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.