Sylvester Stallone, Lionsgate and Millennium are banking on franchise nostalgia for a series that was never that popular to begin with.
Well, this smells like desperation. Lionsgate and Millennium Media are reportedly (so says Hollywood Reporter) taking the plunge on a fourth Expendables movie. Among the franchise vets coming back to blow stuff up yet again are Sylvester Stallone (who launched the franchise back in 2010 and wrote/directed its first and still best installment), Jason Statham (who is a co-lead in all three of the films alongside Stallone), Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren, meaning regular actioners Terry Crews, Jet Li and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who cameoed in the first film but had larger supporting roles in the 2012 sequel and the 2014 threequel) will be M.I.A. this time out. New to the gang this time out are Curtis “50” Jackson, Megan Fox (whose African-set actioner Rogue is now on Hulu) and action god (or, if you’ve seen Detective Chinatown 3, comedy superstar) Tony Jaa.
Jason Statham will be more of a protagonist than Stallone this time out, which makes sense given Statham’s increased global profile and the fact that, all due respect, Sylvester Stallone is 75 years old. Scott Waugh (Act of Valor, Need For Speed) will direct this time out from a script by Spenser Cohen (with revisions by Max Adams and John Joseph Connolly). The addition of Megan Fox will garner plenty of media coverage, especially from a generation that grew up thinking (not incorrectly) she was done dirty by the press during her Transformers/Jennifer’s Body days, but we’re talking about a franchise that just barely did the job a decade ago when A) the idea of veteran action stars all appearing in the same movie was a unique idea and B) audiences still went to the movies just for the hell of it.
The Expendables earned $103 million domestic (from a $34 million debut) and $274 million worldwide on an $88 million budget in August of 2010. The film got the job done (working as an optimistic “answer” to Stallone’s brutally pessimistic 2008 Rambo flick) but felt less like “Action All-Stars To the Rescue” and more like “Stallone, Statham and whomever else would say yes.” That said, it was more of a “real movie” than its sequels. Simon West’s Expendables 2 was more of a romp but delivered on the promise of its predecessor, offering Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis fighting side-by-side along with a cameo from Chuck Norris and a (shockingly good) Jean Claude Van Damme as the baddie. It would open with $28 million in August 2012, ending with $85 million domestic and $314 million worldwide on a $100 million budget.
It was Lionsgate’s biggest “not Hunger Games/Twilight” global grosser. But Lionsgate, Millennium and/or Stallone messed with success the third time out. After flirting with going PG-13 with the first two films, they finally bit the bullet with Expendables 3. Like the Robocop remake, Expendables 3 was cut down to a PG-13 in pursuit of young audiences who didn’t give a damn about these old-school action stars or old-school franchises. The kids instead flocked to The LEGO Movie in February. They showed up for Guardians of the Galaxy (or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) in August of 2014. The action fans who might have driven to the theater held their noses at the “parents strongly cautioned” rating. Even with a cast including Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson (as the baddie) and action legend Kelsey Grammar, the third time was not the charm.
Maybe it wasn’t entirely the PG-13. After all, as we’d see later with Divergent and the revamped X-Men series, sometimes audiences show up for the first film, give that first sequel a second chance but then finally give up the third time around. Yes, that’s a big trouble sign for Fantastic Beasts, but I digress. And yet, a DVD-quality copy of Expendables 3 leaked online a month before release, but as we’ve seen with Taken and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, piracy won’t stop audiences from seeing a movie in theaters if they really want to see that movie. Nonetheless, Patrick Hughes’ Expendables 3 opened to just $16 million and ended with $39 million domestic and (partially thanks to $72 million in China) $214 million worldwide on a $100 million budget. Hughes found redemption in The Hitman’s Bodyguard ($171 million on a $30 million budget) in August 2017.
And in a sane world, that would have been the end. But in our current “I.P. for the sake of I.P.” entertainment industry, we’re getting a fourth Expendables movie because it’s recognizable I.P. and because Stallone hasn’t had a non-Rocky/Rambo/Expendables star vehicle hit since Copland ($45 million on a $15 million budget) in August of 1997. Save for his mini-comeback from 1993 to 1997 (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist, etc.), Stallone has always struggled commercially outside his two defining franchises. Nonetheless, The Expendables was always more popular as an abstract notion, partially because they were (big budgets and spectacle notwithstanding) mediocre action movies. Now ensemble actioners now par for the course (Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, The Avengers, Fast & Furious, even the Daniel Craig 007 movies to an extent), the core hook of The Expendables is now distinctly less unique.
Audiences barely liked the first two and ignored the third. I’m presuming Stallone and friends won’t make the PG-13 mistake this time. This film will operate as a legacy sequel to a franchise that began as a metaphorical legacy sequel to the likes of Commando, Die Hard, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Invasion U.S.A. Not unlike Netflix’s (halfway decent) Fear Street 1996, which plays off nostalgia for Scream, which itself was riffing on nostalgia for Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, Expendables 4 is going to be a skewed example of double nostalgia. It’ll offer nostalgia for the “glory days” of 1980’s action and the first Expendables trilogy. Ditto, if it ever actually gets made, for Disney’s Tron 3 and Indiana Jones 5, both of which will be a legacy sequel to a legacy sequel.
It’s worth remembering that Danny Glover was 41 (playing a 50-year-old) in the first Lethal Weapon and Roger Moore was 57 in A View to a Kill. Anyway, we’re indeed getting The Expendables 4, in what is a pretty clear example of an I.P. for the sake of I.P. play, as well as banking on a franchise that was briefly popular due to specific circumstances at a particular time. Oh, and it’s another franchise revamp that exists not because audiences demand it but because the studios want to tout its existence to shareholders. Yes, potential quality notwithstanding, I’m pessimistic as hell for this film, but maybe they’ll listen to me about the whole R/PG-13 thing this time (and let Jaa be funny). The Expendables 4 is set to start production in October, meaning it’ll presumably be in theaters sometime in 2022 or 2023.