Tim Grierson on the Unlikely Smash Success of “The Expendables”


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Because so many movies make over $100 million these days — usually around 30 a year — it’s easy to be blasé when a film hits that once-impressive amount of box office. (This is even truer when a film like “The Green Lantern” can gross over $110 million and still, because of its huge budget, be labeled a commercial failure.) Nonetheless, you still get those sleeper surprises, those unexpected hits that strike a chord with audiences. Two years ago, one of those was “The Expendables,” which won two consecutive weekends at the box office in August. With a sequel coming next Friday, I’ve been thinking a bit about the first film. In retrospect, its success seems even more surprising than it was at the time — but, really, maybe it shouldn’t.

Opening August 13, 2010, “The Expendables” starred Sylvester Stallone, who also directed and co-wrote the film about a group of bad-boy mercenaries hired to take out the dictator of a fictitious South American country. Things get more complicated from there, but nobody who paid money for “The Expendables” went to see it for the plot twists. Instead, it was the chance to catch Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and others shoot lots of guns, blow lots of stuff up, and kick a lot of ass. (Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in it, too, but only for one scene, and all they did was talk.) At that time, Stallone had been enjoying a bit of a career revitalization thanks to minor hits with “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo,” but still, “The Expendables” looked sight-unseen like the sort of movie that would cater mostly to people who wanted to enjoy the fading, 60-something star play action hero one last time.

Turns out there were many, many people who wanted that experience. In its opening weekend, “The Expendables” bested the other new release, “Eat Pray Love,” in part because, improbably, a large percentage of women went to the testosterone-heavy Stallone vehicle. Ultimately grossing $103 million, “The Expendables” was the first movie to star Stallone to gross that much (or be the weekend box-office champ) since 2003’s “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.” And while the movie was something of an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like roundup of venerable action stars, it wasn’t as if many of them individually had had such a huge hit in a while. (Putting aside Schwarzenegger and Willis for a moment, Statham had hit triple digits as part of 2003’s “The Italian Job,” and Li was the villain in 2008’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”) When box office prognosticators were making their summer predictions that year, few thought “The Expendables” would be one of the season’s biggest smashes — in part because it was distributed by an independent company, Lionsgate, as opposed to a major studio — but the movie found an audience, out-grossing seemingly surefire hits like “The A-Team” and “Knight & Day,” and surprising a lot of folks in the process.

Watching “The Expendables” recently, Stallone’s commercial accomplishment is all the more impressive because, honestly, it’s not that great of a movie. In a summer with big-budget spectacles like “Iron Man 2” and innovative thrillers such as “Inception,” “The Expendables” was a modestly conceived action flick without much story to it. There are a few attempts to pay lip service to the ways in which warfare strips soldiers of their souls, and Stallone clumsily tries to give his hardened hero a shot at redemption by returning to the South American country to rescue an imperiled woman (Giselle Itié) who helped him. But those moments of nuance are quickly overshadowed by an aggressively macho attitude in which the action sequences are punctuated by rampant brute force and bloody deaths. (While most action films tone things down a bit to earn a PG-13 rating that ensures a wider audience, “The Expendables” was unapologetically a hard R.) There aren’t great characters, there isn’t much good acting — “The Expendables” is carnage run amuck.

And, yet, those seeming liabilities are all part of the movie’s charm. With its aging stars and unsophisticated storytelling, “The Expendables” felt lovably old-fashioned. It wasn’t just that it featured actors who were big in the 1980s — in addition, “The Expendables” recalled an earlier era of action filmmaking in which the violence was unabashedly bloody and intense. Plus, there was an emphasis on using practical effects as much as possible. Wes Caefer, the film’s visual effects supervisor, wanted everything to look real, but even the movie’s cheesier effects — the budget was a relatively tiny $80 million — have an innocence to them. (Caefer, by the way, summarized the movie’s philosophy as well as anyone has: “The good guys should be badass and the bad guys should be badass and the weapons should be badass. Whatever was in the film had to be badass.”) Featuring lots of hand-to-hand combat and actual explosions, “The Expendables” exuded a grittiness that’s mostly gone out of slick, sleek action movies. (Without the success of “The Expendables,” it’s hard to imagine “Act of Valor” ever being made.) And while “The Expendables” would never be described as a very original piece of moviemaking, it was one of the few summer hits that wasn’t a sequel or based on a comic book — it has a distinctive, handmade quality that made it stand out in a season of high-tech sameness.

Two years later, we’re getting an inevitable “Expendables 2.” Critics weren’t kind to the first film, and I can’t imagine they’re going to be any nicer to the new movie — it’s not that type of film. But what’s amazing is that, when you think about it, this series isn’t really about stars or excitingly cool concepts. The “Expendables” franchise has been about enjoying an era that’s not around anymore, celebrating a brawny, old-school style of action filmmaking that went out of favor around the time that Stallone first stopped being a major box office draw. Those who dismiss this series will insist that Stallone and his B-list costars are hopelessly out of step with the times. The films’ fans will argue that that’s exactly the point.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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