With Expend4bles on the way, we look at ten essential films from its stars…
It seems like a long old time since we last saw the Expendables crew in action. After a period of false starts and the small matter of a pandemic, (as well as a release that got pushed back) we’re finally going to see the team ride out for another (maybe final) mission.
Okay, the series has never quite hit its potential and maybe the hype is now more a low simmer than a boil but I’m a man who grew up with well-worn VHS tapes starring the senior members of this rag-tag crew.
The latest instalment has no room for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li or Terry Crews, but we will see Tona Jaa and Iko Uwais join the action to kick some ass. So let’s look at some thrilling cinema from the main stars of Expend4bles…
Megan Fox – Till Death
I’m not the biggest fan of Megan Fox, but 2021’s Till Death was a pleasant surprise for me. It’s a good old-fashioned potboiler thriller that sees Fox lured by her husband to a remote cabin, where he kills himself and leaves her cuffed to his corpse. To make matters worse, two hitmen come to kill her and thus begins a gruelling battle for survival.
As ridiculous as it all is (which is a big part of the appeal), director S.K Dale wrings plenty of tension from the script and Fox is in good form. It’s got every beat you expect from these potboilers, full of close escapes, and a determined and resourceful protagonist who is constantly trying to figure out her next survival move. Oddly, critics were far kinder to this than the IMDB crowd but Fox’s notoriety brings with it a lot of downvoting haters. If you like a good popcorn home invasion thriller which perpetually ups the ante, look no further.
50 Cent – Den of Thieves
Fiddy joins Gerard Butler in a simple yet rock-solid (old-school) action thriller. Butler, who has his very own Millennium headline action franchise with the Fallen trilogy, has been on something of a Butlernaissance of late, and whilst this isn’t as good as Copshop for example, it’s a decent Friday night stream job.
Butler and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson are on opposite sides of the law, with Butler heading up a special unit tasked with taking down a gang of violent armed robbers of which Fiddy is a member. This is a real meat and potatoes throwback and what it might lack in complexity, it makes up for with a pleasing reliance on practical work and well-constructed set pieces. It’s an action film like your dadda used to watch. If questions have been raised about Fiddy’s gifts as an actor, this one features one of his better performances.
Dolph Lundgren – The Mechanik
Dolph Lundgren, as well as being an action titan with a long line of carnage-infused films, former chemical engineer, karate champ and ex-boyfriend of Grace Jones, also happens to be a director. Few outside of Lundgren aficionado clubs will know this of course, but he’s directed a number of pictures since his directorial debut in 2004’s, The Defender (which featured the late Jerry Springer playing the president). Most recently was Castle Falls, a decent Assault on Precinct 13 riff, co-starring Scott Adkins.
His best directorial work remains his sophomore effort, The Mechanik. It’s a 70s-style, brutal revenge thriller that sees Lundgren channelling his inner Eastwood as both a performer and restrained director. The film, coming during a period where the direct-to-video action circuit seemed almost permanently camped in Eastern Europe (often used to double New York unconvincingly), actually makes great use of its setting. Unlike most, we get a sense of where we are and a sense of the atmosphere (with Bulgaria being used to double for rural Russia).
Lundgren plays Nikolai, a former Spetznaz soldier whose family was killed by a gangster. He gains revenge but later discovers that said gangster actually survived Nik’s bullet to the face. The irredeemable gangster has now kidnapped an American girl and Nikolai is tasked with retrieving her, but with his mind more squarely set on vengeance. The film opts for short and effective bursts of violence and there are some surprisingly effective moments of drama in the film. Bryan Edward Hill’s script is way above the usual for this kind of straight-up revenge film (especially in the DTV realm) and he and Lundgren allow certain scenes to breathe. There’s a great calm before the final storm and the finale (set in a rural village) opts for tension over barnstorming and has some great use of sound.
Andy Garcia – Black Rain
Ridley Scott’s penchant for grand spectacle and high concepts means that some of his ‘simpler’ films often get overlooked. Take 1989’s Black Rain for example. It’s not small scale by any means, feeling like something of a pre-cursor to the highly glossy and slick action blockbusters coming out from Simpson and Bruckheimer in the 90s. You might say that Black Rain feels more like a Tony Scott film than a Ridley, but still, it’s as visually dazzling as you’d expect the elder Scott to produce.
Michael Douglas is partnered with Andy Garcia (one of the new Expendables crew) as a pair of unconventional cops who travel to Japan (to transport a suspect back) and get caught up in a Yakuza gang war. Scott delivers some great set pieces here and revels in the Blade Runnian, neon dazzle of both night time New York and the Japanese settings. Douglas and Garcia are both in good form as is Ken Takakura. Elsewhere there’s a great early Hans Zimmer score.
Tony Jaa – Ong Bak
It’s now been 20 years since Thailand’s answer to Jackie Chan and Jet Li burst onto the action scene with Ong-Bak. This was a guy performing impressive stunts like Chan, combined with graceful ferocity like Li. Jaa in fact had his own inherently unique style, bringing Muay Thai to screen in a way we’re rarely seen on screen.
The plot of this film, and in fact most of Jaa’s other early breakouts, is very basic. An ancient Buddha head is stolen from a village, so Ting, their best warrior sets out to retrieve it from gangsters. Thus ensues a brutal onslaught of flying elbows and knees as Jaa takes out the trash. Jaa never quite took off as a solo star, partly held back by being locked into allegedly iffy contracts in Thailand which delayed his output on home soil. Furthermore, his Western films have never really utilised his talents the way they deserve to be. His first few films though, were phenomenal.
Jason Statham – The Transporter
With Jason Statham seemingly taking the reigns of The Expendables franchise in the latest instalment, it’s probably a good time to throw it on back to his big breakout as a leading action man with The Transporter. His three-film franchise certainly exceeds the reboot film and crushingly average TV spinoff show, both of which lacked Statham’s presence as much as anything else.
The Transporter takes a few Bondian elements, combined with The Driver and sees Statham as a sharp-suited and brilliant getaway (or ‘special delivery’) driver for hire who sticks vehemently to his own self-imposed rules. When he picks up one package to deliver, he breaks his strict code and immediately puts himself in danger when he realises said package is in fact a woman (played by the effervescent Shu-Qi).
With Hong Kong action legend Corey Yuen overseeing the set pieces, the action still impresses and it really surprised many to see what Statham had in his locker. Just over 20 years later of course, and we’re now well versed in his ass kickery. Is it just me who’d love to see Statham return as Frank Martin for one more gig?
Sylvester Stallone – Lock Up
One of those forgotten gems in Stallone’s canon. Lock Up almost plays like Rocky in prison, with a convict in the final 6 months of his sentence, sent to a maximum security facility led by a sadistic warden (Donald Sutherland). Frank (Stallone) tries his best to see out the sentence with no issues but is constantly pushed to his limits by the corrupt warden.
Even when Frank finds hopeful distractions like the workshop or playing prison football, he’s often met with the Warden’s retaliation, who has a very personal vendetta against him. Can Frank last the distance, avoid his sentence being extended, or will he make a desperate bid to escape? Stallone is decent but it’s Sutherland who takes delight in chewing up the scenery and steals the show. Elsewhere the late Tom Sizemore, John Amos, Frank McRae and Sonny Landham are all great in support.
Iko Uwais – The Raid
Much like Tony Jaa before him, Iko Uwais announced himself to international audiences in grand fashion with this brilliant breakout hit. The Raid, a furiously bruising Indonesian action film, directed by a Welshman (Gareth Evans) is a fantastic exercise in upping stakes.
Rama (Uwais) is part of a team of police officers who get trapped in a tower block run by a criminal. They must fight their way up to take out the criminal overlord and then out, and there are dozens of gangsters in their way. The Raid is relentless, keeping you in a state of sweaty-palmed tension all the way through. Uwais’s indefatigable physicality and a certain likeability make him a great protagonist. Joe Taslim is also brilliant as the pair individually battle their way through the crims. Although the sequel broadened the scope and scale of the action, taking it out of a confined setting. The claustrophobic tension here is highly effective and it probably remains the stronger of the two films.
Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais – Triple Threat
Not only do you get a double hit of new Expendables members Iko and Tony here, but you get Tiger Chen, Michael Jai White and former Expendables 2 villain, Scott Adkins.
Triple Threat wears its old-school heart on its sleeve with atypically good direction from Jesse V. Johnson. A team of mercs (Iko, Tiger and Tony) must protect a billionaire’s daughter, targeted by a team of ruthless mercenaries (headed up by Adkins and Jai White). The film’s story is a little light, just about efficiently taking us from set piece to set piece but Johnson never reneges on the promise of delivering thrilling showdowns between the epic cast of icons.
On that front, the film most certainly delivers, arguably more than many of the perhaps underwhelming faceoffs in the Expendables trilogy to date.
Randy Couture – The Expendables
We need to include Randy Couture of course, and in something essential. As far as his solo films, “Essential” leaves slim pickings but also a perfect way to warm up for the latest Expendables, is to go back and revisit the franchise, beginning with the first. Couture was brought on board due to his legendary UFC status. He was recognised as a legit tough guy by Sly Stallone and in a cast which includes the likes of Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren, Stallone has often maintained that Randy is the toughest of the tough.
The first Expendables film never quite hit the heights this concept deserved but it’s not without its charms. It was fantastic seeing the cast come together and the final action scene in particular manages to nail its landing. It’s right out of the 80s and perhaps the only sequence which suitably captures the era this film is supposed to be most lovingly homaging. Randy’s one of the more comical characters here and whilst it’s clear he’s not the greatest thesp in the world, he’s done enough throughout the three films to be someone you’d miss if he’d been axed.
Are you looking forward to The Expendables 4? 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 around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.