For a while now, studios in Hollywood have been hedging their bets. That's because they've previously lost a lot of money, and in some cases have actually gone under, due to taking risks that either didn't pan out, or didn't pull them out of the financial rut they were in. So, they mostly greenlight expensive surefire blockbusters, or small passion projects with conservative budgets. I understand that filmmaking is a business and that the bottom line is money, but this has affected us, the filmgoers of the world, significantly. I mean, just take a look at what the cinematic landscape looks like. There's a fifth Transformers rolling out, we're constantly barraged with superheroes, and Dwayne ‘The Rock' Johnson has somehow become one of the biggest action stars of the modern era. See the problem? The lack of bravado is often hidden behind the impressive veil of CGI, and the market has long since been oversaturated with comic book to film adaptations. There are exceptions, of course. Great things can be said about Mad Max: Fury Road, not to mention John Wick and its (somewhat disappointing, but still extremely fun) sequel. Many view these as the reemergence of kick-ass action flicks with (a good number of) practical effects, but if there's one film that deserves credit for kicking off this renaissance, it's The Expendables. This film, directed by Sylvester Stallone, was specifically designed to bring real action back to the masses, and boy, did it work.
As the film opens, we quickly learn that The Expendables, lead by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), are an elite group of mercenaries, each one specializing in something which cumulatively makes them one of the most effective tactical units in the world. Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) has a thing for blades, Yin Yang (Jet Li) is a master martial artist, Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) is a military vet, Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) is their weapons expert, and Toll Road (Randy Couture) knows how to make anything go ‘boom'. There's trouble in the ranks, however, when Jensen needlessly puts the team at risk by instigating a firefight during a mission. Concerned for Jensen's lust for carnage, Ross sees little choice but to discharge him. Fast forward a bit, and Ross receives a contract to take out General Garza (David Zayas), a dictator in the Gulf of Mexico. But after doing a bit of recon, it becomes clear that the layers of deception behind this plot run deep, so Ross calls the whole thing off. There are some loose ends he doesn't feel comfortable leaving untied though, so rather than endanger his team he decides to go in alone. Of course, nobody is going to let Ross embark upon a suicide mission, so they all tag along to put the hurt on whoever's asking for it. It won't be easy, as they have a lot they're going up against, including their old friend.
I don't think it's a surprise to say this movie is flawed. The story has some nice beats along the way, but it's lacking in many respects. For example, the narrative's glue is dependent upon the bond everyone from within The Expendables share. They're cohesive as a unit because they embody brotherhood to the extreme, but that camaraderie only comes alive when they're punching, stabbing, or slingin' hot lead. It would have been nice if that bond shined through in other situations as well. It's also a bit of an eye-roller that the primary motivation which propels us through the film's most intense action is ‘save the girl'. If this film had been made a few years later, I imagine social justice warriors would be hammering their keyboards, claiming this film is sexist because of its ‘damsel in distress' thread. As much as I like David Zayas in other projects, I don't think he was the right choice to play a dictator. Most disappointing of all is that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis have brief appearances and bring no havoc of their own. I understand the former had political obligations at the time, and the other was busy with another project, but their presence is still a major tease for what could have been.
But unless you're extremely picky, I don't think you'll care that the script and characterization aren't exactly stellar. When Stallone enlisted the most impressive ensemble of action stars we've seen since the 80's, there's an inherent expectation that they're going to blast the audience back in their seats so hard, they'll have to peel themselves off when the end credits roll. That's the kind of thing people see a film like The Expendables for. Well, that expectation is met and then some, regardless of whether we're talking about hand-to-hand combat, massive guns tearing people to shreds, or ridiculously large explosions.
I've seen The Expendables called a ‘meathead' action film, and while I understand and agree with that sentiment, that kind of language is too dismissive, and frankly, misses the point. No, the dialogue isn't great. Sure, there are plenty of inconsistencies. However, for most people who have been drawn to this flick in the first place, they're going to get exactly what they signed up for. Furthermore, I'd argue that in a cinematic climate such as we have today, films like this are important. There are a lot of shows and films attempting to toss us back to yesteryear, and some soar while others crash. This movie soars not only because it brought back that primal feeling one gets when seeing high octane action - which, in my opinion, is rare nowadays - but also by feeling like a product that belongs in the here and now, and not stuck in the decade(s) that inspired it.
Lionsgate have done well with bringing The Expendables to UHD. Presented at a resolution of 2160p via the HEVC codec at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1, this release makes a good argument for fans to upgrade, but everyone else…
If IMDB's information is accurate, this film was likely upscaled to the format from a 2K digital intermediate, and I personally can't find anything worth complaining about. Still, there is a caveat. I have a feeling this release may be divisive depending on what each individual has come to expect from 4K.
Let me just say that I love when upscales have a noticeable difference over their Blu-ray counterparts. There are many people that turn their noses up to anything that doesn't have a 4K DI, which I believe to be both ignorant and silly. Their misconception stems from a thought process which says, "Well, if a film was mastered with a 2K DI, that's 1080p, which is the resolution of Blu-ray. You can't extract anything more from the source, so the 4K must look exactly like the Blu-ray. What a waste!" After seeing movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Shallows, which were also upconverted from a 2K DI, I know this is 100%, unequivocally false. Hell, The Shallows is considered one of the best discs on the format. What these people often fail to understand, is that the HEVC codec is more efficient than anything Blu-ray used, and there's more disc space. HDR also helps to bring a bit more detail out, so there can certainly be an appreciable difference.
In the case of The Expendables, the Blu-ray release had a nice presentation, and the UHD is definitely better. There are plenty of shots where more detail leaps off the screen, but there's also plenty of others which look a bit softer and even obscure fine detail as a result. I'm confident this isn't an issue with the encode however, as grain is well resolved throughout the entirety of the feature. I didn't notice any macroblocking or banding, so compression isn't an issue whatsoever. Also, much of this film is dark (more on that in a second), so that can obscure detail as well. What we see is what we get, and I don't say that in a negative way. The film looks fine, but some people have a certain expectation when it comes to UHD, and this may not conform to the way the envision it.
Another point of contention, at least for some, may be how black levels are presented. For anyone who hasn't seen this theatrically, or even on Blu-ray for that matter, black levels were often enhanced with a steely blue sheen. Not overly so, but it seems they were boosted just enough to provide us with all the detail we need, while still retaining decent levels which contrast with the rest of the image well. There are deep and inky blacks which still appear depending on what's on-screen, so there's a very wide range of this end of the spectrum on display. However, this may spawn a little bit of discussion in very much the same manner John Wick's UHD release did. Some cried foul because each and every piece of black in that film wasn't deep and inky, while others realized that was how the source looked. This is personal preference territory; some prefer eye-candy, some prefer faithfulness to the source. The blacks on this disc represent the latter. The brighter end of the spectrum is also represented well, and provides excellent contrast even with the ‘heightened' blacks taken into consideration.
After all is said and done, what with some softer cinematography at times, and black levels which were intentionally tinted a little blue, some folks just won't see this as a major upgrade. However, if you want something that looks very much like film and replicates the source as faithful as possible, then there's really no reason for fans to miss out. ‘Heightened' black levels aside, there's still more detail to be seen in darker areas than before, and for every shot that isn't inherently soft, there's an appreciable uptick in detail. For my money, this disc is worth owning, especially for purists that just want a very film-like presentation.
The Expendables 4K UHD disc comes with a Dolby Atmos track, and for a film like this, that's good news. It's worth noting that I don't have speakers in my ceiling, nor do I have anything that can simulate that experience. I have a 7.1 setup in my man cave, so that's what I'm judging the sound quality by. That said, this track bests the one on Blu-ray. Everything from subtle environmental sounds to the stuff that make up the action is pinpoint precise, and as with other Dolby Atmos tracks I've heard thus far, the soundstage seems a bit more spacious. The LFE really kicks whenever appropriate, and dialogue is always crisp and clear, regardless of what's happening on-screen. Neighbors be damned, you're going to want to turn this one up as loud as you're legally allowed to.
No supplements are included on the UHD disc, but the features from the original Blu-ray are present, as that disc has also been included.
-Audio Commentary with Sylvester Stallone - I've never listened to Stallone speak outside of interviews, so hearing him spin yarns about this film, which was pretty much his baby, painted him in an extremely likeable light. He's thoughtful and entertaining, never getting to a point where he sounds like he's recording just because has to. He discusses pretty much every facet of the film's production, so make sure you give this commentary a listen.
-Inferno: The Making of The Expendables - Following audio commentary, Blu-ray releases typically get a host of small featurettes which come off more promotional than anything. Well, this is just over an hour-and-a-half in length and is a true documentary about making a film that's pure action spectacle. This supplement is not to be missed.
-From the Ashes - This nearly 27 minute piece focuses on pretty much everything that happens after a movie has been filmed, including editing, all the way through to promotion.
-Ultimate Recon Mode - A PIP feature which pairs much of Stallone's commentary with footage to back his tales.
-Comic-Con Panel - This is 45 minutes of Stallone and other co-stars talking about the film and entertaining a crowd who were extremely excited to see them live.
-Deleted Scene - A very brief scene featuring Dolph Lundgren.
-Marketing Gallery - This includes the theatrical trailer, television spots, and a poster gallery.
The Expendables lacks an engaging plot and drops the ball on character relationships, and while this may be damning for other film reviews, I don't think it matters in this case. The mechanisms which propel the story are only there to get us from one explosion to the next, and I don't think anyone goes into this film expecting much more. No, this is about adrenaline pumping, earth shaking action (and testosterone), and in that respect, boy does The Expendables deliver. As far as upgrading from your Blu-ray to 4K UHD, that's going to come down to each individual's personal preference. There's no doubt in my mind that the video is entirely faithful to the source, but some may find the inherent style of the film to not warrant the upgrade. Me, I'll take ‘faithful to the source' any day of the week. The audio is absolutely explosive, and the supplements are pretty awesome, too. Highly Recommended.