What in God’s Name Is Happening with The Expendables?

Movies Features Sylvester Stallone
What in God’s Name Is Happening with The Expendables?

Somehow, The Expendables have returned. Hold those you love dear.

Four times now, a cast of B-list genre stars (occasionally supplemented by some bonafide legends who don’t look like they’re filmed in the same room or time zone) have held big guns, spouted one-liners and grizzled into cameras in a garish display of self-gratification that may not be universally felt, but pervades every frame. Every Expendables movie feels like it’s a pastiche of American cinema’s worst instincts playing in the background of an East Asian action film, immediately before they showcase some of the most dazzling and kinetic choreography you’ve ever seen.

Once the superhero wave truly kicked off around the summer of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, adventure spectacle has ruled our cinematic landscape, largely as tentpole and comic-book cinema. Accomplished technicians in the director’s chair have been few and far between (James Cameron, George Miller, you will forever be famous), and underprepared newcomers or faceless studio middlemen have delivered products that plug in most of their excitement in post-production. Despite these films protesting that they’re capable of changing tone and genre, none have ever escaped their uniform style of action—the blandest kind.

And yet, growing from the sidelines until it crested the mainstream, good action movies have created their own space, thanks to international talent and well-experienced craftspeople finally getting their due. Audiences responded to breakout underdogs like The Raid, John Wick, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and cried out for more movies like them. This makes the fact that there are four whole Expendables movies completely baffling.

In 2010, Sylvester Stallone released a throwback to the golden era of Hollywood action movies (which just so happens to be when he was making them): The Expendables. Barney Ross (Stallone) leads an ever-shifting group of mercenaries who guzzle beer and frequent dive bars, and even though there are constant additions and substitutes, the core group seems to be Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), someone named Toll Road??? (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). Other members have included Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Chuck Norris, Yu Nan, Antonio Banderas, Luke Hemsworth, Glen Powell and, with Expend4bles, Megan Fox and 50 Cent. Mickey Rourke appears for five minutes in the first film and is never seen again. 

Please, please, for the love of God, don’t ask me any of those characters’ names.

A sidenote: With any physical bravado in the film industry, you’re always going to run into your fair share of egoists, but there still exists a certain selflessness to the art of stunt performing. Your skills, stamina and willingness to do things human beings aren’t known for liking is rewarded by being nameless, faceless and buried deep down in the credits. Like all of Hollywood’s below-the-line forces, it’s a living—a way to flex unusual skills because you’re invested in this craft improving for all.

This is basically the complete opposite of The Expendables movies. Stallone wanted to lead an ensemble, yes, but one that crucially falls in behind his leadership. In every Expendables film, Barney Ross emanates an aura of pre-programmed respect that every character is vulnerable to—even the jokes at his expense feel like they’ve been run past his team before they could be spoken.

The Expendables, who always boast tats and look like they’re waiting to be fed their next line, all owe Ross a fealty that is never convincingly explained. Any interest in their characters is kneecapped by prioritizing a devotion to a man unable to emote with more than 1.5 eyebrows. Only the villains and turncoats are allowed to dislike him, but Eric Roberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mel Gibson going hater mode still feels like they loathe Ross because he so effortlessly out-badasses them.

Clearly, this franchise is competing (against no one) to fit as many names on a poster as possible, an amusing observation until you realize that every name comes with a hefty price tag, with actors presumably asking for increasingly bloated paychecks once they see what their castmate’s egos are demanding. This results in films with an average production cost of $95 million that never looked more expensive than $20 million.

We can joke about the cast for hours, but the miserable fact remains that The Expendables movies all look unfinished. In an age where digital filmmaking has offered action filmmakers an agile, frenetic visual language to push the genre to new territories and audiences, there is no reason why this series looks like it shouldn’t have been released to general audiences. Plug-in explosions, blatant and shoddy compositing, and entire sandbox landscapes being copied from Garry’s Mod all play a crucial role in making absolutely none of the action land. It’s like they do not care.

Maybe they initially budgeted for good effects, but every superfluous indulgence involved in the productions ate into their allotted post-production money. You want Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis visible in the same shot together? That’s going to cost you shots of helicopters that look like actual helicopters. You want to spend time actually choreographing a fight between Scott Adkins and Jason Statham? Fine, but we have to settle for explosions that were drawn by hand. You want to deal with the multiple lawsuits levied against The Expendables 2, the most detailed not even being the one where a human being lost his life? Ok, but no squibs.

The most perplexing part of The Expendables isn’t just how badly it’s been outmatched by action movies of all budget levels during its lifetime, but that its own stars have done the same in non-Expendables projects. Sly was nominated for an Oscar the year after Expendables 3. Jason Statham has been revived after a comedic tour-de-force in Spy. Lundgren and Van Damme showed up their Expendables 2 performances with the powerhouse Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Terry Crews shot nearly all of the smash hit Brooklyn Nine-Nine after his last regular appearance in the franchise. 

And yet, the franchise wears on, even though Expend4bles shows an age and uselessness like no other installment—it feels like the first Hollywood production entirely directed by a toaster. The film seems like a return to the first entry’s smaller scale—uncinematic digital visuals, a less flashy cast, extensive use of limited locations—not because Stallone et al are returning to the series’ creative roots (it has none), but because they’re forced to, due to a collective lack of interest from both bankrollers and audiences. The universe is telling these actors to do better, to be worth something more than this, and they keep coming back. Maybe they have fun making these. Someone has to.

The Expendables series touts itself as a collaborative effort, but how can Hollywood narcissism ever truly collaborate? How can you humble yourself to platform craft when the most appealing thing about your film is your name in gunmetal-gray block text? How can you work in tandem with more skilled people if the loudest voices all clamor for the biggest spotlight? With every film, The Expendables begs the question, “What is this all for?” The Expendables series has, for 13 years, wanted us to feel like it was in on the joke while laying its void of purpose bare. Go with God, Expendables; if the good truly do die young, you are a corpse trying to convince us your blood runs warm.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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