Tom Jolliffe looks ahead to The Expendables 4, and where the film can succeed (or fail)…
There comes a point in any franchise run, where time just sneaks up on it, yoinks the back strap of its undies up and wrenches it up over the head of the franchise in a kind of Atomic wedgie from Hell. If you look at the brief elder statesman action man renaissance with the Expendables franchise, it would seem with the last instalment that, in the West at least, the whole thing had run its course. The only reason we’re even entertaining the seemingly inevitable dive into a fourth instalment, is because the gross in Asia (China in particular) was superb, hoisting the worldwide gross up into impressive figures, in a franchise that won’t be far from hitting the Billion dollar mark.
However, looking at the films, you see a collection of action heroes whose prime and key demographic always rested predominantly in the US market. That was the market with the most disappointing return. There are several reasons for this. A pirated screener leak, a few weeks before release certainly didn’t help, but most films suffer piracy these days. They’re all playing on the same pitch, so sliding around in the mud isn’t an excuse for losing. That it was a proper HD screener and not just a sneaky hidden camera job, a day after release, was certainly unfortunate, but an easy excuse for failure.
The main issues were, for one, the franchise never lived up to its potential, or its billing. For all the championing of old school techniques, it always fell foul of modern action tropes. Not least frustrating elements like overuse of CGI (really, horribly bad CGI that cheapened the whole thing) and overly frenetic camera work and editing (particularly in the case of the first and third). The high point of the franchise remains the middle one, which found a perfect balance of wry, tongue in cheek humour and acknowledgement of its sheer ludicrousness as well as big, clear and old school set pieces (albeit still peppered with some needless CGI blood and squibs).
Furthermore the whole thing never managed to engage with its stories or the characters. The scripts in every instalment were poor. Everything is crammed in with no regard for structure, logic or flow. The cameos tended to be mostly embarrassing, or grind the films to a halt. Even by the standards set out by the principal casts respective CV’s, this franchise was exceptionally dumb. The last film made the grave error of trying to modernise the whole thing by bringing in a new young crew. This was particularly problematic because none of those new cast members had much relevance (except Ronda Rousey), or box office appeal, and ultimately, it goes entirely against the original premise laid out, which is to have these old relics coming out to save the day. A rag tag group of over the hill suicide mission specialists. It could work. We’ve seen it, to an extent in the Western genre on numerous occasions.
In all honesty, this was my genre, these were my heroes growing up and I still look forward to new Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Lundgren et al films, but I’m almost completely numb to the idea of another Expendables. It has past the point of interest now and the whole skit is out of fashion. We’ve had the action nostalgia session. We’ve established we remember how great it was when baby oiled muscle men ran around with machine guns gunning down xenophobic depictions of East European or Middle Eastern villains. They could do it right. They could do something memorable, but likely won’t. Audiences seem completely indifferent to the prospect (though I suspect it will still be immensely popular in Asia).
However, for the case of argument, here is my idea on how to make this new instalment a success. Firstly, actually go old school. Millennium films don’t do decent CGI. Not even average. So stay away from the visual effects as much as possible. Use Bond as your template. No CGI blood, or squibs, or beefing up of explosions (which only serve to make practical work, look fake). I’ve been watching Nu Image/Millennium films for over 20 years. They’ve used the same VFX company from doing 1 million budget, direct to video films, to 100 million pound blockbusters, and there’s not much deviation between the low end and the high end.
Pick a rating and stick to it. The rating is R, just for clarity and a minimum of 15 in the UK. All this, shall we, shan’t we? It’s nonsense and it only shows a lack of conviction that translates on the big screen. More importantly, stick with the legends. We don’t need Kellen Lutz or guys like that. You can throw in maybe one youngster, like they did in the second but the only logical reason to do it is to have someone to kill off, or have someone who is currently popular and relevant who will actually bring in a new audience. Then look at films like The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven and Predator. These rag tag unit films. Watch how they spread the screen time. Dole it out well and actually make use of the guys like Terry Crews, Wesley Snipes and Dolph Lundgren. Even Jason Statham has seen his role slowly regress, and given his recent success in the likes of Spy and the Fast franchise, he needs to be back on centre stage again, while Sly should begin stepping back slightly.
Play more to age and show more fallibility. These guys need to be rickity. Sly did this well in Rocky Balboa. It’s been little more than passing, tired gags in this franchise. These boys are over the hill but they’re the last hope for whatever mission is required. Drag them out of retirement, as they did in the last film but do it with more skill than a lazy montage.
Get a good action director and a good writer. Shane Black needs to script it, or someone as versed and adept in the genre (particularly over a few decades). If he didn’t direct, someone like Martin Campbell would be ideal. The film will look good, the action will be well shot. I watched Sorcerer recently, the underrated William Friedkin classic. This motley crew of outlaws join together on a deadly mission. The film was deliberately paced but gritty, light in places when required, and grippingly tense. They also offered a good dispersion of characterisation. Further, what they could learn from this, or indeed something like Predator, is the ability to make you feel the surroundings. Where does the action take place? Jungles? Okay, then it’s hot. It’s searingly hot. Maybe wet too. Lets feel every drop of mud, sweat, blood and rain. Lets also build up to set pieces and not just fall into them (aside from the pre-requisite opening salvo).
In addition these guys are “expendable.” Lets start killing them off. Lets feel the danger. End the franchise here and end it with a bang. Let these guys go out in a blaze of glory. Again, think back to things like Predator, The Wild Bunch and indeed Sorcerer.
Finally…get Dwayne Johnson! Just get him. He’s your villain. Turn his image on its head firstly. More importantly, he’s your box office double down. He’s got a track record of success behind him and current popularity. Forget shoehorning Steven Seagal in, because he’s too past it and has far too much baggage. Get Johnson and use him well. Beyond that, don’t shoe horn. Maybe Arnold’s part in the story has run its course, and indeed Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Stick to 6-8 ‘names’ max, and ensure you make full use of their talents and let them leave their mark on the film. As yet, no one has really done that in the entire franchise.
A version of this article was posted in January 2018.