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.

Dick-shooting commences.

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.

Ahem.

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.

Ahem.

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.’ 

Heh.

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.

Yourself?

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.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

56 responses to “Lights, Camera, Action: The Expendables Edition”

  1. You two are hysterical! Love the teamwork!

  2. Gloria says:

    Man. You have no idea how much I wish all movie reviews were done in this style. And by you two specifically. So fun. You two should do a podcast. Not kidding.

  3. D.R. Haney says:

    Not having seen The Expendables, I can’t comment on the movie itself. However, isn’t Roger Ebert trying to resurrect his old show but with different people? There might be openings.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Really? I hadn’t heard that. Interesting.

      Sounds like a job for… Smithson and Hawkins!

      The Expendables is not one to be taken too seriously.

  4. Andrew Panebianco says:

    My favorite part of the movie: the gratuitous, minutes long slo-mo sequence wherein our highly-trained, deathmachine mercs scramble about Generalismo Evil’s compound, affixing explosive charges to every solid structure in sight. I was waiting for one of them to slap a charge onto Stallone’s muffiny chest.

    Wonderful review, by the way.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, man, SO MANY explosives. Honestly, I would thought that was unsafe.

      Also: a guy who is already on fire getting punched in the face?

      Eat it, Jim Jarmusch! Like you’d ever think of that happening.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    I haven’t seen it yet, but since I have a husband of the inner-child-high-fiving variety, there is a good chance I will.

    Until then, I can only say that I love Jet Li.

    Does he get lots of screen time? MOAR JET LI

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      No! He doesn’t hardly get enough. But perhaps that’s the down-side of having so many equally-billed individuals vying for scenes. Also one of the things I plan on telling Stallone when he hires me as a consultant is that he cannot continue filming Jet Li with the usual action-movie techniques — the close-up, shaky cam. It’s really a disservice to Jet Li’s art that we can’t see the full range of motion in his fight scenes. It was killing me!

  6. Echoing what others have said, the two of you play off each beautifully. Hilarious all the way through. You actually made me want to see The Expendables, which I didn’t think was possible. Also, don’t you wish you were the Cialis dealer on that set? Possibly the only recession-proof business plan.

  7. Matt says:

    Re: the Van Damme thing. There’s an anecdote that he and Lundgren came out of Universal Soldier utterly hating each other. Given some of the things about Van Damme’s personality that have come to light since then, I can believe it – as I would also believe that VD’s ego would stop him from sharing marquee space with so many other names Though there IS a rumor (at least on imdb) that they’re going to reunite for a new Universal Soldier sequel, so who knows? Maybe someone wafted enough money at them to make it appear worthwhile.

    Steven Seagal turned down a role in this, too, which is probably a good thing. Who wants to watch a man shaped like a walrus fight? I’d rather watch an actual walrus fight. Those things’ll fuck you up!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I take it you don’t watch Seagal’s television show. In “where the hell have I been?” news, I only recently discovered he was even on one. He’s a policeman? And it’s a reality show? Maybe if you’re lucky Simon will show you the video of Seagal singing.

      I’d read that Van Damme didn’t approve of the fact that Stallone couldn’t outline his exact role in the film — which probably translates: Stallone couldn’t guarantee his name would be in the top three on the marquee.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I’ve heard that there was a fight between Seagull and Van Damme at Stallone’s place or something, and Stallone broke it up.

        I love the idea of that conversation. Three unintelligible men, all yelling at each other.

        Awesome.

        Also, did anyone see JCVD?

  8. Zara Potts says:

    They should have had Grace Jones in the cast. She’s more kick ass than any of them…

    Nice review, Smithson and Hawkins!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks Zara! Grace Jones. Where is she now, anyway? I’d say yes to that! And also Linda Hamilton. There must be some other kick-ass women we could toss into that mix. I’ve wondered why more women athletes aren’t ushered into the action genre the way male athletes often are (Crews and Couture). Like, Laila Ali or someone. I’ll be sure and pass this onto Sly.

      • Gloria says:

        Geena Davis, Brigitte Nelson, Milla Jovovich (wait… when was the fifth element?)

        • Gloria says:

          ixnay on the fifth element. I guess I went into a timewarp.

          But what about Sharon Stone circa Total Recall?

        • Cynthia Hawkins says:

          Hey, if Jason Statham can be in The Expendables franchise (as it would seem it’s going to be), so can Milla! Brigitte, I’d forgotten all about her. Last I saw, she was on some VH1 reality show, and I felt very uncomfortable for her. Maybe you and I can embark on some sort of clean-up-Brigitte mission and get her back in the game.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Vasquez from Aliens now has a boutique in LA that sells brasseries for plus-busted women.

          http://www.jenettebras.com/

        • Judy Prince says:

          Simon, a “brasserie” is an upscale restaurant. Selling upscale restaurants for large-breasted women sounds a good idea, actually. Sounds a bit exclusive, but…..

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Crap! I meant brassieres.

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Please do these interviews all the time.

    I loved this movie- I was smiling as I watched it, feeling at once entertained and at the same time, in on the joke. What I thought they pulled off well was being essentially caricatures while maintaining the integrity of their individual roles. Lundgren’s junkie thing was ham fisted- they didn’t need to throw that in, only because they didn’t really do anything with it. They could have just let him be a douche. But otherwise, a great move.

    Simon, loved your comments and observations, especially w/r/t said Swede. Also, never knew that about your boy Zayas! Great 411!

    Cynthia, you are an unapologetic movie fan and I love that. I also love that you’ve warmed up to Mickey Rourke.

    This was a super fun piece.

  10. Quenby Moone says:

    Oh, man. You think this is going to make it to Sunday afternoon viewing? Because I probably won’t see it any other way, but it sounds delightful! And really, can’t David Zayas catch a break? What the hell?

    I’m curious about the exclusion of certain action heroes from the lineup. Did Snipes get shelved because of his tax problems? Did Norris have a falling out with the other action heroes over his rabid politics? I want to know!

    And truly, if Dolph can soft-shoe AND be revived as an action bad-ass, I might just have to re-evaluate my belief in God. Because that was never going to happen in this lifetime or the next. Never.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I give it two years before it makes your Sunday rotation. I thought of you, btw, last Sunday as my daughter and I were watching Back to the Future II!

  11. Where’s Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers, Brian “The Original Stone Cold” Bosworth, Lance “Chains” Henrikson, William Forsythe, and the guy in assless chaps from The Road Warrior? This movie sounds like a ripoff.

    Speaking of explosive and Mickey Rourke, do you remember that he played the explosives expert in Body Heat? Might have been his first role. First one I remember, anyway.

  12. Crud. I would read this, but haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want any spoilers! Write about old movies. Like Old Yeller or Harry Potter 1 or something.

    Grrrrr….

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Hey, I just might do something on Old Yeller. My daughter has been begging to watch it because she says it’s high time I expose her to all the tear-jerkers I’ve deprived her of.

  13. Judy Prince says:

    “I think I was too busy high-fiving my inner child” may become a staple of film-reviewing.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      My inner child is so good at high-fives by now.

      I open the fridge in the morning and there’s apple juice there?

      High five, inner child!

  14. Judy Prince says:

    You go, you two, a good fun romp in man-land with “sad woman needs rescuing” motivation-style films.

    I’m with Simon on the unnecessity of much in the way of motivation; it’s a waste of otherwise well used time for excessive explosives, car crashes, guys slapping guys around simply bcuz they’re there and such. But one must draw a line at involving females in aid of smashing, cracking and blowing up guys who are smashing, cracking and blowing up other guys. Some feminist sad-arse producer or director might want a female to wear practical shoes, and there goes the whole raison d’etre of the film. Unless of course they could get a couple upscale restaurants for big-breasted women (“brasseries”).

    Reminds me that ya gotta love watching guys whose biceps look like shiny 1930’s car fenders.

    Reminds me further that Claude van Damme will never make it really big bcuz he is just “that much” too aware of himself, which Duke Haney would allow, I’ll bet, qualifies him as un-American Macho.

    On a totally nother note, what is it that makes _The French Connection_ (no, not the porno movie) with Gene Hackman a huge cut above Matt Damon’s wonderful wotsit action films?

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Actually, I don’t think that the girl in question was particularly large-breasted. The fact that I don’t remember intimates to me that she wasn’t. She just needed the helping hand of a gang of mercenaries.

      Do you mean the Bourne films, Judy?

      • Judy Prince says:

        Yep, the Bourne Identity, Simon. I saw two and quite enjoyed them, but for all his cuteness (and there’s a lot of it), Matt Damon has that H’Wood frozen-faced unexpressive male thing going on. Gene Hackman in any film, however, is a magnet, just like Ray Winstone, but not as sexy as Winstone. Therefore, the French Connection, if that’s the name of the Hackman film, is better than the Bourne films I saw. Plus, the story’s rooted in reality whereas Bournes are techno-worldy.

    • Judy, I SO agree with you regarding Gene Hackman vs. Matt Damon. I absolutely adore Gene Hackman. I think the difference might be a matter of charisma and personality. Hackman’s just so compelling to watch whether he’s playing the villain in The Unforgiven or the patriarch in the Royal Tenenbaums. *And* he was the best Lex Luther ever. A class act, that one.

      I love the Bourne films as well. As a side note …. There was an interesting interview with George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg when they were working on the fourth Indiana Jones (I think it was in Vanity Fair) in which they discussed how the Bourne films had completely changed the action/adventure/thriller genres to the extent that Lucas and Spielberg had to consider where and how they fit in any more and if they should change the directing style to be “more modern” in the Bourne vein. They pretty much said the Bourne movies had created a new model from which all contemporary action movie directors now took their cues. Until I read that article I didn’t think of the Bourne movies as having that big of an impact, but now I see it’s influence everywhere. Just look at the Bond films with Daniel Craig. In the end, of course, Spielberg decided to do his own thing, and I’m so glad he did — even if the movie *was* mediocre. I don’t like uniformity/conformity!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Cynthia, I don’t get what Lucas and Spielberg might’ve been on about. What did they think was so new in the Bourne films? How could those films possibly be more new, different, creative than, say, Blade Runner?

        I’m all weirded about Sexy Beast, trying to figure out why a thin-plot, boring-dialogue film was horridly fascinating, the entire cast of actors (amongst whom are Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, Kingsley playing way against type) doing a magnificent job. My guess is that the film does super-dark satire. My other guess is that it presents its cardboard characters so baldly cardboardy that they feel like real. My further guess is that its stereotyping of criminals, class, USAmericans and capitalism is an elegant-sick sendup.

        • I think they weren’t considering the content or story line at all but the overall look of the film, the camera angles and so forth. Wish I’d kept that article …

          I don’t know what it is about Sexy Beast, but I never even finished watching it (!). Someday I may have to give it another chance. Have you ever seen The Limey w/ Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda? It’s sort of reminiscent of Sexy Beast, and I really loved that one. Also, there was another movie directed by Stephen Frears called The Hit starring Stamp and Tim Roth (in what I think has to be his first movie role) that Sexy Beast had reminded me of when it came out. Liked The Hit far better as well.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          One of the major changes that the Bourne flicks brought about was the characterisation of the film. Damon never smiles, never cracks a joke, never revels in what he’s doing. He’s simply a blunt instrument that breaks everything in his path – in a strange way, the dehumanisation of the character humanises the film, because he’s not this invincible, kill-a-dozen-guys-and-make-a-joke-hero.

  15. […] had in-depth conversations with Simon Smithson on The Expendables and Gloria Harrison on […]

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