The Ten Spot: The Best of The Expendables -- Part 1
Stallone. Schwarzenegger. Willis. Van Damme. Statham. Li. Lundgren. Norris. Fuck yeah.
THE EXPENDABLES 2, whether or not it turns out to be a good movie, is shaping up to be the one of the most star-studded action team up flicks ever made. I mean, holy shit! In the eighties or nineties, would it have even been remotely feasible that this gang would have all ended up in the same movie? Their paychecks alone would have been $100 million (Arnie, Sly and Bruce were all 20 mil a flick guys). I know, I know- Arnie and Bruce aren’t really “starring”, and neither is Norris for that matter- but whatever. The gang’s all here.
However, not all EXPENDABLES are created equal. Sure, Van Damme, Lundgren, Norris, and the Stafe all made some fun action pics, but Sly, Arnie, Bruce and Jet? They made EPICS. To get us all pumped up for THE EXPENDABLES 2, I’ve decided to put together a little list celebrating the best that their respective filmographies had to offer. So join me on a trip down memory lane, and don’t forget to pack some extra testosterone. You’ll need it.
Today's list examines the filmographies of Li, Lundgren, Norris, Statham, and Van Damme -- with Bruce, Arnie and Sly to follow later this week. Note: only the solo "action" films of each are included here -- so no SNATCH or BANK JOB for Statham.
TIMECOP- released in the fall of 1994, was probably Jean-Claude Van Damme's best shot at crossing-over from B-grade action to full-on Arnie/Sly territory. A high concept thriller, featuring time travelling baddies, and the cops who chase them, Van Damme is cast as a cop whose wife (Mia Sara) is murdered, but due to the rules of his job, he can't tamper with the time line and save her. Ron Silver plays the main bad guy, who has agents making him money in the past to finance a present-day run for the Oval office. The premise is solid, Silver is a great bad guy, and Van Damme is actually not bad at all in the titular role. Peter Hyams, a solid journeyman director, gives the film a stylish look, and the pacing is right-on. The only downside is that the budget was obviously a little low- so the action isn't as epic as you'd think, although the now-antiquated CGI isn't so bad (there's a great bit where Van Damme cuts the “past” Ron Silver on the face, and we see the scar from on the face of the “present” Silver). The film is a more than a little dated though, with the year 2004 depicting time travelling cops, cars that use autopilot and more. Still, not a bad movie.
DOUBLE IMPACT was one of Jean-Claude Van Damme's first films to have a big studio behind it, and a healthy budget. As they had a little extra cash, why not have double the Van Dammage with him playing identical twins? Dumb? Yeah. But entertaining. There are some real groaners here in the dialogue department (“I neeeever wear silk underwear”, & “because of my beeeeg legs, and Karate, I can do the splits noooooo prooooblem”), but the action is solid. The final warehouse battle with Bolo Yeung (a BLOODSPOT rematch) is great, and the film is pretty tight all around. Also- the love interest was HAWT!
UNLEASHED is probably the only American movie that Jet Li made that really showed his full potential (although KISS OF THE DRAGON was solid). Produced by Luc Besson, and directed by Louis Letterier of THE TRANSPORTER, this was Li's most ambitious film, with him playing a cage-fighter, raised like an abused dog by his gangster master- played by Bob Hoskins. Morgan Freeman is the kindly old piano tuner that takes him in, and the action is vicious. It also has a great score by Massive Attack. This is a real gem that doesn't get the respect it deserves.
SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO is probably one of the most eccentric big-studio action movies I've ever seen. Given a healthy budget by Warner Bros., who paired Dolph Lundgren with Brandon Lee, the resulting is strangely kinky (with a weird sexually charged decapitation early on), and Warners hated it so much, it got cut to 75 minutes, and barely given a release. Still, it's a really fun flick, loaded with great action, and good buddy chemistry between Lee and Lundgren. It's also the most homoerotic action movie ever made, with Lee telling Lundgren at one point, “you have the biggest dick I've ever seen on a man”. Lines like that take bromance to a whole new level.
LONE WOLF MCQUADE is probably the first film that really established the “classic” Chuck Norris persona, with him seeming uncomfortable in earlier films like GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, AN EYE FOR AN EYE, FORCED VENGEANCE, etc. In MCQUADE, he's got a tailor-made part as a tough-as-nails Texas Ranger (a precursor to WALKER) up against a gun-runner played by David Carradine. Eventually, Norris's daughter gets kidnapped, his dog gets shot, and he's buried underground in his truck. Luckily, he brings himself back to life with a handy six-pack of beer, gearing up for a classic mano-a-mano showdown, scored Spaghetti Western style, with Carradine. All in all, a really fun flick.
CODE OF SILENCE is probably Norris' most legit flick. Essentially, “Dirty Chuckie”, this finds him as a Chicago cop, up against a drug lord played by Henry Silva. There's also a subplot about Norris breaking the cop “code of silence” by testifying against a fellow officer in a bad shooting. In the end, he has to deal with Silva and his army of mobsters alone- but naturally, that's no problem for Chuck, who's lucky enough to have a prototype police tank called “The Prowler” to help him out. Directed by Andrew Davis, this is a pretty good flick, helped by the Chicago flavor, and a good supporting cast including John Mahoney and Dennis Farina. If Norris had done more movies like CODE OF SILENCE, and less Cannon Films (which are fun in their own way) fodder, his career might have gone a different way.
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER followed DOUBLE IMPACT, and it was easily Van Damme's most ambitious film to date. Tri-Star put it out the year after T2, and Brad Fiedel, from that film was brought in to do the score. While it was probably a little too low budget to really work on a huge level, director Roland Emmerich got a lot of bang for his buck, and it's no surprise that after this he went onto the A list, with his next picture being STARGATE. As it is, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER is a fun sci-fi actioner, with a hilarious bad-guy part for Dolph Lundgren, with his ear necklace (“I'm all ears”) wearing monologue about NAM (“the war is OUT THERE MAAAAAN!!!”) being a highlight.
THE TRANSPORTER was Statham's first real action flick, and it's also his best (although for sheer insanity, the CRANK films have it beat). The fights, such as when he demolishes a mansion full of mobsters, are classic, and the opening Audi car chase is masterful. A flop theatrically, this caught on when it hit DVD, and the sequel, with handily outgrossed this (but wasn't as good) made him a star. I hope that Statham finally manages to do a solid actioner that matches up to this (THE BANK JOB was amazing, but not an action film, and SAFE came close- were it not for the awful ending).
HARD TARGET is most famous for being John Woo's first American film. Sadly, he got screwed by Universal in the editing room, as by all accounts he was way more interested in Lance Henricksen's cool baddie- who hunts the homeless for a price, than he was in Van Damme as the Cajun hobo he crosses. It's a silly movie, with a WAY over the top Wilford Brimley as his Cajun grandpa, but the action is incredible. The final warehouse shootout, with a body-count in the dozens, is probably Van Damme's finest moment.
The first two ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA movies, directed by genre master Tsui Hark, are incredible. Visually sumptuous, they were major Hong Kong productions that cast Jet Li as folk hero Wong Fei Hung. While a marginal star before, these two movies catapulted him to superstardom. The action in both is incredible, with the ladder-battle at the end of the first film being copied beat-for-beat in the American Peter Hyams film, THE MUSKETEER. As good as that is, the final battle, between Li and a young Donnie Yen in Part 2 is even better. Both are among the finest martial arts movies ever made.
FIST OF LEGEND was a hugely influential HK action flick, that was traded on bootleg videos and imported VCD's long before it's belated state-side release. Apparently a major influence on the Wachowskis- who hired the choreographer Yuen Woo Ping to do the fights in THE MATRIX, FIST OF LEGEND is a remake of the old Bruce Lee movie, FIST OF FURY (THE CHINESE CONNECTION). Li's movie is even better than Lee's, with a few incredible fights, intense charisma by Li, and just a classic piece of Kung-Fu cinema all-around.