Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Giselle Itié, David Zayas, Charisma Carpenter, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 13 Aug 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 19 Aug 2010 (General release); 2010)
It’s The Goonies for grown men, except this time, Chunk ain’t taking shit from no one and Mikey has a decidedly lethal way with knives. The Fratellis turn out to be a corrupt Caribbean general and his ex-CIA puppet master, and the smell of musk and burning machismo takes the place pre-teen angst and runny Rocky Road ice cream. You got to give Sylvester Stallone credit. After a decade or more in entertainment exile, a steroid specter of his former fleshy self, the filmmaker turned franchise has rediscovered his repurpose. Since putting Rocky and Rambo to bed with inventive send-offs, he’s taking his still toned 64-year-old, HGH’ed frame and reinventing it as a memorial to high concept ‘80s action - and like the aforementioned boy’s adventure tale, he’s bringing some buddies along for the bloodletting.
With its mid 30s take at the box office and open ended resolution, The Expendables is set to be the latest in the sub-superstar’s growing list of commercial credentials. Working Ain’t It Cool News nation and geek fandom into a froth, he’s managed to make himself re-relevant in a world which sees Paul Greengrass shoot Matt Damon shaky cam style and everyone calls it “genius”. Granted, he has some formidable help, including the rock hard Jason Statham, the sloppily silly/sinister Dolph Lundgren, the rapidly aging Jet Li, and a post-battle with advertising BO Terry Crews. He also tosses in Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture, and on the bad guys side, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, and Gary Daniels. Of course, what everyone in USB universe was/is buzzing about was/is the cameo work of Arnold “The Governator” and Bruce Willis (fun, but not really vital to this ornery origin story).
Smartly, Stallone leaves all his doors open, only getting rid of the villains while leaving ample room for any permutation of competing heroes. In fact, a recent interview found the resurgent celeb talking sequel. Without naming names or picking parts, he argued that he would love to include those “forgotten” this time around in the next go-round. The mind boggles at the list of potential Expendables 2.0 - Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, Sonny Chiba, Danny Trejo, Kurt Russell, and the artist who no longer claims his own unique brand of Van Damage, now known by the initials ‘JCVD’. The serires concept is beyond intriguing, especially when you add in a feminine perspective with possible contributions from Cynthia Rothrock, Rachel McLeash, Cory Everson, and Shannon Tweed (or beyond these borders, Michele Yeoh or the Sister Street Fighter herself - Etsuko Shihomi).
Indeed, the possibilities boggle the mind. Imagine the Expendables going international, bringing on additional amazing Asian martial artists in order to bash in the heads of bad-asses from a similar side of the Pacific. Even better, skip all the sovereignty and have Schwarzenegger and his band of competing killers take on Stallone and his peeps in a bulging battle royale. Such a set-up would allow the star to sub in and out like a coach on the World Cup stage, perhaps even reminding those claim an affinity for the genre who the real retro icons really are. Even better, imagine going as far back as the samurai epics of Japan, or as recent as the current crop of Hong Kong heroes. Toss in a burgeoning talent pool of possible heavies (any out of work character actor from the last 30 years, for example) and you’ve got the public’s permission to print money.
Come to think of it, why stop there. With the core Expendables - let’s say Statham, Lundgren, Li, and Crews - always front and center, Stallone can create a million mindless scenarios. Rescuing fair maidens. Killing off corrupt dictators. Taking on insane terrorists. Ridding the streets of slick dope peddlers. He could even go the super hero strategy and develop an ultimate arch criminal nemesis who constantly keeps these macho mercenaries on their toes. Give this rogue his (or her) own band of unstoppable desperados and you’ve got a recipe for a cinematic dynasty. Imagine something along the lines of The Expendables vs. The Unholy Demonic Brethren of Budapest and you’ve got some idea of how guiltily pleasurable this entire enterprise could be.
Of course, Stallone will have to stick to his newfound love of blood and guts to keep the fans flocking. It was gore that gave Rambo its “why bother again” kick, and while toned down a tad for his 2010 bombast, there is more than enough arterial spray to keep the vein juicers plenty pumped. On the other hand, in order to make this movie play to a broader demographic, the actor needs to dial back on the editorial excesses. He treats some of his set-pieces like they’re misplaced pieces in a broken Movieola, bashing images together like the smashed skulls of some Somali pirates. Audiences are growing weary of having to decipher out their pyrotechnics. Go back to a carefully choreographed Armageddon and watch the turnstiles twist and twist.
By its very nature and what it represents as a type and an approach, The Expendables is a smash. It’s a late in life benchmark for the man who made “Yo Adrian” into a Me Decade cry for self-help. It’s also a clear cash cow just waiting to be fatted and felled over and over again. Sure, it does depend on the good graces of all involved, each taking a pro-rated pay cut in order to keep the budgets manageable. But with an entire MMA addled fanbase to exploit and enough of the aging formerly famous to draw from, this could be the start of something sensational.
It’s now up to Stallone to make it work. He found a way to turn a Philly pugilist and a psychologically wounded war vet into motion picture myths (sadly, the same can’t be said for Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti or Lincoln Hawk). The Expendables could be his greatest creative swan song ever. All he has to do is remember why viewers favored his brutal brawny fever dream in the first place and he’ll be laughing all the way to the bank - or the retirement home, whatever the case may be.