A-List: The Expendables 3
The Rambo franchise had seemingly stalled out in 1988 with the disappointing Rambo III. Desperate, Stallone turned back to the franchise that made him a star. Rocky. Rocky V was an attempt to bring the series back to its roots. There were no talking robots this time. No killer Russians. Oh and Rocky was poor. And brain damaged. Realistic? Probably. But it was also a snooze and a downer. Rocky V opened at number 2 behind Home Alone. It got steamrolled and grossed an embarrassing $40 million dollars.
With both of his franchises seemingly out of gas, Stallone had nowhere to turn. Meanwhile, his arch rival seemed unstoppable. Schwarzenegger alternated between action movies and comedies. In 1990, he had another comedic hit with Kindergarten Cop. The next year, Schwarzenegger officially became the biggest movie star in the world with Terminator 2.
Stallone must have decided to take a page out of Arnold’s playbook. Because he turned to comedy too. But while Schwarzenegger was making crowd-pleasing high concept comedies with A-list director, Ivan Reitman, Stallone was making Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Through the 90’s Stallone continued making movies. He had enough mojo left from his Rocky/Rambo days that he could still throw his weight around. Schwarzenegger became a star by working with talented directors like James Cameron and Paul Verhoven. But when Stallone wasn’t writing and directing himself, he was throwing his weight around. When Stallone signed on to make a movie, it became a Sylvester Stallone movie for good or ill. By the end of the decade, Stallone’s movies were going straight to video. The mighty had fallen.
In the early 21st century, Stallone struggled to reinvent himself. All the action heroes of the 80s had fallen on hard times. Jason Borne and 9/11 had made them irrelevant. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen as a dinosaur of the 20th century. Schwarzenegger retreated to the Terminator franchise for Terminator 3. But after that, he fled to politics. Meanwhile, Stallone was mugging his way through a bad guy role in Spy Kids 3-D.
Things were worse for lesser action heroes. The Dolph Lundgrens, Steve Seagals and Jean-Claude Van Dammes had all been relegated to home video where old men could watch them and relive their glory days in the comfort of their living room. An era had ended and these guys were just a reminder of days gone by. In the modern world, their movies seemed small and trivial. No one wanted Rambo any more.
Or so it seemed. In 2006, Stallone did what he always did when his career was in the trouble. He went back to Rocky. Rocky 6? Was he kidding?!? It was like a bad punchline. No one would care. But Stallone did something unexpected. This time, he really did get back in touch with the heart of what made the first movie special. Rocky and Stallone were underdogs again. And even though Rocky Balboa only opened at #3 at the box office, audiences were cheering for him again.
Even with good reviews and decent box office, Stallone couldn’t make Rocky 7. So he revived his other long-dormant franchise, Rambo. In 2008, Rambo (which is actually First Blood 4 if you are keeping count) opened at number 2 behind Meet the Spartans. It wasn’t a home run. But it was a base hit.
Two base hits in a row got Hollywood’s attention. Stallone was making money. Hollywood likes that. But now that he had used up Rocky and Rambo, what could he possibly do for an encore. His answer was inspired.
Stallone’s name alone wasn’t enough to bankroll a new franchise. But after his recent modest successes, Hollywood was taking Stallone’s calls again. So he called up all of his friends. The B and C-list action heroes whose fortunes had long since dried up. And he made them an offer. Play supporting roles in my movie and I can get us all back on the big screen. For guys like Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li, it was an offer they could not refuse.
But other stars could and did turn Stallone down. Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme said “no”. Big screen or no, these guys didn’t want to play second or third banana to a goateed Italian Stallion. Besides, it was a Stallone movie. What were it’s chances of success?
It’s easy to forget this. But in 2010, The Expendables did not look like a hit. It opened in August where franchise films go to die. Studios frequently throw away movies they don’t believe in at the end of summer when the kids are going back to school. The Expendables was just that. Expendable.
But it turned out that a lot of Americans had grown nostalgic for the kind of action movie that Hollywood didn’t make any more. The kind that starred guys like Stallone. Those audiences turned up and made The Expendables a $100 million dollar hit. Stallone was back, baby!