Friday, December 10, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Expendables (2010)

All of the sudden -- in 2010 -- Hollywood has learned a nifty trick about reviving moribund movie franchises and action stars.

Instead of offering audiences nostalgia plus irony in these entertainments, the industry is offering nostalgia minus irony. 

And you know what?  The approach works, at least so far.

Both Predators (2010) and The Expendables (2010) -- commercial successes at the box office last summer -- adopt this specific approach.

To wit, both efforts resurrect Reagan Age silver screen icons (extra-terrestrial and mortal), and then play their respective action formulas entirely straight.  

Ultimately, both films are all the stronger for this approach.  

Predators feel like a genuine return to form (being both scary and action-packed), and The Expendables is like a family reunion of your favorite action heroes and your favorite action cliches too.

In the case of The Expendables, when you've got pecs like Sly Stallone or fighting moves like Jason Statham and Jet-Li, who needs hipster post-modernism?

If there is indeed irony to be sussed from either film it is an irony that we -- the experienced movie going audience -- adds ourselves; not irony that the movie knowingly slathers upon the narrative fabric.  It's like viewer-imposed irony, based on a communal history of movie-going, if that makes sense.

Because of this narrative strategy, Kathryn and I giggled and cackled our way through The Expendables.  The Stallone-directed film trots out every age-old, corny, macho action convention and plays each one perfectly damned straight.   Basically, it's a modern-day Western, best epitomized by the old chestnut of dialogue, "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." 

Yet the movie's substantial and unexpected emotional content arises not from the developmentally-arrested script, nor necessarily from the barely-satisfactory fight staging, but rather via the preponderance of loving close-ups we get of our favorite, aging action stars. 

Stallone, Rourke, Lundgren, Li and the others wear the years of movie mileage on their faces, and almost instinctively, we respond to seeing them again; older perhaps, but still in fine form.   These shots are many, and in their own weird way, the surfeit of the such extreme close-ups accounts for the unexpected heart of the film.

This is an approach, actually, that director Leonard Nimoy also utilized to tremendous impact in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). On first blush,  it seems counter-intuitive to stress close-ups in an epic genre film, or a spectacular action picture like The Expendables, but if you think about it for a bit...perhaps not

The goal here (as in that Trek film) is to foster a kind of nostalgic view of silver-screen beauty.  We've traveled a long road with these attractive faces, down the decades, and it is good to see them again.   I mean really, who has stepped into the void they left behind?  Arguably, Stallone looks as good as he did a decade ago; but the new lines on his face only deepen our appreciation of him; our sense of a shared history together.

So the up-shot of Stallone's decision to remember and champion these beloved action-genre faces is that The Expendables is a wholly entertaining actioner that capably serves as what one evil character in the drama terms "Bad Shakespeare." 

In The Expendables, the emotions are big, the universe Manichean.  The evil is rapacious and the disorder of the world can only be overturned by the actions of a bold, if flawed hero...or set of heroes, actually.  It's their burden to carry, and carry it they do...because that's what friends do for each other. 

In the Shakespearean tragedy, lead characters must almost universally reckon with their own impending deaths; and in some weird way, this action film is about the action heroes of the 1980s and 1990s rejecting the inevitability of such impending death, resurrecting themselves for one, last, grand adventure. (Or maybe two, if there's a sequel...).

Only a Grinch could fully resist a movie that lands Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the same room, albeit briefly, for a mission briefing.    The heart veritably races to see these three action greats assemble, even if your mind soundly rejects the risible dialogue they mouth. 

But again, we bring some irony to their words and performances.  While these giants taunt one another competitively, we remember the old gossip about real-life competition between Stallone and Schwarzenegger.  The movie doesn't pluck that note as irony; it's only there if we remember the history of the 1980s and 1990s: Cobra vs. Commando, etc.

Additionally, Mickey Rourke has an authentically amazing moment in the film -- a quiet moment, shot (again) in intense close-up -- that serves, ultimately as the emotional impetus for all the ensuing and graphic violence. It's a cathartic, galvanizing speech about saving one person, and the actor delivers it with grace and humanity.  As engaged audience members, we buy it all hook, line and sinker, even if we recognize how adolescent and cliched his words really are.

And did I mention that Eric Roberts, Rourke's co-star in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1983) is also featured in the film? As a George W.Bush-lookalike, drug-dealing, CIA spook-turned-rogue, no less?  He's another welcome presence here, and Roberts gives a pretty terrific villainous performance.

The plot of The Expendables is almost ludicrously simple.  After defeating Somali pirates, an elite band of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) scout out a high-paying assignment from the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).  The mission: take down a Latin-American dictator, General Garza (Dexter's David Zayas...) on the island of Vilena (Villain-a?).

The mission appears too dangerous to accept, at least until Barney becomes obsessed with saving the life of feisty Sandra (Gisele Itie), the general's rebellious and beautiful daughter. 

After ejecting the psychotic Gunner Jenson (Lundgren) from the team, Barney and his top men -- Christmas (Statham), Yin Yang (Jet-Li), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) -- lay siege to the island paradise of Vilena...and it's all out war!

Now, the first thing to acknowledge about this storyline is that there is more depth and narrative intrigue in the average hour of The A-Team..  This movie lurches incoherently -- or lumbers, in Stallone's case -- from one noisy set-piece to another with almost no rhyme or reason, until arriving at an explosive and hugely satisfying final battle. 

But the over-the-top gore and Stallone's bulging, always-threatening-to-explode forehead veins will distract you from the unimportant story details. I mean, if you've seen  and adored Commando, in which Arnold single-handedly takes out an army in the last act, you're not going to complain about The Expendables, in which Sly and three or four others do precisely the same thing.

Now, I will never consciously betray The Brotherhood of Adolescent-Minded  Male Action Fans -- of which I am a card-carrying member, till death -- but The Expendables appeals universally and thoroughly to one nagging element of the male psyche: the Cro-Magnon Man Within.  And it does so with an attractive sense of innocence and naivete, plus the aforementioned nostalgia.  

And lots and lots of violence.

On the less-than-pleasant side, the women featured in the picture are remote, impossible-to-understand Madonna figures who exist only to be rescued, protected and glorified in abstract terms.  They are never countenanced as thinking, feeling individuals that men must interact with. 

For instance, Charisma Carpenter plays a woman attached to Jason Statham, who decries the fact that he is never around and doesn't tell her anything personal or important about himself.  So -- in his absence -- she starts dating someone else.  Naturally,  the new boyfriend abuses her, and Statham sweeps in heroically to take down the bastard.  Statham then informs Carpenter's character, in no uncertain terms, that she made a  bad choice.  "I was worth it," he tells her meaningfully, before apparently dropping her off on the curb somewhere.  

The character is never seen again.  Lesson learned.

What this interlude in The Expendables suggests is that male-to-male relationships are the important ones in life.  Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie are saved from danger and physical abuse...and then promptly and not entirely decorously dropped off so that the bro-mance can resume. So that the heroic men can continue to enjoy their brotherhood in peace: an exclusive male relationship of teasing, competing, and triumphantly bumping fists. Yeah!

This is a deeply, deeply childish and narrow view of the world, and of the way men view women (just as childish in fact, as Sex and the City's view of women: as individuals who endlessly prattle about expensive shoes while drinking hot, designer beverages).  

But undeniably, movies are vehicles for dreams and fantasies, not necessarily views of reality; and the idea that The Expendables plucks is the very one that these male-driven action movies always plucked. 

It's the timeless ideal of men of action riding into danger to rescue the helpless (always beautiful women) and living a more exceptional life of "heroism" than society-at-large usually permits.  This higher (and undeniably violent) ideal  separates these tough guys from the wheat and chaff of ordinary males, and so the brotherhood of guys who "get it" proves important.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that basic as it is.

In an artistic sense, The Expendables is barely above a lot of straight-to-video fare.  Yet it is an entertaining and nostalgic effort, and -- truth be told --  I enjoyed every Neanderthal moment of it.   The movie resonated with me on an atavistic level, I guess you could say.

So my advice is simple: enjoy the movie for what it is, and don't despise it for what it never attempts to be.  Try hard not to think about  the film's proud, caveman view of the world in terms of women; and just think about it in terms of action. 

If you adopt that critical approach, you may leave a screening of The Expendables with a grin on your face, affirming that -- like Statham's character -- the movie was "worth it."


  1. I so loved this movie. I agree, it's totally about the fantasy of it. Plus, a lot of those Expendables would be considered over-the-hill in most of todays action fare, so I took the underlying message as stating that you can be vital at any age.

  2. Hi Amanda,

    I totally agree. I know some folks who were actually offended by the movie, but there's really nothing to get offended by if you just take it in stride (and the spirit it was intended). It's about the fantasy of it, and I love that message about being vital at any age. Well said.


  3. Nice review! Don't you think that the whole men-with-men/bromance angle is a reaction to many action films post-'90s, like SPEED, THE MATRIX, etc. which had the male action stars played by less than pumped up actors and with strong female action stars sometimes stealing their thunder? I think that Stallone's film is definitely intended to harken back to the one-man (or in this case a small team) as an army type of action film.

    I also got the feeling that Stallone was trying to say that these guys, and the kind of work they do, that keeps them on the road, that is often top secret and very dangerous, keeps these guys single. How are they supposed to lead an ordinary kind of life when they're doing all this crazy stuff?

    That was the impression I got anyway but you're right in pointing out the very one-dimensional view of women in this film.

  4. Hi J.D.,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I think you are right about that idea; that Stallone was making a kind of "throwback" action movie to the era pre-Matrix, pre-Speed epoch, where women were more set decoration and less co-hero in the action.

    He certainly succeeded on that front! :)

    I also think that Stallone wanted to make a statement about how lonely these guys get -- doing these impossible missions alone -- but the message is muddled because these guys don't cry out for companionship and relationships with a woman; they just sort of stand back and look at the women as abstract, alien creatures to rescue and protect, but not to be honest or emotional with; or even spend time with, for that matter.

    Now, I'm not saying that's what I wanted out of an action movie; I'm just saying that this isn't very realistic.

    In a relationship, you give and you get, and the problem with men like Christmas (Statham) is that they clearly don't give, except on their own terms...and then the movie acts like it's the girlfriend's fault because she know, someone who would actually relate to her like a human being and partner.

    How dare she! She should have just dealt with her loneliness because....wait for it...he was "worth it!" :)

    That still makes me laugh.

    But hey, Stallone clearly made the movie he wanted to, and more power to him for it. The movie is entertaining as all hell.

    But it's still kind of funny in the caveman portrayal of women. My wife is not at all a feminist in stripe, but she snorted and sighed a lot through this movie because it is so darned, so proudly, backwards...


  5. JKM:

    "Now, I'm not saying that's what I wanted out of an action movie; I'm just saying that this isn't very realistic."

    Ah, and therein lies the rub. This film really isn't realistic at all - basically a boy's fantasy tale.

  6. Hi J.D.

    That's it, exactly! Yes! As boy's fantasy, EXPENDABLES is tremendous fun.

    As anything else, it's a little suspect.


  7. I just love how the Expendables literally stormed a castle at the end. Just a nice ending point to the whole fantasy aspect.

    Also, the fastest movie I've ever watched. . .I thought this thing was over literally with the snap of my fingers. I wanted more. . .

    Great review, as always.

  8. Grayson8:23 PM

    I just went and saw this tonight. A few thoughts:

    I found it pretty inexplicable how Jason Statham's character knew that the new boyfriend would beat on the girl.

    The trailer for the film touted these actors getting together for the, "first and only time," so I'm not sure about a sequel. Of course, they could always change their minds.

    Although he has retired from acting I wonder if Chuck Norris was approached for a cameo? Wasn't there some competition à la Missing in Action vs. Rambo back in the 80's? Norris is, obviously, an Internet celebrity today but I would love seeing him in something again. And yes, I liked his films (especially MIA) before he became so popular again.

    I'm not sure if you've seen the new A-Team yet but I liked it much more than The Expendables.

    I hope all is well with you, John.