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When the script is Expendable: How to build a cliché action-movie in 10 easy steps

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The Expendables movies have always left me wondering: can an almost septuagenarian lead and an ensemble cast with more names than you can fit in a registry office, really deliver on entertainment value?

So far the franchise has grossed a total $579m worldwide. Which means the answer must be yes. And as the third instalment opens this week, I’ve decided to watch The Expendables 2 and see what the fuss is all about. Why The Expendables 2? It’s the one with the good Tomatometer score and it did better at the box office. Plus it boasts a whopping six writing credits. That’s a lot of writers. The script must be good. It must.

102 minutes later, here’s my analysis for your reading pleasure (warning: **SPOILERS**).

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  1. The premise

Expandable: the ensemble cast grows bigger with each movie

The Expendables are a group of rogue mercenaries, employed for missions high on danger and low on life expectancy. Each member has a specific role to play:

  • Stallone: leader of the group and all-round strategist and fighter.
  • Statham: second in command and knife expert. But mostly, he can speak in a cockney accent.
  • Li: Kung Fu master (duh). But mostly, he can mobilise the Chinese crowd at the box office.
  • Lundgren: he’s huge. But mostly, he doubles as comic relief.
  • Crews: weapons expert. But mostly, he’s the only black actor in the movie – at least he’s not a baddie.
  • Hemsworth: sniper. But mostly, he’s Thor’s little brother. And has lovely blue eyes. But I digress…
  • Couture: I’m still working it out.

So now that the premise is set out and the cast is finalised, we can throw our characters into action.

 

  1. The false construct

The film starts with a so called false construct.  This is an action scene that is completely unrelated to the plot and serves no other purpose than to give the audience a taste of the movie ahead. James Bond films are famous for false constructs. They start with high octane chases, shooting, explosions, product-placement of expensive watches, more shooting. Then, once the audience is high on adrenaline and has been adequately reassured that this is indeed an action movie, the real story can start. Usually with a boring scene in which M briefs Bond in an office room about the latest political crisis. See why we couldn’t really start here?

The false construct in The Expendables 2 is a mission in Nepal to rescue a kidnapped Chinese billionaire. There’s a lot of fighting. Stallone brings down a chopper with a motorbike. Nobody runs out of ammo, apart from Li, who is therefore forced to dispatch the baddies with a frying pan in his best Jackie Chan impersonation. Lots of stuff goes ka-boom and there’s an escape scene involving a zip line and machine guns. You get the idea.

Starting with a bang. Things go blast in the opening sequence

Starting with a bang. Things go blast in the opening sequence

The end of this scenealso sees the departure of Li, who has more pressing film commitments. I mean, who has to escort the Chinese billionaire back home.

False construct over, we are almost ready for the movie to properly start. But not before the emotional set up.

 

  1. The emotional set up  

Our heroes celebrate completing their mission by relaxing in a bar. Hemsworth confides to Stallone that he wants out: he’s in love. He wants to finish the month and then live happily ever after with the girl of his dreams.

This is too much information too early in the movie, especially for a film which is plot (rather than character) driven. The point of this scene is to make us go awwww, and care for Hemsworth’s character.  It also poses a problem: Hemsworth wasn’t in the first movie. If he retires, then what’s the point of bringing him in the story in the first place? All this put together signals that poor Hemsworth is going to meet an untimely end.  He’s the real (and only) expendable.

Hemsworth: the real (and only) expendable

Hemsworth: the real (and only) expendable

 

  1. The start

Ok, now we can really start the movie. Stallone is briefed by Willis on the mission: retrieving the content of a safe somewhere in Albania. The safe is protected by a high-tech code; hence they’ll be joined in the mission by a hacker.

Since Jet Li only has a cameo in this movie, we need another Chinese character to make sure the movie does well at the Chinese box office (wise choice: the movie will go on to gross 54m in China. Not bad considering it grossed 85m domestically). Enter Nan Yu as the hacker. She has the difficult task of serving a double role: she’s both the Asian and the female token character of the movie. You can read about my rants on Asian tokenism here. She’s also Stallone’s flirting sparring partner, so appropriately she’s over thirty years his junior.

Eastern promises – Nan Yu

Eastern promises – Nan Yu

 

  1. The baddies      

We are now in Albania, where the team finds the safe. Yu cracks the code in no time (she’s Chinese, so she’s amazing with computers). She’s also fully kitted out for battle, and we learn she’s combat proficient (she’s Chinese, so she’s amazing with martial arts). Hemsworth does a lot of impressive things, so that everybody can comment on his incredible potential and bright future (awwww).

Then the group is ambushed by the baddies, led by Van Damme. They capture Hemsworth and force Stallone to hand over the content of the case. This is not enough to save poor Hemsworth, who is killed nonetheless, hence absolving his function, which was never to be a real character, but rather a plot device: now everybody is mad and the story’s back on track.

 

  1. Raising the stakes

While the team is tracking down the baddies, we find out that the safe contains the blue print of a mine hiding a large quantity of stolen plutonium. But there’s a problem: it’s really difficult to care about stolen plutonium. So the movie shows us the baddies kidnapping innocent people from the neighbouring villages and using them as slaves in the mine. It also hints that the workers will be killed once they’re no longer needed. Now there’s a sense of urgency that revenge alone cannot achieve – we need to get the baddies and we need to do it fast. Now we’ve got ourselves a movie.

ex1

 

  1. The fillers

Before we can confront the baddies, a few things have to happen in the middle, otherwise we don’t have enough running time.

The Expendables track down a contingent of baddies. Yu whips out a handy torture kit and extracts the information she needs (she’s Chinese, so she’s amazing with … wait, what?). She then briefs the team about what she’s found out. When Stallone quizzes her on how she can understand the language, she replies:

“Easy. It’s a cross of Bulgarian and Ukrainian dialects. I put it together.”

(She’s Chinese, so she’s amazing with Mittel-European dialects).

The group then moves deep into the woods, where they stumble across something curious: a derelict replica of New York in the ‘80s. They scratch their heads, puzzled at this discovery. Yu explains this is probably a soviet base used during the Cold War to practice invasion manoeuvres. Which prompts the following dialogue:

Stallone: “Is there anything you don’t know?”

Yu: “Plenty. But the writers couldn’t think of a better way to deliver this information to the audience.”

Okay, so I made that last line up. It doesn’t make it any less true.

While in the NY replica, the team is attacked. They fight valiantly, but are outnumbered. They are about to capitulate when all the baddies are killed by a mysterious sniper. Cue in the whistle music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Chuck Norris appears. This makes me happy, mostly because it makes use of one of my favourite Chuck Norris jokes:

Stallone: “I heard you were bitten by a king cobra.”

Norris: “I was. But after five days of agonising pain … the cobra died.”

Booyah! After delivering the best line of the movie, Norris disappears. Still, it was totally worth it.

Making an entrance: when Chuck Norris crosses the road, the cars look both ways

Making an entrance: when Chuck Norris crosses the road, the cars look both ways

 

  1. The climatic ending – part 1

Meanwhile the baddies have found the plutonium. They are about to kill the villagers. We’ve run out of time.

The Expendables are assembled outside the mine, assessing the situation. It doesn’t look good: lots of guards and heavy artillery. This is a suicide mission. So they resort to the only sensible thing to do in this situation: walking in slow motion towards the camera, while pulling resolute, sexy faces.

Nonetheless, they manage to save the villagers and kill the baddies. But Van Damme escapes with the plutonium and detonates the mine, trapping our heroes inside.

This is the point when all seems lost. Our heroes will need to search inside themselves and draw on everything they’ve learnt along their journey. Their last minute inspiration will triumph against the odds, complete their character arc and bring all the plot elements together. Think of that moment in Star Wars when Luke is about to take the shot that could destroy the Death Star, and he decides to abandon his monitor and use the force instead.

However, all of this is hard work. Much easier to have Schwarzenegger appearing out of nowhere to rescue everybody by tanking his way into the mine. Job done.

I told you I’d be back: Schwarzenegger saves the day

I told you I’d be back: Schwarzenegger saves the day

 

  1. The climatic ending – part 2

Now the team is free to chase Van Damme. More shooting and explosions and self-referential humour: Schwarzie tells Willis that he’ll be back; Willis tells Schwarzie he’s been back too many times; Chuck Norris appears again (western whistle) and kills everybody; Schwarzie asks: who’s next, Rambo?

I told you I’d be back: some jokes never get old, or do they?

I told you I’d be back: some jokes never get old, or do they?

Our men are amazing. They shoot and reload and never miss – unless Van Damme is on screen. Then they couldn’t hit the ground if it fell on them. Which means it’s up to Stallone to chase him and confront him alone, before finally bringing him down.

 

  1. Tying the loose ends

For all intents and purposes the movie is now over. But audiences like clean endings, in which we find out what happens to all the characters. So good-byes are said, hands are shaken and Hemsworth’s widow girlfriend gets a bag of money and a letter. The audience is left with an uplifting image of a rusty old plane flying towards the horizon. Ready for Part III.

Roll the credits.

 

References:

IMDB pages for The Expendables and The Expendables 2

Los Angeles Time: ‘Expendables 2’ beats ‘Dark Knight Rises,’ ‘Spider-Man’ in China

http://www.chucknorrisfacts.com/chuck-norris-top-50-facts

 

DRfij0gsLaura is originally from Italy, but somehow wound up in Hong Kong via London (it’s a long story). When she’s not looking after her baby boy, Laura enjoys slapping words on the page to see what comes out of it. You can read more of her articles on her blog, Inked! Laura’s first novella, ‘The Fish and the Freak’, will be released soon as part of the YA dystopian anthology ‘Mermaids’, published by Pankhearst. If you’re interested in an ARC or just want to say hello, you can contact Laura on Twitter or Facebook.

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