Okay, so The Expendables 3 has come out and although it is far better than 2 for me (despite its 12A rating) it is not quite as good as the first one. My dislike for The Expendables franchise is pretty clear and the main reason is the same as why the Transformers franchise also no longer works. For me, each film was best experienced as a one-off oddity that would have worked as a cult film. Audiences my age couldn’t wait to see their childhood memories of Optimus Prime and co come alive on screen whilst The Expendables brought back memories of those great films starring the Hollywood beefcakes of the 80’s in what appeared to be a dream action hero cast.
So what went wrong? Well, Transformers went nowhere and after the initial awe at the photo-realistic CGI, the film had nothing else in its bag of tricks whilst I’ve already stated that The Expendables is neither funny enough to do the Hot Shots-style pastiche or serious enough to be a good action film.
My reason for this list then is that since 2009/10 when the first Expendables was made and released I believe there are better examples of guilty pleasure 80s/90s high concept films that relate far closer to the types of films these guys were actually making. Many will undoubtedly argue I’ve missed the point but I don’t want to see Arnie/Sly/Bruce take the p*ss out of themselves (age, out of shape-ness, catchphrases etc) as to me they never did that in the past. The closest they got at spoof were the duds like Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero.
If you really want to capture the “essence” of that period, you have to look at a wider range of films. Predator wasn’t a comedy. Terminator wasn’t a comedy. Die Hard wasn’t self referential. They were more over the top actioners with a new twist on an established formula. Sure, they weren’t the most original concepts and the leads were the reason for much of the inevitable success but they have stuck around longer andit's why, for me, The Expendables is not catching that vibe at all. I thought Escape Plan was much more on the money from the geriactioners we have to date.
So – with all that in mind, the rules I’m trying to stick by are that the films are a) made at the same time as the Expendables franchise (which is 2009/10 onwards) and b) do not star the actors from the Expendables themselves and finally c) a (very subjective) decision that they have a 80s/90s vibe about them. My mantra, if you like their films of the period – watch these, you’ll be more satisfied!
80s buddy cop comedy (Lethal Weapon, Red Heat, 48 Hours)
The Other Guys and 22 Jump Street both riff on the clichés of the genre but have good action, clever set ups, some actual plot (although very slight) and are all the better because of it. The cops from opposite sides teaming up (young/old, black white, jock/nerd, USA/Russian) is a conventional set up but with charismatic actors and some more up to date jokes and sequences, both films nail the comedy/action balance perfectly with a genuine sense of friendship, laughs and criminal chasing and shooting throughout.
The cops versus criminals terrorists (Die Hard, Under Siege, True Lies, Air Force One)
Well, you’ve got the cop(s) ready to take on the terrorists in one place (building, boat, plane) which keeps the action contained but also creates tension as we are not distracted by other story strands and allows us a more intimate look at the characters as well as the cat-and-mouse dynamics that help push the plot along. So, for those who prefer flying fists I would recommend the ultra violent crime-fu pic The Raid whilst those into guns and bullets should check out Dredd (a graphic novel franchise Stallone already had a go at once and fluffed up beyond belief) whilst finally, those who want more of the Die Hard wise-cracking vibe of a visiting agent caught up in by accident in an attack then check out White House Down – a film that should have been the 5th Die Hard with a better concept and was far superior than what Willis eventually delivered.
Man and machine (Terminator 2, Universal Soldier)
Michael Bay’s 80s toy reboot Transformers proved that big dumb machines were clearly an audience puller but Del Toro showed him how to do it with his neon-drenched Asian-influenced Pacific Rim which put men (and women) at the heart of the machines but without scrimping on the effects budget one iota. With the Terminator learning more about humans and family bonding in Cameron’s sequel, the relationship between generations and a father-son dynamic was front and centre in Real Steel which used the concept of boxing robots to convey its message. The film is also fun if you’re a fan of Rocky and the classic underdog, broke father figure and comeback narrative which permeated that franchise.
Mind (and body) bending Sci-fi + Aliens attack (Total Recall, Predator)
Well there’s plenty to choose from in this genre with Repo Men depicting a future trading in body parts whilst Neeson in Unknown is essentially a Total Recall remake!
The genre crosses over in the amazing District 9 where aliens and body modification are centre stage in this analogy of South African apartheid whilst a more gung-ho army blast-fest was seen in the 80s style Battle Los Angeles where a group go into the urban jungle a la Predator to destroy human-hunting aliens.
Time related travel (Timecop, The Terminator)
Jumping in a machine and putting right what once went wrong was the cornerstone of many a film and TV series from the 80s/90s and one of the best modern movies to tackle the subject was Duncan Jones’ Source Code which played like an episode of TV classic Quantum Leap. In Time, starring Justin Timberlake was closer to Logan’s Run but it had a number of time-based concepts that did nothing new with the genre but was inoffensive guff in a Saturday night popcorn flick kind of way.
One man army (Desperado, Rambo, Commando)
Definitely one of those “of the time” genres that do not particularly hold up these days but Liam Neeson in Taken 1 & 2 shows that a man on a solo revenge can still be done in this cynical age given the right impetus – in this case, the kidnapping of various family members. If you prefer it in a more comedy style then Robert Rodriguez’s Machete is clearly in the same vein as The Expendables but with a more grimy grindhouse feel. Finally, a serious take was Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan in the criminally underrated Hanna which replaces grizzled machismo with an adaptable young girl.
Historical action film (Indiana Jones)
Harrison Ford has already ruined one beloved franchise and we hope he doesn’t do it again in the Star Wars sequel, however, my first choice for a similar fun jaunt though history chasing after important artefacts would be the Nic Cage starring National Treasures but they don’t count being made before 2010 so I’m going to chose Sherlock Holmes 2 which improved upon Guy Ritchie’s first film and once again had the audience following a fighter and a thinker across the globe.
Prison or on-the-run films (Lock Up, Demolition Man, The Fugitive)
From Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) to Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) the prisoner escape film is a perennial fave (Stallone has at least 4 entries here) but the guiltiest of pleasures is the modern update of Law Abiding Citizen – a complete nonsensical film of one dimensional characters, OTT acting and explosions galore but done with a pace that doesn’t allow too much time to analyse the gaping plot holes. In a similar vein, Elysium showed Matt Damon as a future prisoner trying to free himself and the entire population (a la Demolition Man) from an unequal future we’ve stumbled into.
Transport troubles (Passenger 57, Die Hard 2, Under Siege 2)
Often terrorism related but sometimes just pure accident, the violence on vehicles was seen in many an 80s action film and decent flicks that updated the premise include Non-Stop (with strapping Laim Neeson again) and Denzel Washington in runaway train movie Unstoppable. In an apocalyptic future, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell tackle Orwellian-style tyrants in 2014’s Snowpiercer which sees them battle from carriage to carriage within a train that is circling the globe during a future ice-age. The movie is an all out old-style action flick with a serious tone from Asian director Bong Joon-ho.
Apocalypse Films (Mad Max)
With a remake of Mad Max with Tom Hardy soon to be released, Denzel Washington channels the apocalyptic vibe in the brilliant The Book of Eli with a story twist, great action and the hunt for a book replacing oil whilst Tom Cruise’s Oblivion covers similar territory but with floating iPod style robots and a big conspiracy to uncover.
Sports rivalry (Rocky, Driven)
Finally, it would be easy to go with The Fighter or Warrior as a companion piece to Rocky but these two films are far too serious for the action fest of Sly and his buddies so if you want a fast cutting, high octane sports rivalry film then you better check out the adrenaline fuelled biopic Rush - you’ve done it again Howard!
Midlands Movies Mike