Kevin: It was a big week in the news if you are a fan of both Sylvester Stallone the actor and director (or even if you love his directing and hate his acting, which I guess is far less likely), with the announcement of two major projects that will keep Sly busy in front of and behind the camera next year.
First came the official confirmation from Sly himself via a video on his Facebook page that he is gearing up for a fourth and final entry in the “Expendables” franchise for release likely in 2018. Now considering Sly shot this video en route to Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve bash, and begins it with a slightly off-key version of Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me,” it’s possible he was doing some pre-party drinking and just talking out of his ass, just like us normal people do when we have a few drinks and say we are gonna tell off our bosses the next day. But official reports confirmed the news, with Stallone pledging to start working out more in the new year (me too Sly!) and promising the fans “something different” with the fourth film.
Hopefully something different means better than the last sequel, but the fact that he says “fingers crossed” when claiming the next “Expendables” is going to be “really great” – then does a rather weak job of actually crossing his fingers – is another reason why I am so far less than enthusiastic about the news. I unabashedly love the first “Expendables,” with its ultra-violence and typical Stallone unironic sincerity, including Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-worthy “maybe I could have saved myself” speech …
… while I enjoy “Expendables 2” despite the lack of memorable action, overreliance on star cameos and corny one-liners, and DTV-looking drabness due to filming in Taxbreakistan (aka Bulgaria). But it’s hard to forgive “Expendables 3” for neutering itself with a PG-13 rating, sidelining Wesley Snipes and the rest of the crew we love for a bunch of bland interchangeable youngsters, and helping briefly normalize the idea that Ronda Rousey could both act and beat up guys twice her size (when recent evidence indicates she can’t even defeat women her own size).
But Sly is nothing if not tuned in to what his fans are saying (his typical casting process for these films seems to be sending out a tweet asking, “Hey do you guys think Mel Gibson should play the villain in ‘Expendables 3’?”) and he’s acknowledged that trying to reach a wider and younger audience with the last one was a “horrible miscalculation,” especially since the sequel grossed far less than the previous two. But while I’m going to remain cautious up to the release date, it’s also more than possible that Sly takes the gloves off and blows us away with a surprise masterpiece similar to his most recent fourth and final franchise-capper: “Rambo” (2008)
Even more intriguingly, it was also announced this week that Stallone will direct a film about a real-life Afghan war vet that is set to star Adam Driver, himself a former Marine who could have served six tours in Fallujah and still not suffered the kind of trauma he experienced while simulating sexual intercourse with Lena Dunham for multiples seasons on “Girls.”
Based on the memoir “Tough as They Come” by Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, Stallone will also co-star as the father-in-law who helped guide Mills through his painful rehabilitation after losing both arms and legs from an explosion. I get the feeling that while Sly’s character will start out the film as the one who is “tough as they come,” by the end we’ll see that it is actually Driver who is “tough as they come.”
Stallone’s first directorial outing in nearly a decade is also an unusual choice for him, as while he has eight films to his credit (not counting rumored directing work on movies like “Cliffhanger”), almost all of them apart from his low-key debut “Paradise Alley” in 1978 fall comfortably in his wheelhouse: four “Rocky” movies, one “Rambo,” and the first “Expendables.” By far the biggest outlier on Stallone’s resume is “Staying Alive,” the 1983 sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” in which Stallone only has a brief cameo as a guy who passes John Travolta on the street:
Now while it’s hard to see any similarities between Tony Manero in “Staying Alive” and the real life Travis Mills, there is a very indirect parallel in the behind-the-scenes relationship between Travolta and Stallone. As his director and mentor, Stallone took a John Travolta who was broken and wounded following the flop of “Blow Out” and turned him into this Greek God of a man …
… while also delivering a much-needed Top 10 box office hit for the star. While time perhaps has not been kind to “Staying Alive” since then, if nothing else it gave the world the Frank Stallone classic “Far From Over” (note Sly’s cameo at the :24 mark):
Stallone says this newest directing project was born out of a desire to spend more time supporting veteran’s issues, and while I have no doubt about his sincerity, this being Hollywood I’m also sure there are a couple of career-related reasons why this story spoke to him as well. One, there is no doubt Sly is still upset about losing the Oscar to Mark Rylance (who?), because as someone who teared up a few times during “Creed” I sure as hell haven’t gotten over it either.
Second, Sly can’t help but notice the award nominations being racked up by his “Expendables 3” co-star and former industry pariah Mel Gibson for “Hacksaw Ridge.” While Mel wove his love of Christianity and hardcore violence into a similar true life war story that appealed to older award voters, “Tough as They Come” contains two things that Sly is best known for: the kind of brutal action that will likely take place in the first half, and training montages where Sly’s character uses tough love to whip Driver back into shape and into a better man. You don’t think audiences and Oscar voters are gonna eat that up?
So what say you guys, are you at all interested in one more go around for the Expendables? Will it be a cheap cash grab for the Chinese market, or will Sly surprise us with a deep and contemplative “Wild Bunch”-style closer where the team goes out in a blaze of glory? Will Sly be hoisting two statues on Oscar night (I’m referring of course for Best Actor and Screenwriting for “Expendables 4”)? How many bullshit rumors will we have to deal with about who might be appearing in “Expendables 4” (Clint? Kurt Russell? Tom Cruise?) before it’s eventually revealed to be the same guys plus Danny Trejo? And any of ya’ll still pissed about the lack of Oscar love for “Creed” (I can’t even remember what won Best Picture last year)?
CJ: First off, the best part of “Expendables 4” will be whatever new way Sly tries to shoehorn in a line that shows how Randy Couture’s character “Toll Road” continues, in my mind at least, to moonlight as a Professor of Classics at an unknown liberal arts college. By night Toll Road goes country to country, breaking bones and blowing up cars; by day, Professor Toll Road sits at the campus cafe (down with Starbucks!), forefinger up against his pursed lips as he sips from his cafe au lait and re-reads his beaten up copy of the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” “As for you Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,” he nods. Yeah, full of hot lead!
Is giving Randy Couture acting gigs dumb? Yes. Is thinking it’s clever to have a former UFC fighter play an intellectual even dumber? Yes. But Sly does it in such an earnest way you find it kind of adorable. And then afterwards you laugh at the thought that Randy Couture reads anything other than a Muscle Milk nutritional label.
I think “Expendables 4” will be good, and here’s why: Stallone already knows how to successfully do the “Let’s forget the last one happened and enjoy this new one” kind of sequel when he made “Rocky Balboa” after “Rocky V,” and as you mentioned, “Creed” was excellent too. But more importantly, Sly does great work in his fourth installments: Not only was “Rambo” a tremendous blood-filled battle royale, he also nailed it in the 80’s with “Rocky IV,” a true masterpiece where he decided, “Let’s follow up this training montage with a second training montage,” AND IT WAS AWESOME. So as far as I’m concerned, as long as he can get someone who can play a bad guy as wonderfully evil as Eric Roberts was in the original, Sly is gonna crush this.
As for “Tough as They Come,” I’ll keep it simple: Everyone right now go watch the last half hour or so of “Rambo” and tell me you don’t want this man directing a war movie. Kevin and I saw this in a theater in New York surrounded by a surprisingly large number of too-cool-for-school hipsters. Halfway through every single one of them was cheering for Rambo to kick more ass. Why? Among other things, Rambo slices open the child-raping bad guy’s stomach and all his innards fall out. That is what you call comeuppance.
Either way I’ll see both. Unlike other people in Hollywood, Sly seems to genuinely want to give the people what they want – and what I want is blood. And to be loved.
Kevin: Yes one of my favorite moviegoing memories will forever be listening to those hipsters behind us talking about how they were obviously going to be enjoying the movie ironically, yet by the end they were unironically cheering for Sly to slaughter more Burmese war criminals. I haven’t seen that kind of hipster bloodlust since the first gluten-free bakery opened in Park Slope. Let’s also not forget that Sly also rips a guy’s throat out, a move we hadn’t seen since “Road House” and “Under Siege.”
As we begin the long wait until 2018, let’s tide ourselves over with one more shot of Sly and Travolta on set: