The Expendables Review
Presuming that most of those reading this review have already seen The Expendables in its theatrical cut format (either at the cinema or on its original bluray release over a year ago), here I shall offer up more of a retrospective look at the film, focussing mainly on the extensive differences between the theatrical cut and this, the new director's extended version, written in anticipation of this year's sequel, which is due for release in August.
There is no question about the fact that I was eagerly anticipating The Expendables, long before even the trailer or promo material was released. After 80s/90s action icon Sylvester Stallone successfully staged his comeback a few years ago, with the one-two punch of Rocky Balboa and Rambo, my expectations were somewhat understandably high for his 80s throwback ensemble actioner. For quite some time before then action movies had been getting more and more tame, the profitability of a PG-13 classification slowly but surely eradicating the violent excesses of the past, or at least relegating them to the DTV pit.
That’s not to say that fun actioners were non-existent – new action icon Jason Statham effortlessly stepped into the breach to provide a slew of entertaining PG-13 vehicles (most notably his Transporter trilogy), which were all theatrically profitable – but the viewing public was getting accustomed to action being merely a part of a much bigger, more substantial whole, and, with the likes of The Matrix, Bourne, Mission: Impossible and, eventually, the successful Bond reboot, all embracing increasingly brutal fight sequences and frenetic chase scenes, and showcasing actual actors – in the traditional sense – performing these stunts, it seemed that both the movies and the action stars of the past were no longer needed.
Stallone’s 2008 Rambo movie went some way towards reminding the general public – and, to a certain extent, the money-driven film studios – that there was still a place for excessive, graphic violence (the kind of thing that director Paul ‘Robocop, Total Recall’ Verhoeven was renowned for – and that brutal, straight meat-and-potatoes actioners no longer needed to be totally dumbed-down, and could be privy to good scripts, solid storylines, interesting characters and decent performances. And, of course, adult violence that didn’t pander to the tastes of the teenage Twilight masses. The fourth Rambo film delivered all of these elements in a way that even the other sequels had not done, and was something of a promise from the near-60-year-old Stallone that his kind of trademark actioners were not out of the game yet. Far from it.
The Expendables boasted an impressive, unprecedentedly large ensemble line-up of (mostly) old action stars, including the likes of Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, with cameos for top action icons Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and lead roles for both Stallone himself and Jason Statham. I’m a sucker for the films of pretty-much of all of them, good or bad, there are plenty of guilty pleasures that I’ve enjoyed, from Unleashed to Commando; from Die Hard 2 to Death Race; from Double Team to The Specialist. The idea of combining them all in one big macho melting pot was an action-film lovers’ dream come true and, no matter how many critically acclaimed movies are in my personal top 50, there’s always room for another great actioner. Why not The Expendables? I mean, honestly, at the time, I thought: “how could it possibly fail?!”
Well, after eagerly chipping off to the cinema fairly early on into its theatrical run, cheerfully bringing along as many like-minded mates as I could muster, I have to say that I came away distinctly underwhelmed. My first reaction was that of unquestionable disappointment, from the opening scene through to the anticlimactic denouement. I was confused: had expected a reworking of The Dirty Dozen; I had expected everything that I had previously assumed Inglourious Basterds would be (not that this was not a good film in its own right), and yet it just seemed like a mish-mash of a dozen other, better movies; a bunch of largely ineffective action scenes strung together by a terrible plot and brought to life by some often inconsistent performances – and for a film called The “Expendables”, it seemed improper for not a single team member to die during the entire course of the movie.
I’d love to blame it on somebody else, especially considering the great work that he had done on Rocky, Rocky Balboa and Rambo, but I felt that the fault largely lay with Stallone himself. As writer/producer/director/star it was hard for him to avoid that blame – his script was like a patchwork quilt; his directorial style massively disjointed with mere sparks of originality in amidst some fairly standard work, and the largely low-budget feel was also pretty inconsistent, with glaring CG effects interfering with the pure enjoyment of some of the action sequences.
It felt like Stallone had come up with a number of clever ideas for action scenes – the opening hostage rescue, the recon ambush and subsequent strafing run, the tunnel fight sequence, and the final shootout – and also penned a number of both witty and purportedly emotionally weighty dialogue pieces, but had not quite ironed out the story framework upon which he was hoping to hang them. Indeed, back when it was little more than a rumour, interest in the production grew exponentially over time, and when test footage garnered favourable responses, it was rumoured that the budget was increased – the Studios behind the film realising that they might be onto a winner and thus being prepared to invest more and more money in it; the trouble was that this clearly had an effect on the evenness of the film: as the budget grew, Stallone was able to do more things, but therefore also had to fit more things in. A straight actioner with an already flimsy framework was now carrying far more weight than it could handle, with some scenes feeling like they were there for little reason other than to spend the extra money that was on hand.
The script was also not strong enough to carry the weight of the big names in the cast, and bring them all together smoothly, with a distinct imbalance formed that only a few select names survived. Of course there were clear cameo roles here, but there were also characters who you felt deserved more time, but who appeared to be relegated to the side-line in favour of more time with the movie’s two clear leads: Stallone and Statham. Whilst I enjoy both of their films, and a team-up would have been great, I felt like I was promised an ensemble actioner, not a buddy-buddy actioner with loads of famous guest stars. Worse still, aside from the story not being strong enough to bind together either the action scenes or the cast, there simply was not enough witty dialogue to keep you hooked on the pure entertainment factor.
It took me a while to pick up the movie on Blu-ray: I was that disappointed. But pick it up I did, as I was still a fan of the work of most of the action stars and pretty-much had to have it in my collection. Eventually I got around to watching it again and a funny thing happened: I enjoyed it a lot more. Going into it with zero expectations – or rather knowing what to expect in terms of bad bits – I was able to devote my time more usefully to enjoying the high points. And there were plenty more than when I first watched the film.
Right from the outset the witty repartee seemed more enjoyable, with Stallone and Statham arguing over bullets vs. knives and it actually feeling quite humorous. Of course Dolph Ludgren was the real star of the show for me, the real surprise. Even on the theatrical run he stood out; he’s an actor who I’d heard was actually quite adept at making competent, efficient action films, albeit on DTV – and of a far higher standard than the likes I was used to enduring from my own personal favourite action star, Steven Seagal. And yet because I wasn’t Dolph’s biggest follower (beyond Universal Soldier), I didn’t really realise what he was capable of. Both Universal Soldier: Regeneration and The Expendables changed that. His characters in both films just had more depth and layers to them than many of the other cardboard cut-out heroes, like he had actually put some thought into the role.
Of course the story still got in the way of my full enjoyment of the film, even on a second time around. I struggled with the way in which Stallone and Statham accepted the job knowing it was a suicide run, then went on a recon only to find it was, um, likely to be difficult, and promptly returned to call the job off. Well, what did they expect? Mickey Rourke’s handler and ex-expendable, Tool, had sold it to them as ‘to hell and back’, if they wanted an easy run then perhaps they should have accepted one of his ‘a walk in a park’ missions instead!
Then, after a sombre conversation between Stallone’s team leader, Barney Ross, and Rourke’s handler, in which Rourke gets to do his trademark soliloquy, to reasonably good effect, we find Stallone drawn back to the fight for all the wrong reasons: for a girl. Let’s get this straight, it’s a girl he met for about five minutes, who he shared absolutely zero chemistry with, who was young enough to clearly be his daughter, and who happened to be the daughter of the vicious general in charge of the small country that he was planning to invade. It made absolutely no sense for them to go back for her. Even with Rourke’s soliloquy resonating in Stallone’s head.
And the random chase sequence just feels out of place, like they thought – we haven’t had an action scene for ten minutes, let’s just throw in a chase followed by a random face-off between two of the stars. Stallone’s direction during the chase also felt all over the place, making it feel like it was truly a chase scene out of an 80s movie – and not in a good way. And the ‘death’ scene? Totally anticlimactic, particularly since the character clearly wasn’t really evil, just a little misguided and suffering from more than his fair share of PTSD after working too long with the group.
The final act was a lot more fun though: just a succession of action scenes all interwoven, from Jet Li fighting Gary Daniels to Stallone grappling Steve Austin, from Terry Crews’s slaughterhouse automatic shotgun spree (which is still a standout moment) to Randy Couture wrestling Steve Austin into an inferno. Although I still felt that Stallone could have learned a bit from The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy when it comes to against-odds shootout (particularly in terms of the body count on the side of the heroes), there were some real gems to be found across this extended action sequence: from Stallone’s showcase of the fastest shooting-reloading-shooting of a handgun that I have ever seen, to Statham doing some quick kick-shoot-spin-throw knife moves which looked pretty damn cool.
Stallone himself appeared to be blending together aspects of a number of characters from his own film history: taking the goatee from his unnecessary Get Carter remake, the beret and combat gear from Demolition Man, and the distinctive car from Cobra, as well as, of course, adding plenty of nods towards Rambo into the mix – and it was finally working for him. Sure, he looked old, but hell he is old. How many 60-somethings could you imagine pulling off anything even remotely like this though?!
Pretty-soon the massive success of the film saw the sequel(s) being green-lit, and the cast list looked to be only getting bigger by the minute, with all the cast (but Rourke) returning, as well as Chuck Norris, Scott Adkins and Jean-Claude Van Damme as the new villain. Both Arnie and Bruce Willis were also back on board, reportedly getting their cameo roles (which were just a few brief lines of dialogue in the first film) expanded to more action-driven parts in the sequel.
Despite my initial disappointment with the first movie, and my somewhat critical views of everything that was wrong with it, I could still see some good in it, particularly second time around, and I also felt like a second movie might give the whole group a chance to make good on their original intentions. Surprisingly, I’m really looking forward to it.
In the meantime Stallone was serving his fanbase admirably by releasing his much-rumoured extended director’s cut. He’d twittered about it some time back, and the longer it took to be released, the more you got the feeling that the changes would be significant. Needless to say, all of a sudden my hopes were back up: perhaps Stallone had gone back and fixed the issues with the film, tied it all up in a much better, more efficient way, and delivered on his promise of the ultimate retro actioner.
Extended Director’s Cut vs. Theatrical Cut
There’s no doubt that The Expendables: Extended Director’s Cut is considerably better than the Theatrical Cut.
Running in at just less than 10 minutes longer, it is probably the best that Stallone – or anybody – could have done with the material that was shot, short of making some drastic cuts and re-dubbing significant portions of dialogue. It’s still far from a perfect movie, but it is edited together much more smoothly; the humour is well-placed and seems to have more of a spark; and the action sequences are fluid and gel together better.
Unfortunately it gets off to a fairly rocky start: one which even some fans might have trouble getting past. Even before the production credits appear we have a weird opening monologue – a gloomy little ditty from Stallone’s character mumbling “We are the shadows...and the smoke in your eyes. We are the ghosts...that hide...in the night.” Honestly, he sounds like Vincent Price on Michael Jackson’s Thriller Music Video, as if he’s hamming it up to the max, and it does not really set the tone for this superior cut, nor for the movie in general.
The opening sequence is better cut, with Lundgren’s unhinged Gunnar Jensen getting a little more time to show just how unhinged he has become. Through a slight re-editing of the shots, Stallone crafts a much more satisfying prologue, with better dialogue and more refined action. But then he falls back two steps with his post-action title sequence, that runs, really slowly, over a newly added track (Sinner’s Prayer by Sully Erna). Whilst I don’t think it’s a total loss, and approve of Stallone trying to slow the pace a little so that the audience don’t expect wall-to-wall-action, the title sequence just takes too long to roll, as if you’ve got to sit through the entire plane journey montage just to get back into the real story.
Soon we’re into character development territory, and the next major difference comes when Statham’s Lee Christmas is confronting his ex-girlfriend (played by Buffy’s Charisma Carpenter). These two are given considerably better dialogue, with Carpenter actually emoting possibly for the first time in her career, and immediately we care more about the characters, which sets things up well for the later scenes.
Statham’s character is now painted as being more depressed and down on his luck – unable to even win a knife-fight against Tool (when he had never lost before) – and he more overtly goes looking for help from his friend and mentor, Stallone’s Barney Ross. Whilst the tragedy is not particularly capitalised upon, we do get a hint of him feeling that Ross has let him down; that he is too preoccupied with his own demons to notice that Christmas is in such a mess. Even Tool notices it.
After being given their assignment, Christmas immediately questions their motives for going on this mission, stating that they’d previously always gone after people who deserved it, where here they appeared to be doing it for the wrong reasons; he further accuses Barney of having a black heart from all the heinous stuff that he has had to do, becoming cold after all his time killing people. We are then confronted by Lundgren, who again manages to better establish the tension between his character and the rest of the team, and the knife-edge that he is walking.
When they take their recon trip, the dialogue between Stallone and Statham is also further improved, both in terms of the witty banter, and the actual background information that is trickled out during their conversations. It’s part touching, part humorous, and it further develops the notion that Barney is lost, Christmas is fed up, and that the girl that they are supposed to help – Sandra – is the only one who has a true purpose in life.
After returning to home territory, when Christmas finds that his ex has been hit by her boyfriend, the scene immediately has more significance because of the better set-up, and thus lending more weight to the subsequent action scene on the basketball court – one which previously felt like just a flimsy excuse to have Statham do his trademark 6-on-1 fighting.
The fight sequence between Lundgren and Jet Li is considerably better edited now too, with Lundgren having had better character before, and with the dialogue during the fight improved so that the action feels less farcical and more significant.
A running joke about Gunnar’s Viking funeral request actually plays out quite well too, injecting just the right amount of humour at just the right time, before we cut to the action-packed finale.
Now the entire last half-hour of the film is basically one big action scene, and whilst there were many nice touches throughout this sequence, the overall end result did not work that satisfactorily in the theatrical cut. Here Stallone has once again re-edited several of the scenes, adding nice moments here and there to make them more coherent, more significant and make them gel better together – his capture and brief torture is expanded to include more punishing blows, and the ensuing action works far better, from the confrontation between Lee and Gary Daniels to the better resolution of Randy Couture’s ‘injury’.
The final ‘Wild Bunch’ moment, whilst still not perfectly realised, does work considerably better now that it is re-edited and cut to an entirely new song (rather than the original scoring), with Diamond Eyes, by Shinedown, playing out as they blow up the compound and run out all-guns-blazing. Stallone also cuts down on the CG explosion moments, which is a clever thing as too much CG certainly took me out of the movie first time around, and here it’s easier to get past (similarly, with the fight between Randy Couture and Steve Austin, Austin’s CG ‘on fire’ sequence has been reduced to the bare minimum, which makes it far more tolerable). It’s amazing how much less CGI and a better soundtrack can work wonders on the same material, albeit tinkered with here and there, and this new Expendables conclusion is far more satisfying.
Rounding it all out, we get a less joke-driven epilogue, where Lundgren’s character doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, and is better re-integrated into the team. Still not perfect, it’s also a more satisfying way to close out the characters’ story.
All in all I didn’t particularly enjoy The Expendables first time around, but it certainly has grown on me, and my review will hopefully reach those who similarly found it hard to enjoy on a first run, and who should definitely give it another shot.
It’s a far from perfect film, the Theatrical Cut attempting to be a throwback 80s action vehicle yet woefully employing CG, bad editing and out-of-place humour in a futile attempt to supposedly mask the low budget origins, where instead it should have been embracing the old days of bloody squibs and real explosions.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of lovely little touches that make it a more entertaining movie, and a more enjoyable watch – moments which are easier to absorb on a second viewing when you know what to expect, and can set your expectations to ‘low’.
The Extended Director’s Cut goes one further, and Stallone appears to have learned a great deal in the year that he has had to refine and tinker with his baby, stripping out much of the unnecessary, frankly cheap, effects, and re-editing the action more smoothly, whilst interspersing better dramatic dialogue and better witty banter between the characters, who are, in turn given better development.
Watch it for the better soundtrack, the improved editing, more appropriate humour and better developed characters; watch it for Dolph Lundgren’s surprisingly nuanced anti-hero turn, Stallone’s darker, more disillusioned leader of the pack, and Statham’s more down-on-his-luck partner, with his own, now more significant backstory. Watch it for better everything all round. And, if this is anything to go by, then clearly Stallone has learned from his mistakes and, hopefully, even under the different direction of Simon West (The Mechanic, Con Air, Tomb Raider), the sequel will follow suit and be bigger, better and more substantial.