This weekend will see the release of The Expendables 3, the latest in a series featuring all your favorite action stars from the 80s and 90s in the same movie. This series is a one trick pony – all your favorite action stars from the past reuniting to relive their collective glory days – but it is a trick I’d happily watch for seven more films. I remember when the first film came out I told my dad I went to see it and loved it, and when he asked what it was I just named the cast. He remarked that that movie would sound cool if it was made in the 90s. I replied oblivious to the dig with “Yeah, it’s awesome, right?” – The fact that these were all action heroes past their prime was the point.
One of the reasons why I enjoy writing and thinking about the action genre so much is because it’s one of the only genres that has identifiable shifts each decade: each action film says a lot about the decade it was made in – what kinds of action films were being made, what the prototypical action star was like, and what types of stories were being told say so much about the time period they were made in. If I had to give a diagnosis of what “that one defining feature” of our current decade is, it would be something close to quasi-postmodernism that leans heavily on self-parody and self-reference. Just about every action film these days is a product of action films that came before it. Some reinvent older formulas to fresh results (The Raid: Redemption, Taken) and others have shades of self-parody within them (The A-Team, and actually The Expendables 2).
We can look at the firm break between the 2000s – where there was a stronger push for grittier and more realistic action kicked off by The Bourne Identity, as well as some of the beginnings of postmodern action in Hot Fuzz and the Crank films – and our current decade conveniently in 2010 with the release of The Expendables. To understand why the film made the impact on the action genre that it did – and especially for its stars – we need to evaluate the circumstances that led to that film.
A lot of people accuse Stallone of having just become self-parody in his old age, just cashing in on rehashes of his most famous roles (Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and, by association, Grudge Match). Those people are absolutely right, but at the same time when you look at his box office numbers since 2000 you can’t really blame the guy. From 2000-2009 he had seven films released. Of those films he was the lead in four of them. Only two of the films he led made back their budget and made a significant impression at the box office. Any guesses for which two films those were? Rocky Balboa and Rambo. He was inevitably forced to rehash the same routine because that’s all audiences seemed to want from him anymore.
The other heavy hitters in the cast came to similar fates by different means. Schwarzenegger bowed out of filmmaking to become The Governator, and he actually went out on a profitable top. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which watching can be likened to having indigestion, had Arnold in one of his most iconic roles, which no doubt helped it to make $433 million worldwide, more than double its budget. He only led two other films that decade – both before Terminator 3 – and both underperformed at the box office. He couldn’t land a film on his own anymore unless it was a reprisal of a famous role. The Expendables was his first onscreen role in six years, and his next film would be the sequel. He’s had a brief resurgence of leading roles since, but more on that later.
Bruce Willis was always on a different track than Sly and Arnie simply because he was never pigeonholed into being just an action star. He also worked far more often than the both of them, and never seemed too proud to be part of an ensemble rather than the lead. Even still, when he does show up for action films these days he does it with a winking notion reliant on his past action career. Take the trailer for G.I. Joe: Retaliation for example. When they introduce his character in the trailer they don’t even say the character’s name. They just cut to a shot of Bruce Willis firing a machine gun. In the next shot of him, he makes a sarcastic quip. Boom. Paycheck. The fact that it’s Bruce Willis is all you need to know. Willis didn’t necessarily need the opportunity of The Expendables for his career to get going again, because it had never seen the type of downturn his contemporaries had experienced. That’s not to say he wasn’t above the self-caricaturizing though, he had just settled into it more comfortably (and profitably) than others (Or at least for the right price he wasn’t above it, as he bowed out of the third one after not getting paid a higher salary than before).
The types of attitudes that had forced Stallone and company into self-caricature and role-reprising made a film like The Expendables the next logical choice for them. Why not combine forces for a film that would lean on their prolific history? If you can’t teach an old dog a new trick, then why not combine the tricks they’ve already learned? One of the great joys of the first Expendables was seeing Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis – three of the most enigmatic action heroes of their time – onscreen together for the first time, if just for one scene. They trade banter with some meta commentary on each other’s careers, and it’s a sort of distilled form of where both their careers and the state of the action film were at. Sadly though, it’s the best thing to happen in that film. Not that the rest of the film is a dud by any action means, as it delivers on its promise of watching your favorite action stars all together to kick ass. The problem with the film was that outside of that one history-making scene, the rest of the film didn’t realize the value of its own punchline. Stallone may be just cashing in on his glory days, but nobody takes cashing in on their glory days more seriously than Stallone does. To him The Expendables wasn’t just a cash grab, a chance to reinvigorate his career as well as those of his co-stars; he wanted to make a movie that really meant something. What that something was never comes to light due to him drowning the film in an awkward self-seriousness. It’s not a bad film for what it is – anyone that watched it got what they paid for – it’s just one that doesn’t realize its full potential how you want it to.
Luckily none of that mattered, as the film churned out the results everyone wanted. The film grossed just over $100 million domestically, and worldwide grossed a collective $274 million against its $80 million budget. Naturally a sequel was quickly green-lit, and this time Con Air director Simon West was brought on, as well as the added action power of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. West was a great choice because he got the gimmick, and fully exploited what a truly fun gimmick it was. West understood an audience that would be familiar with these stars would be watching the film. Back were the ridiculous one-liners from the 80s and 90s action heydays. Jean-Claude Van Damme killed a guy by holding up a knife to him and kicking it into the guy by doing his trademarked high kick. Chuck Norris made a Chuck Norris joke. Arnold made a quick line saying he’d be back. All the action was insane, ridiculous and entertaining – everything it should have been all along. The decision to go bigger paid off, as the film took in $305 million worldwide. It also reinvigorated the careers of the team. All of a sudden there was a wonderful sense that Stallone and Schwarzenegger – the two who needed it the most – could be relevant at the box office again. The success of the first Expendables film was one of two catalysts in jump-starting a new subgenre that’s been fittingly and humorously dubbed geriaction (the other being Liam Neeson beginning his reign as the most bankable action star at the prime age of 56 with Taken).
This was Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s chance to reclaim the action hero status that had alluded them for more than a decade, and because of the success of The Expendables, studios were willing to pay to watch it happen. Except it never happened. Stallone has made three films since The Expendables 2 – Bullet to the Head, Escape Plan, and Grudge Match. Bullet to the Head severely underperformed, Grudge Match hardly passed its budget in returns, and even Escape Plan – which he co-led with Schwarzenegger – bombed domestically despite doing pretty well overseas. Stallone still couldn’t land a film that wasn’t an Expendables film. Schwarzenegger didn’t have any luck either. Alongside the same result with Escape Plan, his first official return to leading an action film in The Last Stand barely earned back its budget, and this year’s Sabotage severely bombed at the box office. What we learn from this is that it’s not even enough for these two to team up to lead a film, they still need everyone else from The Expendables films to land a hit.
This has been much the same case for others in the Expendables franchise. The Expendables films have been the 2nd and 3rd highest grossing films in Jason Statham’s filmography, and for reference the 3rd highest film, being The Expendables, has a large distance from his #4 film The One (actually a Jet Li vehicle – it’s all coming full circle) by about $200 million globally. Jet Li has the franchise’s films landing at the #2 (The Expendables 2) and #4 (The Expendables) spots in his gross filmography, with #5 Romeo Must Die behind #4 by about $180 million globally. Meanwhile, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme saw their only theatrical releases in years with these films. What we can gather from all this is that everyone that is in these films needs them just as much as the next guy.
What proved the saving grace to the careers of these action stars – and also a way to turn the self-caricature, normally a loss, into a win – ended up getting bigger than just any one of them. It gave them a moment of relevance to get some action films of theirs made, but it won’t last long. The third film is expected to do well, and may grant them a bit more grace period, but eventually everyone will come around to the fact that these films are the only thing they really have going for them anymore. They may call themselves The Expendables, but really each member of the roster is anything but fungible when it comes to delivering on box office success. In the second film, Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger stand looking at an old plane. Stallone remarks: “That thing belongs in a museum.” They all chuckle and Schwarzenegger makes a quip about the trio: “We all do.” It breaks my heart to say it, but he might be right.
— Dylan Griffin
Box Office numbers via Box Office Mojo