THE EXPENDABLES: Perhaps They Are
by Craig Reid
For decades, Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan have been good friends. The two often pined on about each other with great mutual fandom and respect in the kind of action that each had become known for throughout their careers. In the 1980s there was a ton of talk about Chan and Stallone finally getting to do a film together. It was reported that in RAMBO 3 (1988) Chan would be playing a similar character to his ARMOR OF GOD (1987) role. However, in ARMOR OF GOD, Chan had that famous stunt gone awry accident that almost killed him. At that time, Chan was beyond indisposed, so Stallone did RAMBO 3 without Chan. The movie silenced the franchise for 20 years when found new blood with RAMBO (2008). And now with RAMBO 5 being announced as a green-lit project, the absolute final part of the franchise.
Although during the 1990s Chan told me there was still hope for a Stallone/Chan project, Chan's films have recently been taking on a different sensibility. It was the kind of direction that eliminated any consideration for Chan in THE EXPENDABLES. On the other hand, there's Jet Li. His pairing with Jason Statham in WAR (2007), a marginal martial arts film made after his 'final' martial arts film FEARLESS, made Li a prime candidate to be the major Chinese kung fu film star for Stallone's EXPENDABLES. Just like with Li's character in this film, Yin Yang, the Taoist philosophical tenet of balance, the Rambo shtick has returned as a small circle of RAMBO 2. It became the title impetus behind THE EXPENDABLES. One of the famous lines from RAMBO 2 is when Rambo's love interest Co Bao (played by actress Julia Nickson), puppy-eyed says, "Rambo, you are not expendable." The line resonated with Stallone then and now we have the end product.
Similar to Rambo this wayward group of hardened mercenaries known as the Expendables also only know a life of war, where the only loyalty they know is to each other. Roll call: Barney Ross, (Stallone), leader and mastermind; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), former SAS blade expert and not the kind of gift baddies want around his holiday namesake; Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), his knife as sharp as his sniper abilities; Toll Road (Randy Couture), demolitions expert with a dynamite temper and explosive fisticuffs; Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), long barrel weapons specialist who is more like Carthage's Hannibal than Rome's Caesar, as if he is a play on some tall person being nicknamed "Shorty," and Yin Yang (Li), hand-to-hand combat specialist where the balance of his name is good for the Expendables and bad for the villains.
The only problem is that because Yin Yang is a short Asian man, the Expendables are comprised not of six men, but five and a half men. No joke there on the virility of Asians...right? It's this sort of stereotype that the other Lee, Bruce Lee, tried to eliminate. Here we are in 2010 doing it again. So much for racist humor by Stallone and his co-writer - guess they thought that was funny. The few Asians I saw in the audience were not amused with the "joke."
Their assignment: A seemingly-innocent routine job becomes a suicide mission, filled with deadly choices that will either redeem their crooked souls or destroy their warped brotherhood forever. All they have to do is infiltrate the South American, island nation of Vilena and take out the dictator. In reality, Vilena is a village in Columbia, but for THE EXPENDABLES, it is a country of danger. It is filled with what Arnold Schwarzenegger used to say about all of his films, "You've got the good guys, the bad guys, the explosions, a lot of action, it's a great movie." Oh, did I forget to mention that for the first and last time in cinema history there is a highly cool scene in which Bruce Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone appear together? Stallone recalls, "It was one of those ridiculous pipedreams. They're old friends. But Arnold's the governor and Bruce is a multi-million dollar actor. But I said 'Well, why not? Let me just try.'"
Both actors were willing, but it took nearly six months after shooting was over to find a window when Schwarzenegger had time off from "saving" the state of California that matched up with Willis' schedule. "We did it at like four o'clock on a Saturday morning in a church and nobody knew it was there. Everyone brought their own clothes. It was like stealth," reminisces Stallone. "And by seven, we didn't exist. Boom, gone! They were fantastic. It's probably one of the best scenes in the movie. The crew couldn't believe it. The wattage in that room was unbelievable. The producer told me that seeing us all together, it was mesmerizing." To be fair to the film, it is an interesting scene with a couple of good one-liners that are probably the best in the movie.
Of course when you add into this mix the likes of Steve Austin (not the Six Million Dollar Man but the wrestler), the rugged Mickey Rourke, the iconic tough guy Eric Roberts and the English-born kickboxing champion Gary Daniels, then the film bursts at the seams as Stallone gleefully posits in yet another group of adjectives commonly used to describe the kind of rugged cast the movie features. "A gritty, adrenaline-fueled odyssey, harkening back to a time when every punch was real and brute strength and sweat were supplied by the actors themselves."
Even the film's lone female lead, Brazilian actress Giselle Itie' (Eet-she) had to be a part of this "testosterone-driven" bunch as out of a worldwide casting call, she got the role via her extensive training in boxing and jiu jitsu.
Stallone admits that the film was inspired by classic action films like THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE WILD BUNCH and DOGS OF WAR - movies defined by hard-hitting action, tough yet sympathetic characters and resonant, populist themes. "I wanted to tell a story about men who are out of sync with the world but who live their lives by a certain code. They don't have families, their personal lives are a train wreck - all they have is each other. These guys are definitely anti-heroes," he explains. "At one time they had a code that they'd only go after people who deserved it. They killed killers. But then it became all about the money and they lost their way. With Rocky or even Rambo, there was a line they wouldn't cross. Barney and his crew have crossed that line somehow, and they need to get back on the right side of it.
"At the end of the day, this movie was shot with brains and brawn, not modern technology. This is all about real fighting. Mano-a-mano. Keeping things as real as possible, instead of falling back on CGI. It's the kind of filmmaking I grew up on, and that's the way I direct."
According to producer John Thompson, the cast and crew had to be prepared to keep up with Stallone's fast pace and flexible shooting style every day on set. They had to be ready for anything. In fact, the way Stallone shoots a script and his action is similar to the Chinese kung fu films of the '70s through the early '90s. He doesn't use shot lists. He decides what he wants to do on the day, which makes it a very fluid, organic process. Stallone would often use up to five cameras and a steady-cam to capture the scope of the action sequences.
Thompson recalls, "There was a week where we had four separate units running at once and Sly was running every one of them. I think he's one of the top action directors in Hollywood right now. There are very few people that shoot action like he shoots. The special nature of this action film is because of Sly's directing."
While many of the stunts in the film could have been faked using CGI, Stallone called upon his actors to perform the lion's share themselves. To choreograph and implement the complex and often dangerous stunts, Sly brought in supervising stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, who had to recruit 73 stunt specialists from all over the United States to facilitate Stallone's vision. "Sly is very creative on the day and very collaborative," explains Stahelski, "so we tried to show him what was possible while still keeping safety in mind. Then he would choose the direction he wanted to go in."
One can only imagine what it must have been like on set with all these established actors known for action and mayhem, punching and kicking, fighting and shooting, a veritable League of Super Heroes. Rumors abounded that everyone in the cast was even star struck as these imposing personalities must have cranked up the electricity to an already high powered group of hyper kinetic bundles of energy producing reactions.
However, here's the kicker. THE EXPENDABLES is as good as WAR meets RAMBO 3 partially wrapped in CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE, but with a positive hint of THE TRANSPORTER. Is that good or bad? Depends on who you are and what you expect out of each of these living legends. Apparently my expectations were too high. Within the 15 minutes, the mood, acting (for most actors), scriptwriting, "humorous" one-liners, action and fight choreography, and directing reminded me of Tiger Woods' comeback to the golfing world.
Li looks out of place. His dialogue doesn't do him much justice. His running joke on size gets old quickly. Li brought in Corey Yuen and three members of his stunt team to choreograph his fight scenes. This also looks to be a waste of time and talent as Li's fights are shot just as poorly as all the other fights in the film. It's the usual Hollywood-style shot fight scenes that have been plaguing American films for the past five or so years. It's all close shots and snappy editing. You can't see anything and there is zero creativity. It is good that Chan never did this film. The irony is that the best choice for the Asian part, in this politically-correct casting, would have been Robin Shou, who has an authentic rugged look that would easily blended in with the film's sensibility. I wonder if Wesley Snipes, an established African-American action hero, was ever considered for the part of Caesar.
Yet when it came to the fights, Stallone mentions that he was going for reality. But let's face it, no fight on any TV program or film can be real unless it's in a ring or octagon. There's really nothing cool about any of the action sequence as the audience sat in total quite waiting for that "Ooooaaaa" moment that never came. To further compound the dizzying look of the fights, Stallone used that jerky camera motion made famous in the first few seasons of NYPD BLUE (1993). The expected MMA vs. WWF fight scene does occur, perhaps a symbol of one dying out as the other gets stronger.
True, as Schwarzenegger said, "We got the good guys, the bad guys, the explosions and lots of 'action,'" but there's just too much illogic. There's one scene that is as clichéd as when a fast running lady is being chased by a slow, limping Mummy in one of those old horror films. It's the part that if she just walks briskly, the Mummy would never catch her. Yet, she runs and runs and runs, then falls down for a split second, only to turn and see the Mummy's reaching down to pick her up.
Even the villains are not that especially bad. In fact, the ruthless South American dictator is actually a man with a conscience. It really feels like this screenplay was written by a bunch of giddy writers during a spare weekend where they just wanted to see what they could do in two days. I've done that and it rarely works out that well, as in this film. Then there's the car chase scenes, which for some reason look like they were shot at slower camera speeds in order to make the cars look like they're moving fast.
The film's saving grace is Statham, Rourke and the soundtrack. Will it be enough to make this film a summer blockbuster or will the movie become its title... EXPENDABLE?
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Written by Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM