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“The Expendables” should have been the best action film of the summer. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone and rumored to star some of the best action heroes of the 20th century, its release was anticipated as the new “Dirty Dozen.” Even Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of retirement for a cameo appearance. Nevertheless, the film is a real groaner, with barely sketched characters, stilted acting, and an incomprehensible plot. It is laughably bad, perhaps the worst of the season.

What went wrong?

Perhaps it was a problem of too many prima donnas, each demanding a certain share of screen time instead of letting the plot dictate their roles. It almost seems as if Stallone and his bud-

dies sat around drinking beers, shoot- ing the breeze, and imagining one last, great, action movie, with each building up his own character and virtually ignoring the others. Several actors dropped out of the project before it was even underway, including Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Forest Whitaker, and even rap star 50 Cent. Many of them cited scheduling difficulties for bowing out, but that is often a euphemism for problems with the plot. Van Damme came right out and said it: his character lacked substance. Van Damme complained about lack of substance!

Did somebody mention plot? I think it was MIA from this mission. Barney Ross (Stallone) is the leader of a band of highly skilled mercenaries who can be hired to rescue kidnapped businessmen, for example, or to “neutralize” dictators of banana republics. His crew includes the improbably monikered Lee Christmas ( Jason Statham), Ying Yang ( Jet Li, looking sadly middle-aged), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Dan Paine (Steve Austin), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Tool (Mickey Rourke). Wesley Snipes was supposed to play a character named “Hale Caesar.” Who came up with these corny names? Bruce Willis appears as the mysterious Mr. Church, who hires the men to fly to the fictional South American island of Vilena and take somebody out — it isn’t really clear to the audience who or why, since most of this scene is spent mugging menacingly at the camera.

Nevertheless, off Barney goes with Christmas in tow, posing as anthropologists in order to get through customs. After shooting up the town they get back on their plane and fly away, having aborted the mission and leaving behind Sandra (Giselle Itié), the beautiful woman who has warned them that they are walking into a trap. She refuses to be rescued, however, saying “My place is here,” although we never learn why. Does she have a child somewhere? Is she concerned about her paintings? (She makes pictures that look like the kind you see painted on velvet and sold on street corners in California.) Is it because she’s a daddy’s girl? (Her father is the dictator of Vilena.) We never find out her motivation, but Barney is hot to go back and try rescuing her again, this time with the whole crew.

A quick look at the film’s official IMDb website provides a hint as to what was supposed to have happened. The trivia section indicates that Sandra is a member of INTERPOL and has been providing medical supplies and guns to the revolutionaries who are working to oust the military dictator. Wait a minute — isn’t he her father? No wonder they left that out. None of this actually appears in the movie. Apparently the film underwent a hasty re-editing just before it was released, and the website wasn’t updated to reflect the changes. Nevertheless, viewers should not be expected to go to a website to find out what a movie was supposed to be about.

“The Expendables” is another film that simply can’t compete with the thrill of staying home and washing the dishes. It is thoroughly, utterly, and completely expendable.

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