The UnPopular Opinion: The Expendables
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Like any child growing up in the 1980s, I have a soft spot for the action heroes of the era. I remember watching Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal kick ass and take names with the best of them. I was into professional wrestling, Bruce Lee movies, and all sorts of violent action flicks. I was a typical, red-blooded American kid. So, when the news came that Stallone would be gathering a super-charged roster of action talent for 2010's THE EXPENDABLES, I was excited but cautious. Most of these actors had descended into a Redbox Hell where their movies were cookie cutter replicas of the one that came before it. Where most people loved THE EXPENDABLES and it's two sequels, I ended up feeling underwhelmed and disappointed beyond words. To put it bluntly, THE EXPENDABLES is f*cking awful.
Maybe it was my first mistake in hoping that THE EXPENDABLES would be good. In theory, this movie should have been a blast. There are few movies that have been able to put together an all-star team of action movie icons like this. But, it also comes twenty years too late. Sure, Jason Statham was still pretty popular when the movie came out but if you look at the roster for THE EXPENDABLES in hindsight, it was mainly guys clinging to hopes of a career outside of a movie set to debut on Netflix. Sylvester Stallone was riding a career renaissance thanks to the hit sequels ROCKY BALBOA and RAMBO, two films he wrote and directed. Both movies were better than the prior sequels in each franchise and rode waves of nostalgia to modest box office success. THE EXPENDABLES tried to replicate that nostalgia but ends up missing the mark entirely.
You would have thought THE EXPENDABLES could have been made for a pretty paltry sum considering most of the actors involved are able to knock out multiple movies a year for single digit budgets, but I was shocked when I learned it cost $80 million for this movie. Clearly that money went towards paying the actors as the results on screen look no better than if the movie had been made in the early 90s. I am all for practical effects and well shot action set-pieces, but THE EXPENDABLES feels like it was directed by someone who didn't know what they were doing. Having seen Sylvester Stallone's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER sequel STAYING ALIVE, I expected better than this. The fun of seeing these guys on screen wears thin after the opening act of the movie and never regains any sort of momentum thanks to a truly terrible script.
When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made GRINDHOUSE, they did so as an homage to an era of bad movies they loved. THE EXPENDABLES should have been the 1980s equivalent of that horror film. Instead, this is just a movie with an 80s sensibility set in a contemporary time with no regard for sense or narrative. Stallone, as a writer, has proven his skill with the original ROCKY and FIRST BLOOD. But, for some reason, he relies on mild racism (Jet Li's character is named Yin Yang) and shitty puns (Terry Crews as Hale Caesar) and practically nothing but one-liners and cliches for the 103 minute running time of the film. There was an opportunity to do something truly spectacular with THE EXPENDABLES but it was wasted on what winds up being worth no more than the sum of the trailer.
What made movies like COMMANDO, PREDATOR, COBRA, and pretty much every other iconic 1980s action movie so good was the pacing, tone, style, and direction of those films. They felt unique, insipred, and stood above the countless forgotten action films of the decade. In the 1990s, fans followed action movies to a different place and these movies were relegated to the shelves of video stores since none could recapture the magic of the era. THE EXPENDABLES feels less like it has any connection to those movies and more like a forced death march for every actor involved. The over $200 million box office for THE EXPENDABLES owes less to the quality of the film but the hope for what it could have been from fans around the world.
There is, in fact, only one aspect of THE EXPENDABLES that makes it worth watching at all. Mickey Rourke is phenomenal in his small role as Tool. He delivers a speech about his past that is actually quite stirring and well written by Stallone (or was it original screenwriter David Callaham?). Of course, Rourke is one of the actors who did not return for either of the sequels when he would have been a great addition to the actual action sequences in the films. Instead, most of the marquee characters we want to see (Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger. and Rourke) are relegated to cameos when they should have been in the spotlight.
I have tried mightily to like the movies in this franchise and while the direction improved slightly with the second film, the trilogy still falls short of what it has the potential to be. With an ever-growing roster of talent, THE EXPENDABLES films should be pulp fiction writ large with explosions, action, and memorable characters. Instead, the sequels are carbon copies of the first film's failure to capitalize on a sure thing. Maybe if Stallone had pulled in some writers or directors known for their 1980s films, THE EXPENDABLES could have been what the posters and trailers hinted it was going to be: a roller coaster ride back to a decade of excess when men had muscles, machine guns, and no regrets. Maybe there is still hope; I hear John McTiernan is looking for work.
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