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.)
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.]
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.