Review: The Expendables
I saw this film a while ago, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it until now, primarily because I couldn’t help but be disappointed with it. This is a film that pretends to be a true throwback to the testosterone-fueld, fascist action romps of the 1980s, yet it constantly finds itself catering to more modern and politically correct action movie tropes. The tough guy softening for a politically passionate woman. The hero coming to some sort of geopolitical enlightenment about the plight of victimized third world countries. These themes eventually overtake this film, and though those themes are fine if slotted into their proper context, they DO NOT work if you’re making a film supposedly reliant upon the ultra-macho conquest that defined those old movies and made them such guilty pleasures. It’s as if director and star Sylvester Stallone is trying to atone for all of his blood-drenched 80s transgressions, while at the same time exploiting them to make a buck. It just doesn’t jive.
There are some effective homages to the over-the-top action set pieces from schlock films of old (the final battle with its endless and apparently harmless explosions is a nice bit of throwback direction), but the sensitive preening and moral posturing of Stallone undercuts any joy the viewer wants to experience. This film was marketed as a harking back to the cinema days “when men were men,” one that today’s audiences of aging tough guys and younger wusses could admire or laugh at, whichever suits them better. But it tries too hard to make everyone smile, to ease any guilt modern moviegoers may feel when watching those old fascist and misogynist killfests. If you want to critique or parody those, do that. They’re certainly ripe for it, though it’s been done a hundred times in the past twenty years. But if you want to honor and take nostalgic pleasure in them, do that, and do it straight ahead with no apologies.
Ironically, only Jason Staham escapes with his nihilistic tough-guy cred in tact, and he’s an action creation of the new millennium, risen to stardom well after Sly and Arnie and those of their ilk. Perhaps that sheds light on the nature of Statham’s popularity. In an era where even Stallone tries to put some kind of sensitive sheen on his wanton slaughter, Statham is busy given the audience what they want, glaring and grunting and delivering the kind of remorseless vigilante madness we want out of stories like this. Just watch Crank for a sterling definition of “remorseless vigilante madness”.
Maybe that’s why I still love Statham and don’t particularly like The Expendables. Statham does what he does directly, with no apologies. Beneath its musclebound surface, this film can’t decide how tough it wants to be, or even what it is. There’s a telling critique of the modern American male buried somewhere in there, but it’s buried too deep. In the end, this is just a film that has too many apologies.