Looking over the awesome cast of The Expendables, conjures up such an amazing legacy of action movies from the past three decades that it could make your head spin. I thought I'd break it down by cast member and pick out their most essential action classic. Too bad Chuck Norris isn't here, or I could sing the praises of Code of Silence (1985), or Jean-Claude Van Damme and his John Woo film Hard Target (1993). We'll start with the fearless director/screenwriter star.
Demolition Man (Sylvester Stallone)
Stallone is still one of the most recognizable stars in the world. However, although he has a long filmography, there's very little good stuff to choose from. He has made more duds than just about any other major star in history. Rocky (1976) is a classic, but it's more of a drama than an action film. The Rambo films have aged badly, though First Blood (1982) still has some interesting things going for it. I liked Cliffhanger when I first saw it, and I know that Tango & Cash has a small following, but Demolition Man is his most cheerfully ridiculous movie, and arguably his hardest-hitting.
The Transporter (Jason Statham)
I love Jason Statham. He's hilarious and sort of working-class; he seems like he grew up scrapping in an alley rather than emerging from a lab in a cloud of steroids. Not to mention that he has an impressive filmography, including good movies like Snatch, The Italian Job and The Bank Job, to slick, fun action movies like The Transporter series and the Crank movies. I like all of these, but I'll be boring and choose the first Transporter.
Unleashed (Jet Li)
Jet Li is a living legend; his heroes are usually stoic and unbelievably fast, sometimes with a tiny bit of humor. His Hong Kong work, including Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Swordsman II (1992), is arguably better than any other film on this list. But some of his post-Hong Kong work isn't too bad either, including some fine performances in Hero (1992) and Fearless (1996). But I have a special place in my heart for the brutal, touching film Unleashed (2005), which -- let's face it -- comes closest to Expendables territory anyway.
Showdown in Little Tokyo (Dolph Lundgren)
Interesting to remember that the Swedish-born Dolph was Stallone's whipping boy in Rocky IV, as well as a Bond villain in A View to a Kill, and He-Man in Masters of the Universe. His theatrical career only lasted a few years more as he descended into the straight-to-video market, but before he did, he made this one: it's a ridiculous, no-cliche-left-unturned "B" movie, but made with speed and bravado. The dour Dolph was perfectly matched with the scrappy, late Brandon Lee.
Redbelt (Randy Couture)
Couture is a mixed martial artist and a UFC champion in two different categories. He doesn't have many movies to choose from, and the ones you've heard of do not exactly show him off; for example, he plays "Fighter #8" in Cradle 2 the Grave. But he actually has a character name, "Dylan Flynn," in David Mamet's Jujitsu/Mixed Martial Arts movie Redbelt. Like Rocky, it's more of a drama, but it does have its share of fighting.
? ('Stone Cold' Steve Austin)
And here's where I hit a wall, with wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. At first, I was going to pick the entertaining documentary Beyond the Mat, but Austin is hardly in it. I did not see his first two star vehicles, The Condemned and Damage, but I did watch his third, The Stranger. It's not very good, but neither is his supporting role in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. I liked him on that cheeseball TV show "Nash Bridges," however. Or you could just pick one of his "Wrestlemania" videos. Take your pick.
Get Smart (Terry Crews)
I'm not exactly sure why Crews is here; he's huge and dangerous-looking, but he's really a superb comic actor, not an action star. (He did make his movie debut in a Schwarzenegger movie, so maybe that's it.) He has been in a couple of action/comedies, however, and so I'm going with the mildly enjoyable Get Smart.
Sin City (Mickey Rourke)
He may be big and ugly, but Rourke is the best actor-actor on this list. And, believe it or not, he does have a fair number of action films on his resume. I'm very fond of Walter Hill's Johnny Handsome (1989), which doesn't really count as an action film. Michael Cimino's The Year of the Dragon (1985) has some passionate fans out there, and then there's Iron Man 2. But I'm going with another standby, Sin City, a world in which he seemed most at home.
Total Recall (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
I don't have much to say about the Governator right now except that he has made a bunch of junk and at least four bona-fide classics: The Terminator (1984), Total Recall (1990), Terminator 2 (1991) and True Lies (1994). Let's go with arguably the most underrated of those four.
Die Hard (Bruce Willis)
What did you think I was going to pick, Cop Out? Seriously, Willis is a great star, and Die Hard is pretty much an American classic. He brought vulnerability and a regular-guy-ness to the action hero, especially in the brilliant gimmick of running around without his shoes! All three of the sequels are worthwhile, too. And, for the record, I also like Hudson Hawk.