The totally unexpected late-period renaissance that Sylvester Stallone has enjoyed in the last few years is one of the most pleasant surprises in recent popular cinema.  Despite having plenty of misfires and outright bombs, Sly has always been a favorite of Your Humble Reviewer’s – films like First Blood, Nighthawks and Rocky are top-shelf stuff and Sly also had a way with creating high-octane campfests for the guys – Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, Tango & Cash… the list goes ever on.

Unfortunately, these glories had become a memory by the mid-1990’s:  Sly had a really bad period where attempted a makeover via some gut-churning comedies.  As the decade dragged on into the next, he returned to action fare but cranked out one too many high-profile duds – Judge Dredd, Daylight, Get Carter, etc.  By the start of the 2000’s, his movies were going straight to video, a mighty bringdown for someone who was once guaranteed boxoffice gold.

When Stallone got the money to give his original hit one last go-round in Rocky Balboa, everybody groaned.  However, it turned out to be a surprisingly good, character-driven drama that won a lot of fans back.  He continued to surprise with a redux of other major franchise in Rambo, a hard-hitting action flick that delivered the goods while also treating its main character with a surprising degree of psychological depth for its chosen genre.  After two magic trick successes in a row, everyone wondered what Sly would do for an encore.

The answer to that question is The Expendables, a throwback to those glory days when the action genre ruled at the box office instead of being confined to the direct-to-DVD world.  Stallone toplines as Barney Ross, the leader of a mercenary crew that takes on high-risk gigs for big paydays.  When a shadowy government figure (Bruce Willis in a fun cameo) hires Barney to take out a dictator in a banana republic, he travels there with Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) to get the lay of the land.  Barney meets Sandra (Giselle Itie), an impassioned freedom fighter, and barely escapes with his life.  Barney turns the job down but can’t forget Sandra – and he talks his tough-guy gang into joining him on an impossible mission.

As you might surmise from that synopsis, The Expendables doesn’t exactly break new ground.  However, that doesn’t work against it: Stallone and crew are obviously looking to revive these out-of-fashion archetypes and invest them with a bit of heart.  The plot is sturdy stuff that Stallone and co-writer add a little dimension to with some nice character touches, like two different-minded characters who share a bond through their mutual love of art and a brief but effectively handled subplot about Lee’s on-off relationship with a woman back home.  He also draws on a pretty big canvas, with a large ensemble of characters and plenty of different plot threads.

Unfortunately, The Expendables also has a few noticeable problems that put it a step behind Rocky Balboa and Rambo in terms of consistency.  The first is that Stallone is sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of his enterprise: some of the characters get lost in the shuffle (poor Jet Li’s character is an afterthought that isn’t really worthy of his talents) and the finale is too hectic in its staging to deliver the truly satisfying payoff the film’s setup calls for.

Another key problem lies in the way the action itself is handled: Stallone shoots the action way too closely and often succumbs to a mania for flash-cut editing.  This is really noticeable during the finale, which fails to capitalize on some conceptually impressive setpieces due to the tight-shot/fast-cut approach.

That said, if you are of a certain age and/or have a fondness for old school action, The Expendables has a charm that pulls it through its rough spots.  A big part of this stealth success is the acting.  Stallone’s leading-man chops are still intact and he’s pretty generous about sharing the screen with his well-chosen cast.  Statham in particular gets a lot of screen time, including several scenes with Stallone, and the two have a likeable chemistry.

Other standout turns include Terry Crews as a crew member with a penchant for loud guns, Eric Roberts doing his scenery-chewing best as the film’s energetically sleazy corporate villain and a really intense turn from Dolph Lundgren as the craziest mercenary of the bunch.  However, the best moment of the film belongs to Rourke, who delivers an unexpectedly moving monologue where he tells Stallone about the moment where he lost his self-respect.

It’s also worth noting that Stallone has made the rare action movie where the scenes between kinetic sequences are as entertaining as the action itself.  For men of violence, these guys do a lot of chatting during their downtime and their banter about love, relationships and where they’re going in life give the proceedings a funny, endearingly odd slant (for instance, Randy Couture scores a few funny scenes as the member of the group obsessed with self-help books and therapy).

It’s also nice to see an older star be honest about his age: the much-ballyhooed scene where Stallone and Willis meet up with Arnold Schwarzenegger (as a rival mercenary) is lots of fun because Stallone and Schwarzenegger poke fun at their images and career trajectories in a self-effacing manner that adds a whole other layer to what could have been a mere exposition scene.

To sum up, The Expendables is flawed but its ambition, playful nature and – yes – its heart are to be commended.  It’ll be interesting to see where Stallone goes next.