This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to consider truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Robert Mays and Rafe Bartholomew lock and load for the improbable third installment of Sylvester Stallone’s ensemble action franchise, The Expendables 3.
Robert Mays: It’s not an accident, Rafe, that you and I were the ones saddled with the mission of seeing Sly and the Family of Stone Faces get the band back together for another round of The Expendables. We both have an affinity for action movies that some people might deem unhealthy — to the point that 10 seconds ago, you excitedly waved me into the living room because the unitard pool-fight scene from Lionheart was on.
Back when the first Expendables was released in 2010, Stallone’s entire press-tour message, his stated reason for wanting to roll out of bed at 64 to wear berets and blow shit up, was that he thought movies in America had gone soft. He saw The Expendables, a script he stumbled onto and eventually rewrote, as a chance to breath life into the old-school, popcorn-scarfing action genre he defined in the ’80s.
There were plenty of in-jokes and homage in this one. Arnold says, “Get to the chopper!” not once, but twice. Wesley Snipes, with a perfectly demented look in his eye, makes a tax evasion crack. Just like in the first two, there’s a steady stream of obligatory cameos moving down the checklist of old action stars. At this point, with Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson getting their run this time around, it would be easier to find someone who led an ’80s action movie and hasn’t made it into one of these things. The only one I could come up with was Carl Weathers.
So I guess my first question for you is this: If these movies are supposed to pay tribute to the action flicks we love so much, why the hell are they about 5 percent as enjoyable?
Rafe Bartholomew: How can I answer that question without first responding to 15 other points you made? For starters, I just assumed I was chosen for the Expendables 3 assignment because our coworkers dislike me. Secondly, there’s nothing unhealthy about starting your day by watching JCVD and the Gerardo-haired villain from Only the Strong flash their bulges in black spandex during a poolside brouhaha.
The glaring absence in Expendables casting through three films remains Steven Seagal.1 This will sound absurd to normal moviegoers, but seasoned Seagalogists will know that Seagal’s self-regard is so earnest and delusional that he would never let himself participate in a gimmicky retread project like the Expendables movies. He explained his choice not to appear in the series earlier this year: “I just didn’t like some of the people involved. Life is too short to work with funny people.” As ESPN.com boxing editor and noted Seagalogist Brian Campbell wrote in June, “No one in the history of the free world takes himself more seriously than Seagal does, even today.”
It was hard not to interpret the Native American–patterned jacket Stallone wore at one point in The Expendables 3 as some kind of coded message to Seagal. Whether it was an olive branch to express solidarity with Seagal’s spiritual and preservationist causes or a simple insult — THIS JACKET LOOKS RIDICULOUS, YOU POMPOUS AIKIDO TURD — we may never know.
But you know what? This time I’m siding with Seagal. The Expendables films aren’t as enjoyable as classic action movies because there doesn’t seem to be any creative impulse behind them. I know I’m walking onto the thinnest of ice by championing the creativity that went into Commando, Bloodsport, and Drop Zone, to name a few, but at least those movies felt like they made an honest attempt to entertain action fans with a paper-thin plot, an enjoyably goofy conceit, and a handful of cool heroes and villains and fight scenes. Those movies had some earnesty. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to build a movie around Snipes infiltrating a gang of skydiving bank robbers, but at least somebody once thought it was. With The Expendables, the only idea seems to be corralling a bunch of marquee names so they can swindle $12 out of nostalgic 28- to 45-year-old men.
I’m glad Seagal refuses to take part in such transparently cynical cash-grabbing. He mails it in the honorable way — by starring in straight-to-video junk that makes you regret subscribing to Netflix.
Mays: Oh, man. I can’t believe I forgot Seagal. And by the way, Stallone followed up the jacket with a shirt that had the same Native American–esque pattern on the shoulders. He was clearly sending a message.
The creativity point is a good one, and Drop Zone is a perfect example. At least “Snipes infiltrates a gang of skydiving bank robbers” is something. A good action movie should have a conceit that can be summed up in no more than one sentence: “A wisecracking New York cop gets trapped in a skyscraper full of terrorists and has to shoot his way out.” I don’t even know where I’d start explaining the conceit for this movie. They’re a group of mercenaries, but they work for the CIA, and they have to free one of their old buddies to stop an arms dealer, who’s also one of their old buddies, but they’re too over the hill to pull it off, so they have to recruit a group of young guns to get the job done, but not without realizing before it’s over that they needed the old dudes ALL ALONG.
A lot of people who’ve written about The Expendables 3 have leaned on some form of AARP joke to characterize its badness, but I’m not even sure you can call that fruit low-hanging anymore. It’s fruit that’s fallen off the tree and been trodden over again and again. In a fortuitous turn, Escape Plan just happened to be on TV a few hours after I got done with The Expendables 3. This is a movie starring Sly and Arnold that came out a year ago, and it also happens to be really damn entertaining. Age isn’t the problem with The Expendables. Scope is. Think about the most fun action movies of the past few years — movies like The Raid, Dredd, and Lockout. Those movies, like Escape Plan, are all self-contained. They’re enjoyable because they go deep instead of going wide. And wide is all that The Expendables is going for. Seriously, look at the billboards.
Rafe: Let me try to nail down the conceit of The Expendables 3 for you: Everyone will wear funny hats. Dolph Lundgren was the headwear MVP, from the Somali do-rag he wraps around his blocky noggin in the opening scene to his actual hair, brushed down into forehead-covering, prepubescent Bieber bangs. Poor Snipes’s character was reduced to little more than matching Kangol-and-vest outfits after his genuinely cool introduction as a shell-shocked former Expendable who spent the previous decade in some warlord’s dungeon in the Central Asian steppe. And the rest of the cast was outfitted in so many tacky fedoras that I sat through the credits just to see if they’d toss in a fedora parkour scene for shits and giggles.
So if the world is as craven and hollow as we think it is and we can expect The Expendables 4 to hit theaters sometime in 2016, what can Stallone do to improve the franchise? He’s made a number of enjoyable, throwback action films in recent years — you mentioned Escape Plan, and I’d nominate Sly’s over-the-top pulp noir Bullet to the Head and 2008’s ultraviolent Rambo redux, which treated every bad guy’s head like one of Gallagher’s watermelons. So how would you fix The Expendables?
I’d tweak the casting of Stallone’s handpicked new breed of action stars. We know Sly loves combat sports and admires boxers and mixed martial artists who actually know how to deliver a beatdown. But this is not a boxing ring or the UFC octagon. It’s a fictional film, and rather than foist Randy Couture and Ronda Rousey and Victor Ortiz on moviegoers, why not look for some actors with action-star potential? Grantland’s Andy Greenwald has long been beating the drum for Banshee lead Antony Starr’s genre film potential. Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones played a fabulous heavy in Bullet to the Head, but he’s already taken his comic-book physique to comic-book movies; still, why not pluck one of the show’s gargantuan, head-squishing sword swingers who hasn’t made it big yet? How about ANYONE from the Raid movies? Doesn’t that make more sense than hiring a guy whose most significant screen credit before The Expendables 3 was the commercial for his signature line of “FaceLube” moisturizers?
Mays: Let’s table Mr. FaceLube for a second. We need to get back to him, but I want to address the Snipes situation first.
Anyone who cared about the release of this movie even a little bit cared because it carried the possibility of a Snipes comeback, and honestly, he didn’t disappoint! The five minutes we got of Snipes acting insane and using an entire train to destroy a military compound was one of my two favorite parts of these proceedings, but aside from some clearly-a-body-double parkour, that’s pretty much all we got. I don’t think he spoke again. The other element I enjoyed was what Antonio Banderas brought to the table. I was genuinely entertained by his shtick, which belonged in a movie that is having a way better time than this one.
When I was talking about scope earlier, those are the two people I had in mind. I think there’s an entertaining movie in here somewhere, but to me, it’s a movie that delves into why they needed to break Snipes out of prison, why Gibson bailed on his bros to become an art-slinging weapons dealer, and why Banderas is the final piece to make the whole thing work. I’m not asking for in-depth backstories here. I just need one cool thing about each of these guys. When we met Snipes’s character, Stallone says he’s a medical genius that they just call Doc. That never comes up again! Every scene of these movies is a chance for someone to perform life-saving surgery with some gum and a paper clip, and we get nothing.
It’s the same problem I have with that Save the World: The New Class crew that Stallone puts together. The “let’s meet the gang” scenes from movies are typically a blast — Ocean’s Eleven, even something like the second Mighty Ducks movie — but aside from Banderas, I didn’t react to a single one of these guys. Stallone presents Kellan Lutz (best known for being the sixth lead in the Twilight movies) as the heir to the action movie throne by telling us his character threw a boxing match to make some cash. Really, Sly? He couldn’t even win the fight?
The lackluster group of “youngs” is where this whole thing falls shortest. The point of The Expendables 3, if I can call it that, is the speech Stallone gives to his old dudes in a bar after they fail to thwart Gibson’s plans. “We aren’t the future anymore,” he says, on-the-nose-ingly. “We’re part of the past.” The issue is that the future presented here sucks. The last time you and I watched an Ortiz production together, he was getting punched in the face really hard by Floyd Mayweather, but I’m worried we don’t have any clearly superior options.
Jason Momoa is a great suggestion — and this movie could have been seriously helped by some ax-wielding craziness — but that’s about where my list ends. The path to the next generation of action hero is littered with the bones of Jai Courtney and a dozen dudes who look and sound just like him. And here’s an even more depressing thought: Do people really even want this type of movie anymore?
Rafe: Man, I don’t know what kind of movies people want. Nor do I really care. I just know what I like and what I want to see when I punch my Regal club card. So, yes, I still like action movies — I watch Bloodsport twice a year and once taped together a homemade, rasterized poster of Chong Li to impress a girl I was trying to date.
Every time a movie like The Raid or Escape Plan comes out and it’s somewhere on the spectrum from not bad to face-meltingly awesome, I’m excited. Chances are, I’m not the only person who feels that way. Unfortunately, though, I don’t have much control over how the entertainment industry chooses to make its money. And maybe that’s a good thing, because if I had my druthers, the summer of 2014 would be dominated by blockbuster franchises like Happy Gilmore 7, an Oz prequel about Simon Adebisi called Give Me Some Tits, and The Raid 2. Hey, one out of three ain’t bad.
Mays: I’m in on Happy Gilmore 7, for whatever that’s worth.
I still feel the same way. When I initially saw the trailer for Non-Stop, I copied and pasted the link into every Gchat window I had open (“Taken on a planeeeeee”). Plenty of movies still do that for me, including each of the past few Fast and Furious installments. What I’m worried about, based on both recent history and the awful collection of talent Stallone tried to sell us, is that it’s getting harder for movies without ties to a franchise or without a major star to get traction. I’ll be seeing Fast 7, and I’ll be seeing Taken 3, too, but I always get more of a kick out of being surprised by a movie I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t help that The Expendables is pretty much the exact opposite of whatever that movie is.