Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the musclebound kings of the 80’s action film mountain. However, their star power seemed to fade in the late-90’s and early-00’s. While the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger surprisingly found a second career in politics, Stallone was in danger falling into direct-to-video limbo before a career resurgence following Rocky Balboa and Rambo.
In 2010, Stallone gave some of his fellow peers a fresh coat of paint, alongside some modern day tough guys as an all-star team of action heroes known as The Expendables.
Stallone serves as director, producer, co-writer and stars ais Barney Ross, the leader of the Expendables. His best friend and right-hand man is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), a skilled knife-throwing marksman. Also on the team are Yin Yang (Jet Li), Toll Road (UFC fighter Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and the unstable Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). They have tattoos, ride motorcycles, and have code-names that sound like bad G.I. Joe characters. Still, the Expendables are way tougher than the A-Team and the Losers.
The Expendables begins with the team rescuing hostages from a crew of bloodthirsty Somali pirates. After the battle, Gunner is dumped from the group due to his apparent drug use. In one of the film’s best scenes, Stallone reunites with his Planet Hollywood buddies Bruce Willis and the Governator. Arnold plays a rival soldier of fortune named Trench while Willis plays the mysterious Mr. Church who propositions Stallone for a risky mission.
Following the opening sequence, the film drifts around aimlessly as it works to introduce the various characters. Stallone and co-writer David Callaham toss in a superfluous subplot involving Christmas’s girlfriend, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), and an abusive boyfriend. There’s some slam bang action here and there, but the first two acts are dragged down by a lot of labored, uninteresting drama. The banter between comrades falls flat aside from the one scene in which Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger actually share the screen. Stallone aims to be the world weary soldier, but he is utterly outmatched in the world weary department by Mickey Rourke. As a retired Expendable turned tattoo artist, Rourke lends a surprising amount of soulfulness to the proceedings. It makes you wish he had a lot more scenes.
Expendables finally kicks it into high gear when the good guys storm the bad guys’ stronghold in the grand finale. Stallone utilizes the same visceral carnage of the last Rambo film. Human bodies are ripped to shreds by machine gun fire and necks are broken emphatically. Couture and Austin aren’t the only ones who get to bust out MMA and pro wrestling maneuvers. Oh, and Terry Crews hurls an artillery shell with his bare hands. Even though Stallone tries for an old school feel, he falls into the trap so many action directors stumble into. His shots are too tight and the editing too quick and jumpy for anyone to actually see what’s happening on screen.
Stallone should be commended for returning us to the clean, old fashioned fun that comes from mindlessly violent entertainment. However, you wished he had incorporated even more mindlessly violent entertainment. The Expendables is a good action movie, just not a great one.
Film Value: 7
The Expendables 2
You’ll be happy to know The Expendables 2 does what all good sequels should do, expand on the concept with a bigger cast and even bigger action.
The whole gang is back: Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), along with a young sniper named Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). The sequel begins with a blood-soaked prologue as the team raids a compound in Nepal to rescue a Chinese billionaire as well as rival mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Following a successful mission, Ross barely has a chance to enjoy the down time when he’s approached by CIA spook Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Collecting on a debt, Church tasks Ross with retrieving the contents of a high-tech safe from the wreckage of a plane that went down in Albania. Church assigns his computer expert, Maggie (Yu Nan), to assist in the endeavor. They are later joined by the enigmatic Booker (Chuck Norris), another soldier of fortune on a mission to take down the organization.
The Expendables are ambushed by a criminal cartel led by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and with a name like Jean Vilain, what else could he be, except evil? Vilain steals the item and kills one of heroes, earning the enmity of Ross. The McGuffin turns out to be a computerized blueprint of a mine containing five tons of weapons-grade plutonium, which he plans to sell to the highest bidders.
Stallone co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, The Mechanic) and it’s more streamlined than the previous film. Gone are the B-plots that futilely tried to flesh out the already thin characters. There aren’t any extraneous side stories this time around, such as with Lee Christmas’s girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter, who only appears in one scene). These guys don’t have time for romance when they have shit to blow up. They don’t have time for existential introspection either so there is no belly gazing or heartfelt monologues from Mickey Rourke (who chose not to return). The script is the type of throwaway junk that was churned out by Cannon Films back in the 80’s, right down to the Cold War threat, the Eastern European setting, and a bad guy with a funny accent.
The main appeal of The Expendables 2 is the chance to see Arnold, Bruce Willis, and Stallone blasting machine gunfire at ear shattering decibels. Yes, John Matrix, John McClane, and John Spartan unleash their wrath on an army of anonymous henchmen. Bodies literally explode into fountains of blood as bullets rip through them. Any worries that the violence might be softened should be put away. Sadly, Jet Li doesn’t get to participate in the fun as he only appears in the opening. The action itself isn’t spectacularly stylish, but it is adequately directed. Stallone handed the reins to Simon West whose workman-like direction is reminiscent of past standbys like Albert Pyun or Peter Hyams.
Any action movie worth its salt is required to have a few cornball one-liners. We get them here with Statham, disguised as a priest, announcing, “I now pronounce you…man and knife.” But, most of the humor is self-referential, delivered with a heavy dose of irony and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly plays each time Chuck Norris, who looks pretty spry for a 72-year old, makes his grand entrance. His character is named after John T. Booker, the role he portrayed in Good Guys Wear Black, and he’s frequently referred to as a “Lone Wolf.” Chuck Norris even gets to tell a Chuck Norris joke. (“I heard you got bit by a king cobra.” “Yeah…but after five days of agonizing pain, the cobra finally died.”). The script hints at a possible love story between Barney Ross and Maggie with the former being apprehensive to let anyone close. Perhaps, it is because he remembers the death of Julia Nickson in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Of course, Arnold gets all the best lines. He chomps into his scenes as hard as the ever-present stogies in the corner of his mouth. The ex-governor of California exchanges catchphrases with Bruce Willis during the climatic shootout. (“You’ve been back enough times. This time, I’ll be back.” “Yippie-ki-yay.”)
The best performances in the film belong to the two guys who probably need subtitles more than Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Lundgren is given a beefier role with his Gunner Jensen now clean and sober. He’s become a lovable lug with references made to his real-life master’s degree in chemical engineering and Fulbright Scholarship to MIT. Van Damme makes the most of his first major theatrical role in years, excluding the meta-textual JCVD. The Muscles from Brussels is immensely entertaining in a rare villainous turn. Plus, it’s cool watching him unleash his trademark flying roundhouse kick to Stallone’s face. For his brief screen time, Liam Hemsworth adds a new dimension as his youthful exuberance helps to amusingly remind his established co-stars of their increasing age.
They may have less hair and more wrinkles than back in their heyday, but the holy trinity of Planet Hollywood still has the charisma necessary to carry a huge blockbuster and the heavy ammunition it requires. The Expendables 2 is well-made schlock cinema for those wanting nothing more than big guys with big guns.
Film Value: 8
The Expendables 3
Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team of Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture) are dropped into some anonymous Eastern European country. In a wild opener, the team rescues Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), a founding member of the Expendables who has been imprisoned for years after a failed assassination attempt. Doc proceeds to hijack a transport train and crash it into the prison, likely killing hundreds of guards and inmates, just to get revenge on the sadistic warden. There’s no rest for the wicked as Ross and company are tasked with taking out a notorious arms dealer, who is revealed to be Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), another founding member. Stonebanks was seemingly killed by Ross after turning to the dark side.
The Expendables barely escape with Hale Caesar suffering life threatening injuries. Not wanting to see anymore of his comrades dead, Ross puts together an all-new team of fresh faces. Meet Smilee (Kellan Lutz), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Thorn (Glen Powell), and Luna (Ronda Rousey).
Wesley Snipes makes his return to the big screen and he’s clearly enjoying the opportunity. There’s a meta-moment when Snipes jokes that he was serving time for tax evasion. He’s got great charisma as does Antonio Banderas as the loquacious Galgo, who is overly eager to join up with the Expendables.
When Willis split over a disagreement in pay, Harrison Ford stepped in as the new CIA handler Max Drummer. Ford is at crotchety level 11, growling and snarling every piece of dialogue. However, he’s still Harrison Ford so you’d figure they could come up with better one-liners than “That’s gotta hurt.” Chalk that up to a screenplay by Stallone and the team of Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, who also penned Olympus Has Fallen. Mel Gibson finds himself in the same boat. He chews the scenery whenever he gets the chance as the villain, who’s not as cartoonish as Luther Voz in Machete Kills. One nice surprise is Kelsey Grammer, an actor not exactly known for action roles. Grammer plays Bonaparte, a facilitator that assists Ross in recruiting young blood.
Therein lies the primary problem with The Expendables 3. A lot of people were probably hoping to see big stars like Jackie Chan or Nic Cage, not a bunch of newbies. Expendables: The Next Generation barely has the chance to develop any sort of personality other than one is a tech expert and one is a woman. Speaking of which, UFC’s Ronda Rousey is a welcome change for this overwhelming sausage party, but she gives wooden line readings for the few bits of dialogue she’s given. Stick with punching dudes in the face. Kellan Lutz plays a down-and-out soldier with an anti-authority issue, which never gets brought up again. The whole idea of bringing them in makes no sense. Barney Ross doesn’t want his friends to die, but has no problem getting people he just met killed? And the more time we spend with them, the less we do with actors that are actually interesting.
After the slam-bang prologue, the movie lulls into a slumber as it introduces the new characters and puts them into danger so the old guard can come to their rescue. At over 2 hours long, the third installment is the lengthiest of the trilogy and there was just no need for those additional twenty minutes. The movie doesn’t pick up until the third act when Expendables of all ages join forces to battle Stonebanks and the entire army of a fictional Slavic country. Since this is PG-13, limbs aren’t chopped off and human bodies aren’t blown to bits. Just because Expendables 3 isn’t R-rated, doesn’t mean the body count has lessened. Hundreds of soldiers are gunned down, blown up by grenades, or impaled by throwing knives. Almost everyone gets their own moment to shine, from Rousey using MMA moves to snap limbs to Lutz pulling a Steve McQueen by jumping a motorcycle. Ford busts out his piloting skills by flying a chopper into the combat zone with Arnold and Jet Li riding shotgun. By the way, Jet Li pops up for about five minutes and all he does is fire a machine gun, despite being one of the greatest martial arts stars in movie history. And while Arnold doesn’t dust off another “I’ll be back,” he does reprise his famous line from Predator, “Get to da choppa!”
Film Value: 6
Expend-four-bles? Never mind the silly title. The bigger concern is the fact that this franchise is now running on fumes. Sylvester Stallone is back, of course, but Schwarzenegger, Snipes, Jet Li, and Terry Crews are all gone. In their stead, we get 50 Cent, co-star of Stallone’s Escape Plan series, and Megan Fox, who hardly has the screen presence to anchor a major action flick even though she looks gorgeous in black fatigues.
Expend4bles is meant to be a passing of the torch as Stallone’s Barney Ross takes a back seat and hands the reins off to Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas. A former member of the SAS, Christmas is an expert in knives and hand-to-hand combat with a fiery on-and-off girlfriend in Gina (Fox). Ross and Christmas reunite with Toll Road (Randy Couture), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), plus newbies Easy Day (50 Cent) and Galan (Jacob Scipio), the equally motor-mouthed son of talkative Galgo (Antonio Banderas). Under the orders of CIA handler Marsh (Andy Garcia), the Expendables are tasked with stopping a mercenary named Rahmat (Iko Uwais) who is attempting to steal nuclear detonators from a chemical plant in Libya. Rahmat himself is working for a mysterious arms dealer known only as Ocelot, someone Ross has been hunting for decades.
When the mission goes belly up, the Expendables get a second chance with Gina and fellow femme fatale Lash (Levy Tran) joining the team. Meanwhile, Christmas journeys to Thailand in search of another prospective member Decha (Tony Jaa), who has given up warfare to live as a peaceful fisherman.
The fourth Expendables film feels like a cheap direct-to-video sequel, despite its $100 million budget. At least the first movie utilized beautiful locales in New Orleans and Brazil, half of Expend4bles takes place on a boring cargo ship. There’s some dodgy green screen work mixed in with some laughably bad CGI. One shot looks like a gigantic Megan Fox standing on the bow of a boat about the size of a bathtub toy. Under the direction of Scott Waugh (Need for Speed), the action is pedestrian at best and mostly forgettable. The fight scenes with Tony Jaa and a one v. one between Statham and Uwais from The Raid should have been far more exciting.
The screenplay was written by Max Adams (Excess Baggage), Kurt Wimmer (best known for the underrated sci-fi actioner Equilibrium), and the amazingly named Ted Daggerhart (who probably should have been an Expendables villain), along with a story by credit for Spenser Cohen (Moonfall). All the hands the script passed through and there’s not a shred of ingenuity to be found. The twists and turns are wholly predictable and the dialogue wouldn’t pass the muster for any run of the mill B-movie.
Film Value: 4
From what I could tell, the 4K and Blu-ray discs of the first three films are the exact same as previous releases.
Picture quality is pristine with bold colors and rich details. You can practically reach out and feel the stubble on Jason Statham’s face. The sound is reference quality across the board. The sound design drops you right into the middle of the intense battles with booming explosions and gunshots that will rattle your rafters and burst your eardrums.
The extras are found primarily on the Blu-ray discs.
Starting things off you’ll get an audio commentary track with Sylvester Stallone and Ultimate Recon Mode, an enhanced picture-in-picture option that covers a lot of the same material.
Comic-Con 2010 Panel (45:29) features many of the main actors at a presentation and Q&A in San Diego.
Inferno: The Making of The Expendables (1:31:42) is a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the production. We get to see Stallone at work while dealing with challenges including suffering injuries while filming the action scenes.
From the Ashes: Post Production (26:36) follows suit as we look at the editing, effects, and even dealing with comments from test screenings.
Rounding out the extras here are a gag reel, a deleted scene, and a marketing archive with trailers, TV spots, and posters.
The Expendables 2
Gods of War: Assembling Earth’s Mightiest Anti-Heroes (21:19) looks at the all-star crew, how they enjoy working together, and improving on the previous movie.
Big Guns, Bigger Heroes: The 1980’s and the Rise of the Action Film (24:59) is a really entertaining featurette that traces some of the 80’s classic action movies against the socio-political climate of the times.
On the Assault: The Real Life Weaponry of The Expendables 2 (13:36) follows Randy Couture on the shooting range as he gives a rundown of guns used in the movie.
Guns for Hire: The Real Life Expendables (24:19) is a featurette about people who have chosen to work as mercenaries and private security.
Rounding out the extras for this disc are deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an audio commentary track with director Simon West. Also, the Blu-ray includes the Unrated Cut while the 4K features the theatrical version.
The Expendables 3
The Expendables 3 Documentary (51:56) is an extensive behind-the-scenes featurette that delves into the wealth of characters, fights, and stunts mixed with interviews with the cast and crew.
New Blood: Stacked and Jacked (16:11) focuses on the newcomers to the franchise.
The Total Action Package (6:40) looks at the major set pieces and visual effects.
Rounding out the Blu-ray are a gag reel, an extended scene (Christmas Runs the Gauntlet), and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
Bigger, Badder, Bolder (16:57) takes us through the creation of the movie’s major action sequences.
More Than a Team (19:07) is a featurette about putting together the latest roster of Expendables.
Finally, the Blu-ray also includes an audio commentary track with director Scott Waugh and a theatrical trailer.
Lionsgate has released several iterations of this franchise and this latest collection is Walmart exclusive. Everything comes in a cool steelbook with a see-through acetate slipcase. The collection is an 8-disc set with a 4K and Blu-ray version of each movie. Inside, the steelbook has two spindles with the discs stacked on top of each other. Never a fan of this packaging as a couple of the discs were loose inside upon arrival.
Film Value: 7 (Overall)
You have to enjoy the simple things in life. That includes watching your favorite action heroes mowing down armies of nameless henchmen. Or Arnold hamming it up while spouting corny one-liners. The Expendables 2 is arguably the best of the bunch with a wild climax and Van Damme as the rare final boss who actually proves to be a physical match for Stallone. Expendables and Expendables 3 have their issues, but still provide plenty of mindless entertainment. Expend4bles? Skip it.