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‘The Expendables Franchise Exclusive SteelBook Collection’ Walmart Exclusive 4K UHD (review)

Lionsgate

The Expendables series is an unfulfilled promise, an unpaid bill, a workaholic father’s promise to finally take his children to Disneyland.

What ought to have been the beginning of a new era of success for the American action movie has been a story of baffling creative decisions, actors looking for redemption, non-actors looking for credibility, and the occasional diamond in the rough.

The Expendables was Sylvester Stallone’s follow up to the twin triumphs of Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008). Basking in the afterglow of successful send offs for both of his most beloved characters, Stallone began discussing a long germinating project to unite all the most beloved action stars of the 1980’s and pair them with new tough guys who could use the momentum to spin into their own careers as movie tough guys.

The Expendables (2010) is a baffling film. Stallone stars as Barney Ross, leader of a group of mercenaries (Jason Statham, Jet Li, UFC star Randy Couture, and Terry Crews) who are hired to liquidate an ex-CIA crime lord (Eric Roberts) who is propping up a Latin American dictator to protect his crime empire. Mickey Rourke appears in an extended cameo as a logistics associate of the team; WWE star Steve Austin is particularly memorable as Paine, the lead henchman; and Dolph Lundgren has a small role as a traitorous sniper who switches sides throughout the film.

Now you may be looking at that cast list and wondering: “Where are all the big action stars that the film was sold on?” Van Damme and Seagal turned the film down, because they felt their characters had no impact on the story; Mel Gibson was in the midst of a career meltdown and was unavailable; and the two biggest names: Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were relegated to actual cameos in the briefing scene.

Stallone directs, as he did for the aforementioned Rocky and Rambo films and he seems to want to carry forth the latter’s level of ultraviolence into this picture but without any of the grit. Characters constantly make horrible jokes, even by the standards of the genre, and all the banter is wretched to the point where it plays like camp. Bad guys get liquified by gunfire, but all the blood is computer generated and so it has no emotional impact on the viewer. Dead characters return to life with a laugh, as the film seems to acknowledge that you, the audience, were dumb to think that it had any emotional stakes. In fairness, the action is excellent and Jason Statham and Steve Austin feel like they’re in a different, better, film by embracing the pulpy menace inherent in their characters.

The Expendables was lambasted for its bait and switch, but it still made 274 million dollars on an 80 million dollar budget, and so a sequel was greenlit. This time Simon West (Con Air) was tapped to direct, and Stallone talked in interviews about positioning the movie as “a tribute to the martial arts films of the 80’s and 90’s.” Pursuant to that aim, Jean Claude Van Damme, who you may remember turned down a role in the first installment, was hired as the film’s villain. Van Damme was in the midst of a small career revival after the superb JCVD and commits himself to a wonderful performance as a rival mercenary who describes himself as “the pet of Satan.”

The Expendables 2 is a halting step forward for the franchise: the tone is much more consistent and the script is much more disciplined. Willis and Schwarzenegger get expanded screen time, and the banter between the crew of heroes feels more like the actual jokes in cheesy action movies instead of nails on a chalkboard. Most of all, Van Damme’s stylish performance as the villain gives the bog standard story about a world threatening MacGuffin.

The action loses the ultraviolent edge of the first film, however, and thus loses most of its identity. Worst still, all the hand to hand fighting (in this supposed tribute to martial arts films) is badly staged and poorly edited. Stallone and Van Damme’s final fight is one of the most disappointing action sequences I’ve ever seen in a theater. Murky, dull, and shot for economy instead of excitement.

The Expendables 2 was overall an improvement, despite these concerns. It was again financially successful taking in over 300 million in box office receipts worldwide and with Van Damme’s performance receiving legitimate praise. And so, after another two year gap a sequel was green lit and with the strong performance of JCVD as the villain in mind, Mel Gibson, who was now trying to resurrect his career, was cast as the villain. Australian director Patrick Hughes takes over for Simon West and the stage was set for a grand finale to the whole enterprise.

Until the studios got involved.

Lionsgate had distributed the first two films and while neither was a classic or a blockbuster they had gotten two pictures to release that had tripled the budget– which is generally a sign of profit. Someone at Lionsgate however didn’t feel like this was good enough and so at the Cannes Festival of 2014 Stallone announced that the film was shot with a PG-13 rating in mind, to “reach a younger, broader, audience.”

The fans took it as well as you might expect.

The Expendables 3 was envisioned as the final film in the series and so it takes the convention of slamming in as many action stars as possible in increasingly perfunctory cameos is taken to a crazy level: Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, and Kelsey Grammar (?!) all make extended cameos. Mel Gibson and Robert Davi are the principal villains. The action is even more slipshod and toothless than in the second film.

However, like in the second film the script is pretty strong for this series and Mel Gibson’s ultra chilling villain is an even better big bad for the group than Van Damme had been in the previous film. Van Damme of course is a movie star who was showing off a more emotionally committed approach to his roles, but Mel Gibson is a legitimately great actor and he is chilling here. Every showdown between Gibson and Stallone feels like, again, it belongs in a different and better film than this one.

The film alienated much of the audience that had supported the first two films and only grossed 200 million to the 100 million dollar budget. Not a disaster by any means but disappointing when so much of the integrity of the action had been laid at the altar of the almighty dollar.

The first three Expendables films had been made at two year clips but after the reception to the third film it felt like the series had run its course. That’s what made it so surprising that in 2022, Stallone announced he was returning for a fourth film which would put a bow on the entire series.

Despite the series’ history of baiting and switching and disappointment I was cautiously optimistic for the fourth film, which would be rated R and directed by Scott Waugh, who had just successfully teamed Jackie Chan and John Cena in the Netflix hit Hidden Strike. This film would also drop Stallone to the background and focus more on Jason Statham who had always been the MVP of the series’ good guys. Most exciting of all was the inclusion of Iko Uwais (The Raid) and Tony Jaa (SPL 2)– literally the most exciting action stars on the planet.

Indeed Expendables 4, features the best action since the first film in the series. Uwais and Jaa both get the opportunity to shine, and Statham is reliably good. Andy Garcia is a fine villain and the film is a distinct visual improvement over every other film in the series.

So, of course, it has the worst script of all of them.

New team members 50 Cent and Megan Fox put in performances that I can only characterize as “not up to the standard of professional acting”, the story is a mess, the tone is slapdash, the horrible banter which had been somewhat mitigated in the previous two installments is back to its very worst excesses, and even the wretched practice of bringing back dead characters rears its head here. The audience responded to this shallow cash grab in exactly the way you’d expect, and the film is the first outright bomb in the series– grossing only half its budget.

Expendables 4 represents a clear improvement over the previous installments in terms of giving each character something to do, and providing some top shelf gun play, Iko Uwais is the major villain for most of the picture and he gives the story a real sense of danger with how capable he is.

However, the “comedic” interplay between the team members has never been worse and the decision to put Megan Fox’s character front and center strains credibility. Worst of all, the gun play is great but the hand-to-hand action is all over cut and zoomed in on meaning that even when Iko and Tony Jaa are allowed to go ham (and both are given some great fights), you don’t even get to really enjoy it.

The script is going for a “new generation” vibe: several regulars are out, there’s a bunch of new additions and the leadership torch gets passed.

Unfortunately, the script can’t commit to any decision and brings back the series’ annoying penchant for resurrecting characters whenever it is narratively convenient.

The smaller team and new additions should make an emphasis on character development easier, but it’s just shocking how little command the script has of the kind of comedy beats you find in Cannon Films productions.  Every joke lands flat and the editor doesn’t give a single one the right timing, even bits that could’ve been theoretically funny have their audio dumped or cut away from.

The action set pieces are there: anything with scope and scale is a blast (pun intended) and Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa are both given extended sequences to go off and do what they do best– Iko especially gets a late knife fight that has flashes of the lightning speed and merciless choreographed violence that he brought to The Raid but this film lets the guys down the same way WB’s recent Mortal Kombat reboot let down Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim: no script, no grit, no authenticity.

Extras include commentaries, featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, music video, documentaries, an alternate unrated cut of The Expendables 3, and trailers.

I have always wanted to love The Expendables. The first two films show a lot of promise, but the blithe manner in which they are produced which is meant to mimic something like the breezy attitude of Ocean’s 11 undercuts all the tension and highlights the failures and limitations of the storytelling. It’s one thing to play it loosey goosey when you have a genius like Soderbergh, but when half your cast is either non actors or don’t speak English as their first language you need consistency of tone and a script that protects them.

Instead the series remains like one of its trademark cameos: nice, in theory, but it never amounted to much.

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