Cynthia Hawkins: Hi Simon Smithson! Here we are again like an ’80s action sequel striving to be bigger and badder than last time. I’d just like to note that for the occasion I’m wearing mirrored sunglasses and just lit a match off my husband’s five o’clock shadow for no reason at all. In other words, I’m ready to discuss The Expendables.
So, The Expendables is the recent film assembling past and present action heroes in an attempt to recapture some of that ’80s action glory. The roll call: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, and Mickey Rourke with brief appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’d explain to our readers the plot as well, but outside of “good men decide to save helpless woman from bad men in foreign country” I wasn’t following. In fact, I took a three minute break during what I thought was a lull in the film and came back into the auditorium just in time to hear Stallone say, “… and that’s the whole story. He told me everything before he died.” Mr. Smithson, can you untangle this plot line? And if you tell me they were really five levels into a dream, I might break things.
Simon Smithson: And for the record, I just walked out of an explosion… and didn’t even think of looking behind me. I just stared dead ahead and kept on walking.
OK. The Expendables, in brief: Stallone and his crew of mercenaries are looking for work, because they’re mercenaries. That’s what they do. Their fixer, Mickey Rourke, finds them a job working for a shadowy government official who wants them to slip over to an island, kill the dictator (man, David Zayas just cannot catch a break around here), and slip back out. Stallone goes over to check it out, decides it’s not worth the money, and they’d probably all get killed anyway, and then, because he meets a girl who seems sad, he decides that actually, he should go over and shoot the dick out of everybody.
And, of course, there are some minor B, C, and D plots rolling around. Everyone gets a little bit of a turn to do something either cool or meaningful.
CH: Nicely done! There may have been an E and an F in there as well. The back-story involving the shadowy officials and the shifting allegiances/targets along with the characterizations of such a large cast (some of those with back-stories of their own) and the central sad-woman-saving plot seemed to be too many plates for these screenwriters (Stallone and Dave Callaham) to spin at once. In fact, I’d like to take a moment to address Sly directly.
Dear Mr. Stallone: I understand you are planning an Expendables sequel, and I’d like to suggest that you hire me as a consultant. I will accept payment in high-fives. Thank you!
This is how badly I want this idea to come together just right. I mean, I’ve stood in Stallone’s footprints at Pat’s Steaks in Philly. I care. However, I was good with the crux of the plot this time around, and there was still plenty of fun to be had. And do we really care how taut the story is as long as stuff explodes?
Feel free to comment on the screenplay as well, especially if you disagree (what’s a good sequel without some friendly fisticuffs?), but I’d also like to know what moments in, or qualities of, The Expendables struck you as solid ‘80s-action throw-backs.
SS: To be honest, I think you could probably even ask for high tens. They don’t get a lot of play these days, but you’re worth it, and Sly is rolling in the kudos these days. He can afford to share some around.
I thought the core storyline was essentially pretty simple but there were a lot of bells and whistles tacked on in terms of additional scenes. They weren’t strictly necessary to advance the plot or the characters – just window dressing to make it seem like this was a little more than standard action fare. Really, I personally didn’t care at all about anyone’s motivation – I would have been happy with the whole movie being Sly’s 90-minute revenge for getting punched in the face by the bad guy when they were both five, as long as enough stuff blew up. I don’t walk into a movie called The Expendables looking for Citizen Kane, you know?
The Lundgren/Li fisticuffs, for one. The sight of one gigantic Swedish man, literally throwing a tiny Asian man around for five minutes? Brilliant.
The whole girl storyline? Laid on with a trowel. And honestly, I wouldn’t want any sort of nuance or intelligence going on. The whole point of her role was to clearly illustrate a single point: ‘this girl’s good and anyone who is mean to her is bad.’ ’80s perfection.
And, finally, the whole last act. You just don’t see that kind of over-the-top death any more. At one point, when the Expendables were preparing for and launching their attack on General Garza’s compound, I leaned over to my friend Luke and whispered ‘We used waaaaaaay too many explosives!’
Speaking of explosives… Mickey Rourke’s performance. What did you think?
CH: That will be my first piece of advice for Sly.
Dear Mr. Stallone: This isn’t Citizen Kane you’re writing. Thank you!
But, I’ll take off the critic’s hat for a second, because I don’t think this movie can be completely enjoyed with one on, and say that The Expendables really coalesces as a solid over-the-top action film during those why-use-a-pistol-when-a-rocket-launcher-looks-cooler fight sequences. Seeing a muscled-up Stallone silhouetted against a billowing explosion brought a tear to my eye. Maybe two tears. Okay, so I was sobbing with delight. But let’s keep that between you and me.
Mickey Rourke. I’m learning to love Mickey Rourke again, and it’s been a slow, painful process. There’s a scene in The Expendables in which he offers a rambling description of a tattoo idea for Jason Statham’s stubbled head that’s so bizarre and unfunny I actually felt uncomfortable by its inclusion, as if this might be Rourke off his meds having just made origami dragons of his cue cards. Later, however, a more lucid Rourke produces something of an Oscar’s best-supporting-actor clip in a moment that becomes the emotional catalyst for saving the sad girl from the bad men. I almost forgot I was sitting in The Expendables. Your take?
SS: I’m so glad you brought up the spider tattoo scene. That had test screening revision written all over it. It made little to no sense, was painfully unfunny, and is only now worth it with the phrase ‘made origami dragons of his cue cards.’
However, that later scene? As one critic put it, ‘What is actual acting doing in a film like this?’ Because Rourke nails it and displays exactly why he has been re-embraced by Hollywood. He hits every note perfectly, while Sly, very wisely, becomes a still wall for Rourke to bounce emotion off of.
CH: And speaking of fine actors. How ‘bout that Dolph Lundgren?
SS: Oh, man, Dolph? An integral part of this film. You have to have a giant. It’s one of the rules of action films. I think he may even out-giant Stone Cold Steve Austin, who also pops up. I liked that Lundgren called a guy an ‘insect’ before stomping him. And he’s an interesting thread running through the story. Not hugely interesting, because this is The Expendables, after all… but still entertaining. And it’s good to see him up on the big screen again.
So what did you think of The Expendables’s b-line cast? David Zayas, Terry Crews, Stone Cold, Randy Couture?
CH: Something tells me I should save David Zayas for you. There’s one clear stand-out in that b-line: Terry Crews. I think he may even garner the highest body count, and he does so with a maniacal glint in his eye.
For much of the movie, I’d forgotten Stone Cold was even part of it. He plays second fiddle to the villain (Eric Roberts), when perhaps he should have been the prime villain himself. The mere presence of Roberts, by the way, tells me a lot of other people must have turned this role down first. I wish they could have landed more of an Alan Rickman or a Gary Oldman for the bad guy.
Randy Couture was clearly there to make Lundgren’s delivery seem more natural by comparison. We’ve established in “Lights, Camera, Action” part one that I like Lundgren when he says “I must break you” and that you like Lundgren all the rest of the time, but I have to concede he is indeed a fun addition to this line-up as the hulking loose canon. Besides, now I know the man can sing and dance even if he is one grunt shy of performing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Gene Wilder.
SS: Did you know that Zayas was originally a cop in NYC? Which makes it interesting to watch him in Dexter. And also in Oz, for some reason.
Crews killed so many guys! And he really seemed to be enjoying himself as he was doing it, too.
I think that’s what appealed to me the most about The Expendables – there was no shortage of moments that are universally recognized as being the pillars of action movies. The close-up on Randy Couture’s face lit by flame. Guys throwing up their arms as a throwing knife hits them in the chest. Stallone even snuck a car chase in there! Any other film might have balked at cramming everything in and gone for just a selection of scenes that fit into the script organically, but not The Expendables. It was like action that had been… condensed, somehow. Purified.
I would have liked to see a big guy vs. big guy fight, however. That would have been fun. Lundgren vs. Stone Cold, for instance. Maybe next time.
CH: I agree. The Expendables definitely has all the requisite action scenes and then some. Statham mowing down the coastline from the nose of an airplane, for example. Good stuff. And it’s worth noting that to its credit The Expendables does so without becoming a parody. Sure, its over-the-top qualities might amuse, but in the end it is an unflinching, awe-filled homage to ‘80s action excess.
SS: I don’t think any discussion of The Expendables would be complete without a discussion of one scene in particular. The Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Willis scene. Possibly the most action-movie scene in any action movie ever where no one gets killed, punched, or exploded.
CH: Yes! This lot together onscreen, however briefly, sent goose-bumps down my arms. And then I remembered this was exactly what Willis was told would happen when he saw dead people. I’m not so sure Willis and Schwarzenegger weren’t CGI. At the very least, I suspect they were only edited together to make it appear that they’d filmed this standing side by side in the same room. That’s how weird the back and forth was. I mean, Schwarzenegger reacted to Willis’ fellatio zinger a few beats too late and with the nervous smirk of someone suffering their great aunt farting at the Thanksgiving table. And then the uncomfortable silence swallowed the entire theater I was in. No one laughed at that joke. Although, it’s entirely possible that I’m needlessly draining all the fun out of this three minute moment.
SS: There was a fellatio joke? Damn. I actually missed that. I think I was too busy high-fiving my inner child.
I would have loved to see them wrangle more guys into that scene – Snipes, Van Damme, Segal… a kind of testament to the days of old-school action flicks. It was one of those scenes put together with a view towards not quite breaking the fourth wall, but leaning on it pretty heavily.
I think it was in the article you sent me earlier where Stallone talked about Burton’s Batman and Keaton’s fake musculature where Stallone talked about how each of them had their own approach; Schwarzenegger was all about the one-liners, Willis has that kind of American wise-cracking thing going on, and Stallone was usually darker in his approach … that wasn’t quite what was on display, but they each brought their own approach to the scene; I’m not completely sure how well it gelled, but I love that I got to see it, none the less.
CH: Clearly I need to spend more time high-fiving my inner child. Actually, I read that Van Damme turned this film down. And also that there’s a rumor going around that our man Chuck Norris is considering showing up for the sequel. Both are examples of the cruel hand of fate. (No one ever ripped on us about our Norris comments last time, so I’m feeling emboldened.)
So, as a final rating would you give The Expendables a high ten, a high five, a slap on the shoulder, a gut punch, or the finger?
SS: I would absolutely give The Expendables a high ten.
CH: I would give The Expendables a high five while slipping Stallone a note to call me about that consulting gig.
And that’s a wrap. Rev the motorcycles, cue guitar-laden music, and we’re outta here.