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[Tomorrow is the strongest release day of the year and so we are taking the opportunity to pull our reviews of the key new release titles back up to the top of the stack.]

Barney Ross has developed a conscience and it may be the death of him. Following your conscience leads to good things, if your mother is to be trusted, but Barney's world is a little different than most. He's a high risk, high powered mercenary, you see, the leader of a group known as The Expendables - soldiers of fortune who travel the world doing the jobs that nobody else is willing to do. And when Barney experiences a twinge of conscience the end result is not more open books or shopping fair trade, it's walking into a firefight in which his team is hugely outnumbered and outgunned, all for the sake of a girl.

The third picture to rise from Sylvester Stallone's late-period career comeback, The Expendables is probably the most anticipated of the lot. While Rambo and Rocky Balboa were deliberate bookends to the most iconic roles of his career, and films that read surprisingly well as post-modern commentaries on Stallone's own life and work, The Expendables finds Stallone tapping into the 80s action aesthetic that made him a huge star in the first place while also setting out to create an entirely new character, an entirely new franchise. And, yes, it works.

Let's be clear about a few things right up front. By many - if not most - critical standards, The Expendables is not a good film. If you're looking for character arcs, Oscar caliber performances, subtle writing and the like, you have come to the wrong place. Likewise, if you are expecting a comic parody of the period that produced Cobra and Commando, you've come to the wrong movie. If, however, what you want is a film that could easily have come from that era itself, then bingo! The Expendables is exactly the right ticket, a hugely entertaining - though slightly uneven - ride through the testosterone screen style of the past that avoids (almost) every urge to dip into nostalgia.

The core of the film revolves around Stallone and his core team - Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture and Terry Crews. Within that group, the dominant focus falls on Stallone and Statham, who make for a fantastic one-two punch, with Li and Lundgren existing one tier below, while Crews and Couture and largely relegated to being 'The Other Guys'. In Couture's case this is a good decision as the man can't act a lick and every spoken line he gets is awkward in the extreme. Crews, however, is fantastic and more than deserving of a larger role. Crews is handed something that would have gone to Carl Weathers back in his Action Jackson days and he takes a relatively small part and manages to steal a number of scenes with his very charismatic work. If there are going to be Expendables spin off films - something that seems quite likely - then Crews' Hale Cesar character deserves priority on that front.

On the fringes of the group is Mickey Rourke as Tool, a former operative himself who now runs the world's fastest tattoo parlor - seriously, pay attention to how long it takes him to complete Stallone's back piece - while also acting as the group's go-between with potential clients. For the most part Rourke is just screwing around here but he fits well with the general tone of the world while also throwing in a couple of very casual, "Oh, damn, there's a REAL actor in this!" moments.

On the villain side, David Zayas - you know him from Dexter - plays a puppet general dancing at the end of Eric Roberts' string with Steve Austin lurking in the background to ensure compliance. While Zayas is a great big cliche and Austin exists in this movie largely just to set up the obligatory - but damn good, nonetheless - Austin versus Couture fight in the finale, Eric Roberts chews up the scenery as a classically evil action villain.

Beyond letting Couture speak, the one major mis-step in the casting is the presence of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If they'd left this as a surprise for fans walking into the theater, they may have gotten away with it, but having included it in the advertising campaign reveals it as the bad publicity stunt and descent into bad nostalgia that it really is. Both Bruce and Arnold are here in purely throw-away characters, with Arnold in particular having nothing at all worthwhile to do. It's as though the trio of action stars simply happened to be available for a couple of hours on the same days and Stallone talked the other two into coming by the set. The scene is horribly written, flatly staged and poorly performed. If they spent longer than an hour on it from start to finish then I'll be shocked beyond words. Thankfully it is also brief.

On the action front, Stallone does an excellent job of blending styles and set pieces to show off the unique real life skills of his stars while also throwing in a series of increasingly fantastical pieces. The airplane assault of the island pier is an excellent example of the logic-suspending bits of the film, bits which only get bigger and louder as things progress until we get to an absolutely daft - but completely, one hundred percent inspired - moment involving Stallone, Crews, a moat of fire, a tank shell and a helicopter in the finale. It is sheer lunacy of the stand up and cheer variety.

Throughout his career Stallone has proven himself capable of producing some surprisingly sharp, nuanced work. This is not one of those films. Where The Expendables is smart is not in the script or the story but in Stallone understanding exactly what his audience wants and then pulling out all the stops to give it to them. A good film? Honestly, probably not. But entertaining? Oh, hell yes.
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