The Expendables is big loud action movie in which Naugahyde-hewn war gods turn junta lackeys into goulash for the better half of 103 minutes. It's screamingly ordinary, but the mass nostalgia it hawks is a genre cinema paradigm.
What's the Stallone-directed Expendables about? A team of mercenaries goes to South America, tries to overthrow a strongman, cans the mission when they realize they're hopelessly outnumbered, and — after an inspirational pep cry by Mickey Rourke — go to finish the job because it is The Right Thing To Do.
If you had no idea who any of the actors were, it would be just an average actioner. But the selling point of the flick is its aged sirloin (which comes with a side dish of Reagan-era moral certitude). Stallone! Schwarzenegger! Willis! Ivan Drago! That dude from Year of the Dragon! Get the audience punch-drunk on the good old days and who cares what direction the guns are firing! That's the conceit.
As genius as this "throw as much beef jerky as you can at the wall" paradigm is, The Expendables fails to deliver on the nostalgia that will fill theaters [UPDATE 8/15: Looks like The Expendables filled theaters. Whoops!] Part of this has to do with the ensemble. Of the Class of 1980, only Stallone, Rourke, and Dolph Lundgren have ample screen time (Arnie and Willis appears for <5 minutes). Of those three, only ex-MIT Fulbright Scholar Lundgren has been out of the limelight for a while. Heck, Stallone directed 2008's Rambo, which is more or less the same movie as The Expendables.
As for the rest of the cast, they don't exactly make you yearn for the ye olde days of Cobra — they're modern actors. I want to see Jason Statham star in Neveldine/Taylor's Crank 3: Chev Chelios Must Eat Used Uranium Fuel Rods first and foremost. Likewise, Terry "President Camacho" Crews is the world's finest surrealist deodorant pitchman. I know Stallone couldn't get Van Damme or Seagal, but why not Rutger Hauer? He's a classic, and when's the last time we saw him? Minotaur?
With all these action stars, you'd think there would be some killer bon mots. Stuff like "Your ass has been adequately expended!" or something. But no, for the most part the Expendables are the Interchangables — for an actor-driven affair, each role is totally not idiosyncratic. The best we get is Mickey Rourke playing himself, smoking a Gandalf pipe. You could replace any one these other meaty manikins with the other and the movie would trudge along the same way. This is the second reason The Expendables' nostalgia fails. The best actioners of the 1980s were vehicles to show off their stars' chop'em-sock'em charms. Think Arnold's wit....
...and Van Damme's dancefloor thunder.
Ultimately, The Expendables is supposed to make you nostalgic for 1980s action movies, but it gives you nary a reason to be. Its plot is paint-by-numbers, its stars are ubiquitous, and nobody says anything as quotable as "Get your ass to Mars!" What I think The Expendables is is a very self-conscious effort to hearken back to the days before pantywaist genre stars commandeered your action movies — before all your Peter Parkers and Jake Sullies and complaining mutants took over. The ironic thing about The Expendables is that despite its rebuke of genre cinema, it offers us a crazy moneymaking model, which I will now call The Large Halcyon Incredulity Model.
The Large Halcyon Incredulity Model works like this. Take a group of established actors/characters/archetypes that wouldn't be profitable on their own and toss them in a single movie so that audiences' sheer dubiousness drives them to theaters. In the case of The Expendables, Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin aren't marquee material by their lonesome, but — in the presence of Stallone and Schwarzenegger — they catalyze the film's marketability. Take Alien Vs. Predator — that pairing was years in the making and is too logical on its own. In order for the Large Halcyon Incredulity Model to hit critical mass, you'd need to pit them against Sam Francisco from Alien Nation and the vampires from Lifeforce.
Just as The Expendables attempts to reinvigorate 80s actioners, the Large Halcyon Incredulity Model can be applied to 80s scifi with gusto. Sure, there would be some copyrights to wrangle, but why risk an unprofitable remake when you can pool your resources for a surefire hit? Here are some easy throwback genre flicks Hollywood could churn out:
Puppets: Why risk niche Dark Crystal and Alf remakes when you can blend them with Labyrinth and Meet the Feebles? Hell, throw some Mogwai in and recast Lady Gaga as Jareth. Be sure to include Mac from Mac and Me for that sweet product placement dinero.
Robots: This is easy. Combine the plots of *batteries not included, Short Circuit, and Heartbeeps. Be sure to include cameos from ED-209 and the robot from Rocky IV.
John Carpenter: Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Adrienne Barbeau play every role, investigate mysterious events over a synthesized score.
Those are but a few common 80s tropes that can be plugged into the Large Halcyon Incredulity Model. When YARM rules the day, creativity is an arithmetic process. The Large Halcyon Incredulity Model may be the end of cinematic history, but hey, you know you'd pay to see a movie starring Beastmaster and the guy from Krull.