Before I start this column (blog entry), I’d like to talk to you about a friend of mine you may already know. Spider Robinson has written a lot of books; with his late wife, Jeanne Robinson, he wrote the Stardance Trilogy. Under his own name he wrote the Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series. He also wrote a number of standalone books (Night of Power, etc.) and finished an unfinished Robert A. Heinlein book, Variable Star. Unfortunately, his wife died of cancer a very few years ago. Now his daughter, Terri Luanna Robinson da Silva, is in the hospital, probably in the terminal stage of cancer. Her Stage 4 breast cancer has metastasized. The family is faced with enormous hospital bills, and Spider’s bank account is also empty. I’m posting a link to a crowdfunding site I created to help a) pay Terri’s bills and b) help Spider stay at her bedside during this difficult time. If you feel you can send any amount, even a dollar, please do. The site does not charge (but you can donate if you feel like it.) Thanks very much for your attention to this matter. http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/terri-s-stage-4-cancer-fight/269274
On to the review. A few years ago, Sylvester “Sly” Stallone got a wicked notion that an action movie starring the so-called “greatest” action stars of the past few decades would be an instant hit. (For those of you who only think of him as an actor, remember that he’s a writer—Oscar-winning—as well as an actor and a director.) Okay, to be fair, he didn’t write the original story, but he did co-write the screenplay. So he got together with a few friends, like Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—at that point, probably the best-known action stars of the yada yada, and made a movie about a bunch of aging mercenaries who refuse to quit, and who, hired by a man named Church (Bruce Willis) go to an unnamed South American country to confront a dictator. Shades of Noriega!
Of course, not all of the above were movie stars; Terry Crews was a football player, Randy Couture was a WWE wrestler, as was Steve Austin. But it was the first time this number of celebrities (“action” celebrities—besides his movie career, Eric Roberts was a karate champion, as was Dolph Lundgren) had appeared together. It was also the first time Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis had appeared on the screen together, in spite of the fact that they (with Willis’s ex-wife, Demi Moore) had been partners in Planet Hollywood. (Rumours abound that the scene showing all three had been shot with body doubles facing away from the camera in all two- and three-shots; supposedly none of those actors was ever in a studio with the other two.) Charisma Carpenter (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel TV series) also had a bit part.
Although the movie was a fairly standard action movie, it was written (I’m thinking that’s Sly’s contribution, here) with a lot of flair and a surprising amount of humour, mocking not only the stars’ stature as “action heroes,” but also some of their previous movie work. Although the beginning budget of $50 million quickly ballooned to $80 million, the movie was a financial success, earning over $120 million worldwide. Sequel, anyone?
Before you could say “Why the heck weren’t Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris in The Expendables,” Expendables II came out, adding Jean-Claude Van Damme as well as Thor’s brother, Liam Hemsworth. (For both movies, Stallone had attempted to get other celebrities, like Jackie Chan and John Travolta, but scheduling for the shoots (among other things; it’s said that Chan refused to be in a movie where he wasn’t the star) made it impossible. Schwarzenegger filmed his part in five days, as he was working on The Last Stand at the time. Norris came out of semi-retirement just to be in this movie.) Although the storyline was (in my opinion) a bit better, and the humour ditto (there were lots of in-jokes, like Ahnold’s “I’ll be back” line being parodied here, for example), the movie was not a financial success, costing over $90 million dollars, but only bringing in $85 mil to date, according to IMDB. Interestingly enough, Van Damme had refused to be in the first one because his character “lacked depth.” This time, his character was named “Vilain” because a) he was a villain; and b) it was a play on the 19th-century French poet Paul Verlain, who’d had a famous affair with the poet Rimbaud. The whole name thing amounted to an in-joke for Sly Stallone. (You see, “Rimbaud” is pronounced, in French, “Rambo.” Get it? Verlaine vs. Rambo. Aw, I guess you had to be there.) All the previous main actors reprised their roles.
Nevertheless, a sequel was planned and executed. (That’s MY in-joke.) Expendables 3 has just come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. It’s unknown at this point what the movie cost to make; but with an opening weekend of $15 mil and a gross to mid-October of $30 million, it may be the last Expendables we’ll see. Which might be a shame, but we’ll get to that.
Some of the previous characters are not back for number 3. Bruce Willis apparently had enough—his roles amounted to little more than cameos anyway—and declined a return for under $1 million a day, so Harrison Ford, a newcomer to the franchise, announced that he’d retired Mr. Church… permanently. Mickey Rourke, as Tool, and Charisma Carpenter (as Jason Statham’s love interest) are also missing without explanation. We find in the early stages of the film that Barney Ross (Stallone) has hung the dogtags of all the late (dead) Expendables in the plane so that “their jingling will remind us that they’re still around.” But first they must rescue Doctor “Doc” Death (Wesley Snipes) from prison, which they do, blowing up a prison to do so. The remaining Expendables are on a mission to Mogadishu, Somalia, when Ross finds out their antagonist is Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), the co-founder of The Expendables, whom Barney had thought he killed years ago. In Mogadishu, Stonebanks shoots Hale Cesar (Terry Crews) in the chest. Ross finds out that Stonebanks, under a different name, had been in the CIA’s sights for years, earning billions of dollars as an arms dealer. The CIA’s man Drummer (Ford), hires Ross to bring Stonebanks back to The Hague for trial.
Back at the hangar in the US, Ross fires all the old-school Expendables, telling them they’d done enough and it was time for them to retire. Though they balk, eventually they agree. With Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Ross recruits a new team, consisting of Thorn (Glen Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey) and Smiley (Kellan Lutz), but not Galgo (Antonio Banderas), who really, really wants to be part of the team.
The new kids run off to Bulgaria (well, I’m not sure if Bulgaria’s standing in for Bulgaria; it’s a bit confusing. We’ll talk about that in a moment.) and promptly get captured by Stonebanks. Stallone has to recruit his old team to help go rescue his new team. It was obvious from the start, of course, but I guess a bit of that’s obligatory.
The rest of the movie continues in a somewhat predictable way, with a final showdown between Stallone and Gibson. (If you consider that a spoiler, you probably are new to the genre.) The real surprises here are Banderas and Rousey—he steals the show almost from the moment he appears; he plays an older wannabe merc (he’s 52 in real life) trying to masquerade as one of “the kids,” who keeps getting passed over because… well, if you watch, you’ll see. He’s very funny. And Ronda Rousey is a delight—if you read my other reviews you’ll know I’m very attracted to good-looking women who can totally kick butt… and Rousey is an MMA champion in real life! She resembles a somewhat sturdier Diana Krall (What? You expect an MMA fighter to be willowy?), and she’s also blonde. But she has a terrific smile when you get to see it.
For some reason, they neglected the character-based humour—which was not the second movie’s problem—and opted to up the bullets, explosions and bodies. As one of the producers said, “You stop thinking of them as people and just think of them as bodies.” I think that’s a problem for most movie-goers, even the 17-25-year-old males, as it takes on a somewhat cartoony feel, and ceases to involve the viewer. (Of course, Ronda’s character will probably bring in more of that particular demographic.) And I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Wesley Snipes was brought in so that all the dead Black men in Mogadishu wouldn’t cause a Politically Correct problem. Maybe I’m too cynical in that respect. Or maybe not.
There’s little CGI in this movie, too… much of what happens is what’s called “practical” effects, where things really do blow up and so on. I applaud that, because although CGI can help a movie’s effects, in most cases (except Jurassic Park-type movies) it really is overused. Since the whole movie (even the Somalia parts) was filmed in and around Sofia, Bulgaria, which is really becoming an Eastern-European movie hub of sorts, they had the freedom to blow up a whole lot of stuff. In this film, a hospital that was never completed and was left, basically to rot, becomes a hotel-casino that fell victim to whatever wars have ravaged this former Soviet state. Plus, the filmmakers had access to lots of hardware (including tanks) that aren’t usually available in Hollywood for, I’m guessing, a lot less money than it would have cost in the US.
The movie is okay—considering that it has something like 16-17 “stars,” but not really what we might expect from this franchise. I think Banderas saved the movie from being a dud; we went from being disappointed to delighted when he appeared. Gibson seems to be reprising his character from the Lethal Weapon franchise (hey, I’m surprised they didn’t ask Danny Glover to appear. Then we would have had practically all of Lethal Weapon 3… or is it 4?); Jet Li has only a few minutes’ screen time (and did none of what he’s famous for), and so on. It was good, but maybe it could have been better. (Oh, and see if you get the Judge Dredd reference near the end of the movie.)
What lifted this movie for me was, surprisingly, the extras on the disc. There’s a very long (seems like it was half an hour or so) “making of” documentary, a feature on the new people, and a gag reel. Antonio Banderas appears to be at least as much fun on the set as he is in character; and they all said Stallone has a terrific sense of humour. I thought it was very funny to hear all the younger actors talk about how they “grew up” watching the original Expendables actors; how Ronda “felt sexy” being tied up next to Antonio Banderas, and so on. Quite enjoyable, and even Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson clowned around a bit. If you do buy or rent the movie, get a physical disc—if you don’t have a local video store like we do, see about renting from Red Box—because the extras make you appreciate how bloody much work it was to make this whole thing. (Hey, just trying to schedule 16 different actors, who all have careers of their own, must have taken ages.)
So what was my take on Expendables 3? Hmm. I’d give it a thumbs up, especially if you’re a completist and have to see the whole series. But it won’t go on my “Best of the year” shelf, that’s certain. I will, however, hope for an Expendables 4. And I’ll watch it. (Because I’m incurable, probably.)
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