Friday, August 20, 2010

The Expendables (Stallone 2010)

Sylvester Stallone’s greatest strength has always been his sincerity. The first two Rocky films, and the more recent Rocky Balboa are prime examples, with Stallone wearing his heart on his sleeve as we see a good man attempting to do his best to stay true too himself over the course of his life. Even the original First Blood, as much as it is a commercial thriller, comes from a very real and raw place.

However, this sincerity has also over the years proven to be Stallone’s greatest weakness, particularly when he wanders into political territory and presentations of “ideal masculinity.” Notably, this problem tends to come up most in his action films, and the results usually involve overblown, hyper-masculine displays, rampant paternalism, casual (and not so casual) misogyny, and a tendency to simplify complex issues into situations to be solved with a gun/knife/fists/any-other-weapon-of-choice. At the best of times, the films are so absurd that it is impossible for them to be taken seriously (Rambo III and Rocky IV come to mind), and at the worst of times, are so regressive and naïve as to insult the intelligence of the audience and offer a repugnant, ignorant presentation of a given topic (the Burma situation in the most recent Rambo being the worst offender). Stallone’s attempts to deny the cultural and political impact of his films by using the “mere entertainment” defence are undermined by his own claims regarding his desire to make his films personal statements, or at least reflect his values.

Thus, we come to The Expendables, Stallone’s latest action fest and one which has drawn much interest for its cast of action heroes, both past and present. The Expendables follows a group of soldiers of fortune, lead by Barney (Stallone) who become involved with the plight of a small country being run by a corrupt general and an ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts). Barney and crew decide they want nothing to do with the job after a failed reconnaissance mission, but guilt and a desire to help the daughter of the general drives Barney to change his mind.

While something of an enjoyable romp, and hardly as insipid as the last Rambo, it is hard to come away from the film without feeling slightly disappointed and frustrated. With its premise of teaming up the legends of action cinema together, The Expendables held out the promise of being something more than a mere homage to the action films of old, of possibility being a film which took stock of where the action film genre and its stars have been, where they are, and where they are going. Indeed, with a title like The Expendables and a men on a mission premise, the film seemed to be on the path to offering some form of meta commentary about the manner in which the stars have fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately, the film settles for merely being a salute to what has come before, embracing Stallone’s ideas of aggressive masculinity being natural (and preferable to other forms), the importance of homosocial environments, and a guns-can-solve-anything attitude (or, if not guns, explosives). On this level the film is indeed fun and a romp, particularly as we get the opportunity to see old legends like Dolph Lungdren take to the screen along side current stars such as Jet Li.

Unfortunately, there is still that political side of the film, and the solutions offered to the issues raised in the film. US interventionist policy is at the heart of The Expendables, mixed with themes of fatherhood and parental responsibility. The political divide in the film is structured through the relationship between the country’s leader, General Gaza (David Zayas) and his daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie), as the corrupt father figure who himself is infantilized by ex-CIA agent Munroe (Roberts). As such, the film would seem to be a condemnation of America’s paternalistic treatment of other nations, trying to determine what is "best" for those abroad.

However, the film is structured in a manner that pits Barney as the competing, morally right father figure who opposes these forces, and the film builds towards Gaza's daughter’s acceptance and identification of Barney as the “good” parent whose values and ideals will become important in the rebuilding of the nation. As such, the film’s supposedly anti-interventionist politics are are contradictory, suggesting that the problem is not that the United States have chosen to unilaterally act as the father to second and third world countries, but that the occasional renegade forces of greed take the reins of such efforts. In some respects, it feels like an apology for the George W. Bush Jr. era foreign policies.

You will note of course that I have made repeated use of the word “paternalistic” in describing how the film handles its politics, and with good reason: the film contains a strongly regressive set of gender politics that leave no place for woman other than to adopt the “wisdom” of the male world view (of course, only one type of masculine identity exists in this film, so that is the wisdom of aggression and male privilege). In addition to the infantilized Sandra, the film has only one other female character in Lacy, played by Charisma Carpenter, whose talents are utterly wasted here. Lacy is part of the “subplot” (if two or three scenes can really make for a subplot) for the character Lee Christmas (Statham), and she is condemned early in the film for seeing a man other than Lee. Her reason for seeing someone else is sound: Lee disappears for months at a time, tells here nothing, and then expects her to just cosy on up to him when he returns. Unfortunately, the film never bothers to actually take Lee to task for his failings: it is Lacy who needs to learn the male code and submit to Lee’s “wisdom.” Her punishment for not doing so is to end up with an abusive boyfriend, as if that is the only other choice besides the emotionally neglectful Lee. Submit to Lee’s “wisdom” she ultimately does, not that it was avoidable. Given Lee’s surname of Christmas, what else could he be than a father like figure to her?

Yet, the film is so blaringly stupid as to bring into question as whether it can be taken seriously at all. Take the film’s approach to drug abuse and mental illness: these are not issues in need of being carefully treated, but instead can be solved with a good old fist fight and property damage. Well, as long as the mentally ill individual has a near death experience. I wont say which character has this subplot, but needless to say, the whole thing is fairly embarrassing and indicative of the level of which this film is working on as far as intelligence goes.

Yet, all throughout the film, you can feel the presence of Stallone and his damned sincerity. That he believes what he is selling here; that he isn’t capable of seeing just how idiotic the film he was produced is. It in turn allows the film to reach Ed Wood levels of idiocy and entertainment, as well as Ed Wood levels of pity. You can say what is wrong with the film, but Stallone will never get it. Just like he didn’t after Rocky IV. Or Cobra. Or Rambo.

As the end credits of The Expendables roll, the tired song “The Boys are Back in Town” plays. Indeed, the boys are back in town. I just wish they had grown up a little, rather than reliving the old days over again.


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