Along with Black Friday, another of the more modern Thanksgiving traditions is the TV marathon put on by various broadcast, and some cable, channels. For example, what is now called the SyFy channel typically ran a Twilight Zone marathon, and BBC America often ran a Doctor Who marathon (I didn’t even think to check for that this year — one more sign of just how disturbing 2020 was.)
This Thanksgiving I decided to create my own marathon after noticing Hulu had all three of The Expendables franchise (although at this point it’s probably better just called a trilogy given how large most movie franchises are).
All three movies, despite being truly dreadful on many — perhaps even most — counts, are surprisingly watchable. Some parts are even really funny (although not always intentionally).
In general, action films are a matter of taste, and that is especially true here. They are action films distilled — the overall plot is thread-thin, and many of the story beats are utterly absurd.
For one thing, lots of canon fodder — armies of faceless bad guys who show up (often inexplicably) in order to be mowed down by the heroes like wheat before the scythe. The villains, of course, are way over the top in their dastardly plans (the villains in the second and third films are worthy of note; I’ll get to that).
These are not films for anyone suffering a testosterone allergy — if testosterone were a visible miasma, these films would be just a thick gray fog. Even the brightest studio lights couldn’t cut through it.
They present an extremely masculine world — a literal boys club of lost warriors. The first and second films offer a passing “love interest” (of sorts) for the main character, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), but it’s more of an agape love, and in neither case a relationship meant to be. Beyond that, women mostly don’t exist in these films (except, in a few cases, as waiting wives or lovers).
Instead, there are lots of bullets (of many calibers) and lots of picturesque explosions (where the pyrotechnics guys use lots of gasoline for massive fireballs). As action films go, these do deliver.
The gimmick is that these films all star the action heroes of the past, and seeing them, even aged, all together in one film is fun (if one was a fan of those action films of the past, and I definitely was).
The main protagonists are Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) who have a friendship (origin never explored) and are the leaders of a band of mercenary heroes (an enterprise that is also never really explored; it just is).
Their band of former warriors is comprised of Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Tool (Mickey Rourke). Tool owns (and never leaves) the New Orleans tattoo parlor that is apparently also the club house for the Expendables.
The films also feature appearances by Bruce Willis (as Mr. Church, a high-ranking CIA officer) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (as “Trench” Mauser). Even Harrison Ford (as Max Drummer) appears in the third one, taking over as the CIA guy.
(The character names are a clue to not take these films seriously.)
Charisma Carpenter (as Lacy) appears briefly in the first two as Jason Statham’s almost entirely off-screen girlfriend. You may remember her from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
As in most action films, each opens with an action scene not particularly related to the main story — it’s just a way to kick things off with a bang (the James Bond films always do this in a big way as a hand-off to the main title sequence).
In the first film (2010), that opening scene serves to set up a conflict between Gunner (Lundgren) and the rest of the team such that he is kicked out (for going too over the top, which is almost a joke given all the people they had just shot). This allows Lundgren to briefly work for the bad guys until he comes to his senses and is forgiven and returned to the fold.
The main villain here is Eric Roberts (as James Monroe); his number one is Steve Austin (as Dan Paine). Monroe is the canonical former CIA agent trained in very dirty tricks but now disavowed by the agency (for, in his eyes, doing his job well). So he has hijacked a small island, Vilena, in the Gulf of Mexico, into making cocaine for him.
CIA agent Bruce Willis (who takes the name “Mr Church” because Stallone first meets him in a church) sends the Expendables on a mission to stop the island’s dictator, General Garza (who is actually being controlled by Monroe).
Stallone and Statham fly their aging sea plane to the island and meet their contact in the resistance, Sandra (Giselle Itié), who turns out to be the General’s daughter. Stallone takes a liking to the lady, and while things initially go pear-shaped and the two men need to flee, Stallone resolves to return with his team to rescue Sandra.
Which results in the big action piece of the film. Oh, so many bullets and explosions. At the end, Stallone leaves Sandra behind so she can begin the work of setting the island right again. (All the bad guys, including her dad, are dead.)
The second film (2012) brings back the same crew, although due to filming commitments, Jet Li only appears in the opening sequence.
Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Carpenter, all reprise their roles. The first two have larger roles here — they get to participate in the action this time.
(In the first film, then Governor of California, Schwarzenegger only makes a brief appearance in the church scene with Willis and Stallone. His term ended in 2011, so he was available for a larger role in the later films.)
The story here centers around five tons of refined plutonium abandoned in a Bulgarian mine by the Soviet Union after the Cold War. The bad guys, led by Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Jean Vilain — the villain), are after the plutonium so they can sell it. Scott Adkins plays main henchman, Hector.
The team has two new members this outing: Maggie Chan (Chinese actress Yu Nan) and Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). The former is forced on them by Bruce Willis, but more than proves her worth (and catches Stallone’s eye, but nothing comes of it). We know Billy is doomed when, early in the film, he says he’s quitting the mercenary life to marry his gal.
One thing about these films: wall-to-wall action, yes, but also wall-to-wall cliches. Nothing about the plots surprises. In fact the films are good examples of what I call “iconic” storytelling — stories that are mostly just a string of well-established icons that don’t really connect with each other. (Icons, to me, are beyond, and more complex than, cliches or troupes.)
Chuck Norris (as Booker) also makes an appearance. (There’s a reference to a well-known satirical fact about Norris: Booker says he was bitten by a cobra, and after a long painful time the cobra finally died.) Booker shows up just in time to save the heroes’ bacon.
[As an aside, if you generally like action films but have never seen JCVD (2008), I highly recommend it. It’s not an action film; it’s something else (it’s billed as a crime drama). I won’t try to describe it; I’ll just say I was quite struck by it. Van Damme can definitely act.]
The third (and for now final) film (2014), brings the Expendables back, this time to deal with deadly arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel freaking Gibson).
Which makes the movie slightly problematic for me, but Gibson is the villain, and one nasty piece of work, so kinda true to life, is what I’m saying. And, of course, he gets his in the end.
It’s a Kevin Spacey level bummer. Gibson certainly must be included in the pantheon of former action heroes — the Lethal Weapon movies are legit classics almost on par with the Die Hard series in terms of defining a genre. Plus there are his Mad Max films, which are also classics.
I’ve already mentioned Harrison Ford takes over the CIA guy role — he manages to get in on the final action scene just as Willis did in the last movie.
I especially enjoyed Wesley Snipes (as Doctor Death), who they break out of prison in the first scene. Death was one of the original Expendables (we’re told), but they didn’t know where he was. Once they did, they broke him out.
Fans of action films will remember Snipes playing the villain in one of my favorite Stallone movies, Demolition Man (1993), a wonderful tongue-in-cheek action romp. Snipes also starred in the Blade trilogy (which I always thought were pretty decent vampire action movies).
I extra especially enjoyed Antonia Banderas (as Galgo). One of my other favorite Stallone movies is Assassins (1995) in which both play expert assassins, but Stallone is number one and Banderas wants his job. It’s a great action romp, and Banderas is over-the-top delightful in it. He kind of plays the same character here, and it’s a lot of fun.
For having truly awful plots (resembling video games more than a movie), I was surprised how watchable the films are.
They are filled with references to action tropes and action films and characters these guys played. (I’m sure many of the gags went over my head.) And there is a fair amount of humor (although, as I mentioned, it may not all have been intended).
And certainly there is no lack of bullets, explosions, or improbable stunts.
Bottom line: they’re just sheer fun, but you’ll have to resolve to ask no questions. Just go with it.
Stay active, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
November 28th, 2020 at 12:16 pm
Once again ran longer than I expected. I didn’t get a chance to mention Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, which is available on Amazon Prime.
It’s originally a web series, but a decent film for all that. Stars two women, good friends, which is a nice change. (And it would pass the Bechdel test with ease.) It’s a superhero parody, and a pretty decent one. I recommend it.
November 28th, 2020 at 12:17 pm
Deadpool 2 is okay, too. Definitely a sequel, but a fun romp. I do prefer things less mainstream, and Deadpool fits that bill.
November 28th, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Regarding the post’s title. Last Action Hero (1993) is my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
It did horribly because it was very badly marketed. It was sold as an action film rather than as the comedy it was, and Arnold’s action fans were disappointed. (It has action, but isn’t a very good action film.)
It’s actually a very clever and very meta comedy that, among other things, was an early pastiche and parody of action films. A pretty damned good one, really, very smart and funny, but sadly probably only to a narrow niche audience.
Will always have a special spot in my heart, though!
November 28th, 2020 at 2:56 pm
Just about every guy I know loves the Expendables movies. But my reaction to them has mostly been “meh”. I think part of the problem is I didn’t enjoy the specific old movies they harken back to all that much, although again, most guys I knew back then did.
It’s not that I dislike these movies. I just don’t find them all that interesting. Maybe if there were an Expendables in Space movie.
No Doctor Who marathon yet on BBCA, at least not that I noticed. Maybe they’ll have one leading up to the Christmas special. (Assuming they’re having that this year.)
November 28th, 2020 at 5:02 pm
If you didn’t care that much for the originals the distillate certainly wouldn’t be very appealing. Really, the only reason to watch these would be because they’re such callbacks to those movies.
I’ve heard there is supposed to be a Doctor Who Christmas special this year, but I pay very little attention to that sort of thing (especially this year). There is also that I’ve realized the last two seasons have cooled my interest notably. Can’t say I’m a fan of the Chibnall era.
November 28th, 2020 at 6:20 pm
I can see it on Doctor Who. In truth, my enthusiasm for the series has been waning ever since Matt Smith left. I have nothing against either Capaldi or Whittaker. I just don’t think the stories have been that good. Last season had its moments, but they were mixed in with a lot of preachy stuff that I find annoying, even when I agree with it.
November 28th, 2020 at 7:04 pm
I’d definitely have to rate Capaldi below the first three. I can even see the complaints about Clara and Bill Potts (Nardole was kinda fun, but also kinda irritating) compared to previous Companions. (Personally, I’ll miss Missy. I do not like the new The Master at all.) I can’t even really rank Whittaker because of the Chibnall reboot, but I haven’t taken to any of the new Companions.
The problem with the social justice stuff is that it’s preaching to the choir, so what’s the point, really? Doctor Who was always intended as a covert history lesson, which is great, some of my favorite episodes, but I don’t need to be preached to about stuff I could as easily preach about myself (and have).
November 28th, 2020 at 5:59 pm
As a family we would do a Harry Potter marathon. My kids and I would count various visual or verbal queues. Spells, Harry’s glasses, creatures, etc. We’d tally the counts and post them. Quite good fun, watching with intent on capturing the counts.
November 28th, 2020 at 6:55 pm
Ha, that does sound like fun and a nice way to see a movie you’ve probably seen before. (I could never do that on a first viewing; I get willfully sucked into the story and would forget to count.)
One of the revival houses in the area does the occasional film marathon, usually either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In between films they bring in pizzas to sell by the slice; it’s an all-day affair. Thing that always caught my eye when seeing those films in a bunch is watching those kids grow up. Or just watch the first and last for a serious time jump.