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The Expendables Effect: Why the Action Franchise is a Comeback Cure-All for Aging Movie Heroes




Written By: Chris McKittrick

While appearing on The Howard Stern Show in October 2012, pro wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan brought up The Expendables 3, the then in-development third film in the aging action hero franchise spearheaded by his Rocky III co-star Sylvester Stallone. “Hey, you know what would really be cool?” Hogan asked Stern in a matter-of-fact way that indicated he would answer the question regardless, “On Twitter all of my boys and fans are hitting me up, saying, ‘You should be in Expendables 3!’ Could you imagine? I wish! Could you imagine if I shave my head and I was the bad guy?” Considering that earlier in the interview Hogan claimed that he had to turn down many blockbuster movie roles because of his wrestling career, it’s not surprising that Hogan would covet a role in the Expendables franchise. There are about a half-dozen actors who can credit The Expendables with giving their acting careers a jumpstart or a second (and in some cases, even third) wind. The series has had a remarkable effect of turning back the clock on careers that previously seemed to be past their expiration dates.

Many moviegoers who saw the first two Expendables films, released in 2010 and 2012 respectively, saw 1980s and 1990s action movie stars like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme in a movie for the first time in over a decade. Since the late 1990s, Van Damme and Lundgren could only be seen in direct-to-video movies that bypassed U.S. theatrical distribution and were released directly to premium cable channels, VHS, DVD, and later Blu-ray. Though former box office stars have long been ridiculed for starring in direct-to-video movies, that derision clouds the truth of how profitable direct-to-video movies can be for both the stars and studios. Studios save millions of dollars by not creating prints and advertising for releases that inherently appeal to niche audiences, and stars like Van Damme, Lundgren, and Steven Seagal receive multi-million dollar paychecks because the direct-to-video action movie market remains a reliable revenue stream for studios, which sometimes release the films theatrically in countries where those stars retain stronger followings.

Of course, while direct-to-video movies remain profitable for studios, the nature of the release model is far less visible than theatrical releases with multiplatform, multimillion dollar marketing campaigns. By 2010 the visibility of Van Damme and his direct-to-video peers had faded each year they had been away from the theatrical spotlight, and the rise of premiere content of alternate distribution methods like internet streaming, video-on-demand, and Netflix threatened to cut into their niche release model. Also cutting into the market was competition from slightly younger actors, like former pro wrestler Steve Austin and UFC fighter Randy Couture, with second careers as direct-to-video action film stars. Furthermore, they faced even tougher competition from more famous stars transitioning to the direct-to-video market as their own big screen careers fizzled.

Surprisingly, one of those names was one-time box office champion Sylvester Stallone. Despite a critically acclaimed performance against type as an overweight small-town New Jersey sheriff in 1997’s Cop Land, the movie performed below expectations and Stallone had trouble getting back on his feet as an action star. Despite being filmed in 1999, Stallone’s D-Tox was not released in the U.S. until 2002 under the title Eye See You in fewer than 100 theaters, grossing less than $80,000. In the meantime, two other films starring Stallone that were released to theaters – 2000’s Get Carter and 2001’s Driven – both underperformed. Stallone’s next film, 2002’s Avenging Angelo, was released direct-to-video in the U.S., and 2004’s Shade might as well have been because it was only released in six theaters. After dominating the box office for two decades through the mid 1990s, with his dwindling success in the early 2000s Stallone’s future output seemed destined to sit alongside Seagal’s and Van Damme’s on the DVD racks.


But Stallone turned his career around with one of the most remarkable comebacks in film history. First, he played the villain in 2003’s Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, which grossed $197 million worldwide. He followed that up with a return to his two most famous characters in 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2008’s Rambo, with a combined worldwide gross of over $260 million. Stallone then saw a screenplay about an elite group of mercenaries written by David Callaham as the perfect opportunity to create the ultimate action hero team-up movie, The Expendables, including cameos from fellow box office titans and longtime friends Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Luckily for direct-to-video action heroes like Lundgren, it was just the project to get them all back on the big screen. The Expendables was a massive success, grossing $103.1 million in the U.S. and nearly $275 million worldwide. The 2012 sequel’s U.S. box office take dipped to $85 million, but worldwide it defied expectations by grossing $305.4 million. For the principals involved, The Expendables movies increased their profiles in ways that a half dozen individual direct-to-video releases never could.

The effect The Expendables had on Lundgren’s career was immediate. Prior to the release of The Expendables, Lundgren had appeared in one or two direct-to-video movies a year since he last appeared in a film theatrically released in the U.S., 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. After that long absence a movie that Lundgren starred in and directed, The Killing Machine, had a one-week run at a theater in West Hollywood a month after The Expendables opened. A number of Lundgren’s earlier films, like Joshua Tree (1993) and Red Scorpion (1988), were re-issued on Blu-ray. But most importantly, after being reintroduced to audiences in The Expendables the number of Lundgren’s direct-to-video projects significantly increased. Since the release of the first Expendables, Lundgren has starred in over ten films, including a sequel to his 1992 hit Universal Soldier, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (which also stars Van Damme and another Expendables 2 star, Scott Atkins) that was released in three U.S. theaters. Many of his recent direct-to-video releases also feature his Expendables cohorts, including The Package (with Steve Austin) and Ambushed (with Randy Couture), promising, like The Expendables, more action hero bang for the audience’s buck.

Indeed, it is because of The Expendables that Austin and Couture have promising careers in direct-to-video action films. After retiring from professional wrestling in 2003, Austin began a movie career after displaying his acting talent in six episodes of the television series Nash Bridges. However, before The Expendables Austin’s movie roles were sporadic and only one of the films that he played the lead in, 2007’s The Condemned, was released to theaters. In the four years since Austin appeared in the original Expendables he has starred in seven direct-to-video movies and had a supporting role in the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups 2. Similarly, Couture was ending his MMA career when he appeared in The Expendables (his final fight was in April 2011), and had appeared in bit parts in action movies, with only one starring role as the villain in the direct-to-video The Scorpion King 2. But between the first and second Expendables films Couture had his first heroic lead role in the direct-to-video Hijacked and later appeared in the direct-to-video Bruce Willis movie Setup and alongside Lundgren in Ambushed. He also had a supporting role in the comedy 3 Geezers! with J.K Simmons and Tim Allen, though it was only released in 15 theaters and grossed less than $5000 amid terrible reviews.

Though arguably the biggest direct-to-video action hero of them all, even Jean-Claude Van Damme received a career boost from starring in The Expendables 2 (Van Damme turned down a role in the first Expendables, a mistake he did not make the second time around). After having major worldwide box office hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Van Damme was already facing a downturn in his box office fortunes when he guest starred in the highly promoted post-Super Bowl episode of NBC’s hit sitcom Friends in January 1996, which aired shortly after his movie Sudden Death fared poorly at the U.S. box office. Starring in four more underperforming films between Sudden Death and 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return did not change that downward trend for Van Damme, and this Universal Soldier sequel was the last Van Damme movie released theatrically in the United States for a dozen years except for a limited release of his 2008 critically acclaimed, self-referential crime drama JCVD. Yet his role in The Expendables 2 launched repackagings of numerous Van Damme films for Blu-ray release, the previously mentioned limited theatrical release of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, and like Lundgren, more offers of direct-to-video features. He starred in three other films released in 2012 in addition to The Expendables 2 and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and has numerous others lined up, including Pound of Flesh, a reunion with Ernie Barbarash, the director of 2011’s Assassination Games and 2012’s 6 Bullets. In November 2013, Van Damme even starred in a viral video for doing one of his famous splits between two trucks going in reverse to highlight their smooth performance. After the video was viewed over 40 million times, Variety called it Van Damme’s “biggest hit in years.” Shortly afterward, the comedy Welcome to the Jungle, which stars Van Damme and premiered at the 2013 Newport Beach Independent Film Festival, received a strong promotional push.

Expendables 2 trailer 3

Yet the Expendables franchise has proven not only to be a career reviver, but also a career jumpstarter. Starring alongside Van Damme and Lungren in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is Scott Adkins, who also appears alongside them in The Expendables 2. At 38, Adkins is a baby in comparison to his fellow Expendables, but has been an action movie supporting actor since his first role in Jackie Chan’s 2001 film The Accidental Spy. He appeared in small parts in theatrically released films like Chan’s The Medallion, Unleashed (starring fellow Expendable Jet Li), The Bourne Ultimatum, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Zero Dark Thirty, but he had more prominent roles in direct-to-video movies like Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, Undisputed III: Redemption, and Ninja, including two films with Van Damme (The Sheppard: Border Patrol and Assassination Games). But like the others his role in The Expendables 2 increased his profile, leading to sequels to his previous direct-to-video work (like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear) and co-starring with Dolph Lundgren in Legendary: Tomb of the Dragon, which was shot in 3D and even premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and is set for a U.S. release to coincide with the release of The Expendables 3.

Of course, after The Expendables returned these actors to the eyes of the general public they now have the internet to thank for keeping them in the spotlight. Advertising budgets for direct-to-video releases are low, so marketers now take advantage of low cost or no cost promotional material on movie news websites and social media, avenues that were in their infancies when Lundgren and Van Damme originally kicked off their direct-to-video careers. Whereas news of such releases was harder to come by in the late 1990s and early 2000s in traditional media, now these actors have direct access to thousands of fans to promote their projects. In that sense, The Expendables couldn’t have happened at a better time to reconnect these stars with audiences who enjoy their brand of action movies.

Despite his pleading, Hogan didn’t make the cut for Expendables 3. Neither did Steven Seagal, who was offered a role but did not accept it. Seagal previously returned to theaters in 2010 in a small role in Machete, but he was also still able to capitalize on The Expendables by co-starring with Steve Austin in the direct-to-video Maximum Conviction, released in 2013. Some of Seagal’s recent releases also follow the “bang for your buck” Expendables model and feature him opposite popular direct-to-video actors like Vinnie Jones, Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames. Another actor hoping that the franchise will again work its magic is Wesley Snipes, who is returning to film with The Expendables 3 after spending several months in prison on a tax evasion conviction. Prior to his prison sentence, Snipes’ recent films were split between theatrical releases and direct-to-video releases. Similar to Snipes, Robert Davi is another direct-to-video veteran (who recently co-starred in Lundgren’s 2013 film Blood of Redemption and Snipes’ 2010 film Game of Death) joining the Expendables series who will likely see more attention because of his role. Another actor joining the franchise who is looking for a boost after years of personal controversy is Mel Gibson, whose last action film (Get the Gringo) was a VOD release. In addition, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz are hoping to make the same transition to film as Courture has done with their roles in The Expendables 3. If the effects of the first two films are any indication, each can look forward to a meaningful movie career boost.

One actor who will not reprise his role in the third film is Bruce Willis, who (according to Stallone) demanded too much money. However, out of all the Expendables actors Willis remains the most successful outside of the franchise. Although he had his share of duds in recent years (2012’s Lay the Favorite grossed just $20,998 in 61 theaters and his 2011 movie Setup and 2012 movie Fire with Fire were released direct-to-video in the U.S.), he has continued to star in films that regularly gross $50 million or more at the U.S. box office including his own ensemble aging action franchise Red and Red 2 and the fourth and fifth movies in the Die Hard series. After negotiations with Willis fell through, Harrison Ford was brought in to play a replacement character. If nothing else, the participation of yet another Hollywood heavyweight indicates how much the Expendables franchise has elevated the principals involved. Five years ago, who would have predicted that direct-to-video stars like Lundgren and Coutre would star in the same film as Hollywood icon Harrison Ford?


Yet the success of The Expendables franchise suggests that the sum is much greater than its parts. Schwarzenegger’s 2013 film The Last Stand and Stallone’s 2013 film Bullet to the Head did terrible box office numbers in the U.S. ($12.1 million and $9.5 million, respectively), and their team-up film released later that year, Escape Plan, barely outgrossed the two films combined in the U.S. (though Escape Plan did excellent business overseas). Schwarzenegger’s 2014 film Sabotage did even worse, only grossing $10.5 million in the U.S. These results suggest that U.S. moviegoers only want to see these stars in one of their franchises, which is perhaps why Schwarzenegger is planning on starring in sequels to Terminator, Conan, and Twins over the next several years and Stallone is reportedly working on a Rocky spinoff, Creed. For Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the good old days might only be back when they’re actually trying to relive the good old days.

But as far as Lundgren, Van Damme, and the rest are concerned, the good old days were never really as good as the days they’re having now.