For such mindless entertainment, the Expendables movies sure can get the brain working if you’re interested in the nostalgic samples they’re selling. Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy who knows how to work on multiple levels, and of course his most brilliant act is to make it all seem dumb as hell without pandering to the audience that can appreciate that. He’s the male modern Marilyn Monroe in a way. With this series he has assembled more all-star action heroes than good plot ideas, but the simplicity of the storytelling is just to provide a lot of bullets and explosions for the mindless crowd and a bunch of reflexive call-backs to the cast’s earlier movies for those who like to play the spot-the-allusion game. Most of the latter is cheap references through repurposed dialogue and slightly altered character names.
But The Expendables 2 kind of beat that whole thing to death with its “I’m back!” and “Yippee ki-ya” lines and the entire role played by Chuck Norris. For The Expendables 3, the reflexive bits are more self-aware nods to the casting of these movies, not in a nostalgic sense as much as in a winking treat for anyone who follows their production. There are jokes referencing the reason Wesley Snipes couldn’t be in the series until now and recognizing that Terry Crews took his place and there’s a couple more regarding Bruce Willis‘s departure and recognizing, in case we couldn’t already tell, that Harrison Ford is finally having a ball in a movie again. Rob Hunter’s review points out that Kelsey Grammer also mocks his own problems with alcoholism and drunk driving.
There are probably specific allusions to the actors’ old movies, too (one line apparently is a nod to Desperado), but I didn’t catch enough of them to use them for this week’s movies to watch list. I thought it would be more worthwhile to go through each of the main cast members and pick his best action movie (I say “his” because female addition Ronda Rousey is making her acting debut here — but I can guess that her best action movie will be next year’s Fast and Furious 7). Surely there will be some disagreement with my choices (admittedly, I’m not the most well-versed in the genre), regardless of whether you agree each is worth recommending. Feel free to offer your own picks down below.
First Blood (1982) – Sylvester Stallone
I tend to forget this first Rambo movie is an actual action movie and not just a post-Vietnam drama that spawned action sequels. The story of a drifter vet who faces a violent small-town police force is so realistic compared to what the genre would become in the 1980s, and its lack of an extreme body count keep it more grounded than we expect today. Fans of the Expendables movies who go back to introduce themselves to Stallone’s breakout as an action hero (if we don’t count Rocky, which is more sports film than action movie) might not recognize this as being in the same category of cinema. They won’t be disappointed, though, and not just because this relatively reserved feature eventually has some explosions and machine gun fire.
Predator (1987) – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Make your case for any James Cameron movie you want, but when it comes to action movies that hold up for Schwarzenegger, this sci-fi cat and mouse blockbuster is tops for me. Well, I do have a real soft spot for Commando, but in terms of craft there’s no comparison there. As Dutch, the supremely muscular actor is at his peak while going up against an alien hunter who has ambushed his special forces team in the jungles of Central America. This is also one of the few movies I recognized as being paid homage in The Expendables 3. As Trench, Schwarzenegger exclaims to the rest of the cast, “Get to the choppa!”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Harrison Ford
Even if we want to qualify the Star Wars movies as fitting in the action genre, this other major franchise for Ford is still the better specimen. And one of the rare instances of a truly great period piece action flick that’s not exactly a war film or a sword and sandals epic. Anytime in the past 33 years when there’s been a fight of some kind on a movie vehicle, like the train sequence that opens The Expendables 3, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of the truck scene in this first Indiana Jones installment. Then maybe weep because nobody else can seem to get it right.
The Road Warrior (1981) – Mel Gibson
Released the same year as Raiders, this sequel to Mad Max also features a riveting action sequence involving a truck. And many other vehicles. In fact, that’s a good portion of the movie, something that’s never really been topped percentage-wise (though the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road seems intent on doing so). Gibson has done a number of other kinds of action films in the years since, and it’s hard to put this up against something like Lethal Weapon or Braveheart or Chicken Run. But of all his best, it’s appropriate to become familiar with his breakout most of all, which I guess should mean seeing the first Mad Max, too.
Demolition Man (1993) – Wesley Snipes
We may associate Snipes most with Passenger 57, thanks to its affixing him with the “always bet on black” catchphrase forever, but that movie isn’t very good outside of its one iconic line. For his best action work, you might rather go with the first or second Blade, but I find them to be pretty cheesy. So is Demolition Man, but that’s more intentional. After all, they made the movie set in a future where Taco Bell is the only restaurant chain. It’s absurd, goofy, awesome. And Snipes is an awesome villain here as one of two guys (the other is played by Stallone) who’ve sort of traveled forward through time from a more violent and profane present, heightening just how badass he is. Rarely do we get villains who get to have so much fun these days, though Gibson comes close in The Expendables 3.
Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991) – Dolph Lundgren
If you really want absurd and goofy and awesome, there’s not much better than this movie starring Lundgren and Brandon Lee, the latter of whom has one of the best bits of action movie parody dialogue of all time (yeah, the “dick” one, for those in the know). I bet it could have actually been a hit if it’d been sold as a spoof. At one point, Lundgren jumps over a car driving at him, and he’s not a superhero. The actor doesn’t have any genuinely good action movies, the closest things being A View to a Kill, in which he’s just an extra, and Rocky IV, which isn’t quite of the genre, so this “comedy” is the best option for his slot, with maybe the first Universal Soldier coming in second.
License to Kill (1989) – Robert Davi
Davi isn’t one of the Expendables nor is he one of the villains. He’s barely in The Expendables 3 at all, which is a shame because he was an important part of the genre particularly in the 1980s. Technically, the best action movie he’s in is Die Hard, but he’s not in it enough for me to consider it his movie. Plus, we don’t need to acknowledge a Bruce Willis movie given his lame, greedy reason for dropping out of the Expendables series. Instead, I offer up Timothy Dalton’s second (and final) entry into the James Bond franchise. Davi plays the main villain in the movie, a drug lord who in the end fights 007 aboard a truck — nowhere near as thrillingly as the parts of Raiders and Road Warrior, of course.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – Antonio Banderas
I’m sure to be scrutinized for not picking Desperado for Banderas, but I really much prefer this sequel, and maybe I’m showing a matter of taste in how much I appreciate campy and crazy action movies. Not that it’s easy to convince anyone of the value of an over the top Johnny Depp performance these days, and maybe it works here because he’s not quite the lead (though at times it seems like he is), but he’s pretty enjoyable as a weird CIA agent who has a terrific action scene after having his eyes drilled out. And if he wasn’t enough, there’s also Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe for two extra helpings of ham.
Crank (2006) – Jason Statham
His Transporter franchise put him on the map as an international action star, but it’s the first Crank movie that gets my adrenaline pumping. You have to love how today’s entries into the genre either have to be so simply plotted, like The Expendables 3 (thanks to the casting gimmick being the appeal), or as ridiculously high concept as can be, like Crank. Having a character who is basically a human Speed bus is more TV pilot idea than movie storyline, and I’m actually surprised there’s been no series spin-off announcement already. Every week the guy could die and then come back to life the following episode, just like the way the sequel, Crank: High Voltage, does it.
Once I Was a Champion (2011) – Randy Couture
This week I’m focusing on action movies, but I can’t do one of these lists without at least one documentary. Couture doesn’t have a lot of movies under his belt yet, and the only ones in the action genre might as well be ignored and forgotten about. This film, about the death of UFC fighter Evan Tanner, isn’t that heavy on even the sporting action of mixed martial arts, and Couture is only one of many interviewees rather than front and center, but his best action movie is, at this point, The Expendables 3, so I’m making it work.
Hero (2002) – Jet Li
I’ll confess: I haven’t seen a lot of Jet Li movies, especially the ones not made in America (and few of his Hollywood efforts are very good). But I have seen the foreign film that couldn’t possibly be topped, which is this historically set wuxia epic from Chinese master Zhang Yimou. Like most of Zhang’s works from the 2000s, Hero is particularly noted for its stunning cinematographic spectacle, here by Christopher Dolye, and its incredible martial arts choreography, here by legendary action director Ching Siu-Tung. The movie looks and and moves about as brilliantly as the Expendables films don’t.
Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Kelsey Grammer
Grammer is mainly a TV comedy star, namely from Cheers and its spin-off, Frasier. He hasn’t been in a lot of memorable movies at all, and his best film is actually one he doesn’t appear on screen for at all (Toy Story 2). His action movies, specifically, include two terrible X-Men movies and the latest Transformers installment, which isn’t much better. But it is better. It also might be slightly greater than The Expendables 3, allowing Grammer to just barely be represented on this list. Note to Stallone: all you have to do to make The Expendables 4 better than Age of Extinction is to cast T.J. Miller for comic relief.