"Proof that movie stars never die" – In defence of the Expendables films
The fourth entry in the starry action series is about to arrive in UK cinemas.
Sylvester Stallone was enjoying something of a career renaissance after the best part of a decade spent in the commercial wilderness following a number of flops such as D-Tox and Driven.
But after revisiting his iconic characters Rocky and Rambo, Sly was experiencing a late noughties revival. Enough time had also passed since the '80s and early '90s glory days that maybe the world was ready for unapologetic machismo, baby-oiled biceps and mugging one-liners.
For the first film, Stallone lined up a team of A-listers, D-listers, professional wrestlers and Hollywood leftovers with himself leading the ensemble.
He was joined by two bonafide stars in Jason Statham (as a character called Lee Christmas) and Jet Li, one-time star Dolph Lundgren, UFC legend Randy Couture, former wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, comic actor and physical behemoth Terry Crews and Hollywood outcasts Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts. It wasn’t exactly a who’s who of action legends, but it was enough.
Upon release, The Expendables received largely negative reviews from the critics - but for action fans who wanted an overdose of men on a mission taking names and severing limbs, it was basically the ABBA Gold of action movies.
All of the stars get to deal out their greatest hits – Statham and Jet Li exhibit their martial arts brilliance, Crews mans the biggest and loudest gun you have seen and heard in your life and Stallone (painted-on moustache and all) gets to reembody that bruising killer trope he plays as well as anyone.
While the first film was a touch light on on-screen A-listers, the behind-the-camera team was basically an Avengers of action talent.
The stunts were handled by John Wick director Chad Stahelski with Hong Kong legend Corey Yuen choreographing all of Jet Li’s work and the storied Spiro Razatos on second unit duties.
Despite some choppy editing – most infamously during the Jet Li-Dolph Lundgren fight – The Expendables succeeded in achieving its aims of being a throwback '80s actioner as gleefully large as Sly’s neck muscles.
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Then The Expendables 2 made the first film look like a My Little Pony commercial in comparison.
While Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis popped up for a cameo in the original, they’re both fully-fleshed members of the ensemble now, completing the '80s holy trinity of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis – a fanboy moment for any self-respecting action fan.
Adding in a deliciously evil Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead villain with straight-to-DVD legend Scott Adkins as his main henchman and it could not go wrong.
Everybody’s signature moves are wheeled out like a photo album at a family gathering. There are 'yippee-ki-yays' and 'I’ll be backs' and spinning heel kicks just like you remember. It’s low-hanging fruit, but it’s damn good fruit.
There is a surreal quantity to the films. Watching them is akin to playing with action figures, especially by the time of the not-as-good third one that adds Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes and actual Frasier Crane to the cast.
The movies are also proof that movie stars never die. All of the men (and it is a bigger sausage fest than a Richmond factory) perform their schtick as if they’re still Mick and Keith on the road, never missing a beat, and there is a childish giddiness to watching larger-than-life icons blow hordes of anonymous henchmen to smithereens.
With the fourth movie arriving this week after a decade-long gap since the third, mainstream Hollywood action cinema has moved on by lightyears.
This is something the series perhaps even recognises itself – with Stallone sidelining himself and allowing Statham to lead the cast.
Of the old school, only Lundgren and Couture return, with a lengthy international cast of martial arts gods and young bucks joining the ensemble. There’s The Raid’s Iko Uwais, Ong-Bak’s Tony Jaa, rap legend 50 Cent, Megan Fox, Levy Tran and Jacob Scipio filling in for the likes of Schwarzenegger and Li.
Let’s hope they can prove The Expendables aren’t expendable.
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