Originally this article should have been titled « Everything that’s wrong with The A-Team » but yesterday’s Expendables manage to underwhelm even more.
Let me start this with one important notice: I did not expect the Godfather when watching Expendables. All I wanted was some good old school testosterone action. To watch some of the coolest guys in the business shoot the shit out of a random stereotype dictator, you know… old school. I don’t have a problem with dumb action movies, man I wanted Expendables to be one of those dumb action movies and boy was I wrong.
So right now I’m gonna break down The Expendables point by point to expose this failure that should have been the manliest movie of all time.
Number 1: Blatantly false advertisement
Don’t let the advertisements fool you, basically the movie could have been called “Stallone and Statham doing some stuff” since the other Expendables (Jet Li, Gary Daniels, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren) just pop up at the beginning and near the end.
And the three names besides Stallone, Statham and Li we actually give a damn about (Schwarzenegger, Willis and Rourke) are nothing more than useless cameos.
So if you expected Arnie, Bruce, Mickey, Stallone, Statham in a movie, like way too many ads imply, then don’t get your hopes up, it is just a cheap marketing gimmick to get our hopes up.
A similar thing happened with Inglourious Basterds last year, which was advertised as a Nazi-slaughtering Dirty Dozen movie, the ad-campaign deliberately avoided to tell us that half of the movie would be a revenge story about a french cinema and eating strudel.
Why didn’t we care? Because Shosanna’s story was compelling, well- acted and well written and there was Nazi-killing put in thorough the movie.
With that warning we can now look at the actual movie, starting with
Number 2: The movie is not sure what it is
This is probably the worst mistake of Expendables.
The movie is definitely modelled after those great 80s movies (*cough* Commando *cough*) but it can’t decide if it is a tribute to those movie (ergo reflecting back to the days) or if it is a movie made today but with an intention as if it was planned and produced back then.
The first route usually lets our hero reflect the path that he has come until today. There will be a convenient plotdevice that will bring the man back from retirement to show us again why he is the biggest badass in town (see the last Rambo movie).
But that’s not the case with Expendables, except for the one minute cameo of Schwarzenegger where they more or less break the fourth wall and talk about their movie pasts and political future. The scene while pointless was probably the funniest scene because it was written with the audience in mind and they just have fun playing “who’s the bigger badass”, but then the scene ends and we are back to a wannabe serious action movie until the next punch hits us:
Number 3: The movie is missing the point
If you want to make a serious action movie and not break the fourth wall too much, that’s fine, but the makers should realize while the characters don’t know what is going on outside of the movie, we know.
We know that this should not be a mediocre/lazy movie, this is a movie where the heavyweights gather to make the biggest man-fest of all time.
So if you have a big calibre cast with a reputation like this, you better make sure that you show us why the Expendables are the best of the best. This translates in giving them the hardest task imaginable, because let’s face it: some task like infiltrating a palace of a dictator is something even Topper Harley can do.
Give us an Alcatraz so fortified that can withstand the waves of thousands of soldiers and the only way to destroy it is to send the five best guys on the most epic infiltration mission that ends with the biggest shootout in cinema history, but instead we are screaming:
Number 4: Just get the plot out of the way!
What is the beauty of Commando (1985)?
It gets to the point as fast as possible:
5 minutes are dedicated to show us the bad guys.
6 minutes to show Schwarzenegger
12 minutes into the movie and he gets attacked – bang bang!
17 minutes and we know the plot: They have his daughter and he needs to work for them.
20 minutes we find ourselves sitting with Arnold on the plane, guarded by a bad guy and we know that if their boss finds out that Arnold is not cooperating they will kill his daughter
And after 24 minutes Arnold kills the bodyguard and escapes the plane – let’s get to da choppah!
This is all the story we need: we have a goal for the protagonist (save daughter), we have a villain for the final fight (former friend of hero), we have an impossible task that only Schwarzenegger can fulfil (kill all the people to get to his daughter) and we have a time window to increase tension (if he can’t make it before the plane lands they will find out he killed the bodyguard and will execute his daughter).
The great thing is the simplicity. After 25 minutes there is just action after action, some sideplot to get a girl in the end, but the primary target never changes, nor do morals or motivations, everything is laid out and we enjoy the slaughter.
Expendables decides to waste the time the movie has got with exposition nobody needs. The epic mission they have to make really takes off about 30 minutes towards the end of the movie before that there is an on and off. They get a job, they bitch around, they find a girl, they leave the island again (which really helps the tension if your heroes can get away so easily), they whine a little more until they finally get the team together and we can have our not even remotely satisfying shootout.
Just like A-Team Expendables spends more time with what we don’t care about and like A-Team you can remove entire segments of the movie without hurting the “story”.
For example there is a subplot about Dolph Lundgren where Stallone and Lundgren quarrel over their modus operandi which leads to Lundgren leaving the team and becoming the inevitable traitor. But instead of making good use of that fact the traitor storyline is not affecting the main story at all and is killed of before the final mission starts… big mistake.
Just show the team breaking up at the beginning, then Lundgren becomes the right hand man of Eric Roberts and the Expendables have to kill everything in their path which builds up to a match between Lundgren and Stallone.
But the worst offender is Statham’s story about his (ex-)(or not)girlfriend. So laughably pointless that I forgot to mention it when I was writing this article the first time.
Number 5: Trying to make a point when there is no point to make
Like mentioned above The Expendables is no reflection on past action movies, but a movie made in the style of the 80s. Yet the movie desperately tries to shove some morals down our throats which are pathetic at best. Some convoluted tale about a girl Mickey Rourke (just a reminder he is not really in this movie) didn’t save or something, I don’t really care. This serves as an excuse to get back to the bad guys and slaughter all of them, but seriously?
This is not Rocky, this is no character drama where the heroes have to overcome their problems. The obstacle to overcome is the job they are assigned which has to be hard enough that it dominates the entire plot, not something that you decide lightly in the third act.
Maybe there could have been some drama about the heroes, but not the way it was executed, it was just sad to watch an actor like Rourke delivering an unbelievable sad excuse.
Why did Stallone forget the best thing about action movies:
Number 6: Stereotypes
When it comes to action movies stereotypes are the best thing you can fall back to get the story going as fast as possible. Since we have seen how well drama works for a movie like The Expendables you can just use stereotypes to get the same job done in half the time.
They are easily understandable and get the point across:
Let a guy in a suit smoke a cigar – he’s greedy and evil
Have someone betray a friend – he’s definitely evil
Kill the wife of the hero – motivation
Again Commando is a good example of fast stereotypes because the movie is aware that it’s just a fun ride: we have a traitor, which gets our hatred pumped up so that we root for Arnold and we have his daughter. Saving your abducted daughter from terrorists needs no justification, everyone understands why the hero would do it and it saves us from a terrible monolog by Rourke.
Number 7: Something’s wrong when your men bitch around
In a movie that is here to celebrate the manliness of the cast the last thing we want to see is having them talk about their relationship problems. That’s missing the point so much, it feels as wrong as watching the girls from Sex and the City talking about Greek philosophy.
As mentioned before the main conflict we want to see in those movies is THE JOB. So most of the conflicts should be related to THE JOB (getting captured, losing a teammate, having only 20 minutes until the U.S. army decides to nuke the fortress but your leader is still captured in the dungeons… pick your number).
Inglourious Basterds while featuring a team full of bland, indistinguishable Basterds was aware of that fact so the spotlight was never in the internal conflicts, but on the situation.
For example the bar scene establishes that they might blow their cover so the entire scene is a suspense scene about the question “will they blow their cover or won’t they?” which works so well despite your protagonists being mere caricatures.
Number 8: Who needs geography…
“What the hell is going on?” – Is one of the questions you should never ask when watching an action movie. The beauty of an action scene is the simplicity of the task.
James Cameron knows this all too well like he showed us in Avatar.
The final battle of Avatar gets the point across within a few moments: the humans have a BIG WHITE SHIP and the Na’vi have a BIG WHITE TREE. If those two things meet – boom!
That’s it. We see the entire army of the humans flying past a valley, the ground troops are sent out and a camera-pan reveals the strength of the Na’vi’s army.
Now we know who is where and now let’s start!
The tension arises from the stakes! With Expendables we might have heard that there are 200 men against the Expendables, but who remembers that when wave after wave of men get killed? After the 1000th guy is killed we are not sure – is the battle over or not?
Then we go to the big court where Eric Roberts has to get to da choppah, but we never quite know the most important things: how far away is that chopper, how many men are between the Expendables and the chopper, how many miles are between them, how well equipped are the bad guys?
All that is beyond our knowledge so we are left to watch explosion after explosion, then we see Eric Roberts running but we don’t know if he is close to his escape vehicle or not, so the only thing that remains to judge the time until he gets to the chopper wait until Stallone is finished killing the people (again, we don’t know how many there are) in his way. Roberts won’t reach his goal before Stallone is finished.
Number 9: … or suspsense?
Another example for setting up the stakes can be found in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Batman is in the skyscraper, he looks through his bat lenses and we see where the clowns are holding the hostages (establishing Batman’s goal). Then we pan to the SWAT team that is coming up the stairs or from the roof. Everything is intercut with real life shots of SWATs preparing stuff like their weapons or explosives. Also we know that there is a bunch of snipers ready to shoot.
We might forget where everyone is exactly, but in those brief seconds we get the sense of the clockwork-like operation that is about to happen, we get a feeling how many SWATs there are and so forth….
Batman unmasks a clown and we see…. (gasp) that it’s a hostage!
And with this simple turn of events we get a sense of danger, our blood is rushing, because we know where the police is, we know they will strike in a few seconds and we know that they are professional enough that they will probably shoot all the hostages.
“Red team go!” the Batman score kicks in and come on… it’s impossible to stop, them, the only person to stop those professionals would be… a goddamn hero!
That’s what we want to see, no mundane tasks, a hero is here to make the impossible possible, to defy the odds and turn out victorious. The scene in Dark Knight is so beautifully orchestrated, it gets us and makes us even oversee the fact that Batman could just call the SWATs and warn them, because at that point we are pumped to see if he succeeds.
But… sigh I have to return to The Expendables. What shall I say? There is nothing like it. Their “plan” at the end eludes the audience, we just watch stuff happen and since we are not really sure if everything goes as planned or if something isn’t working, so we can assume everything is going as planned. It really helps the tension if your heroes are never in any form of danger and it really helps that:
Number 10: everything is so dark you can’t see!
Stallone might have taken advice from M. Night: both The Last Airbender and The Expendables feature dark indistinguishable characters fighting in a dark surrounding, so your guess who has the upper hand is as good as mine. Occasionally an explosion will light the scene up, but you won’t see what’s going on, but there is one more thing that makes the tensionless darkness even more exciting.
Number 11: Screw you Jason Bourne!
I never had a problem with the Bourne movies. I don’t love them but they are cool entertainment except for the fact that you just wish that the chase scene in Bourne Supremacy will finally end so you can see what the hell is going on.
Then the Bourne movie-style infected James Bond and the headache inducing camera shakes opened one of the worst Bonds. And now this “style” has ruined The Expendables as well.
Once again I cite James Cameron or Inception or The first Matrix: LOOONG slow shots, so that we can enjoy the action. Shaky frenetic camera is only good to get us into the characters head to feel his confusion etc. It is of no use in a movie that needs to celebrate and glorify violence whenever possible.
Be honest, if you had the choice between the Neo and Trinity hallway shootout or the shaking camera dark people battling other dark people in darkness… which one would you watch?
Number 12: Criminally underusing Jet Li
This should be a general “Wasting potential” but Jet Li is such a joke in this movie he deserves the spotlight even though many problems are combined with aforementioned numbers. But seriously, you have a guy that is a martial artist, so the best thing would to show us wide shots of Li jumping around making awesome moves – instead it is filmed like they had to use a stuntman, everything is dark or we just see their feet or they are fighting underneath a staircase, we can never marvel the beauty of a good old-school martial arts kicking.
And while some 80s movies cut that close during fight scenes, we should know that they only did that when the actor couldn’t do the fighting – again Li REALLY CAN DO THIS CRAZY SHIT!
Plus his character is being made fun of like hell – probably because it is the only joke Stallone could think of, so we get about 15 jokes about him being small to a point where we ask ourselves if they just want to hide that they don’t really have any other one-liners.
Number 13: CGI blood
This might be a nitpick, but as an action fan computer generated blood is just horrible. The gore looks cheap and not at all convincing. When your fanbase expects gore and blood, give them real old school blood, not that thing that looks as cheap as the CGI stuff they added for the “unrated” Die Hard 4.0.
Number 14: The hero is only as strong as the villain
Meaning “if your heroes are a bunch of pansies crying over their girlfriends then you have to make the villains equally bitchy so that they are not cooler than the heroes”.
Eric Roberts and the random dictator are probably contending for the worst villain duo in recent movie history.
If your team consists of the biggest meanest heroes of all time you should give them an equally mean antagonist, but nada…. Eric Roberts is just the guy from Dark Knight, a sleazy mobster, that’s it.
Oh… cruel he is yelling at poor farmers, he’s probably Satan’s right hand man.
About an hour into the movie the movie realizes how pathetic those villains are so they throw in a torture scene to get our pulse up, but those scenes should only be used as “icing on the cake”.
The general action villain has to be established as soulless and DEFINITELY EVIL so that we have no moral conflict while watching people getting slaughtered. When he later on attempts to torture/mutilate/rape the love interest this serves as the final straw. Everyone who up till now was for letting that guy live will want to rip his heart out.
For the third time I’ll redirect to James Cameron. Even though Avatar could have been a complex challenging movie about doubtful morals and so on and so forth Cameron decided against it AND WENT WITH IT.
From the very beginning Avatar shows us in a Disney-simplicity good and evil so we can easily relate to the poor innocent villagers who are terrorized by the big evil humans. Simple stereotypes as before mentioned bring you along the way.
Give the military guy a badass scar and let him drink coffee while slaughtering innocents = way more effective than a military leader crying over his daughter.
Puh… finally done…
You know what will give you a better time than Expendables?