THE EXPENDABLES: BEAUTIFUL VIOLENCE
SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains spoilers for "The Expendables," opening this weekend.
"You'll never hear 'surreal' come out of my mouth, because it's not a word that I use," says Steve Austin, the retired WWE wrestling legend and actor, about whether he felt overwhelmed seeing himself within the all-star cast that director/actor Sylvester Stallone assembled for his latest film, Lionsgate's "The Expendables." He continued, "I certainly respect Terry Crews' opinion, and he's a good friend of mine, but, man, to me, it's a bunch of badass guys making a badass movie and everybody kind of checked their egos. There weren't any prima donnas on the set, and it was what it was."
The charismatic veteran actor and former NFL player Terry Crews retorted, "I'm a little kid from Flint, Michigan, man. I ain't gonna lie. To see my name up there with the big dogs, with Mickey Rourke, and Jason Statham and Jet Li, and to be amongst them and actually hold my own, which is what I bring, because that's what Sly wanted. He wanted everybody to bring what they brought. It felt very, very special. And what can I say, man? It's very, very different in that, to see what this has become worldwide, it's not lost on me, and I will never let anybody down when it comes to this thing."
Of this summer's crop of event films, "The Expendables" was by far the one that I was most anticipating - and it did not disappoint when I viewed it last week. Experiencing some fatigue from the recent wave of superhero flicks and CGI-driven fantasy spectacles, I was keen on seeing a movie that could restore the status-quo to what action movies were supposed to be about. In an era where everyone seemingly has attention deficit disorder, big screen bravado disappeared; men of character, brawn and fortitude were seemingly extinct. Gone was the sweat, the stuntmen, the curvaceous heartbreakers, the realistic firepower and the explosions that made the films so riveting and real when I was growing up. all replaced by cold technology, animation, cookie patterned plot formulas and pedestrian imposters posing as thrill seekers. Well, "The Expendables" brings back the brutal funk and old school approach in which characters have to physically and mentally earn their hard fought victories in life. These mercenaries are all battle-weary men who've seen and endured it all - and are unapologetic when they have to take someone down. They are as far removed from the today's standard nebbish, whiny screen characters (with their typical daddy-issues) as it gets. It's an action picture that doesn't preach but still has quite a bit to say about people believing in a cause.
"How far can you take the whole green screens?" asked Dolph Lundgren, "The Expendables" actor who made his memorable debut as Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV," a film now twenty-five years old. "I don't know how far you can take this. Look, I'm a little older than a lot of the young filmmakers, so of course I am looking at it in a nostalgic way, but I still think that things go in circles. I think that, with the MMA and kids getting into real fighting, which, 15 years ago, that generation had no clue what a punch does to somebody's face, one punch, forget about 200, in movies where guys are hitting each other 200 times and still standing. But you can't do it anymore. Not even in comic book movies [because] you've got to be a little bit more realistic. So it's trickling back to where it was, and I think we'll probably have more physical action stars coming up the pike, younger guys who are athletic like it was when I started, with Stallone; Arnold, the Governor of the state was Mr. Universe; Steven Segal was a champion; Chuck Norris is a champion; Jean Claude van Damme. I remember these guys who were real, and you don't have any of those anymore. So I'm sure they will come around."
I've never been ashamed to say that I've been a fan of Sylvester Stallone's film work from as far back as I can remember. From the inspiring "Rocky" (1976) to the hard-hitting "Rambo" (2008), I've seen everything in his filmography: the good, the bad and the Judge Dreddful. Yet if there's one thing that I carry with me from most of his films, it is the fact that we should never count anyone out, especially Stallone himself. Even with numerous missteps throughout his career, Stallone has remained an international screen icon despite having been on the brink of being permanently relegated to straight-to-DVD hell at the start of this new century. Much like Rocky (his signature role), a humbled Stallone committed his all and reemerged by starring, writing and directing 2006's stellar "Rocky Balboa" - a project that he had pretty much intended as his final film. With "Balboa's" positive reviews and box office, the actor-director went on to helm 2008's "Rambo," a feature in which the infamous Vietnam super-soldier finally comes full circle in his life. With his two comeback works, Stallone's films have never been more arresting, because they now show a more thoughtful filmmaker with a tighter grip on storytelling, truth and the instinct it takes to make his audience soar.
Regarding Stallone's professionalism, Steve Austin chimed, "Hey, man, I got a lot of respect for Sly. I've met a lot of damn people in my life, and it always sucks where you're with somebody who you've got to put up on a pedestal and they turned out to be a douche bag or an idiot. When I met Sly, he's a man's man, he's a competitive human being and he's a smart guy. And, above and beyond everything, that guy works his ass off. I respect that, and I was truly impressed with Sly. Hell, I remember when we were in Brazil. Sly wrote ["The Expendables"], he's directing it, he's starring in it. There were a couple of days off here and there in Brazil, and every morning when I went to the damn gym, Sly was either there before me, or he came to the gym while I was there. He's a hard-workin' motherfucker."
Stallone's latest film is an unapologetic guy movie that's relying on its impressive all-star roster, gunplay and explosions to trump "Scott Pilgrim" and Julia Roberts' girly "Eat Pray Love" at the box office. While most Hollywood mainstream films have become complacent, turning out strict PG or PG-13 movie fare to attract general audiences, "The Expendables" isn't among them, proudly touting its well-deserved R rating. It's a good old-fashioned action movie in the vein of classics like "The Dirty Dozen," "The Guns of Navarone" and "The Magnificent Seven."
If you don't have a scorecard, The Expendables are a team of mercenaries composed of actors Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yan), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Randy Couture (Toll Road), and Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross, the group's leader). Also featured in the film are Mickey Rourke (Tool, a former Expendable), Charisma Carpenter (Lacy, the girl who breaks Statham's heart), David Zayas (General Garza, the dictator of Vilena), Giselle Itie (the idealistic Sandra), Eric Roberts (James Munroe, an evil CIA agent) and Steve Austin (Paine, Munroe's heartless bruiser). A ton of the fun from the film comes from seeing this combination of actors interacting with one another, because all of them play to their strengths.
For Terry Crews, taking on his role in the movie was something he didn't have to think about twice - the actor was already well known for his comedic work in the "Everybody Hates Chris" television series and films like "White Chicks" and "The Longest Yard," but he'd not yet been given the opportunity to work in an big-budget movie with fighting, explosions and more. Crews said, "Oh, dude, again, I've been trying to do action for years. That's one of the reasons why you get up in the morning and work out. I always dreamed to get a chance to run with a gun, and to be with the man who created it, the man who actually invented the genre, Sylvester Stallone, it was an honor, man, and it was a dream come true.
"It was weird," Crews continued. "I came here fully prepared to audition. I mean, I was ready to give everything I had. And we talked. It was funny, because Sly just sat there and talked. I think we sat there for about half an hour and he just really explained the role to me, explained what the character was, and I was ready to read and do all this stuff, and he was just like, y'know, 'We'll talk to you later.' And I thought, 'Oh, it's over?' And then I come back, and, 'You got the part.' I think one thing Sly knew is that it's a work in progress. You can get caught up in lines that he knew he was going to change eventually, anyway. It was one of those things where, every day he was rewriting and going on the fly to make these things better. I think he knew he didn't want to get into that, so he just wanted to make sure we got the spirit of the character, and he really gave me the job that day."
For Dolph Lundgren, being reunited with Stallone once again brings his career full circle. Lundgren commented, "We kept in touch over the years, sporadically. We kept running into each other in LA and so forth. Then he just called out of the blue one day, and just said he had a script and he was thinking of me for this role. He was pulling together a bunch of big, dangerous guys, I suppose, for this movie, and wanted me to be in it."
Working with Stallone the director for the first time since the classic "Rocky IV," the action veteran Lundgren felt he was on familiar ground, adding, "Well, you know, he has a lot more experience, and I'm a little more experienced, so I can look at him differently. But, to tell you the truth, it wasn't that much of a difference. He still works out a lot, he's very detail-oriented, he keeps rewriting the script, changing on the set - if it doesn't feel right, he can change it. I think he talked a little more to the actors. I felt he was more protective of the actors, talking a lot with them about their work. He's an actor himself, so he likes to work with actors."
For many, one of the biggest allures of the film will be the cameos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis sharing the spotlight with Sylvester Stallone - a reunion of the infamous Planet Hollywood founding trinity, each amongst the most successful box office draws in the history of films. Willis' character (Mr. Church) is the mysterious man who contacts two rival mercenaries with a job offer: Stallone's Barney Ross and Schwarzenegger's Trench. The governor's entrance is filmed as a grand one - as a viewer, it's good to see Schwarzenegger on the big screen where he belongs. This particular scene is one filled with testosterone as Sly, Arnold and Bruce trade macho quips with one another.
In casting this film, Stallone also looked for actors who would go the extra mile and perform some of their own stunts. Despite having nothing to prove to anyone, the sixty-plus-year-old actor and director stated that he himself performed 90% of his own stunts, even suffering an injury to his neck during a scene with Steve Austin. The former professional wrestler explained, "Yes, it really happened, and, yes, it really was an accident. Sly's got the body of a pro wrestler, you know? He's been in a million action movies and he's beaten the shit out of himself, and the whole time we're fighting, for two days, that guy is telling me, 'Steve, more intensity. More intensity. Keep ramping it up.' Because he wanted these fight scenes to be brutal. And, man, he hit a brick wall a few times, and I had him in a rear neck choke, and I was squeezing the damned head off his shoulders. But all of his directions, and, you know, when the director tells you to kick his ass, you kick his ass. So it was an accident, but I really think it was a case of just the final straw breaking the camel's back, and, in this case, Sly's neck. But it wasn't like he took time off when it happened. It was more like a hairline fracture that needed repaired. He got it fixed at a later date and never missed any time filming, so… You know, it was a broken neck that was in a different vein of what I think. When I think 'broken neck,' I'm thinking just destruction, paralysis, you know. But nonetheless, I damaged his neck, and it was an unfortunate accident, and that's the way it goes. But it was a bust-ass fight scene."
Another incredible feat for this ensemble cast is that it feels like everyone in the film gets spotlighted on the big screen. Each role seems to bring out a lot of the natural charisma and familiar personas of everyone featured within "The Expendables." Crews elaborated his example, saying, "First of all, [Stallone] rewrote to me. He loved a lot of my comedy, which was really good. I mean, it's strange, because with a build like I have, you would think that I would have made my movies in the action genre first, but I came into the [Hollywood] world through comedy. And Sly is a very, very funny guy. Extremely funny. He really added a lot of comedic elements to this movie through me. A lot of his comedy, he let me say the lines, because I think he knew it would be a little better accepted in that way. He's a very, very funny guy, and I was happy to be the guy who would bring a little bit of that pressure release, even in the middle of the intense battles, to kind of bring a little comedy, a little relief to it."
No one will ever confuse this film with "Sense and Sensibility" or a Julia Roberts vehicle. "The Expendables" is strictly an unapologetic action film: full of guns, explosions, fighting and general mayhem. The story starts once the Expendables look into accepting a mission to depose the tyrannical dictator General Garza of Vilena. In this fictional South American country, they encounter the lovely Sandra (their liaison) - a young native who will do whatever it takes to rid her country of General Garza and his puppeteer, a corrupt CIA operative. Realizing that this is a suicide mission, Barney Ross (Stallone) decides to drop the Vilena assignment and offer safe passage to the female rebel. When she refuses to leave and abandon her country, Ross is taken aback by her courage and commitment. Once back in the States, he can't let it go of Sandra's plight, because an old and empty war horse like him has never seen someone so committed to her beliefs. Feeling that this is his moment of truth, he decides to go into Vilena alone and rescue her - but one by one, his loyal band of Expendables decide to join him "because friends die together." If this film has any message, it's that no one is truly expendable…well, except the bad guys. By the end, these men who had given up on humanity now have both their purpose and a bit of their faith restored.
The film is well directed; a lot of its action is raw and quite violent. The interplay amongst all the actors is excellent, while their different styles of fighting and gunplay are impressive - especially Terry Crews' amazingly loud and powerful AA-12 assault 12-gauge shotgun, a true showstopper. The only noticeable flaw was the villains. Apart from Steve Austin's character, the rest were never quite up to the star power and prowess of The Expendables' line-up, and despite an army seemingly in the hundreds, General Garza was not quite enough of an imposing threat. If this film were successful, I'd love to see a sequel that would pit Stallone's team against Schwarzenegger's mercenaries.
Not lost on Dolph Lundgren is the evolution of Stallone as a filmmaker. Lundgren said, "I agree, and there's another gentleman who's leading the way for all of us, who we really shouldn't forget about: Mr. Clint Eastwood. There's a guy who's done action movies for half a century, who's still making great films, more or less as a director now, but just a few years back, I mean, last year, he was walking around with a shotgun beating people up in 'Gran Torino.' And people loved it, and the kids loved it. So there is a way to keep this going. You don't have to end up as a pensioner because you're fifty or sixty. I don't think so. It's good for everybody to know that. It gives them a little bit of hope."
Even a villain can relate to Stallone's themes within the film. "Well, yeah, and those elements are important, because Sly likes those elements in his movies," said Steve Austin. "What I've learned from that guy, as a director, is he's a very artistic human being. I mean, he's very picky, he wants to send out a message, he's very specific about what he wants and he knows how to go about getting it. And he knows what sells at the box office. He knows the ingredients needed to put out a good movie. And, yeah, you can have all these great guys, and these kick-ass action guys in there, but if the movie doesn't have a heart, or a cause, or a reason, or a moral, then why make it? Then you're just making a gratuitous blow-'em-up, shoot-'em-up movie, and that's not what this is."
Terry Crews believes very much that this is a film many will be able to identify with on various levels, saying, "The reason this movie is manly is because it's a bunch of losers. You're not a man until you've lost and then you try to rebuild. You're not a man until you've lost a game and then you've actually won something over again. It's all about everybody's comeback. You're not a man until you've really completed a comeback, because nobody's going to just hand it to you the whole way. Nothing in your whole life. You're not a man until you've met challenges, been beaten a couple times and still have decided to win. That's why this is the manliest movie ever made - and this is why the Expendables are a bunch of losers. This is true, but everybody in this movie - I mean, you're talking about on-screen and behind-the-scene, [everybody] has lost something. I like to call it a bunch of guys with bad credit."
"The Expendables" opens in theaters everywhere Friday, August 13.