Stallone. Van Damme. Norris. Li. Willis. Schwarzenegger. Lundgren. Snipes. Before the proliferation of CGI, Marvel movies and action scenes where you can’t see what’s going on, these names ran the action movie roost. Usually involving a hero who faced impossible odds and overcame them through a mix of skill and smarts, audiences trouped to movie theatres to see these larger-than-life characters defeat the bad guys. Somewhere right was triumphing over wrong, even if it was only on a movie screen. Now, it’s a dying art. We still have guys like Jason Statham, Scott Adkins, and Dwayne Johnson, but nowadays, action heroes are more likely to punch a green screen than an actual opponent. Which lead to why it was so important for Sylvester Stallone to make the Expendables – it not only brought back all those old action heroes, but it reminded audiences that those men of action were not gone, and the craft of making an action movie was not lost. Let’s take a look back at the three (to date) Expendables movies and see how they measure after a second viewing.
The Expendables (2010)
Synopsis: Barney Ross leads the Expendables, a group of highly trained mercenaries to an island in the Gulf of Mexico to take out a dictator and his partner, a corrupt ex-CIA operative.
Retrospective: Watching this film eight years after its initial release, I still marvel at the fact that all of those action stars are in the same room. Even though some notable names are missing, just watching Statham and Stallone banter and Jet Li fight with Dolph Lundgren is something special. Even more, though, I didn’t realize how much heart the original had until I re-watched it. Mickey Rourke’s tearful speech when he talks about the loss of his soul as a soldier really hits home and makes you realize that even though they’re called “The Expendables,” they are anything but. That is clear when Barney agonizes over the severe injury dealt to Gunner, even though the tall psychotic had previously revealed that he betrayed the Expendables. They’re not just a team of guys thrown together because they have the proverbial “special skills” – they’re a family. You also get all the action, with an exciting aerial attack by Barney and Lee Christmas on the bad guys and the awesome siege at the end of the movie, as well as both Stallone and Couture squaring off against former pro-wrestler Steve Austin. My only complaint about the film is that Stallone, the hero of the film, doesn’t have a main bad guy to square off with – even though he starred in The Best of the Best, Eric Roberts’ action movie days are behind him, and he is not a befitting challenge to the still-in-shape Stallone. That leaves Austin, the main henchman to earn the big fight with Stallone and though it is well-executed, it lacks the punch (pardon the pun) that having Stallone face a legitimate main villain would have. Still, this movie is great and the best in the series.
The Expendables 2 (2012)
Synopsis: After the death of one of their own, the Expendables track the Sangs, a rival mercenary group in search of a plutonium cache
Retrospective: The second of the Expendables films is very much a mixed bag for me. While the inclusion of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme is great and the airport scene at the end is worth the price of admission, there are still some things lacking with the sequel. Firstly, it is surprisingly light in action. You have the rescue at the beginning, the retrieval of the computer (which his short), Chuck Norris singlehandedly destroying a tank (which I admit is awesome) and the end sequence. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great, but I expected more in the sequel. I also did not like how underused Jean-Claude Van Damme is. He’s not in the movie that much and his final fight with Stallone is too short for my liking. I did like the bonding and camaraderie that the Expendables have throughout the film, and the inclusion of Yu Nan as a pseudo-female Expendable was a smart choice, but I found myself missing Jet Li’s Ying Yang and overall, the film feels a bit like a missed opportunity. That’s not the say the movie isn’t good – it still delivers at the end, and you get to see Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone interact and Bruce Willis drive Arnold Schwarzenegger around in an impossibly small car – it just felt like they could have aimed a little higher in the second film.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
Synopsis: After a mission gone wrong, Barney Ross recruits a new team of Expendables to take on Conrad Stonebanks, an ex-Expendable and co-founder of the group.
Retrospective: As much as I criticized part two, part three has more serious failings to me. First, let’s get to the good stuff. Mel Gibson is far and away the best villain in the series – while Eric Roberts and Van Damme didn’t have a lot to do, Mel Gibson brings the fire in his role as the chief antagonist of the film. While the other two opponents were influenced by money, for Gibson’s Stonebanks, it’s personal. That makes his fight at the end the first true worthwhile rivalry for Stallone’s Barney Ross and Gibson’s past roles as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series show that he has the skills to battle Stallone, even in middle age. I also really liked the inclusion of Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammar – Ford is a more reliable CIA ally than Willis, who always seemed shady. You feel at this stage of his career, Ford just wants to have fun, and he does so in the role. Ditto for Grammer, who surprisingly meshed well as Stallone’s recruiter and the banter between the two worked for the most part. The action scenes again were top notch, and the inclusion of Snipes injected some much-needed skill and unpredictability that left with the departure of Jet Li. Antonio Banderas is entertaining as the motor-mouthed, seemingly unhinged new recruit who actually has more substance than at first glance.
Okay, now the problems. Firstly, I hate Stallone dumping his old team for a group of fresh-faced recruits. Not only does it fly in the face of what the entire series is trying to achieve, but the new Expendables are either unknowns or MMA fighters who have few if any action movies under their belts. If Stallone threw over the old group for Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, and Dwayne Johnson, I would get that, but when he throws them over for who, who, Ronda Rousey and Victor Ortiz, that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Also, the reason he does it makes no sense at all – he wants the old Expendables to have a life? How much of a life can forty-somethings have? You think fifty-seven-year-old Dolph Lungren is going to start a family? Also, what is he saying, that the new recruits can’t have a life? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be let go to have a family? What is this? Also, the old recruits just come back anyway to save the day, so what’s the point? Ugh. It just seems like something to do as a different avenue, but it doesn’t work. Finally, why is Jet Li working for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench? Isn’t the Expendables a family? Why is Ying Yang defecting to the competition? This movie just flew in the face of everything previously established, and not for the better.
The Expendables was a valuable series to remind folks that the action stars of yesteryear are not gone and can still put together a pretty good spectacle. While the series progressively lost steam by the third film and turned on everything it previously tried to portray, it still is an entertaining series with a bunch of dream scenarios you wouldn’t imagine happening if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. Here’s hoping that the fourth installment rights the ship and gets us back to the roots of the first film, which was all about bringing the stars of yesterday into tomorrow and putting on a damned good show while they’re at it.