Why Aren’t The Expendables Movies Working?

Mr. Stallone… it’s high time we talked. 

First of all, I am a really big fan. You’re a talented writer, a formidable screen presence and sometimes you can even direct a pretty decent movie. I grew up watching your films, good and bad alike, and was a proud member of the whole generation to whom Badass Cinema was a way of life. You, sir, along with your contemporaries Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis (to name a few) were a representation of the men we all wished we could be: larger than life, and living in a world where all our problems were solved through confident swaggers, snappy one-liners and bullets that only seemed to ever hit the bad guys. It was a juvenile dream, but admittedly we were juveniles at the time.

And like many in my generation, I was sad to see this genre go. It lingers on in the world of the direct-to-video marketplace, and it occasionally pops up in theaters now and then, but the world of the big screen action giants has simply changed. The Jason Bournes, Batmen and Iron Persons have taken over, replacing the simple pleasures of Us vs. Them with Us vs. Us, Us vs. Personal Baggage and Us vs. Clever Allegories. Those movies are just fine too, sometimes even brilliant, but it’s always sad to see one genre go just because fortune favors another.

So it was with great pleasure that I discovered, back in 2010, that you were making a film called The Expendables. Sure, in was some ways it a gesture of utter defeat, acknowledging the failure of any one action star to carry their own blockbuster in the rapidly evolving age of blockbuster cinema, but the idea to combine the notoriety and box office appeal of every aging action star at the same time was indeed a smart move, enabling you to finally give all your fans exactly what they wanted. Granted, it was at least ten or fifteen years too late for that, but that same timing was probably the only way you were ever going to get all of these actors to agree to show up in the first place for a reasonable salary. Sadly, it’s not like most of your Expendables stars had anything better to do, or at least anything with nearly so high a profile. Hell, most of them were probably just happy to be back in theaters again. For some it had been quite a while indeed.

Related: The Best & Worst Action Movies of The Expendables

Yes, that was quite an idea you had. It sounded great on paper, and the trailers could coast on the name brand recognition alone. We couldn’t wait. The problem is, eventually we actually had to watch it. The first Expendables was a solidified mess, a jumble of awkward editing, dim lighting and missed opportunities. The second Expendables was an overstuffed glut, indulging in flagrant jokey pandering and more than a little misogyny. At best, they coasted on novelty and the occasional nifty action sequence or amusing in-joke.

By the time The Expendables 3 finally came around, I think it’s fair to say that we had caught wind of what was going on. I’m happy to report that the third film is the best in the series – if nothing else, the story and the action are easier to follow – but the damage had already been done, and I think we had finally realized what the problem was.

So what was that problem? It couldn’t be simpler: the movies weren’t made for us, they were made for you. They were made to represent the camaraderie of a dying breed of macho titans, to playful lampoon your public images, and to unite in one last stand for cinematic relevance. On some level that’s all well and good. You’re certainly entitled to make any kind of movie you want. But you see, these films weren’t marketed towards yourselves, they were marketed towards us – the fans – who wanted to see something else entirely. The fans wanted the movie that we had been churning over in our heads for decades, and after three gosh darned Expendables we still haven’t seen it.

The Expendables (and by that I do mean any of them) aren’t a celebration of old school action cinema. They don’t offer the kitschy thrills of yore, and they sure as hell don’t offer the quality of on-screen pairings we always wanted. The dream was always a film where you, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up and actually spent some on-screen time together. There was a time when I would have given up any future ability to have children just to see you two fight. We wanted our biggest stars to banter, argue, fight over the same love interest, lock and load and save the day. In the Expendables movies you stood next to each other and talked for a few minutes out of every movie. That is not, and I could not be clearer about this, what I and likely anyone else wanted. (And the fact that the proper Stallone/Schwarzenegger pairing finally occurred in a film like Escape Plan that was clearly not written around the strengths of that team-up only signals further that someone behind the camera isn’t entirely sure what the appeal is.) 

I’m not stupid and neither are the rest of us: we know that scheduling sucks. We know that getting the gang together is a logistical nightmare that requires some tricky editing now and then just to make it seem like everyone was on the same set that day. But you got them together anyhow and you’ve unfortunately underwhelmed every time. Even the best of the movies, this third one, spends more time with newcomers we frankly don’t care about than any of the stars whose name we actually recognize. This was a problem to begin with – I’m sorry, but Randy Couture is no Jet Li – and the repeated emphasis on actors whose name didn’t drive us into the theater only disappoints more with every passing movie.

Has the time come to drop The Expendables entirely? I don’t think so. The third movie isn’t doing well at the domestic box office but international numbers were always what tipped the scales in this franchise’s favor. Let’s see how those audiences respond before we draw any final conclusions. But if you do decide to make another one, let me ask you on behalf of all of us hardcore fans who really, really, really want this franchise to work: let someone else do it. 

Don’t just hire another director to do your dirty work. Don’t dictate your story to screenwriters hired to fill in the gaps. Let someone else take charge, someone who actually grew up in the age of proper hero worship, and give them the opportunity to make the movie they always wanted to see. Because if you pick the right person – someone who can write, direct and capture the grandeur these films are sorely missing – you might finally give us the movie you’ve been advertising for the past five years and never actually made. There’s a chance (perhaps a slim one, but a chance) that you might finally make the movie of our dreams, and not just the one you thought would be kinda neat.

Like George Lucas taking Star Wars down with him over the course of the prequel trilogy, one suspects from the outside looking in that you may be a little too close to your own persona to understand the emotional connection that the rest of us have to it. You don’t see yourself the same way we see you, and that’s good. I’m glad your head isn’t swollen. I’m glad you want to take the piss out of yourself. But the thing is… we want your piss. We want the idolatry back, we want the sumptuousness, we want the indulgence of seeing all of our action stars doing what they do best, not just what could be done that week due to scheduling conflicts.

Give someone with a little distance a shot at bringing your collective on-screen personae to the big screen with appreciation, and hopefully character and wit. Let them try to make a great, big, fun movie. Even if they fail, their ambition will shine through and at least give us a pinch of that glory which otherwise passes through our fingers with every passing Expendables movie. Let’s make just one of these movies indispensable, because otherwise… why bother?

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.