When Were The Expendables At Their Best?

Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables
(Image credit: Lionsgate)

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…


Sylvester Stallone: Rambo: First Blood Part II

It’s fair to say that most heavies on the Expendables roster peaked early on in their careers, then did everything that they could to hold on to the fame they’d acquired. Stallone might have started out in softcore pornography (download The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, if you are curious), but “The Italian Stallion” became a household name after writing, directing and starring as the famed underdog fighter in 1976’s Rocky. And while Stallone was excellent in the first two Rocky movies, he didn’t exactly define himself as an exaggeratedly unstoppable force of violent nature until he beefed up his John Rambo character on Rambo: First Blood Part II.

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 IIExpendables, included.


Jason Statham: Crank

Jason Statham is much harder to write about than most of these guys because he’s still churning out action movies. In fact, he’s got three of them slated for release in 2013 alone. It’s entirely possible one of them will be the greatest thing since Clint Eastwood drove a train through a saloon, but choosing among only what we’ve seen thus far, there’s really no other option than Crank. It’s far from his best movie, but it is the one where he’s the most recklessly aggressive.

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.


Jet Li: Hero

It took two years and plenty of headaches to finally get Jet Li’s Hero into US theaters, but the weight was definitely worth it. The action star plays Nameless in the film, an orphaned master swordsman who deflects arrows with the precision of a man who seems like he majored in the task in college. A lot of the other films on this list represent the men at their most animalistic and primal. Clearly, far more thought went into Hero, but in a way, that’s more representative of how Li best connects with audiences.

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.


Dolph Lundgren: Rocky IV

Quick, name the film Dolph Lundgren was in before he appeared alongside Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV. Hard to do, right? OK, fine, tell me the biggest film Lundgren starred in after Rocky IV … and you can’t say Expendables. Even harder. The truth of the matter is that Lundgren’s portrayal of the Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Stallone’s fourth – and most jingoistic -- Rocky sequel continues to define him as an actor because he hasn’t been in anything nearly as memorable ever since. Drago was a physical specimen, an unstoppable force who seemed to finally present an obstacle Stallone’s punching bag wouldn’t be able to overcome.

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.


Chuck Norris: Walker, Texas Ranger

Chuck Norris’ real claim-to-fame, in today’s meme-obsessed culture, is the endless list of “Chuck Norris Facts” that continue to paint him as the universe’s mightiest warrior. Did you know Chuck Norris counted to infinity twice? Or that Chuck Norris is the reason Waldo is hiding? It goes on and on. But if we had to single out the definitive Norris role from his (admittedly slight) oeuvre, we’d have to go off the silver screen and over to the small screen, where the ass-kicking actor cleaned up the dusty streets of Dallas-Fort Worth as Cordell Walker, Texas Ranger.

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.


Jean-Claude Van Damme: Bloodsport

Jean-Claude Van Damme is such a perfect fit for The Expendables 2 that it’s disappointing he wasn’t in the first one. Regardless, we’re all willing to settle for his Vilain (no, I didn’t misspell villain) who is a formidable, uh, adversary for the sequel. Still, there’s no way he’ll rival the hardest possible Damme test, however, because nothing the star has ever done approaches the greatness of Frank Dux in Bloodsport. Sure, there are other très fort characters in the actor’s resume, Kickboxer and Universal Soldier also stand out in the eight year stretch that saw him star in 16 films, but what’s a tougher test than the Kumite?

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.


Bruce Willis: Die Hard

Willis has a long list of awesome action flicks to his credit, but there's no contest as to which shows him at his best. Die Hard's John McClane is one of America's preeminent movie badasses, and though each of his four adventures is thoroughly thrilling, the original is still by far the strongest. Here Willis made himself a true movie star, using his everyman appeal and the smirking humor he'd developed over seasons of the cheeky detective series Moonlighting as a base for a unique brand of hero who is as profane as he is relentless and snarky.

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!"


Arnold Schwarzenegger: Commando

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a once in a generation action star, making any selection arguably the wrong choice. This is the man, sorry, the Governor, who at 65 years of age will not only be returning to The Expendables to blow more shit up but can be seen freely admitting he’s old and still convincingly kicking ass in Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand. For his prime? Forget the ‘Hyborian Age’ or the future on Mars and instead look to 1985’s Commando.

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.