jensen (Rocky IV’s Dolph Lungren) gets fired for showing insufficient respect for the dead, the lads are hired by G-man Church (Bruce Willis) to take out the despot ruling the Central American island nation of Vilena. Could this be Stallone’s acknowledgment of the good work done by Frank Church, the Idaho senator who investigated CIA malfeasance during the 1970s?

The same scene features a walk-on cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger, providing the film with an awkward laugh line about his character’s presidential aspirations. I’d forgotten about the movement to amend the Constitution to allow Ah-nuld to run for the Oval Office: I think we’re more likely to end up with President Gray Davis than President Terminator at this point.

Seen in long-shot, Vilena looks like a ritzy Riviera resort, but as soon as sleepy-eyed General Garza (David Zayas) and his men start abusing local peasants and kicking over fruit wagons, I knew we were a bit closer to home. It’s good to know some of Hollywood’s traditional ethnic stereotypes are still considered viable movie villains, because frankly, those bearded Middle Easterners have been sucking up all the celluloid oxygen of late.

Garza’s regime is propped up by drug smuggling rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts, a fine actor sadly still appearing in crap after spending the last quarter century living in the shadow of his sister Julia). Munroe is the power behind the throne, and if The Expendables are to get home for some beer guzzling and knife-throwing with guest star Mickey Rourke (who appears to have inherited his wardrobe from The Wrestler), they must first take him down. Incidentally, there’s more knife crime in this film than in your average South London fun pub on a Friday night.

The Expendables
details a veritable catalogue of American imperial crimes (I knew I could make this review relevant to Berkeleyside readers). Roberts’ spook all but acknowledges the CIA’s connection to drug smuggling and even indulges in a little waterboarding, boldly referred to as torture rather than ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ by Stallone’s screenplay.

The film also highlights the internal contradictions of the American imperial project: when the good guys devastate Vilena’s solitary pier in a fiery display of double-plus overkill, one can only think of the napalming of Vietnam or the depleted-uranium devastation visited upon Fallujah. Guys, the local peasants needed that pier to ship their fruit to your local supermarket. Now the price of bananas is going to go up.

Though the first few reels of The Expendables are reasonably coherent, narrative logic is soon disposed with, and the final hour descends into the kind of chaotic mess that could only have been directed by a serial steroid abuser.

And the joke titles virtually write themselves: The Incomprehensibles. The Explosibles. The Dependsables. Whatever you call it, this sweaty, musky hunk of celluloid delivers testosterone aplenty. If you think you’re ready to handle the man-on-man action, it’s currently showing at United Artists Berkeley 7.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...