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5) Welcome Back to the ‘80s: Over the Top, Excessive, and Pitch Perfect
We got a lot of things wrong during the ‘80s—weird suits, eight-track tapes, George Michael—but one thing we got exactly right were our action movies. If you discount The Expendables, your favorite action flick has to be from the ‘80s. Maybe the early ‘90s, but they were just living off dwindling spirit initiated in Reagan-era America when we had to blow up everything and kill everyone to make up for our country’s post-Vietnam damaged ego.
That spirit was officially killed sometime between the release of Mission: Impossible II in 2000 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in 2009. Cause of death: too much slow motion, too many special effects, and too many wimpy heroes who were only strong “in heart”. F that noise. We need muscles and heart in our heroes. The Expendables brought the genre back to life with gusto. May it never drift away from us again.
4) Hale Caesar and his “big boy” AA-12
One of the rarest traits in movies is when a film manages to continue to improve upon itself as it plays out. We’ve all been there, especially in action flicks—you see a big explosion, or a good punch, or a giant set piece and think, “Damn! That was awesome! How are they ever going to top that?”
Sometimes they do, but usually they cannot. It’s too difficult to make your audience repeatedly say “Damn!” so most movies hope to keep them from saying “Damn. How much longer is this?”
This is not the case with The Expendables. Just when you think it’s peaked, BAM! Sylvester Stallone runs down a freaking plane! Then, POW! Arnold Schwarzenegger opens the doors to the church! Then there’s actually a scene that manages to top them all—Hale Caeser’s “big boy” blasting scene.
You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. On the plane ride back to the island, Terry Crews’ Caeser tells a dumbfounded teammate, “You know, the enemy’s always been terrified of noise, especially shotguns. With this big boy spitting out 250 rounds a minute, you tell me who’s tolerating that. Absolutely zero.” Minutes later, there’s been so much action you’ve probably forgotten about Caeser’s promise to bring the noise. Once he does, though, you’ll never forget again.
3) Sly’s Deft Direction – Yeah. Deft.
Sly the director somehow manages to catch even more grief than Sly the actor. Yes, he helmed the catastrophic sequel to Saturday Night Fever, but he also did a bang up job on Rocky II, III, IV, and Rocky Balboa. Oh! Rocky Balboa! Holy heck! That was a master class in direction! His decision to switch from film to HD video for the climactic fight should go down in history as thee moment a veteran filmmaker recognized video wasn’t going anywhere, adapted, and then incorporated the new media flawlessly into an established genre.
But I digress. In The Expendables, Sly’s decisions in front of the camera were more influential than those with the camera, namely the choice to incorporate as many stunts as possible. Many of the action flicks from the 1980s hold up today at least partially because of their adherence to reality—that is, they didn’t use cheesy, fake looking F/X when a professionally-trained stunt man could do it for real. Stallone understands this and incorporates it into his films one way or another (see Rocky Balboa for example A) in order to preserve them for future generations.
Beyond that, though, Stallone guided the movie with a sure hand all the way through. His unblinking vision produced not just an ode to the action genre’s past glories, but a declarative statement for its future. Though he wasn’t behind the camera for The Expendables 2, here’s hoping his spirit continues to carry the franchise.
2) Mickey Rourke
He put forth an Academy Award-caliber performance in what was barely more than a cameo role. His speech about a suicidal villager he failed to save still haunts my dreams. If Academy president Hawk Koch called me up right now and told me I could give Mick the Oscar for only one movie, The Expendables or The Wrestler, I honestly don’t know which I would choose. He’d have to get two. Maybe I could just steal Sean Penn’s and return it to the rightful owner.
1) It’s an underdog story, and Americans love underdog stories.
Call Sly what you will, but he’s not dumb. After the incalculable success of Rocky, Sly repeatedly created characters who were down on their luck and overmatched. He was that character, so naturally he played him well. Whether it was John Rambo, the peace-seeking veteran who always seemed to be going up against a larger, angrier force, or Barney Ross, the mercenary for hire with a soft spot for the innocent, Stallone always stacked the odds against his protagonists.
More importantly, though, he learned how to portray himself as the underdog. He’s said time and time again it was harder to get Rocky Balboa made than the original Rocky. The same goes for The Expendables. It’s his third franchise in five decades, and he knew his age would be a detriment to getting his latest project produced. So what did he do? He turned it into a positive and surrounded himself with aging action stars, all ready for one last mission.
Then he stacked the deck against him by providing his character with the stubborn, do-gooder mentality of a man who would rather face an army than let one pure soul pass before her time. Thankfully, his buddies came along for the ride and helped him out. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be getting an Expendables 2 this week.
// Notes from the Road
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