Sylvester Stallone and James Woods used to be explosive experts for the CIA, specializing in assassinations. Yet when James Woods attempts to blow up a vehicle which will claim a little girl's life, the two split ways. Stallone becomes a freelance assassin while James Woods falls in with a crime syndicate run by Rod Steiger and his son, Eric Roberts. One day, Stallone is contacted by a mysterious woman (Sharon Stone) who wants to put a hit on the men who killed her parents, who happen to be the aforementioned criminals. And if that sounds a little too clunky to you, you're right, but at least things explode.
The difference between the deaths in a PG-13 and an R-rated movie are usually minor. The Specialist, which isn't cram-packed with wall-to-wall action, features violence which could have easily passed in a PG-13 movie if not for its perfectly timed (and briefly executed) close-ups. In one scene, a booby trapped door blows a bad guy across the room, which would have been tame enough for a Jason Bourne movie, only there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it close-up of the victim's head smashing through an aquarium. In another scene, you don't just see a car blow up, you can actually see the detail on the driver's face as he tumbles out of the fireball.
These are tiny creative decisions, but they make all the difference in the world. It's why action movies today just don't have the same bite to 'em. (I'm reminded of the comically timed cutaway of a bullet-riddled corpse in Schwarzenegger's Total Recall getting trampled by bad guys and panicking pedestrians alike... and yet studio executives still wonder why no one went to see the PG-13 remake.) And although the action sequences in The Specialist are few and far between, they're more exciting—if not a lot more ludicrous—than the kind of movies which are too eager to blow their loads. There's an unexpected restraint on display here, an effort to rise above the usual reckless pace and non-stop violence. Unfortunately, the questionable plot twists and far-fetched feats drag the movie right back down again.
For instance, Sylvester Stallone is wearing nothing more than a towel when he's informed the bad guys are on their way up to his hotel room to kill him. He not only manages to get dressed (in a suit, no less), but he rigs up a complicated booby trap which surgically blows the room off the side of the hotel without causing any collateral damage whatsoever. Never mind the fact the interior and exterior shots of the hotel are completely at odds with one another (the doorways seen in the hallway would have to be on an outside wall), it's a pretty dazzling sequence which climaxes with a bad guy's death that seems brutal even by Stallone's standards.
Then there's James Woods' character, who strolls right into the police station and builds a bomb to convince the department he should lead the manhunt for Stallone's character. Completely unbelievable, yes, but Woods is so nutty in the role it's better to let such absurdities slide. Stallone might be the one who calls the shots and makes all the money in his movies, but the villains have more fun.