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Blu-ray Review: The Expendables

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After rebuilding his audience with Rocky Balboa in 2006 and Rambo in 2008, Sylvester Stallone proved he can still successfully launch a brand new franchise. The Expendables was a worldwide hit in late summer 2010, and now audiences can truly appreciate the mammoth effort invested by all involved. In terms of sheer technical excellence, this Lionsgate Blu-ray release succeeds on all levels. In addition to looking and sounding great, it has an array of well-produced supplemental features that take the view deep inside the filmmaking process.

As for the plot, I think it’s best to avoid a tedious recap. This isn’t the most intellectually involving movie; the emphasis is squarely on loud, crazy action. The movie’s only real weakness is sloppy storytelling. I actually got more out of the story rewatching it on Blu-ray. In theaters, I found myself caught up in the spectacle but sometimes confused about what was going on. Suffice it to say, I would imagine large parts of the plot got left on the cutting room floor in order to amp up the adrenaline.

The Expendables are a group of mercenaries willing to take just about any job, regardless of how dangerous. Led by Barney Ross (Stallone), they attempt to overthrow a South American puppet dictatorship. The task turns out to be more difficult than expected, especially when it’s discovered that the savage dictator’s daughter is fighting to restore the nation’s freedom.

The Expendables is the third film in a row helmed by Stallone since his 2006 return to directing after a 21-year hiatus. He also co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham (Doom). But of course, it was the cast that had action fans salivating. Much has been said about the brawny, beefy guys assembled to wreak havoc on the fictional South American island of Vilena. Less closely examined is the seeming acceptance by Stallone that he couldn’t carry on as a loner. Throughout his legendary career, true ensemble efforts have been few and far between for Stallone. He always seemed intent on carrying his movies solely upon his own shoulders. In fact, 2001’s Driven found him uncharacteristically sharing the spotlight. The film flopped and seemed to mark the end of his viability as a mainstream box office star.

A self-admitted control freak, Stallone made some very savvy casting decisions with The Expendables. The recent resurrections of his two signature franchises were populated largely by television actors and relative unknowns. Interest in the new movie, by contrast, was cemented by its all-star cast.

Some of these guys have very little, if any, marquee value on their own. Steve Austin, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren are B-movie guys who can’t open movies on their own. Terry Crews is a more versatile actor, but with even less name recognition. The stroke of genius was in casting younger stars Jason Statham and Jet Li.

For all the press about the ’80s action stars supposedly dominating The Expendables, Statham and Li were barely known by U.S. audiences until the past decade or so. Including these guys was a very smart move on Stallone’s part, adding a much-needed hip quotient that certainly helped reel in a younger demographic. Statham delivers possibly the best performance in the movie as knife expert Lee Christmas. This was perhaps aided by his character’s having a somewhat more fleshed out backstory than the others. Li is actually underused as Yin Yang, though he has some excellent fight scenes late in the movie.

Of course, scoring killer cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the movie an immense marketing boost. Their brief, playful scene with Stallone is a highlight of the movie. Mickey Rourke, who, Stallone explains in the commentary, was on loan from Iron Man 2 for only 48 hours, turns up a few times. Rourke absolutely nails the pivotal scene in the movie, a mournful monologue about regret. In a movie dominated by explosions and chase sequences, he lends some much-needed depth and heart to the proceedings.

The Expendables Blu-ray boasts a flawless 1080p high definition transfer. I sampled a few scenes from the included standard DVD for the sake of comparison. The superior quality of the Blu-ray was immediately apparent. Whether in bright daylight or dark night scenes, the detail is incredible. Much of the climactic battle was filmed at night, but all the action is vividly rendered. While the actors are fighting and shooting it out in dark, shadowy tunnels, everything remains sharp. Much of the interior and night scenes are drenched in a bluish hue. But the sunny Brazilian vistas make a nice contrast, with the deep greens of surrounding foliage and red soldiers’ uniforms bursting right off the screen. The deeply lined and craggy faces of some of the primary actors are presented with unflinching clarity. In every way, this is one great-looking Blu-ray.

The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix pretty much sums up what Blu-ray audio presentation is all about. This is an insanely effective mix guaranteed to put a smile on any action fan’s face. With so much firepower onscreen, it should hardly be a surprise that this is a loud, window-rattling experience. All audio channels get an intense workout, with the right and left speakers really helping take the viewer inside the action.

Bullets and other ammunition zip across the stereo spectrum with frightening realism. The largest guns (especially the massive one put to good use by Terry Crews) absolutely roar. The clarity is stunning, both on the low and high end. Occasionally during the noisiest sequences, individual lines of dialogue are a bit hard to understand. But that’s really the only downside. Dialogue is clear during the quieter scenes. Brian Tyler’s surging score blends in perfectly, as do the classic rock numbers that pop up now and again.

The Expendables comes packed with a slew of quality supplemental features, several of which are Blu-ray exclusives. Anyone who has heard previous Stallone commentaries, such as those found on Rocky Balboa and Rambo, already know that he is very forthcoming. His solo commentary here is no exception, as he delivers an engaging discussion of the filmmaking process.

Exclusive to Blu-ray is the “Ultimate Recon Mode,” which really enhances the viewing experience with behind-the-scenes footage and additional commentary from other participants. During this viewing mode, a picture-in-picture displaying tons of on-set footage frequently appears in the corner. At various points during the movie, the main picture shrinks so Stallone (or another actor or filmmaker) can appear onscreen to talk about specific aspects of the movie.

“Inferno” is a 90-minute documentary offering a detailed look at the making of The Expendables. This Blu-ray exclusive covers every aspect of the production, allowing us to see the effort Stallone invested in this movie. We get a look at Stallone at the doctor’s to have injuries examined, including the infamous neck-breaking caused by Steve Austin. We see the crew actively staging some of the action sequences, some of which were being conceived on the spot.

As if that weren’t enough, “From the Ashes,” also exclusive to Blu-ray, is a nearly half-hour follow-up to “Inferno” that deals with the post-production and release of the movie. We learn that composer Brian Tyler had only three weeks to score The Expendables, and that Stallone heard the score for the first time along with the preview audience. Speaking of previews, the comment cards filled out by the audience are discussed – both good and bad. Stallone literally read through every single preview audience comment.

The last Blu-ray exclusive is the 45-minute “Comic Con 2010 Panel,” featuring Stallone, Terry Crews, Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture taking audience questions about the movie. It’s a lot of fun, with quite a few very funny moments and a special appearance by a surprise guest. Additional minor features include a gag reel, a short extended scene, and trailers. The combo pack includes two extra discs: a standard DVD of the movie (without any special features), and a digital copy.

With a sequel already in the works, Sylvester Stallone fans – and action fans in general – have plenty to celebrate with The Expendables. A great deal of care was taken with this Blu-ray release, resulting in an outstanding audio/visual experience. I can’t wait to see what Stallone and company have up their sleeves for the second installment.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."