The Expendables (2010): A Revolutionary Time Machine Fueled by Napalm and Biceps

My return home and its subsequent parade of films that possess a historical resonance continues with my excursion to the theatre to see The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone‘s latest resuscitation of the corpse of a long dormant cinematic species. After breathing life back into Rocky Balboa, to give that character a proper send off replete with a more palatable sense of closure, and into Rambo, to horrifically gruesome results, Stallone now tackles the task of reviving the corpus of 80’s action films.

The film sets out the tried and true action plot of a band of mercenaries taking on an evil political despot/corrupt drug ring to set things in a small country right. Barney Ross (Stallone) assembles an all-star cast of action heroes around him: Jason Statham plays Lee Christmas, his right hand man and Jet Li is Ying Yang, his left hand man; the remainder of the Expendable crew is filled out by Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen, Terry Crews as Hale Cesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road and the irrepressible Mickey Rourke as Tool. This veritable cornucopia of testosterone faces off against a duality of corporate greed and nationalistic fundamentalism in the form of Eric Roberts as the money-hungry drug kingpin, James Munroe, who finances David Zayas‘ General Garza and his army aided by the muscle and ruthless military know-how of Steve Austin‘s Paine. Surely this comprises the largest constellation of biceps ever  assembled on-screen. And if this weren’t enough to throw any young man viewing the film into a furious and immediate puberty, these names are bolstered by cameo appearances from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who seems to be the most consistent thing about this blog).

The Expendables Poster 01The plot contains the axiomatic shoot-outs, betrayals, defeats and victories called for by the template of the remorseless 80’s action films that came before, from First Blood 2 to Commando and everything in between. Stallone’s fidelity to the structure of the genre is as unflagging and remorseless as his commitment to rendering the rending of torsos and limbs into red goo and mist – as evidenced in Rambo‘s relentlessly and viscerally revolting final 20 minutes. The protagonists mow down countless pirates and paramilitary soldiers without mercy or concern and Stallone films it with shocking attention and exaggeration (I can only pray) to gory detail as arms and hands are severed, torsos erupt into red paste, necks are broken and bodies are generally pierced to the point of more resembling macramé doilies than any cogent human form.

Stallone has shown himself to be a more than competent film-maker time and time again – through Rocky and First Blood most prolifically – with a natural ear for dialogue and a generosity towards the human condition that belies his often-muscled frame and tenuously comprehensible speech. Here he lightens The Expendables with a certain quotient both of humour and gravitas; the group of mercenaries quip back and forth with one another with ease, mocking each other’s abilities and statures in a way that is believable for a group who have been together a while and the actors are sufficiently gifted and have  chemistry enough to give this rapport some credence.

Beyond the ostentatious and debilitating thrills of seeing the Expendables mow through wave after wave of soldiers the film is given some semblance of emotional register through a monologue delivered by Tool (Rourke). Positioned as being retired from action and working as a liaison for jobs and provider of tattoos for the crew, Tool recounts an episode wherein he failed to prevent a woman from killing herself to Ross (Stallone); despite killing hundreds of other soldiers, Tool sees this moment as the point where he lost the last part of him that was human and good. This speech provides the motivation for Ross to return to the island and ensure that General Garza’s daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itié), is safe. Rourke shines in this speech and provides a grounding point for the audience and a necessary downbeat counterpoint to the action-intense rest of the film.

The Expendables Poster 02I would be remiss not to here also mention the film’s tacitly misogynistic relationship to women which maybe exists as a symptom of the film’s predication on a two decade old formula or maybe it, more egregiously, brings to light the misogyny present in any action genre film. Christmas (Statham) has a girlfriend, Lacy (Charisma Carpenter), whom he has kept in the dark about his employment and upon his first return to her brings a ruby instead of honesty; subsequently he returns to find her abused, sporting a bruised face, by her new boyfriend. Christmas goes to the basketball court to find this man and prefaces his “chivalrous” reprisal-beating with “You shouldn’t have bruised her face.”, implying that he had done damage to Christmas’ own aesthetically pleasing property, that Lacy’s value was located solely in her face and that damaging that was the error, not in violently attacking someone else; more problematically this also implies that had he bruised her elsewhere the beating would have been more tolerable.

Likewise, Stallone’s return to “protect” the general’s daughter is rife with implicit patronizing misogyny. Rather than have a strong female character, Sandra is shown to be helpless, trapped even in her own genealogy and powerless against her father and his army. The “weak” woman requires the righteous might of the Expendables to rescue her from her situation with violent action. Stallone’s film goes out of its way to demonstrate that violence against women requires a special breed of violence. Beyond Christmas’ destruction and emasculation of a whole group of men, the soldiers who water-board and threaten to rape Sandra are dispatched with violence over and above the usual mutilation by explosion and gunfire as one has his hand chopped off and the other is exploded. Paine (Austin) meets his end by being lit on fire and pummeled by Tall Road (Couture), having at one point punched Sandra. This misogyny, under the guise of chivalry, refuses to give the female characters even agency enough to exact their own revenge on their abusers and captors.

TrinityThe encounter between Couture and Austin speaks to one of the strangest aspects of the film. Created entirely from the material of the 80’s action movie boom, it hangs together oddly now, more humorous than it has any right being due to its anachronistic and pastiche-like nature. Holding so many once-stars together – each with their own cultural and filmic cache – cannot help but call to mind previous iterations of encounters; I defy anyone seeing the scuffle between Stallone and Lundgren not to expect/hope for an utterance of “I will break you” or “if he dies… he dies” from Rocky IV. Seeing Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Bruce Willis together on-screen, albeit briefly, calls to mind the potential “What If?” scenarios of some confluence wherein John McLean, John Rambo, and Dutch come together in a Trinity of Holy Masculinity on-screen. The film, to its credit, does little to indulge in these potentially easy moments of fancy with its actors and plays all encounters relatively straight and close to the chest. To do otherwise would have moved the film firmly into the realm of self-parody from its place now as perhaps winking at the audience but not so much to undermine its own momentum and legitimacy.

Perhaps the oddest moment of the film comes when Munroe (Roberts) is looking for Sandra and sees that she paints and exclaims – entirely out of left field – that “This is how it all starts!”, inferring that her defection to aid the Expendables is contingent on her engagement with the artistic practice; painting becomes an act that precipitates revolution. This idea is re-iterated again later when General Garza (Zayas) attempts to reassert the sovereignty of his military state against Munroe by first painting an artwork and subsequently the faces of his armed soldiers. These scenes are not intrinsically necessary for the movement of the plot, but hang strangely in relief against the action-oriented film. Like Tool’s soliloquy for lost innocence, these scenes speak to Stallone’s desire to invest an ideology within his film beyond its function as a shoot-em-up blockbuster; however, these moments are not contiguous with the overall tone of the film and, as such, seem vestigial organs of the script.

Stallone and Statham PlotThe idea of art as revolutionary act, and therefore the artist as revolutionary, leads to an interesting conception of Stallone; as the definitive auteur of this film – writing, directing and starring credentials all belong to Sly – Stallone is placed in the role of revolutionary artist. Then question then becomes one of where this Expendable revolution leads the viewer? What is the end goal of the revolution? Perhaps it posits an escapist return to the halcyon days of the 1980’s, carrying the audience back to a time when the economy flourished, when political correctness had not choked public discourse and the public itself was not terrorized on both sides by external groups and a fear of both the rightness and ability of the government; The Expendables poses a revolutionary return to a time when good and bad were clearly delineated, when justice was violent, accurate and swift. Not only is this return ephemeral and entirely impossible, it could very well be irresponsible. Stallone has crafted a film that caters both to nostalgia and the desire for change.

The Expendables crowns Sly’s trilogy of films that articulate his personal, as well as a larger cultural, nostalgia for past times with an admissionary gesture that the only revolutionary return possible is one of superficial artifice. The actor, the director and the mercenary here collapse into one figure standing in the liminal space between art and reality, revolution and fantasy, gesturing toward a new way but articulated entirely in the language of the past. Mumble as he may, contorting the English language, Stallone lacks the new lexicon required by revolution, crafting instead a capable and irresponsibly thrilling nostalgia vehicle.

5 Responses to “The Expendables (2010): A Revolutionary Time Machine Fueled by Napalm and Biceps”
  1. Scott says:

    You really nailed this review. Good work Ben.

  2. slamdunk says:

    2 words, Ben; writing class. that opening paragraph is a train wreck.

  3. kristin says:

    i have been searching for either the name of the artist who did the tribal princess portraits featured in the film or pictures of the artwork its self. it was love at first sight for me and it is driving me crazy. all i get from search engines is the art FOR the movie. not the art IN the movie.

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  1. […] My return home and its subsequent parade of films that possess a historical resonance continues with my excursion to the theatre to see The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone's latest resuscitation of the corpse of a long dormant cinematic species. After breathing life back into Rocky Balboa, to give that character a proper send off replete with a more palatable sense of closure, and into Rambo, to horrifically gruesome results, Stallone now tackles … Read More […]

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