The Year of the Mercenary Movie is upon us. After a mediocre movie about paid soldiers (The Losers), a misfire (The A-Team), and one that almost got it right (Predators), here’s one that jumps out at ya full-throttle, with testosterone overflowing like Sylvester Stallone’s latest syringe of human growth hormone — and perhaps the largest ammo budget in cinema history. It certainly features the loudest gun we’ve ever heard.
The idea here isn’t exactly new. Sam Peckinpah did it 40 years ago with The Wild Bunch, when he took some long-in-the-tooth actors and had them play long-in-the-tooth outlaws, still pulling off jobs like they always did, only with a few more aches and pains.
Now it’s Sly Stallone, both in front of and behind the camera, hanging with his more-than-middle-aged pals who’ve been traveling the world, doing dirty work for money for so long that they know no other way of life.
But aside from a few moments of pathos-laced dialogue that has one member of the crew talking, sage-like, about how age just might be catching up with them, this is a celebration of big, tough good guys going up against big, slimy bad guys, and taking every opportunity to blow things up, shoot things down, and introduce a film-length motif of sharp, shiny knives being thrown through people’s necks.
There’s a plot in there somewhere: The title group is hired to take out a rogue dictator on a small island, even though the real villain is a steely-eyed snake of an American (Eric Roberts) who’s in it for the money, or maybe the power.
But this is more about characters: Tool (Mickey Rourke), the guy who gets the jobs; Barney (Stallone), who runs the operations; Christmas (Jason Statham), who hints, then proves, that he’s good with blades; Yang (Jet Li), a compact fellow with feet of fury; and the rest.
The film works so well because it never takes itself seriously, yet neither does it ever enter spoof territory. When the action kicks in (which it does regularly), the editing becomes frantic, and the music from Creedence or Mountain or Thin Lizzy gets cranked.
There’s a scene of verbal sparring between Stallone and a cameoing Arnold Schwarzenegger that must have looked great on paper, and absolutely pops on the screen. Then the real sparring starts, between an army and our handful of heroes, and don’t even think about keeping track of the body count ... or the guns, knives, car chases, or explosions.