It’s funny, but not only is "The Expendables” -- as many noticed -- a throwback to the heyday of ‘80s action stars (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham … oops, the latter’s from the ‘00s!), but more to the point, it’s really a throwback to one of the classic action films of all time, 1967’s famous (infamous?) “Dirty Dozen.”
Now, the “Dozen” wasn’t alone. In fact, it was one in a long line of all-star WWII movies, from “The Longest Day” -- starring an old John Wayne, a young Sean Connery and everyone from Sir Richard Burton to Fabian in between -- to “The Great Escape” (Steve McQueen, James Garner, Lord Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, et al.).
Indeed, one might argue that “The Dirty Dozen” was actually the end of something, not the beginning. After it, the so-called “spy genre” led by James Bond, John LeCarre and spoofs like “Matt Helm,” “Our Man Flint,” starring James Coburn and Woody Allen’s “Casino Royale” subsumed the action arena for years to come.
How do I remember all this? Well, in part because Quentin Tarantino beat Stallone to the punch in ripping off “Dozen” last year with “Inglorious Basterds,” with Brad Pitt playing the Lee Marvin role of the wily (bordering on sadistic) commander of “The Dirty Dozen,” recruiting his sad-sack crew of vicious losers from the stockade.
But more importantly, because about 15 years ago a young writer, one always ahead of his time -- he was working on an Ivy League football documentary a decade before HBO’s recent “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” -- came to me with an idea for an updated “Dirty Dozen” to be set in of all places (given this was 1994), Afghanistan.
A former Ivy League football player himself -- he played on the same Columbia team as “Lost” Fox and against Princeton’s Dean “Superman” Cain -- he’d gone on to the graduate screenwriting program at USC.
His first big idea after graduation? A reboot of the “Dozen” idea, only in this case entitled “Kashmir.”
His name was George Francisco, and he’s since gone on to share writing, producing or directing credits on numerous TV, feature and reality shows (including sharing a “story by” credit on the very first mixed-martial-arts movie, 1996’s “Champions” (which I produced).
But “Kashmir” was way ahead of -- and, in the sense that it channeled those great old ‘60s war films, behind -- its time.
It began as a script called “Roger’s Rangers,” in which a long-lost relative of the founder of the modern U.S. Army Rangers, the Revolutionary War’s Col. Robert Rogers, has fallen on hard times in the modern military.
Out of respect for his family’s lineage, the brass gives him one last chance to restore his reputation -- go to the Army’s facility for handicapped and PTSD’ed out soldiers from the first Gulf War and recruit a crew for a devil’s mission, one in which (a la “The Dirty Dozen”) few if any were expected to return alive.
Like Stallone in “The Expendables,” he finds his crew -- a mortar team so shell shocked they’ve gone deaf and must communicate via hand signals, etc. -- and off they go into Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban to kill a warlord in the mountainous Kashmir systematically wiping out Army Rangers secretly sent into the area to root out al-Qaida and its drug-smuggling financiers.
To say that the script anticipated 9/11 by half-a-dozen years would be an understatement. Naturally, per usual, few in Hollywood were hip enough to pick up on how prescient it was. One young executive did -- Elizabeth Guber, Sony studio head Peter’s niece and then an exec with the Avnet-Kerner production company. She loved it; they had a deal at Disney at the time, so she sent it right over.
Of course, Disney in the ‘90s was nothing like the legendary Disney of the ‘80s which, led by a largely ex-Paramount crew, had taken the moribund Mouse House and leaped from the bottom of the pile to #1.
By the mid-‘90s, most of those execs (including myself) had moved on, and we were stuck with, well, to call them the “B-team” would be generous. Anyway, Elizabeth sent it to her exec there who, according to her, raved about it and wanted to set up an immediate conference call with Francisco and myself to discuss how to get the project into production.
Not surprisingly, like many such meetings this one led nowhere, particularly since said knuckleheaded young executive jumped on the conference call proclaiming that for all his (what, 25-year?) life, he’d wanted to do a remake of “The Dirty Dozen.” His only problem, he explained to Francisco, was that he didn’t understand why all the Rangers in “Kashmir” had to be losers? After all, he pointed out, in “The Dirty Dozen” they were all heroes!
After Francisco hung up his phone in disgust, I realized that said young knuckleheaded exec either: (a) hadn’t read Francisco’s script or, (b) had never seen “The Dirty Dozen.” Or, more likely: (c) hadn’t done either.
I’m only reminded of this story by the success of “The Expendables.” Clearly, to his credit, Stallone, like Tarantino last year, had obviously seen “The Dirty Dozen” and learned its lesson.
As for Francisco, he talked to me a couple of years ago about reviving “Kashmir” in the wake of the Afghan and Iraq wars. Only this time, he thought, unlike Stallone’s crew of largely ‘80s stars, we should revive the careers of all those ‘90s action heroes who, for one reason or another, have fallen off the map. You know, Brian Bosworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Thomas Ian Griffith, Jeff Speakman. (I’d made movies with the first two!)
No, I said (having tried the idea out on a few of my independent film buyers), that’ll never work. No one wants to see them all together again.
But after this weekend, I’m starting to think that Francisco was, once again, ahead of his time.
Now where did I put my tattered copy of that original script?