THE EXPENDABLES Is Every 11-Year-Old Boy’s Fantasy Fulfilled

BC on his adolescent dream realized. 

I still remember being around 11 or 12 and hearing a friend express his desire to see Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in a movie together, to which I replied "It'll never happen!" I may not have known much, but I knew those guys would never join forces for a single film while they were still competing to be the world's biggest action star. But I couldn't deny it would be amazing to see a few of those guys in one movie, either fighting against each other or teaming up against a bigger enemy (this being the early ‘90s, that enemy would probably be some Eurotrash terrorists). For a long time, it seemed Universal Soldier would be the best we'd ever get, as it had Jean Claude Van Damme (nearing the peak of his big screen popularity) pitted against Dolph Lundgren (sadly in the twilight of his); a sort of B-movie variant on seeing Arnold take on Sly.

Over the years, similar playground daydreams would be realized -- debates over whether Freddy could take on Jason were settled by Ronny Yu in 2003, and the following year gave us a big-screen Alien Vs. Predator. Neither film was as good as what we pictured in our heads, but they made for a fine opening night celebration with a theater full of rowdy fans, letting nostalgia trump the more intelligent part of our brains for 90 minutes. However, those were just appetizers for 2010's The Expendables, where Stallone (working as director, co-writer and star) did the unthinkable and assembled a dream team of the past 20 years' action heroes, offering a poster that looked like an AFM pipe dream instead of a real movie. Stallone! Statham! Li! Lundgren! Willis! Uh... Rourke! Roberts?

OK, so some of the casting selections were a little odd -- in addition to a few out-of-nowhere choices (Randy Couture?), basically anyone who ever worked with Stallone was fair game (Rourke being his Get Carter co-star; Roberts was a sub-villain in The Specialist), even if they weren't exactly action icons. Further watering down the experience was the fact that the plot was seemingly half-dictated by availability (Rourke was only on set for two days; more than one character was dropped from the script because Sly couldn't get anyone worthy to fill the role), but, ultimately, who cares? The fact that the movie even exists is enough of a win; just as Avengers and Fast Five would later prove, there's just something about seeing a group of beloved characters or actors come together for the first time that can stir nerd emotions like no other film can. The narrative suited the inner ten-year-old in all of us: a bunch of badasses (led by Sly, of course) go off to an island to take out a dictator, allowing for both massive shootouts and individual one-on-one fights aplenty, with little more plot complication than we'd bother with if conjuring up the movie with assorted action figures in our backyard (though we'd probably skip Rourke's monologue). Classy cinema it is not, but neither is the average movie starring these guys in their prime -- is Expendables really that much sillier than Cobra or Running Man?

And regardless, all sins are forgiven roughly 20 minutes into the film, when it comes time for the real draw. Despite its brevity, any self-respecting crowd would thunderously applaud for a scene that proved 11-year-old BC wrong: during a meeting with Bruce Willis' character Church, none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger (also unbilled, and still the governor of California at the time) strolled in for a cameo, allowing these three titans of action cinema (and chain restaurants) to share the screen for the first time. The scene doesn’t amount to much more than the three of them trading a few jabs, and the surprise was sadly spoiled by the trailer, but even though it lacked explosions or gunfire, it was hard to deny how goddamn exciting it was for everyone who grew up watching their movies on VHS. It's a sad irony that my generation worshipped these guys but were too young to see many of their classics on the big screen -- that is, unless their parents were cool (mine were; Die Hard 2 was in fact the first R-rated film I got to see on the big screen, though they vetoed Total Recall).

Along the way we got to see some other terrific highlights: the hulking Lundgren engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the smaller (but deadly) Jet Li; Steve Austin and Stallone beating each other to a pulp (with Sly breaking his neck during the filming of the scene), DTV mainstay Gary Daniels in a movie that was playing on thousands of screens... You just couldn't deny the immediate thrill of watching all these guys throwing punches and one-liners in one big summer movie. The first sequel upped the ante, expanding Willis and Schwarzenegger's roles considerably and adding Van Damme, Scott Adkins and even Chuck Norris into the mix. The upcoming third film continues the trend; Willis has dropped out but they've added Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson to fill the void, not to mention Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas (Stallone's antagonists from Demolition Man and Assassins, respectively). The marketing has suggested that this is the last entry of the series, but if it performs well I'm sure Sly can be convinced to rope everyone back for another go-round. After all, until he gets Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal signed on, there are still some adolescent dreams to fulfill.

This was originally posted in the August "Assemble the Team!" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Duck Soup and other great team-up titles at the Alamo this month