22 December 2010
How does a great film become disappointing? When the cameos are bigger than the plot.
I saw The Expendables in the summer, seduced by the trailer which made a big deal of the fact that it was the first film to feature Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I enjoy a good action pic, and you couldn’t do better than a cast like that. The trailer was bombastic with those three names appearing on screen in massive text, followed by a flurry of all the top-class co-stars.
The problem is that the trailer didn’t reflect the truth of the film. Willis and Arnie are in the film for about three minutes. Bruce Willis doesn’t actually appear on screen with anyone else, creating the impression that his scenes were shot separately and he didn’t even meet his co-stars. The scene itself has one good joke, but is otherwise completely pointless.
Had this scene been unannounced, it might have been a nice surprise. But when it was the whole focus of the marketing, it becomes the reason people are there to see the film, and this mostly unfunny sketch is not good enough to carry the whole film. I ended up feeling a bit ripped off, even though the film itself is a fine tribute to 80s action movies. I notice that Schwarzenegger isn’t credited on the iTunes release and the trailer I saw isn’t available online, but Willis does feature on the DVD packaging and iTunes store banner image.
Apart from the marketing, there are also structural problems with the story caused by these cameos. The film reminded me of some advice for writers I read some time ago: if there is a gun on the mantlepiece in act one, it must have been fired by the end of the final act, otherwise readers or viewers are left feeling unsatisfied. Everything in the story is put there deliberately, so don’t include things that create unfulfilled expectations. You can’t have a story where Arnie is offered a chance to take part in a guns-blazing action fest and he walks away from the opportunity, because it creates the expectation he’ll pop up again later. It’s unthinkable that Arnie’s character would appear in a film for a few minutes just to say he didn’t want to work with Stallone’s character. You can’t put Bruce Willis in an action film, and only use him to deliver a few lines of dialogue, either. Writers need to take care with the expectations they create from the characters, actors, and props that they use. If they’re not handled with care, the end result can end up feeling somewhat expendable.