That the last five years or so have seen a tremendous flowering of '80s pop culture nostalgia is obvious enough that it hardly even needs pointing out: the result, presumably of the generational cohort old enough to have attended junior high and high school in that decade come to positions of authority in the entertainment industry. Thus we have been inundated, sometimes pleasantly and more often annoyingly, with various throwbacks in the shape of remakes, references, homages, and the like.

Even by those standards, The Expendables is extravagantly pleased to wear its '80s bona fides like a banner. This is a film in which the chief selling point is the presence of such luminaries as Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke, all bound together in one package for the first time. It is a film wherein, if you are at all the kind of person with even the tiniest interest in ever seeing it, then you are already aware that there is one scene in which Stallone, Bruce Willis, and former action star & current governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger are all together (though, if my memory serves correctly, never actually in the same shot). "Zounds", the film expects you to say, "is't even so? That Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, those three men as were in a constant war for action star prominence in the second half of the 1980s, have put aside their differences to appear collectively? What magnificent times we live in!" The very notion that those three men appearing in one scene together is some kind of grand moment is in and of itself the greatest proof of how happily The Expendables is trapped mentally in 1990, when such a teaming would have actually been A Big Fucking Deal and not just cool.

Which it is cool, actually. I tried extremely hard to resist finding it cool, and failed. I even chuckled a bit at the wholly expected "Schwarzenegger gave up acting for politics" gag. And doesn't that make me a total asshole?

Issues of decades-old stardom aside, The Expendables hews as closely as it possibly can to the form of a 1980s action blockbuster, with only a handful of aesthetic nods and one "oops, I left my cell phone on" joke to indicate that the year is 2010 and we have things like the Jason Bourne franchise now. Like Stallone's last film as director-star, 2008's Rambo, it hoists the perfunctory narrative, off-hand racism and sexism, and Iran-Contra era fixation on the CIA as shadowy mover of all politics in the third world, with unabashed pride in its accomplishment at having recreated down to the smallest details the texture of a movie from 25 years ago.

There's an obvious comfort in the familiar, and it's tempting to give points to The Expendables just on the grounds of its simplicity: Stallone is Barney Ross, the leader of a team of mercenaries called - all together now, boys and girls - the Expendables. Chief among his followers is neo-action star Jason Statham, playing the unlikely-named Lee Christmas (sadly, the film's non-existent sense of humor means we are deprived a replay of the "Christmas only comes once a year" quip from the misbegotten James Bond film The World Is Not Enough), grappling with an ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter, playing the requisite "bitch who is only a bitch according to the ultra-masculine codes governing this style of action movie" role) and a semi-distant third is Jet Li, as martial arts expert Ying Yang. Dolph Lundgren is on-hand as the embittered ex-merc who is plainly going to dick them all over at the first possible opportunity, and filling out the roster are the not-actually-action-stars Randy Couture and Terry Crews (playing a character named "Hale Caesar", a fact of which I was blissfully unaware throughout the course of the movie). Their job is to kill the mad dictator (David Zayas) of a fake Caribbean island, who is being controlled by an ex-CIA mastermind, Eric Roberts Character (Eric Roberts), in which job they are aided by the dictator's lovely, populist-leaning daughter (Giselle Itié).

Unfortunately, this apparently straightforward concept gets very quickly bogged-down in all sorts of spurious red herrings about who is controlling who and who is paying the Expendables, and in no time at all we're basically rooting for Stallone & Co. because they're Stallone & Co. and not at all because it's clear what the hell is going on. Which leaves The Expendables in the unenviable position of having to supply big damn action scenes just for the sake of action - and the big damn action scenes are, honestly, not very good. The one concession Stallone makes to modern filmmaking techniques, having taken his scenario wholesale from the Golan-Globus school of screenwriting, and admirably recreating the look of '80s cinematography (my compliments to DP Jeffrey L. Kimble), is to spruce everything up with CGI, and to cut everything all to hell and back. Hyper-editing can work, of course; but like anything it's a discipline, and most of the time, it's just plain hard to figure out what's going on in space. The worst offender is Jet Li's big fight scene, chopped with reckless abandon; probably to hide the fact that a) Li is old, and b) Li is fighting a stunt-double.

It's hard to say what happened between Rambo (which, despite its many flaws, boasted some extremely handsome action sequences) and now; but something about the large scope of the action confounds Stallone, and his excessively large number of unit directors. It's too hectic, too confusing to be cool, or exhilirating - despite a lot of pyrotechnics and crane-launched badguy extras, it all comes across as so much sound and fury, trading in the "wow" factor that might tickle the 12-year-old, ape-like parts of the brain for excess. Excess that's not very easy to parse out, at that.

Weirdly - impossibly, one might say - Stallone's direction tends almost exclusively to favor little character moments. The shot that has lingered with me is a tiny aside between Mickey Rourke's retired mercenary and Stallone, in which the former idly recalls an incident that left Stallone's hand a tattered piece of meat. Almost subconsciously, Stallone raises his hand and glances at it, in the casual, unthinking way that one might do in that situation. There are a lot of surprisingly delicate moments like that scattered throughout Stallone, Rourke, and even Lundgren's performances (not so for the others: Statham couldn't do delicate if his soul depended on it, though he admirably brings that Stathamy goodness to his character otherwise).

And that raises the question: do we actually want delicate character moments out of The Expendables? Or do we want gloriously-captured moments of wanton destruction? Because for my money, we just don't get the latter. A large quantity of explosions does not imply a high quality of explosions, and despite an opening 20 minutes that promise all of the loamy '80s delight that the concept and marketing promised, the film simply hasn't any real energy. Action for the sake of action and action for the sake of the audience are not cotangent; but at least it's not as numbing as The A-Team was.

5/10