A-List: The Expendables 3
Recently, I read an article about “The Expendables Effect”. The premise of the article was that The Expendables franchise was responsible for one comeback after another. It was suggested that actors of a certain age and type were falling all over themselves to be cast in the next Expendables movie. With the exception of a couple of stubborn hold-outs, franchise creator Sylvester Stallone could pick and choose from the population of less-than-relevant action heroes because he and he alone had discovered a cinematic fountain of youth. It was a franchise that could resurrect any flagging career. It was viagra for the aging action set.
So what does it mean when an Expendables movie proves to be expendable?
The first Expendables movie came out in 2010. But the story of the Expendables franchise goes back further. The story of The Expendables is really just an extension of the story of Stallone. Stallone created The Expendables as a vehicle for himself. The fact that others got to come along for the ride was incidental. So before we talk about The Expendables, we need to talk about about Stallone.
If you are reading this article, you probably know the Hollywood legend of Stallone’s rise to fame. It was a Cinderella story that could have come from a movie. Stallone was frustrated with the kinds of roles he was getting as an actor. So he wrote the screenplay for Rocky and refused to sell it unless he was allowed to play the lead. There was plenty of interest in the screenplay. But not much for Stallone as an actor. But Stallone stuck to his guns and eventually he got to star in his movie.
Of course Rocky was a huge critical and commercial hit. Like the title character, Stallone was a scrappy underdog. And over time, he fought his way to the top. Just a man and his will to survive. Sorry. Eye of the Tiger happens sometimes. In the mid eighties, Stallone was arguably the biggest movie star in the world. In 1985, he had a smash hit with Rambo, the over-the-top sequel to First Blood. It wasn’t just a movie. It was zeitgeist. Even the president was talking about Rambo.
The following year, Stallone starred in Rocky IV. It is the most ridiculous and most popular film in the Rocky series. Rocky fought a giant killer Russian played by future Expendable, Dolph Lundgren. Rocky IV was so removed from reality that Rocky had a robot sidekick.
Stallone was huge. But he was also surrounded by challengers. In 1984, Eddie Murphy became a huge star with Beverly Hills Cop. It was a movie Stallone had turned down because he wasn’t comfortable with the comedic elements. Instead, he starred in Rhinstone that year. So in 1986, Stallone followed up the smashing success of Rambo and Rocky IV with Cobra. Cobra was Stallone’s vision of Beverly Hills Cop. No bananas in any tailpipes. Cobra was Stallone’s attempt to flex his muscles at up and comers like Murphy. He was going to show them all what the biggest movie star in the world could do.
Cobra may have opened at the top spot at the box office. But it didn’t make the same impact as Beverly Hills Cop. Where Beverly Hills Cop grossed over $200 million dollars, Cobra fell short of $50 million.
But there was an even more dangerous challenger in the game. Arnold Schwarzenegger was slowly gaining on Stallone. As he tightened his grip on the English language, Stallone could feel Arnold breathing down his neck. While Stallone was dominating the box office with Rambo in 1985, Schwarzenegger was building his fanbase with Commando. In 1987 while Stallone was starring in the arm wrestling drama Over the Top, Arnold was killing aliens in the jungle in Predator. As Schwarzenegger ascended, Stallone fell.
In 1988, Schwarzenegger had the biggest hit of his career to date. And it wasn’t an action movie. It was the high concept comedy, Twins. Once again, Stallone was outdone by a comedian. And it seemed to bug him. His next movie was the action comedy, Tango and Cash with Kurt Russell. It opened at number 2 behind National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation which had been out in theaters for about a month. That’s not supposed to happen to the number one movie star in the world.