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The Expendables Trilogy: Action, Violence, Fun, and Machismo

Updated on May 21, 2016

"Bunch of has-beens still trying to be hard." --Mars, The Expendables 3

80's action films were unique, for lack of a better term. Violent, over-the-top, fun, and for the most part, not very demanding in terms of plot. The unique aesthetic of the era allowed for tough dudes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger to flourish and become action superstars, and rightfully so. Franchises like Rocky, Rambo, Terminator, and Predator are iconic, not only for those that were raised in the 80's, but to anyone. But for every clever Terminator film, there were a dozen of imitators that were high on testosterone and usually low in intelligence, which allowed for another bunch of action stars to prosper.

With time, the popularity of the action films declined, and so did the popularity of their stars. Some of them tried their hands at other genres with varying success, others tried other careers (politics!), and others chose to thrive with direct-to-video films. But like most trends, action films return; or at least they are trying to. And that is the genesis and purpose of The Expendables franchise: to give faded, 80's/90's action stars another chance to shoot and blow stuff up.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis in The Expendables 2
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis in The Expendables 2 | Source

And that's what everyone should expect from these films: pure retro 80's, macho adrenaline, lots of explosions and mindless action. And that's exactly what all three films deliver. Each of them to varying degrees of success, but never really straying from that tongue-in-cheek, action-filled formula.

For starters, The Expendables are an elite team of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone). The team is completed by action stars and/or wrestlers of then and now like Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. Each film pits the team against different antagonists with different plans to unleash evil in the world, so its up to a "bunch of has-beens" to stop them. Here's a look at all three films:


The Expendables (2010)

In the first installment, the Expendables are sent to Vilena, a small island in the Gulf of Mexico, to overthrow General Garza (David Zayas), a military dictator. However, the real target is James Monroe (Eric Roberts), a rogue CIA officer that is using Garza as a puppet for his own profit. While in Vilena, Barney (Stallone) also tries to save their contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié), who also happens to be Garza's estranged daughter.

This first trip with the Expendables crew was, for lack of a better word, the "experiment". As a result, it is the less polished one. Unlike the other two, Stallone - who served as writer, producer, and director - didn't take advantage of the opportunity to play off the premise, and make a fun film. The whole execution is mostly mediocre, and the result is a mildly enjoyable, yet mostly dull film. Plus some bits, like the conflict between Gunner (Lundgren) and Yang (Li), and the backstory on Christmas (Statham) and his girlfriend felt forced and clumsily executed. Finally, Stallone's direction was a bit muddled, particularly in the last climatic battle, which should be crucial to this type of film.

As for performances, there's little to look for here, or in any of the sequels, but Mickey Rourke does have an interesting, particularly well acted scene. Unfortunately, it feels a bit out of place with the rest of the film. But one thing they've aced so far in all three films is the choice of villains. Eric Roberts seems to be one of the few cast members to really grasp the potential of the idea, and his scenery-chewing is pretty good. But his performance isn't enough to keep the movie away from its own dullness.


The Expendables 2 (2012)

In the second film, Barney and the Expendables are sent to Albania to retrieve an important item from a downed airplane. However, they are intercepted by arms dealer Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who is the leader of a rival mercenary gang. After Vilain murders one of the Expendables and takes the item, Barney and the rest decide to go after him. They also realize that Vilain plans to use the item to retrieve a stockpile of plutonium to sell to rival countries.

This sequel corrects most of the flaws of the first one. First, Stallone handed the directing reins to Simon West who, although far from a great director, has a more assured hand directing the action. As a result, the scenes flow with a better pace and there's better control of the camera. Second, I felt the approach to the film was less serious, and more tongue-in-cheek, which makes the film feel more relaxed and fun. There are many witty and effective one-liners, as well as a couple of fun cameos (like Chuck Norris).

Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean Vilain in The Expendables 2
Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean Vilain in The Expendables 2 | Source

Finally, although the acting isn't the cornerstone of these films, it's important to highlight the performance of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Like with the first one, the choice of the antagonist benefits the film greatly. Van Damme's performance is easily the highlight of the film as he steals every scene he's in (and I don't think I've said that about any Van Damme film I had seen before). He played Vilain with the sort of swagger and cockiness that all those cool villains of the 80's exuded. Also, his final fight with Stallone is pretty good.


The Expendables 3 (2014)

In the latest installment, the Expendables are sent by their new handler (Harrison Ford) to capture an arms dealer called Victor Menz, without realizing the man is actually Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), co-founder of the Expendables who had gone rogue years before. In the ensuing firefight, Stonebanks critically injures one of the members of the team, which leaves Barney guilt-ridden. Not wanting to endanger the rest of his men, he recruits a new, younger team to go after Stonebanks, but soon realizes he will need all the help he can get to defeat him.

Like the second one, I thought this one successfully merged the action and the humor that the premise calls for. The chemistry between the actors feels more natural, and they all play well off each other, including the newcomers. Kudos to Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas, both of which steal every scene they are in. Also, the cast that plays the "new, younger" team does well enough, considering that most of them had limited to no acting experience.

As for the drawbacks, director Patrick Hughes does a good job, but he is not as good as West was in the second one. Also, the fact that the film was toned down to make up for the friendlier PG-13 rating is evident, which hinders its effect a bit. But to make up for it, Stallone again aces his choice of a villain, with Gibson obviously enjoying his time as Stonebanks. The moments he is on screen totally belong to him and he delivers.

Mel Gibson as Conrad Stonebanks in The Expendables 3
Mel Gibson as Conrad Stonebanks in The Expendables 3 | Source
The Expendables
The Expendables 2
The Expendables 3
Release date
August 13, 2010
August 17, 2012
August 15, 2014
Sylvester Stallone
Simon West
Patrick Hughes
Stallone and David Callaham
Stallone and Richard Wenk
Stallone, Katrin Benedikt, and Creighton Rothenberger
99 minutes
103 minutes
126 minutes
Box office

To sum it up...

The Expendables films are testosterone-filled action fests. Nothing more than that, and there should be no expectations for anything more than big guns and loud bangs. But for all the talent involved, and all the potential in the premise, one would expect for them to be more fun and entertaining. The last two did their best, but I'm sure with a more skilled writer, they could've been so much better.

But even though they don't fully reach their potential, there's still something enticing and nostalgic about seeing these old action stars duke it out one more time (at least for those of us who were raised in the 80/90's). And I'm sure that when the fourth film comes around, I'll be there to watch these bunch of "has-been's still trying to be hard".

The Expendables 3
The Expendables 3 | Source
Rotten Tomatoes
The Expendables
6.5 /10
The Expendables 2
6.7 /10
The Expendables 3
6.2 /10

The Expendables Poll

Which Expendables film is your favorite?

See results


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    Post Comment

    • Thief12 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      First two were rated R, the third one was rated PG-13. It's mostly violence and blood. There wasn't any nudity or sex that I remember in any of the films.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Ratings, please. Presumably blood and guts R?

    • Thief12 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Thanks! I think you liked the first one more than I did, right?

    • IslandBites profile image


      3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Great review, Thief12! Vote up.


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