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The Expendables: Junk-food for a Saturday night

Saturday nights are made for movies, but not just any old movies; Saturday nights are made for big hairy exploding movies filled with testosterone and car chases and gun fights and gorgeous, improbably clothed women (and equally gorgeous and improbably clothed men). Saturday night movies should be the equivalent of McDonald's: lacking in substance and a little bit bad for you but delicious nonetheless.

Saturday nights are made for movies, but not just any old movies; Saturday nights are made for big hairy exploding movies filled with testosterone and car chases and gun fights and gorgeous, improbably clothed women (and equally gorgeous and improbably clothed men). Saturday night movies should be the equivalent of McDonald's: lacking in substance and a little bit bad for you but delicious nonetheless. The Expendables was a movie we never quite got around to seeing at the box office, but the trailer promised everything you might expect from a Saturday night 'junk-food' type movie. So last weekend, we settled down to watch.

What a colossal disappointment.

When writer, David Callaham, sat down with Sylvester Stallone to write about The Expendables - a team of daring do-gooder mercenaries - cast by a veritable galaxy of heavyweight action stars, it must have sounded like a great proposition; it certainly sounded like it to me. Alongside Sly, the movie cast includes Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, the Governator, kung-fu-king (yep, that's right) Jet Li and Brit favourite Jason Statham. With that much muscle, grit and man-stink about, how could it fail to please?

Unfortunately it is all too obvious what this film is all about, and it isn't the expulsion of a corrupt general and sadistic drug lord from a small island community. It pains me to say it, but this movie is nothing more than a vehicle for a bunch of aging superheroes, coming to the end of their careers and desperate to be a big box office draw once again. Characters are incidental and the plot is staler than week old bread. It seems that Callaham and Stallone failed to realise that no matter how ear-throbbing and eye-popping the explosions or how convoluted and well choreographed the fight scenes might be, they are a poor substitute for well developed and well written characters and drama.

When I think of the best action movies ever made, I think of films like Armageddon, Terminator 2, Die Hard, Mission Impossible, Top Gun, Indiana Jones and Speed. It's by no-means an exhaustive list. What these titles have in common are compelling characters and genuine conflict. I can easily believe that Sarah Conner and John McClane live beyond the confines of the Terminator and Die Hard movies, but I can barely remember the names of the characters in The Expendables, never mind believe they are bigger than the scenes they're in. The drama is equally contrived and the result is that it is disconnected from the characters rather than driven by them.

And they're making a sequel.

I can only hope that The Expendables 2 burns in development hell forever or that it finds itself a more skilled writer. Ken Kaufman, co-writer on Space Cowboys, is currently associated with the project, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this will be one of those rare occasions when a sequel improves upon the original. It can't be much worse.

The Expendables is out on DVD and Blu-ray now and The Expendables 2 is currently in pre-production, with an anticipated box office release date in late summer 2012.