by Brett Parker
Action films of the 80s could most accurately be described as the “muscle man” era, an era in which testosterone, explosions, and the war-hungry mindset of the Reagan era spilled out across movie screens everywhere. Our heroes were grizzled hulks armed with gigantic biceps, guns, and attitudes. They annihilated countless weaklings who stood in there way, usually by pumping them full of countless lead or tearing their limbs clean apart. Bloodiness was guaranteed!. Subtlety and political correctness were nowhere to be found; these films reveled in ridiculous excess. There was, in fact, a competition amongst the era's action stars to see who could have the bigger guns and explosions in their individual films. It was brawny, it was gritty, it was masochistic, and it was so much fun!
No specific brand of action films lasts forever, for changing times brings forth changing heroes. In a post-9/11 world, a world that saw everyday people commiting truly heroic acts, a new brand of action heroes emerged filled with more vulnerability and humanity. From Spider-Man to Jason Bourne, our new crop of heroes possess everyman qualities in the face of extraordinary situations. Brains our now in higher demand than biceps; we want to relate more instead of envying. It says something that the two best action stars of this past summer were Robert Downey, JR. and Michael Cera.
Sylvester Stallone certainly feels nostalgic for the macho man bravado of yesteryear and senses a good amount of action junkies feel the exact same way. This led to the creation of his latest acting-directing feat, The Expendables, a throwback extravaganza if ever there was one. Stallone has assembled nearly every aging tough guy from the 80s into one big action vehicle, proving that these old school hulks still got what it takes to deliver big bangs for your buck! Of course, if your looking for relevance, reflection, and deep philosophies regarding the very nature of those muscle man movies, you've come to the wrong place! Stallone and his cohorts have precisely one goal in mind and one goal only: to blow up stuff real good!
The Expendables focuses on a rugged group of macho mercenaries who hire themselves out to do dirty work government agencies are afraid to touch. The team includes fearless leader Barney Ross (Stallone), blade enthusiast Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), kung-fu expert Ying Yang (Jet Li), bruising brawler Toll Road (Randy Couture), trigger-happy Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and blood-thirsty giant Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundren). The film opens with the guys lighting up a group of pirates who've kidnapped a cargo ship, slaying them with effortless expertise. Despite their old age, these pros appear are at the top of their game, until a real challenging mission comes their way at the hands of a mysterious contact named Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Their assignment: infiltrate a South American island and take out a ruthless drug lord named Monroe (Eric Roberts).
Ross goes to scope the place out and runs into an intel expert named Sandra (Giselle Itie) who has grown up on the island and conveys how nightmarish her environment has become. Monroe used his vast wealth to buy out the island's army and he rules the place with an iron fist. He single-mindedly pursues his drug crops and profit and isn't afraid to destroy anyone or anything in his past. Monroe's rule over the island is quite deadly and Ross realizes that to go after him could very well be sudden death for him and his comrades. Yet after a lifetime of bloodshed, Ross begins to wonder if he can redeem himself by risking his life for those in need of liberation. The other Expendables begin to feel the same way and this leads to a deadly mission that will challenge the team to the extent of their abilities and just might rescue their souls.
It really is a miracle of scheduling that Stallone was able to assemble all the big marque names of yesterday into one kick-ass action movie! The only problem is that Stallone doesn't really give them anything deep or challenging to do. The Expendables was a great opportunity for Stallone & Company to dissect the finer points of the muscle man genre or expose the plights a tough guy experiences in growing older (something Stallone did superbly in Rocky Balboa). Instead, Stallone reduces their characters to one-dimensional types that run through the motions of a mindless shoot-em-up. Of course, no one can run through those motions like these guys, but surely these aging pros have more depths to reveal than the territory they've already mastered in the 80s.
So the plot is lightweight, the dialogue is horrible, and the characters show more attitude than personality. That's because Stallone's main focus is the ferocious action scenes, ones that demonstrate the shoot-em-and-slice-em velocity that was so prominent in the 80s. Stallone shows off a bloodthirsty glee as bones crunch, limbs fly, and bullets zing. The flimsy plot is all really just a transparent build-up to the film's violent final act, which is an all-out orgy of death and destruction. As our gritty heroes pound on countless bad guys mercilessly, we realize this is what we truly paid a ticket for and jump on on the ultra-violent band wagon. Technically, we can't help but admire the fact that the editing work by Ken Blackwell and Paul Harb frantically presents this ballet of blood as an assault on the senses while the musical score by Brian Tyler surprisingly gives off a classical feel.
Ironically, the only transcendent moments in the film are the ones revolved around no action at all. There's a killer moment where Mickey Rourke, as Ross' old friend and tattoo artist, speaks of searching for his soul after a lifetime of violence. It's the only revealing and convincing moment in the film thats out to prove that tough guys, do in fact, have feelings too. Of course the best scene in the film has become the most talked about one: the scene in which Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis share the screen for the first time in film history. Of course, these three were the biggest superstars of this genre and have always been something of fierce competitors, always trying to outdo each other in their movies. Well now they're finally together in a scene that not only sets up the plot for the film but shows off an electrifying peeing match where their egos bounce off each other quite nicely. It's probably the most logical way they could've shared the frame, with biting wit and a giddy subtext.
In the end, we're willing to forgive the film's flaws and emptiness because, essentially, it feels so good to see all the old guys again! They all, in fact, can still do it as good as they used to! Stallone proves that he can still dish out the attitude and the agility to lead his way through an action vehicle, Statham has shown no softening in his intimidation factor, Li still has all the right moves for an aging little guy, and Crews is cheerfully delightful as a man who loves to show off obnoxiously-outsized weaponry. My favorite performance comes from Lundren, who gives his dim-witted, hulking brute a psychotic edge that's surprisingly startling. It's been years since the big guy has shown up on the silver screen, yet his towering and tragic Frankenstein who dominates every scene that he's in!
Stallone has spoken out in recent years about how society can be neglectful towards it's elderly population. He feels there isn't really a forum for them to speak anymore despite the fact that they can be just as willing and able as all the younger citizens. The Expendables, like the last Rambo and Rocky Balboa demonstrates Stallone's single-minded goal of proving that the old guys can still get things done in a youth-obsessed society. It also may demonstrate the old school message that cultural and global problems can be solved by blowing away all our enemies, but we're willing to smirk and let that slide. After all, we're just staring at lightweight fun. The Expendables may not transcend it's genre, but at least it can stand with the mindless romps that ultimately led to the film's very creation. As long as you check your brain at the door, you can have yourself a bloody good time!