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Part of the appeal of the franchise (can we call it that now?) is that it harks back to how we first got to know a lot of these actors – ridiculous, one-man-army plots, explosions, guns, one-liners and frankly, lots of fun.
Since the sort of guff a lot of these guys churned out around the 80′s (Raw Deal, Over the Top, Cobra, The Punisher, Dark Angel, Code of Silence, Lone Wolf McQuade, Kickboxer, AWOL, Red Sonja, Black Eagle etc), they have mostly gone on to bigger and better(?) things. But there is a place for celebrating where these guys have come from, especially since they are playing on that background in gathering them together now.
Rather than try to look back at the critical high points of some of the Expendables (that would be a very different list), I want instead to celebrate some entertaining silliness from some of the Expendables alumni. You will not struggle to find better films than those considered below, but I defy you to find more mindlessly entertaining ones. And remember – it’s only a guilty pleasure if you allow others to make you feel guilty.
1. Jean-Claude Van Damme – Bloodsport
The Muscles from Brussels, Van Damme-age – off the back of villain roles in Black Eagle and No Retreat, No Surrender the former ballet dancer from Belgium had shown that even if he was a little lacking in acting chops, he had a fight-scene presence and a physical ability that drew the eye. His next project? A leading role as a good guy in a based-on-a-true-story about a guy who is very effective in kicking people in the head. With a narrative even more pared down than the comparable Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport gives us Frank Dux as the first westerner to ever compete in the Kumite, a full-contact, no holds barred martial arts contest.
Playing to its strengths and papering over its weaknesses, Bloodsport showcases exceptionally good martial arts sequences across a variety of disciplines and gives us some memorably bone-crunching fights. As the notional villain of the peace, Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li proves an excellent counterpoint to Van Damme, strong, brutal and technically accomplished and seemingly ageless having appeared looking not a day younger in Bruce Lee’s aforementioned classic over a decade earlier.
The side stories of Dux being pursued by army superiors and a western reporter keen to get the skinny on the mysterious tournament are padding, but at least don’t distract from the fight scenes. JCVD would go on to some measure of box office success, but this was him at his purest – exceptional fight sequences strung together with the slenderest of plots. Great fun and one worth tracking down.
2. Chuck Norris – Delta Force 2
I saw this one on VHS in my teens, having seen a trailer for it before some other mindless action film and I instantly fell in love with it. Norris made better films before and since (well, maybe not since, unless you count Dodgeball) but this remains a real high point in terms of excitement, fight sequences and production values.
Norris leads an elite unit into Latin America to rescue DEA units from a ruthless drug lord (The Untouchables’ Billy Drago) and although it’s mostly guns and explosions, the script still manages to contrive a sensational hand to hand sequence between Norris and the drug baron’s main henchman. Norris initially takes a bit of a battering until he utters the immortal line, “my turn to teach”. We know that at this point, it’s all over for anonymous henchman number one.
There have been more considered films made about the relationship between Latin America, the US and the drugs trade, but none of them contain the line “Not on your best day, pal. You’re nothing but a chickenshit weasel who thrives on the misery of others. And when death calls, you’ll be screaming like a baby”. For that, we have Delta Force 2. Not as thought-provoking as Soderbergh’s Traffic, but you’re more likely to turn to this on a Friday evening after a kebab.
3. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Commando
It is hard to know what to opt for when it comes to Arnie’s 80′s output. He essentially spent the best part of half a decade making films that inspired The Expendables in tone and script content. Predator is undoubtedly a better film, objectively speaking, but for sheer entertainment value and for one-liner quotability, Commando gets the nod here.
“I eat Green Berets for breakfast and right now I’m hungry”
“Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired”
“I let him go”
“Let off some steam Bennett”
“Attention all units, emergency on theater level, suspect six foot two, brown hair. He is one gigantic motherfucker”
Happy times. The blessedly streamlined plot sees Arnie’s daughter kidnapped by a Central American dictator who wishes to use her as leverage to get Arnie to overthrow the newly incumbent leader of the country in question. Of course he won’t do that and so sets off to kill everyone and rescue his little girl. It was the sort of thing one man army films fed off throughout the 80′s – some sort of justification for slaughtering faceless goons, until scripts became a bit more considered in recent years and tried to paint its characters in shades of grey rather than merely black and white. You know the sort of thing – goody is good and can kill as many mean, nasty baddies as he likes. They are baddies and deserve everything they get – even this:-
It’s okay – they’re baddies, they had it coming. This is one of those films I had on video in my teens when I didn’t have much else to watch. I must have seen it twenty times. I could gladly watch it twenty more.