The Expendables Blu-ray Review
With its 2.40:1 aspect and terrifically in-yet-face and comic-book AVC encode, the visual similarities between The Expendables and the fourth Rambo outing are readily apparent. We have the same director and although it is a different DOP the visual vogue has been clearly established by Stallone and, quite naturally, the final aesthetic makes them volatile peas from the same explosive pod. There is a degree of high contrast and a vivid colour palette that embraces the earthier and sweatier elements. Primaries are bold, and the explosions packed with all the required hues of intense conflagration, but the film also gives the appearance of having been over-saturated at times to give the image a swarthy complexion. From what I recall of the cinematic transfer, this looks pretty faithful to the source. Skin-tones and eye colours, facial detail and this semi-glaring photography actually reminded me of the image for Casino Royale. It looks heightened, but the detail is there for all to see.
Colour-wise, the disc copes admirably, with only one slight bugbear. Sometimes, there is a soft and hazy blue cast to the image that comes over well, whilst at other times it sort of muddies things up a bit, even infiltrating the blacks to dilute the shadows on a couple of occasions. Beyond this, greens and browns are properly saturated, and reds and yellows can be very strong indeed. Just look at the Red Berets, the CG blood, the laser-sights for sharply defined and delightfully popping reds.
Aside from the aforementioned blue/black dilution, The Expendables boasts very impressive black levels. Shadows are well etched and dark portions of the image are smooth and deep. The finale is entirely set amid night-time exteriors or in the subdued lighting of the catacombs. I had no issues with how the transfer coped with any of this – in fact, the picture was incredible, with very satisfying blacks punctuated at all times by impressive shafts of incendiary action. There is no detail lost in the image, no crushing going on. The image remains rock steady, packed, for the most part, with agreeable depth, and proudly emblazoned with bright screen-singeing fireballs.
There are some great crystal clear reflections that we can see in the characters' eyes. The image from the monitor screens as Barney, Lee and Ying-Yang study their surveillance footage from Vilena, for example. And, better yet, that amazing line-of-fire that ignites across Barney's eyes when the fuel-moat goes up in flames. Facial detail is truly astonishing at times. These leathery and haggard visages don't seem to mind the hi-definition process and much of the screen is taken up with crags, bruises, wrinkles, liver-spots, cuts, pockmarks and veins … my God, the veins! Stallone's arms have such chunky knots of these internal roadways that you can almost see the juice flowing through them. They have their own three-dimensionality! The wooden table that Sandra is tied to has oodles of grain, stains and the saturation of the water being poured over her gives it a marvellously crisp and sharp and glistening appearance. Views up and down the streets of New Orleans and in the shanties of Vilena often make for great depth-filled images. But there is a curious look to the distant hills of the island. Sometimes, with activity in the fore- and middle-ground, the far-off mountains appear quite soft and indistinct … but I would say that this was an intentional component worked out with the DOP and nothing to do with the transfer. Anyway, if some of the vistas seems a little milky and digitally bland, the image then usually cuts back to the jaw-droppingly detailed and battered face of one of the leads.
The added definition doesn't help the CG gore, I'm afraid, with the (cut in the UK) spraying blood from the cell-guard's throat looking terribly fake. Mass carnage during the final battle, or the strafing on the pier, however, more than makes up for this, with lots of splashy amputations that are sure to please in sharp 1080p. Something else I noticed regarding the CG backgrounds – embellishments rather than full-on creations, I should add – is that they can stick out a mile now. The night-sky behind Barney and his men as they face-off against the pirates looks poor, as does the moon above the palace later on. These are not faults of the transfer, you understand, merely an indication of how certain things can be highlighted by the greater depth and resolution you can study on your own screens.
My PS3 seemed to be picking up some aliasing during some of the more shadowy action scenes, such as the sequence when the team infiltrate the palace just before the final explosive act. But this didn't hamper my admiration for a very detailed and highly vivid image that was a true blast to watch. No unwanted DNR, no digital noise, no unsightly edge enhancement or artefacts to distract you either. All in all, The Expendables has received a fantastic transfer.
Stallone wanted his film loud … and he got his wish. Now, I don’t want to come over as being disappointed with this DTS-HD MA 7.1 track from Lionsgate, but part of me actually believed that it would sound even bigger and more immersive than this. What? Are you mad? I can almost hear your incredulous voices over the din of the rattling machine-gunfire, the never-ending explosions and the bone-jarring impacts of bodily and vehicular mayhem. Well, yes, I probably am. Mad for it! My disappointment is only slight, I should add, and I will address that side of things shortly.
For now, let's indulge in the audio incendiary that is The Expendables.
The fact is that Lionsgate's BD delivers an awesomely bombastic audio performance that contains some of the most appreciably sustained deep bass rumbles that have uprooted the floorboards for quite some time. It genuinely comes at you from the front like a Tiger Tank, with every bullet, every body-blow, every explosion or vehicular crunch ripping out across the soundstage with ultra aggression. The sound is absolutely clean and vital. Dialogue, despite the mumbling of a lot of the performers, is far more acutely delivered than it was during the several cinematic experiences that I sat through. Brian Tyler's score is excellently rendered with depth, warmth all across the full range and a powerful presence that refuses to bow-down to the ballistic frenzy that otherwise dominates the film. And, in line with this more is more approach that Sly demanded, even the littlest effects are overly embellished. Every ka-chingg of a knife being unclasped, or its whistling flight through the air, and its eventual impact with vulnerable meat is beautifully amplified. Magazine reloads, crumbling masonry, overturned carts and stalls, the sizzle-wheeze of a punctured basketball and the terrific clangings and clunkings of the motor-shop that sees Li and Lundgren going at it are all crystal clear and positioned with delicious alacrity.
Coming back to the dialogue for a moment. Another thing is that much of it that was lost or just plain unintelligible during the chaos is now clearer and better rendered. The film could so easily have been called The Unintelligables at the flicks! Of course, the sound in cinemas is never quite a consistent or properly calibrated medium, but I recall lots of confusion amongst my fellow-audience members each time that I saw the film on the big screen. Li’s lines were often jumbled and squashed, but, despite his vowel-mangling, they now sound considerably better and more understandable. The big line that everyone wanted to grasp and fully enjoy was the evidently so witty and festive-tinged quip that Terry Crews delivered after decimating a corridor full of commandos with that AA-12. People weren’t sure if he was asking after Statham’s character, Lee Christmas, or what. Now I knew what he said, but it still came across as muffled and submerged. Here, though, like with Li’s more simpering lines about fake families and being small, it is much clearer and the humour is finally allowed to come across.
The bombast is martial. Honestly, sitting through the action scenes of The Expendables is like strolling through the Battle of the Bulge. Explosions have enough weight to turn your innards to mush. The massive moment of Garza's palace coming down is absolutely sub-worshipping demo material. The AA-12 going off in the tunnel is something that will have even your neighbours three or four doors down going “He's watching that bit in The Expendables again, Margaret!” And, wow, it sounds so pulverisingly good that it gives you goosebumps.
I think what is missing is the more thorough and comprehensive surround detail that something of this calibre should have warranted. Oh, there is plenty, let's get that cleared up straight away. But there is nothing in this 7.1 configuration that truly stands out and places the surround elements at the top of the category labelled “WOW!” For example, listen to the sea-plane strafing the pier, there is clearly scope and possibly the intention to have “clear” rounds streaming past us, front to back and all the way around, but there is only bleed-through from the main frontal bombast. Again, a instant later when they dump the fuel upon the heads of the enemy, this should also have filtered past us more convincingly. And, later on during the BIG BATTLE, we have plenty of similar situations in which the frontal elements take supreme precedence over the surround support. Let's be clear about it, though, the extra channels do carry lots of information. Massive explosions have surrounding reverb and echo, and bullets do sing around the set-up, plus there is the hubbub of screaming and all-round activity. It is just that given Lionsgate's track record for spot-on surround mixes that regularly make good use of the 7.1 configuration, and given the crucially wild nature of Sly's film, I had just expected more. Having said all that ... for me, this was a simply glorious and exhilarating audio experience, but it was one that was more of a direct frontal assault than a stealthy, encircling all-rounder.
Okay, so we haven’t got the extended cut of The Expendables that were promised, but Stallone has not skimped-out on this initial version of the film’s release. There’s lots of good stuff in here, folks. In fact, scratch that – if you’re a big fan of the Italian Stallion then odds are that you’ll be in bicep-busting heaven with this lot.
For a kick-off, we have one of Sly’s typically excellent and hugely open commentary tracks that goes into a lot of detail about the production. He talks about the script, the locations, the cast, the streamlining of the plot and the dialogue and, of course, about the action and the enormous damage that he, and the others, all received in the name of art. This is wide-ranging and thoroughly engaging. We hear about the difficulties of filming in the confines of a real ship, about working with Willis and Schwarzenegger, about the extensive violence and the stuntwork, the injuries and the constant attention to driving the plot forward. Although it is a shame that Statham’s full fight sequence on the basketball court was trimmed down to only a third of its original length, Stallone is quite right about why he omitted so much of it. His decision may rob us of some of the very thing we love most about the cockney bruiser, but it was definitely done for the right reasons. He is quite amusing when talking about Mickey Rourke’s character and his lack of screentime, explaining that the guy was fitting his performance in around his work on Iron Man II, and that since he looked identical to his mad Russki Death Machine you could basically pretend that Tool was the same person, just on his night-gig as a tattooist. Entertainment is guaranteed with Sly on fine, funny and self-deprecating form.
When you watch the film in Recon-Mode, you are treated to a comprehensive PiP track that boxes-out a portion of the screen and fills it with behind-the-scenes footage. Sometimes we get more than one box with a separate participant to guide us through, and sometimes we leave the film entirely and dip properly into some new material. The feature is utilised often and a great deal of new info is gleaned. Sly's commentary is drafted-in to cover some of the onscreen footage, although I'm sure that it sounded as though he was also providing some new chat, as well. Ahh, I'll have to go back and check on that just to make sure. Naturally a fair amount of the same ground is covered but Stallone and his production teams certainly seem to have planned things out. Together, they deliver fact and trivia and anecdote aplenty, but Stallone ensures that everything is carried out with a great sense of humour and that almost pseudo humility that he has become renowned for.
The magnificence of excess that is the now highly cherished 92-minute making-of, called Inferno, takes up the lion’s share of this extras package. Coming in four parts, but happily played as one big feature if you like, this is a terrific warts ‘n’ all documentary that boasts an all-access fly-on-the-wall type of approach. We can see Sly on-set or location and coming up with ideas – such as the hatch in the sea-plane gag. We witness script evolutions, rehearsals, camera set-ups, costumes and war-paint, and we hear on-set snippets from all the cast and a lot of the crew. By far the most entertaining part is the third section which, bwah-ha-harrrr, focusses on the fisticuffs and the stunt choreography for the big smackdown in the catacombs and, of course, the massive final fire-fight. We see Sly, having just found out that he only has two hours of prep before facing Steve Austin and not the two weeks he had banked on, as he watches the stunt template for what he has to do. Aye, there is blood, sweat and tears on the set. But, horror of horrors, Sly even has close-ups of the incredibly nasty injections he has put into his swollen and twisted ankles to speed up the healing process and allow him back on-set as soon as possible. Cheers, Sly. I was eating at the time. But the injuries mount up and we get to know Sly's doctor quite well with the repeated care that the star needs. Hell, Austin broke Sly's neck! This is basically the epitome of the modern filmmaker's consumer-savvy. Sly knows that we can't get enough of this and, thus, making a film for him now means that he actually making at least two films – with the other being this exhaustive behind-the-scenes documentary.
The might of this gung-ho project is further covered in the 25-minute Post Production Diaries. Here we have a glimpse at the sound editing, the looping of dialogue, the editing of the picture and the evolution of the score from Brian Tyler. Sly allows some conversations to be filmed, and we hear great and honest opinions from all those involved in these key areas. There is also a look at the test screening process and the score-card process that it involves. What is cool about this mini-doc is that Stallone pops up to host it from time to time with a concise and direct agenda that highlights what he was after – BIG sound effects!!! – and steers the direction of the piece. Far from being annoyingly involved with literally everything – it’s MY film and I’ll be in ALL the featurettes and documentaries and commentaries – he is a reassuring captain at the helm. I know that I am biased and I can also imagine that some more casual fans may even become a little cheesed-off with his omnipresence, but I love his total hands-on approach.
This release also features one Deleted Scene. This is an alternative take on Gunner’s introduction during the pirate rescue sequence. Dolph appears and tells a truly awful joke to the leader of the hostage-takers before blowing him in half. Quite honestly, Stallone was right to have rethought this scene because this variation just doesn’t work well at all.
45 minutes of footage of the Comic-Con panel that brought Sly together with the rest of his cast to much acclaim in San Diego July 2010. Hosted by Harry Knowles, from Aintitcoolnews, this is your typically irreverent crowd-pleasing Q & A frequently punctuated by wild whoops and cheers from the excited audience. Of course it is over-the-top, but damn it all, no fan of this stuff, these guys, or just of Stallone, wouldn't want to have been there to see this. To be honest, these guys – Sly, Dolph, Randy, Terry – are hysterical. The anecdotes are fast and fun, and the playful ribbing of one another is often exceptionally cute and clever. Listen out for the bit when Stallone addresses the area of on-set egotism. Daft and over-hyped, over-promoted back-slapping, but crazily addictive at the same time … and especially cool for the flash-flood appearance of Bruce Willis, who was apparently unscheduled.
As well as Liongate BD-Live, D-Box Motion Control (which would be awesome with this film) and a selection of trailers for The Expendables and as well as a slew of other hard-hitters from the cast of the film, this is a triple-disc set that also contains a DVD edition of the film and a digital copy.
This is a terrific all-round package that goes the extra mile in terms of behind-the-scenes material and all-access entertainment. No fan will be disappointed, that's for sure.
One of the most enjoyable movies of the year for me, Sly’s mercenary mash-em-up literally explodes onto Blu-ray with a testosterone-fuelled vengeance. Effortlessly trouncing the other 80’s big screen homage of The A-Team, The Expendables does exactly what its title implies – plot, character, dialogue and mucho ammunition is expended in a colossal guilty pleasure trip of ultra-violence, impossible machismo and colourful in-yer-face uber-chaos. There will be films with more explosions in them than this, but for the life of me, I still can’t think of a single one.
The pace may be slightly off – I know plenty of people who dislike the first half of the film for some perceived lack of energy and pyrotechnics – but no-one can refute the massive momentum and shell-shock verve of the final act of utter bedlam. I loved the film at the flicks, and I actually love it more on disc, where every bone-crunching instant of mayhem and each sizzling, high-calibre killing can be savoured in more detail. I’m not sure what that says about me – but I know what makes me happy. And The Expendables makes me very happy indeed. I simply cannot wait for the sequel. Stallone still rules and this is rip-roaring proof that he will continue to do so for some considerable time to come.
Lionsgate provide a tremendous power-packed release for Sly’s latest, with some incredibly rewarding extras that show, once again, how determined the superstar is to please his fans. The mammoth making-of, Inferno, is worth the asking price alone. There is much to learned and enjoyed from the commentary and the PiP track, and the Comic-Con footage is another hearty gem in this treasure-trove of machismo.
The Expendables is made for a certain demographic. You know who you are and I stand proudly alongside you. It ain't high art. The plot is merely an excuse to drop muscle-bound heroes into a fire-storm and to pummel the viewer with images of wanton brutality. In this endeavour it succeeds better than expected. It is a cross between The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Geese and Extreme Prejudice, but imbued with the larger-than-life super-stature of the 80's. Sitting with like-minded folks, this will bring the house down. And you can bet that the rest of the street will know you're watching it, as well. The bass levels are spectacular, the picture is terrific and the film is primal joy of knee-jerk catharsis.
The Expendables on Blu-ray is anything but expendable. For me, at least, it is indispensable.
Nice one, Sly, and I'm definitely available for duty on the next one if there's an opening.
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