With The Expendables franchise gearing up for its third instalment and the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis appearing in more and more cringe-inducing action trash, Natasha Bissett argues that the once-great heroes have swapped quality for cash.
Hollywood is undoubtedly a fickle place, where anyone with a whiff of talent can try their luck at becoming a superstar. It seems that often the formula for a ‘blockbuster’ is Generic Male Lead A and Generic Female Lead B thrust into Generic Plot. There have been some films where I’ve spent longer trying to figure out what else the lead was in (the – “where have I seem them before?” dilemma) than actually watching the movie.
So you would think that something like The Expendables would resolve that by filling its cast list to the brim with Hollywood veterans. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction; The Expendables series is purely driven by star power. When Rolling Stone magazine reviewed The Expendables, it said the main thing missing was a plot. Well, there was a plot of sorts: Sylvester Stallone wanted to give washed-up actors another shot at glory. It’s the Rocky underdog story writ large. That would have been a good movie, but it had already been made: remember Tropic Thunder?
Instead of being ridiculously awesome, The Expendables is just plain ridiculous: an assault on the senses that does nothing to further the action genre. To top off the ridiculously contrived action sequences, and the severe body count as they cut down the population of a small country, it’s complete cliché and full of groan-worthy one-liners – often referencing better movies. Yes, we know Arnie was the Terminator. You don’t need to make “I’ll be back” and “you’ll be terminated” jokes every time he comes on screen.
The never-ending line of has-been heroes queuing up to join this daft romp seems to indicate they see it as a quick buck. Unfortunately, what Sylvester Stallone brought to the film world as Rocky and Rambo (not the remakes) is not matched by his decisions handling The Expendables.
He re-wrote the original script and placed the emphasis on ludicrous adrenaline rather than story. Sly decided that The Expendables 2 would be PG13, despite the premise. To meet the PG13 requirements, bullet hits released a puff of dust. When it became clear The Expendables 2 was an R-rated movie after all, ridiculous blood spurts were added in digitally. For the third movie, Stallone announced he would be supplementing his cast of old guys with some young guns, which is why the final cast is so vast. Japanese pop ensemble AKB48 has fewer members than this movie.
The plot of the original has some elements that are interesting on paper, but it’s so convoluted and a little bit out of time: overthrow a Latin American dictator manipulated by an ex-CIA drug lord. Newsflash Sly, the Nicaraguan Contras episode was so 1980s. The next movie isn’t much better: retrieve a mysterious item from Albania, which is a computer with the location of five tons of refined uranium in an ex-Soviet mine. Bad guy steals uranium, chase ensues, Chuck Norris is there, and then – after a cheeky spot of decapitation – all is well in the world. Yup, that seems solid.
The weirdest thing about Expendables 2, and why it’s hard to decide if it’s a parody or not, is the tone of the actors. Of the superstars featured – Arnie, Willis, Norris and Sly – Sly is the serious guy. Jason Statham is funny (deliberately or not) in everything, but while others are goofing off, Sly is the one that tells them to shut up and get back to work. During the airport scene, Willis and Arnie trade catchphrases and get about in a SmartCar, while Sly is seriously taking on the bad guys. It’s like Sly didn’t like them taking the mickey out of his serious business.
My gripe with The Expendables is not the age of the actors. Instead, it’s that it feels they are just collecting a paycheck by playing well-worn characters in contrived situations. And frankly, it makes them look bad.
The performance of some veterans in other movies shows that they haven’t lost their touch. Look at Gran Torino, which is about the octogenarian Clint Eastwood spouting racism throughout the whole thing then becoming a kick ass saviour. Crotchety grandpa for the win.
Gran Torino is a continuation of classic Eastwood all the way from his earliest roles as The Man With No Name or ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. Eastwood’s the kinda guy who doesn’t pull any punches. For the viewer, you admire his honesty and brutal truth but are also glad you don’t have to work with him in your office. His wisecracking one-liners, or Grandpa wisdom that’s totally meme-worthy is just part of his dynamism: he’s not a complete so and so, or the blindly rampaging last-action hero, he’s a hero who’s dark and shoots straight. He’s the original Dark Knight – the hero you deserve, but not the hero you want.
Maybe that’s why he didn’t join the cast: it’s just not really in his repertoire. When asked if he would take an offer to join Expendables 3, Eastwood replied: “Probably not”.
So what is Bruce Willis doing? He had a good run with RED, based on a graphic novel and showing that even retired spies can still kick ass. I felt that RED was one of the spiritual successors to Die Hard for Bruce Willis (albeit John McClane would have changed career), alongside 16 Blocks (minus the moustache).
So, Willis makes 16 Blocks and RED, and even the really clever Lucky Number Slevin, and then signs on for the generic action movie once more, including the deplorable Die Hard sequels. The real Die Hard sequels (4 and 5), were like the Star Wars sequels: begrudgingly accepted into the canon. It should be the other way around: 16 Blocks should have been terrible and Die Hard 4 and 5 awesome. Instead we have two movies which have elements that were worth exploring to further the McClane character and yet are obscured by ridiculously contrived action scenes, flimsy plots based on clichés and stereotypes. Both new Die Hard sequels feels like they’re built around McClane’s iconic “yippee-ki-yay” line, without the investment in developing the characters or strategic action. It begs the question: why is he still making these movies when they are such pale shades of the original trilogy?
We all know why Sly made the new Rocky movie. He complained (as did fans) that Rocky V was a disappointing end to the series. It just took him a while to get the next one going (16 years). It’s his baby, like Star Wars is George Lucas’s. Like Lucas, he couldn’t stop fussing with it. The delayed sequel to Rocky (Rocky Balboa) wasn’t explosive and action-packed but it was targeted at one specific audience: middle-aged men who think they can reclaim the glory days no matter the odds. It’s the ultimate underdog story, but then this was the plot of ALL the Rocky movies. It’s a recap of Rocky V, returning to the old town and giving it one last go.
The most relatable character in Rocky 6 is his son, who groans throughout the movie at having a celebrity dad. They could have made Rocky 6 a 20-minute Cannes entry: Rocky runs a restaurant; someone mentions he should box against the new stud based on a stupid computer simulation on TV; he applies for the boxing licence and gets denied; Rocky realises that it’s probably for the best because he’s an old guy and he’s got a better chance of fame running his restaurant than getting killed in the ring; he goes back to the restaurant and dates that girl from Rocky I. Fin.
I think what is telling is that after the commercial success of The Expendables ($34 million in opening weekend in the US), and the ridiculous amount of digital alteration of number 2 (making winter in Bulgaria look like tropical South East Asia), the number of wannabes was ever growing. It seemed like every major action star, and some not-so-major ones, were sticking up their hands to join Sly’s career resurrection train, or desperately hoping to be asked to join. Seems a bit greedy. At least someone like Nicholas Cage had an excuse for his stint of terrible movies: he owed tens of millions to the IRS.
I call for these AAA list celebrities to consider their situations (age) and gravitas and make a movie worth their fans’ loyalty. The Expendables does neither. If they need a quick buck, there are lots of other events they could host that would raise squillions. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a competition to ride in his tank and blow stuff up – all to raise cash for a children’s charity. That’s worth your money.