Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart stop pretending it’s 2010 to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating decades-old popcorn. This week Sylvester Stallone waterboards them with expired testosterone in The Expendables.
Is there any point in attacking the moral myopia and triumphant machismo of Sly’s tongue-in-cheek 80s action blockbuster throwback when it so knowingly winks and nudges its way through every half-serious scene? I think there is, Henry, because no amount of ironic wish fulfillment can quite mute the resoundingly regressive politics put into play during this A-Team-ish account of a mercenary squad taking out bad CIA dudes on behalf other bad CIA dudes and the million made-up islanders caught in the crossfire. It’s hardly surprising that Stallone’s co-writer, Dave Callaham, did the script for video game adaptation Doom, because that first-person shooter logic is everywhere in The Expendables.
Choose your character: Stallone’s Barney Ross, a makeup-caked loner with a tenacious and twisted sense of justice; Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas, a knife-wielding grump whose long absences have driven his woman into the arms of another man (yes, there are mounds of melodrama under all the murder and mayhem); Terry Crews’s Hale Caesar, the rarely heard third-string squad member with the ridiculously big gun; Jet Li’s amusingly short martial arts master Ying Yang, possibly the most offensive Hollywood portrayal of an Asian man since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Now choose your weapon: Barney’s napalm-approximating water plane (if Rambo was symbolic payback for Vietnam, what lost cause is being recouped on the fake South American island state of Vilena?); Lee’s precision-thrown, neck-piercing knives; Caesar’s body-exploding machine gun; Ying’s killer karate chops; the ensemble’s remote-detonated plastic explosives. Finally, choose the level you’d like to play: shoot savage Somali pirates like fish in a barrel during the stylishly shot opening sequence; flee the Vilenean army down narrow, unpaved streets towards your waiting plane after your cover gets blown on a recon mission that could have been carried out more effectively using Google Earth; have a high-speed shoot-out on the streets of Los Angeles with Gunner (ironically cast Dolph Lundgren, Rocky 4’s Ivan Drago) after booting him from the boys’ club for using too many steroids (impossible!); or destroy an entire army, presidential compound and a few white dudes in suits to stop a major supply chain for U.S. coke, and leave the dictator’s daughter (Giselle Itié) in charge of rebuilding.
What bothered me most, aside from the genocidal shootouts and clumsy storytelling—“That was a fun set piece, now quickly, back to the bike shop/tattoo parlor so Tool (Mickey Rourke) can do another expository monologue”—was how members of The Expendables, and the cast of The Expendables, were portrayed as martyrs. Because the not-so-meta joke at the root of the film comes from casting more or less washed up action movie stars to play more or less washed up versions of the characters that made them famous.
Being a mercenary or a blockbuster leading man, Stallone suggests, involves basically the same things. When the industry has had enough it leaves you desensitized to violence and incapable of expressing normal human emotions, and essentially unfit for civil society. At times this absurd conceit almost works, like when Statham (the last action hero) makes up with his bruised girlfriend by ambushing five dudes on a basketball court. But for the most part, the tree fort-cum-biker gang bromance makes it hard to feel sorry for these Expendables, none of whom (spoiler) ever fucking die! Even Gunner, supposedly killed when they take away his ‘roids and he goes rogue, is magically okay at the end. Just like in video games, I suppose, even if you can’t beat the game you can just replay the levels where you always win. Player 2: you’re up!
Talk about bromances, Ben: The Expendables is the faggiest movie of the year, so straight it’s totally homo—like, when Stallone is telling Statham that, like, yeah, you can have sex with a woman…but then what? Talk to them? About shoes or rainbows or some shit? Best to stay with your bros, bro. I know you also wanted to see Eat Pray Love for this week, Ben, so we could compare this testosterone fest to that presumable estrogen party. But I think that would have been unnecessary: the perfect counterpoint to this movie was last week’s The Other Guys, which sent up all the chest-puffing clichés in which this movie revels with a satisfied smirk.
The weird thing about The Expendables was how much it hated women—slappin’ their asses while ordering them to make you a drink—while also upholding these weird codes of honor about them, too. Like, you don’t have to treat a woman like she’s a human being—“here’s that champagne you like, can we haz sex now?”—but you can’t hit one. (And would-be rapists get their heads chopped off.) These kinds of arbitrary moral codes carried through the film: you can blow a pirate in half, Ben, but you can’t hang him from the ceiling. Huh? Rourke nails it when he tells Stallone, “We don’t stand for shit.”
I guess you could say, then, that Stallone’s arc here is to go from nihilist to believer, and in doing so he starts to look like Evelyn Salt: as in her eponymous movie, in which love proved The Thing, Stallone in the end battles the bad guys for the sake of the girl. But then, at the end, he doesn’t even “get” her. Because, like I said, he’s totally gay. (Also like Salt, this movie chooses incontrovertible bad guys for the opening—pirates here, instead of North Koreans—and unequivocally portrays waterboarding as torture. Hooray!)
So, who are the major bad guys, Ben? A generalissimo, of course, and his followers—portrayed as natives battling “American invaders,” to whom they lose, of course, in an epic House of Usher finale—but more to the point: a rogue CIA operative named James Munroe, whose name alludes perhaps to the Monroe Doctrine? (Ben, I can’t believe you missed that the island is called “Villain-a”.) As in, the bad guy is a “bad apple,” not the American government itself but one corrupt individual. Where did we see that before? Oh yeah, the rogue Black “Forest” ops in The A-Team. Shit, Ben: The Expendables is meant to be a throwback to the action classics of 25 years ago, but it just ends up cribbing everything that’s come out in the last 25 days.