Ten years on from the release of the first movie, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the Expendables franchise and then looks at where it can go now (and who needs to join the crew)…
When The Expendables was first announced in late 2009, my excitement levels went through the roof. Initially it was Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Jet Li on board and that was exciting enough. Then Dolph Lundgren signed on, and the rest followed. By the time a mid-shoot addition of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger was announced (in a surprise cameo where the surprise was blown long before release sadly) I was bouncing around like a toddler high on Dib Dab. The first film came out 10 years ago today. 10 years!! A week or two prior to the US release date I ventured out to the Paris premiere, a ticket snapped up for me by a good friend in the City. As an 80’s action aficionado, I’d dreamt this film lucidly many nights in my younger years. It was the kind of fantasy casting you wish for but seemed unlikely to ever happen. Thankfully at the time a nostalgia boom was just about to kick in.
We were already well into a phase of remakes for old properties (things like Transformers etc.). Stallone had recently had a resurgence thanks to a sixth Rocky and fourth Rambo which both did solid box office numbers. Jason Statham had managed a level of popularity in lower budget cinema releases, making tidy returns, and Jet Li, though past the peak of US interest following his early 00’s run, still attracted interested. The film promised something old school, as the action genre was being increasingly driven toward Bourne style grit and shaky camerawork, or CGI heavy bombast. This was going to be meat and potatoes action.
I walked out of the Paris premiere liking a lot of the film, but feeling like they missed a trick somewhere. My expectation was the kind of simple, expertly executed thrills and broad stroked characterisations of something like Predator. Every member on the unit is definable, has their moment, and their choice lines, and that’s even considering most begin dying grimly by the mid-way point. Predator this was not. There were good moments, but it was rough around the edges, a little sloppy in places and meandering in its narrative. They teased character with an odd Mickey Rourke cameo, and an engaging (if still underused) Dolph Lundgren. The chemistry between Stallone and Statham worked, even if often hamstrung by corny lines.
The film was greeted with mediocre reviews but excellent box office, exceeding its expectations (particularly domestically where it crossed the $100 million mark). A sequel was thus inevitable and came a couple of years later. Again, I wangled a premiere ticket. I was at the critics screening in Leicester Square. I saw many a contemporary as the auditorium filled with critics, making bee-lines for the high profiles like Kim Newman, unmistakably attired of course, but I was gripped to my seat secretly watching foremost as a fan of the franchise. Whilst I could imagine some of the broadsheet reviewers already working on their age related quips and going in expecting something as dreadful as they felt the first one was, I was hoping for better. In many ways it was. From more visual clarity and definable action set pieces, to more knowing nods at the silliness of it all, The Expendables 2 almost found the perfect level of irony for an idea that only a master film-maker could pull off seriously (and sincerely). Simon West who excels in broad stroke action cinema was a good choice to direct. A big movie director, who could work well in the arena and knew how to appease stars and studios.
More names were added into the mix. Willis and Schwarzenegger returned in more prominent roles and managed to get in on the action (their finale set piece in a smart car is actually perfect usage of the pair). Jean Claude Van Damme was brought in as villain, and Brit action specialist Scott Adkins was his right hand. Throw in a Chuck Norris walk on which made actual reference to ‘Chuck Norris facts’ and the film almost had everything you could expect from an 80’s-90’s action pastiche. It might have been more action packed and successful in its comedy, but still didn’t balance the characters well enough or give them enough moments. Terry Crews and Randy Couture feel like extras. Lundgren had his (comedic) moments but was stripped of an edge he had in the first which could have been an interesting character trait. Van Damme revelled in villainy but all too briefly on the screen. That said, if Lundgren vs Li in the first never quite lived up to its billing, Stallone vs Van Damme in the second was a lot better (it still remains the standout franchise brawl).
In something of a clumsy attempt in future proofing the franchise, the third instalment added not only a few more icons like Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, but it also brought in a younger unit who essentially take over the middle of the film (and the middle part is what really lets it down). Throughout the franchise there has been a back and forth on whether to make it PG-13 in order to open out to a wider audience. Somewhat foolishly they finally took that plunge and did that. Why? When 95% of your audience is probably closer to 30 than to teen years, it seemed like a moot exercise. Newer audiences weren’t going to buy into an old boys action franchise. There are modern Marvel audiences who probably don’t know who Harrison Ford is, let alone Lundgren, Gibson, Snipes et al.
This alienated the hardcore fans who expected something more intense than the first two (which trod a line between PG-13 and R, flexible enough to be either), not less. The new crew were lacking in charisma, but like the other films in the franchise, the requisite screen time and development to be interesting enough. The film suffered at the domestic box office, with some fingers pointing to an early screener leak a week prior to release, but in all honesty, the interest had waned anyway, and fans hadn’t been given enough in the first two to warrant coming back again. The Asian market salvaged the film, meaning that the third (with the most mediocre reviews of the three) wasn’t quite a franchise killer. The film was pretty poor, never hitting any interesting character moments aside from Mel Gibson’s intense villain (including a great capture scene between he and Stallone that Gibson devours). Again though, he wasn’t on screen enough, and occasionally wasted.
2010, 2012, 2014…Every two years. Step forward to 2020 and we still await a fourth. Okay…I still await a fourth. Maybe I’m on a lonely island waiting for it, but regardless, I’d watch a more honed and stripped back fourth. So what can they change? For starters, if you get in your big action personalities, use them right. Being on screen isn’t enough. Arnie pops in and out of the third film to make a comment, before disappearing off again. It’s clumsy writing, in moments which add nothing. Why not carefully use Arnold’s limited schedule and give him one decent scene rather than three walk on moments of doing nothing? These are the kind of decisions they’re getting wrong consistently. Likewise the more central team members like Lundgren, Couture and Crews have become afterthoughts. Give them their moments or leave them out entirely. Crews is unlikely to return anyway after beef with Avi Lerner. The villains need a grander platform too. Only Eric Roberts was given enough stage to adequately strut his stuff in the first film. The team needs more fallibility too. Lets start killing some of these guys off, have some stakes, make it matter because whilst there may be interest enough for a fourth film, that would be just about the limit (unless you take it to streaming, and potentially spin off into series or spinoff movies).
Who’s left to become Expendable? Steven Seagal is overdue a visit and would make a good villain. He was an enjoyable villain in Machete (and that made good use of him). Speaking of Machete, it’s time genre icon Danny Trejo popped up in one of these films. I think personalities like Kelsey Grammer are less of a requisite than action specialists. Likewise, appealing to the younger crowd doesn’t work by just casting younger actors, so they could move away from that. Dwayne Johnson would be great in the franchise, though unlikely, but Dave Bautista is always great, and has already worked with Sly in sequels to Escape Plan (and if he’ll do those, he’ll definitely do Expendables 4).
Additionally, there’s a whole plethora more iconic video stars who deserve their shot in the Expendables franchise. Not only would they bring with them a fanbase, but they’re also fighters who could double up as stunt actors too. Daniel Bernhardt, having worked extensively with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch has appeared in memorable henchman roles in Matrix Reloaded, John Wick and Atomic Blonde. He’d be great in the kind of role Gary Daniels had in the first film (which promised similar parts for Gary’s contemporaries going forward). I’d also love to see Mark Dacascos (cast for the above reasons in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, because he can act and fight). The perennially underrated Michael Jai White would also excel in the team and could have great interplay with Snipes (or Snipes vs Jai White). Throw in the likes of Cynthia Rothrock, Olivier Gruner, Don Wilson, Michael Dudikoff and make the ultimate 80’s-90’s action ode. Sprinkle the screen time right. Make an Expendables team of villains, something they’ve also not done yet. The Wild Bunch vs The Wild Geese.
Another avenue to consider, or in addition to some of the above, is in utilising popular stars across Asia. The franchise is still popular there, as is Stallone generally. Jet Li’s time in the films seems to have passed and he seems a little disinterested. They’ve tried previously to tempt Jackie Chan, and he’s worth going back to to try again. He’d be a magnificent addition, as would Donnie Yen. Chow Yun Fat with dual pistols would be great. Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa would be welcome additions (As long as they’re utilised better than in some of their other American appearances). There have been murmurs of shooting some of the film in China to utilise some well known talents there, and the locations, and clearly the ultimate goal is to make money, and China has become its strongest market (and it’s a franchise that needs no politics either, so should appease the censors). Nan Yu isn’t huge in China, but her presence in the second film was a plus and she remains the only female character of the franchise approaching interesting. Her return would be welcome.
Who might direct or take creative control is another issue. A dream scenario would be to get one or both of Stahelski or Leitch to take the reigns and take control of proceedings which have often descended into more of a (creative) tug-o-war between Stallone and Avi Lerner, something which affected Patrick Hughes in the last film seemingly (given his stylistic assurance in Red Hill prior, and the last film having no real directorial style). Whoever it is, needs to be given more space to actually direct, or they need an expert in functional work like Simon West who can middle manage the egos above and hone something coherent (and imaginative in action).
What are your thoughts on The Expendables franchise? Is it done with or would you like to see another? Who’s in and who’s out? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.