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‘Expend4bles’ and the End of the Elderly Action Hero

The latest entry from Sylvester Stallone’s franchise — and recent action movies starring actors of a certain age — is a reminder that nothing lasts forever. Not even multiplex staples


Stefano Montesi/Columbia Pictures; Stephan Rabold/Lionsgate Publicity; Lionsgate Publicity

They sold it with a list of surnames: Stallone. Statham. Li. Lundgren. Couture. Austin. Crews. Willis. The only name missing was Schwarzenegger, and that’s simply because they wanted his cameo to be a surprise. (He’d make the poster for the sequel.) Two of them came from the worlds of pro-wrestling and UFC fighting, and one of them was an ex-NFL linebacker. But it still read like an Action Hero Hall of Fame roll call, especially in the year of our lord 2010. That was the appeal, or maybe just the gimmick, of The Expendables — round up as many Hollywood action stars and/or Planet Hollywood investors as you could find, put them all in one movie, and pretend the preceding 25 years had never happened. Terry Crews and Jason Statham, the latter already a genre MVP thanks to the Transporter and Crank films, were the babies of the group as early-fortysomethings. The median age of the cast still hovered around 55.

By the time The Expendables 2 hit theaters two years later, there were enough movies featuring your grandparents’ action heroes — or newly-minted actions stars that were your grandparents’ age — to suggest a trend that writer Matt Patches dubbed “geri-action.” Folks like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington started balancing films aimed at Oscar voters and multiplex flicks that went for the jugular. Keanu Reeves was 50 when the first John Wick movie dropped; he was a few months shy of 59 when the fourth one was released this past spring. Don’t get us started on Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise.

As for Sylvester Stallone’s ongoing franchise, it’s kept working a formula of pairing squared-jawed young stars (Liam Hemsworth, Glen Powell), action-friendly marquee names on loan from other arenas (Ronda Rousey) and fresh bang-bang-pow-pow blood (Scott Adkins) with the genre’s Mt. Olympus legends. No less than Ford, Chuck Norris, Mel Gibson, Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing a villain named Vilain), and Wesley Snipes have shed blood and dropped bodies alongside the series regulars. A fourth movie, Expend4ables, just opened, and added 50 Cent, Megan Fox, Tony Jaa and The Raid‘s Iko Uwais into the rotation. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to sit this one out for reasons unknown; Crews and Bruce Willis aren’t present for reasons very well-known. With a few notable exceptions, however, most above-the-title action stars of a certain age and a certain era have logged in appearances. It’s nostalgiabait, sure. But generations that grew up watching endless DVD marathons of 1980s and early Nineties action movies now got to see these O.G.s blow new things up. The stars keep getting older, but the audience stays the same age.

You know exactly what you’re getting with this fourth installment — big dumb fun, doled out in that order and under the assumption that your idea of “fun” is watching faceless thugs become literally faceless (and armless and legless and torso-less) one high-caliber bullet spray at a time. It’s Cro-Mag entertainment, courtesy of folks who should be watching their cholesterol intake and, at worst, might want to think about limiting their vigorous activities to shuffleboard. We’re not trying to be ageist here (may I be in such good shape in my mid-50s as Stallone is in his late 70s). But Expend4ables is coming on the heels of Reeves’ final (?) turn as Wick, Ford donning the fedora again in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Cruise jumping real motorcycles off real cliffs in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Neeson polishing off his special-set-of-skills persona with Retribution, and Washington displaying his ass-kicking chops in The Equalizer 3. These are stars who’ve kept careers going by making action part of their brand. They’re not getting any younger. Nor, for that matter, are the heroes of these types of movies in general.

Assuming that Cruise can only outrun Father Time for so long (a bet we’re still reluctant to take), we may be finally nearing the end of the AARP-age action-hero era. The novelty of, say, seeing Helen Mirren man a Gatling gun in something like Red is long gone, even if she’s still game to grace the Fast & Furious series and burn rubber. Reeves and Washington, both of whom can still handle their own elaborate, close-contact fight scenes onscreen like guys half their ages, have said they’re done with their respective franchises. You spend part of your time watching Dial of Destiny in awe of how Ford can still do those Indiana Jones set pieces and the other part worrying about him breaking a hip. Given the diminishing returns of his last few thrillers, we feel like Neeson should consider retiring from the genre and focus on playing conflicted, gravelly-voiced men in other types of moving pictures. The news of Willis being diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia — and that he was showing symptoms even as he was being trotted out in cut-rate shoot-’em-ups — served as a reminder to many of us that movies make stars immortal, but it doesn’t prevent them from being human.

Even Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the two musclebound pillars of the Golden Age of Action Movies, have been going the éminence grise route lately, with each sitting for respective career-spanning Netflix documentaries on their lives, works, and abilities to crack walnuts with their biceps. Both are still active, and the fact that the Italian Stallion is still willing to do these Expendables movies suggests he’s not willing to holster his actual or metaphorical guns just yet. When you watch this fourth outing, however, you notice that he’s taking a backseat role this time out. Statham is the more central figure this time around; you cross your fingers that he’ll get his Hobbs & Shaw costar Dwayne Johnson to drop in should the series somehow splinter off into a next-gen showcase and the early ’00s tough guys are recast as the veterans. They’re among the last action men standing… and neither of them are exactly spring chickens, either.

And with superhero movies still being the big-thing-make-a-boom blockbusters du jour, it’s unlikely that — the odd Hemsworth excursion notwithstanding — a new batch of recruits aren’t going to be crossing over from the cape-and-cowl set anytime soon. Hope springs eternal, though if you sat through some of Netflix’s recent attempts at breathing new life into the format, it’s hard to be optimistic. (We see you, Red Notice/The Gray Man/Heart of Stone, and lord knows we wish we hadn’t.) Expend4ables feels less like a possible farewell to the franchise and more like a grumbled, mumbled eulogy to a genre. It may not be just the twilight of the geri-action heroes but the Ragnarok of the action movie as a multiplex staple overall. At least it’s going out with whimpers cranked up to a volume that makes them sound like big bangs.

From Rolling Stone US