Whether or not The Expendables films would be better if all the actors were still in their primes is a difficult and confusing question to answer. We can tell you that for certain because we spent twenty minutes yelling at each other about it earlier this week and got nowhere. On the one hand, the fights would be more aggressive and acrobatic. They would feature these legends slugging it out as we remember them best. On the other hand, the budget would bloat into the two hundred plus million dollar range, no one would want to take supporting roles and no one would ever be willing to lose a fight. In theory, it would be awesome. In actuality, it would be a fucking nightmare.
The far better debate, however, is what movie actually represents each one of these men’s primes the best. At what point did each achieve his maximum action star awesomeness? That’s what we set off to find out. Those of us here at Cinema Blend who care about action movies (more don’t than you would expect) split up the eight legends (average age 57.25) and put forth our nominations. The following list is what we came up with…
The Expendables family tree takes root in George P. Cosmatos’ sequel, which delivered bigger, bloodier, louder and more explosive thrills. Sound familiar? Rocky Balboa’s downright chatty when compared to Rambo in this adventure. And while the characters Stallone played prior to Rambo II had a foot in a blue-collar reality, this sequel triggered a string of overblown action figures for Sly, from Cobra and Over the Top to Tango & Cash and Cliffhanger. They all owe a debt of gratitude to First Blood Part II … Expendables, included.
From fucking Amy Smart in the middle of the street to jumping out of a helicopter to break his enemy’s neck, Crank only works because it’s carried by a scary, brilliant action star. It’s not the type to be enjoyed by most, but it is the type to be watched obsessively by those who do get it.
Whether he’s playing a hero or a villain, Jet Li is one of those rare action stars who is actually better with better material. Hero is arguably the best he’s ever worked with (sorry Expendables), and he certainly rises to the challenge. At forty-nine, Li may have a few gems left in him. If any approach the savage beauty of Hero, we’ll all be in for a treat.
He embodied everything we, as America, thought we hated in Mother Russia. And when he lost in the final boxing match, it felt like every U.S. citizen participated in his downfall. Lundgren couldn’t surpass that role, trying (but failing) to create memorable characters in Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, Universal Soldier and, later, a string of direct-to-video thrillers. Ironically, it is Stallone who has given Lundgren his best shot once again at silver-screen success. But once The Expendables fades away, expect Dolph to disappear along with them.
Instead of trying to bottle Norris’ inherent awesomeness into one truncated, two-hour adventure, this primetime television series was able to stretch his mighty physical prowess over eight majestic seasons. Walker had Norris’ favorite character traits: Peaceful Zen of a samurai warrior (from The Way of the Dragon), the law-enforcement angle of Lone Wolf McQuade, and the ex-Vietnam persona Norris wore with dignity through multiple Missing in Action movies. Before The Expendables 2, Walker Texas Ranger was the quintessential Chuck Norris role … and we truthfully don’t see it changing anytime soon.
Going AWOL from the Canadian Army (okay, less badass) to participate in the martial arts tournament means he not only has to fight potentially to the death but also evade two pursuing agents. Dux starts training as a kid, under a strict sensei, before splits-ing and spinning back heel kicking his way into the finals to fight familiar face Bolo Yeung (Chong Li!)... Blind! Van Damme wins the tournament, gets the girl and avenges his friend, the bully from Revenge of the Nerds all while doing justice to the real fighter who went undefeated in 329 matches.
Playing a New York cop forced to rescue his estranged wife and her coworkers from a pack of merciless terrorists, Willis offered an alternative to Stallone and Schwarzenegger's insane muscles and unintelligible speech. McClane was no bodybuilder, but what he lacked in muscle he made up for in street smarts and smartass appeal. Unimpressed by wealth, power, and threats, McClane was a blue-collar hero we all could rally behind. And when the going gets tough, this modern cowboy just got tougher, bandaging his glass-ravaged feet and bringing down the East German villain with his war cry, "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!"
In the ten years between ‘82-92, Schwarzenegger created several standout characters (Dutch, the T-800), but Retired Delta Force Colonel John Matrix is a great example of the star at his deadliest. To call Matrix a ‘one-man army’ in the dogged pursuit of his kidnapped daughter (Alyssa Milano) is an understatement, as he not only takes down the main baddies one by one but also annihilates an entire island fortress, murdering countless henchmen in the process. There are so many great moments; his introduction casually carrying a tree trunk and chainsaw or the scene in the toolshed when his ‘kid in a candy store’ kills at least a whole squad of attackers. And what Schwarzenegger role would be complete without a few zingers? My favorite is the simple, yet effective, “I lied.” Sorry, Sully.