It’s not based on a comic like The Losers or an old TV show like The A-Team and isn’t even a Tarantinisation of Ciro H. Santiago’s 1988 movie The Expendables, but this does slot into the 80s redux mercenary cycle. If anything, it’s based on a set of old careers (especially star-director-writer Sylvester Stallone’s), though the battered old-timers are augmented by a few up-to-the-minute action names and an assortment of extreme wrestling hulks to fill out the ranks of Good and Evil. Having revived his Rocky and Rambo franchises, Stallone must have found himself at a bit of a loss with no immediate demand for Cobra: The Return, Over the Top II, Tango and Cash: Assignment Miami Beach or Back in Rhinestone and opted to invent a new character just like his old ones for this lust hurrah/blaze of glory effort (which, like many other recent reduxes, owes a lot to the Andrew V. McLaglen western or wild geese pictures of the ‘60s and ‘70s). Stallone is Barney Ross, though this is one of those films where you don’t really need to learn the names of the characters (many get by on nicknames) since it’s all about getting a pre-established persona back in business, albeit with more tattoos, half-successful face-lifts (all of Stallone’s face now matches his frozen lip), steroid-pumped limbs and shameful direct-to-video credits dragging down the CV (remember Shade? Avenging Angelo?).
As for the plot, well … this is the third film of the summer of 2010 in which a gang of deniable mercenaries take on a rogue CIA agent who has got into the drugs business and needs taking down. It opens with the Expendables rescuing hostages from outclassed Somali pirates and some tension as Barney has to let one of the gang, Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren), go because he has gone too kill-crazy (best line: ‘but it’s fun to hang pirates’) even for this krewe. Checking in with tattooist/manager Tool (Mickey Rourke), Barney gets a gig to assassinate el presidente of an island hellhole (David Zayas, from Dexter) and goes there on a scouting mission (posing as an ornithologist) with his knife-throwing best mate Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) which ends in a spectacular escape from an exploding pier. Here, the big bad is James Monroe (Eric Roberts) – wittily named for the President who formulated the Monroe Doctrine, the long-standing American foreign policy which enables the US to mess around in Central America while keeping other countries out – and the rebel leader is the president’s own daughter Sandra (Giselle Itié). Though not keen on the job, Barney feels an obligation to rescue the girl, who is being waterboarded by some second-tier thugs (Steve Austin, Gary Daniels) – so, after a skirmish/car chase/betrayal/near-death bonding with good old Gunnar the Maniac, the Expendables return to blow shit (and shits) up. Also on the good guy crew are Jet Li, whose trademark moves aren’t well-served by the jittery direction, and a couple of filler lunks: extreme fighting guy Randy Couture, who is joshed for seeing a psychiatrist and having a cauliflower ear, and Terry Crews, who brings being black and owning a bigger blastier gun than anyone else to the team. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger pop in for a one-scene bit with Stallone – a Planet Hollywood reunion – which is a highlight of snarled if flirty banter, though sadly Roberts and Rourke, the erstwhile stars of The Pope of Greenwich Village, don’t get a face-off.
Aside from the rebel chick, the only other woman of note is sidekick Lee’s ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter, replacing the late Brittany Murphy), whose abusive new beau takes a comic relief beating along with his basketball mates. Though this is nowhere near as homoerotic as the likes of Commando or Rambo III, there’s an air of no-girls-allowed machismo as the sixtyish heroes realise they can only really have relationships with each other – at the end, Barney leaves Sandra behind on the island and departs with his real life partner Lee (Statham, a much hotter action star than anyone else here, generously takes the number two role and defers to his elders). With all these big presences jockeying for position, it’s no wonder many get edged aside – man of the match, perhaps surprisingly, is Lundgren, who has the coolest chopper (bike) and the craziest act, and it’s a shame he’s sidelined for much of the mission. It’s free of the ‘getting too old for this shit’ business usually associated with ageing action men, perhaps because Stallone started out in his thirties playing characters (a washed-up boxer, a traumatised Vietvet) who were already too old for this shit: it’s refreshingly honest that in his one big fight scene, Stallone gets his ass credibly kicked by baddie Austin and someone with a gun comes along to save him. There’s more CGI blood-spatter than a purist would like, and a little more story sense wouldn’t hurt – but it delivers on the promise of its cast. At the time, I noted ‘For the sequel, there should be a way of getting Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Carl Weathers and Steven Seagal aboard, and maybe Cynthia Rothrock, Sharon Stone and Geena Davis; plus openings for the baddies of the ‘80s, Steven Berkoff, Vernon Wells, Billy Drago, Lance Henriksen; oh, and get a proper dialogue polish from Steven E. DeSouza or Shane Black.’
The Expendables 2 (2014)
In one respect, this is a perfect 80s homage – it feels a lot like those thrown-together Cannon sequels that get by on one or two good stunts and a scenery-chewing villain performance. It’s scrappy, sometimes cheap-looking, wildly inconsistent in tone, oversells its knowing winks and winds up with an ‘is that all there is?’ shrug, but it’s still mostly entertaining nonsense and – even if he takes the semi-serious action stuff into Hot Shots territory – every moment with Chuck Norris is golden.
It opens with Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and Lee (Jason Statham) and their carried-over crew of mercs – Gunner (Dolph Lundgren, a standout last time, comedy relief here), Yin Yang (Jet Li, jumping out of the plane early for no real reason and sitting the rest of the film out), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture), plus newcomer sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) – rescuing a kidnapped Chinese millionaire from nondescript Asian scum and incidentally saving rival merc Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from torture. Simon West, of Con Air (and a slow subsequent slide), can stage a raid on a jungle base and an escape involving jetskis and a seaplane pretty well, though this is one of those films sound-mixed for explosions rather than dialogue so a lot of exposition gets lost. The script is by Stallone and Richard Wenk (little heard from since Vamp), from a story by Wenk, Ken Kaufman and David Agosto, from characters created by David Callahan – but it’s a rote assemblage of plot licks and cameos.
The next mission, at the behest of shady agency guy Church (Bruce Willis), brings aboard Maggie (Nan Yu, excellent), a techie femme fatale, to retrieve something from a safe in a plane crashed in Albania and brings the gang into conflict with a villain subtly named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who needs the package to help locate ex-Soviet plutonium he wants to mine and sell on the black market. One of the exes talks early about the girl he wants to settle down with and has a soulful anecdote about the stray dog he adopted in Afghanistan, which pretty much sets him up as the sacrifice to motivate the others to stay in the fight. Booker (Norris) hilariously shows up to blast away at hordes in a few scenes set up by the ‘Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ theme, nurturing his lone wolf reputation – asked about what happened the time he was bit by a cobra, Booker deadpans ‘after four days of agonising pain, the cobra died’. There are some token enslaved miners to be rescued and Vilain has an almost-inexhaustible horde of disposable, uncharacterised, unmotivated minions to get mown down by the good guys, who barely get scratched as hundreds die all around them. These may be conventions, but are overdone to such an extent that all the CGI blood-bursts and piled-up corpses fail to make it seem less cartoony.
There are good settings – a derelict ‘American’ town once used by the Soviets to practice invading the USA is a highlight, much stronger than the bland airport where the finale takes place – and even at an advanced age this cast can command the screen with macho charisma (the homoerotic undertones of their 80s heyday have gone by the wayside). It’s a shame it’s too late for the showpiece we’d like to have seen – Norris and Van Damme in their prime fighting each other – and have to make do with Van Damme (who can still do a flying kick) and Stallone (who can mumble a threat) in a climactic one-on-one with a foregone conclusion outcome that’s a hard-sell. The in-jokes get a bit stale (Willis and Schwarzenegger playing on their old catch-phrases) and with Lundgren being funny, Crews and Couture don’t really have anything to do in the film except look lumpily hard and bicker. There’s a sense this is too crowded to be as much fun as it should be, and a comparison with the baroque absurdities of Con Air shows how the action movie has dwindled since its great days.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
The Expendables franchise now resembles a game of sardines – how many more people can be crammed into this space? Of course, the villains are all one-offs … and this time it’s Mel Gibson, who’s less of a catch since he already did this act facing off against Danny Trejo in Machete Kills, as hitherto-unmentioned co-founder of the Expendables Conrad Stonebanks, who needles old pal Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) about the stupidity of staying on the straight and narrow in a speech we’ve heard a lot of variations on since Robert Duvall gave it back in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. Also tipped in this time are: Harrison Ford, who replaces Bruce Willis as the Expies’ CIA liaison and gets into flight togs for some chopper action in the finale; Kelsey Grammer, rather good as a talent scout for mercs who is just here to set up character introductions but shows he isn’t willing to walk through it all without doing some proper acting; Antonio Banderas, as a Spanish merc who keeps rabbiting on about his old gigs and might just be doing Mifune’s desperate-to-be-on-the-team jittery schtick from Seven Samurai; and Wesley Snipes who gamely puts up with jokes about tax evasion when sprung from a jail train in the prologue. Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren have scaled-down participation, and Randy Couture and Terry Crews are pretty much sidelined (Crews seems to be hospitalised after Gibson has shot him in the ass).
The script by Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt hinges on Ross getting so concerned for his cranky, ageing pals that he hauls in a new, younger crew he isn’t so emotionally attached to because they are, well, actually expendable … which means hello to asskickette Ronda Rousey and regulation cocky, rule-bending tough kids Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz and Glen Powell, whose job is to get captured so the old guard have to return to the fray to bust them out. It all hinges on a terrible bit of scripting as Barney is so surprised that he recognises an assassination target as the thought-dead Stonebanks that he shouts out his name, alerting a mark who could easily have been picked off, and precipitating a bodge of an action scene involving shipping containers in Mogadishu (which completes old business because The Losers and The A-Team, which were expected to found franchises but didn’t, both featured shipping container fights, while The Expendables, which stole their fire, didn’t).
Also rubbish is the way the mission – which involves trips to Romania and a fake ex-Soviet Republic called something like Assistan – is hampered by the CIA’s insistence that Stonebanks be taken alive and turned over to the International Court, just to prolong the agony. ‘What about the Hague?’ Stonebanks argues when comprehensively beaten, only for Ross to blow him up with a declaration of ‘I am the Hague’. Robert Davi gets a look-in as a drug lord, so there’s still hope for Thomas Ian Griffith, Mark Dacascos, Jeff Wincott, Michael Dudikoff, Cynthia Rothrock and the rest. Directed by Patrick Hughes, of the decent Australian Western Red Hill – whatever you say about Stallone, he has always had an eye for new talent – and notably less gruesome than the earlier films, which takes this a bit more into A-Team territory as many things are exploded but little blood is shed. The wisecracks are weak, the classic rock tracks don’t resonate and the crinkly cast’s undeniable barrelload of charisma isn’t really channeled well.