To wit, both efforts resurrect Reagan Age silver screen icons (extra-terrestrial and mortal), and then play their respective action formulas entirely straight.
Ultimately, both films are all the stronger for this approach.
Predators feel like a genuine return to form (being both scary and action-packed), and The Expendables is like a family reunion of your favorite action heroes and your favorite action cliches too.
Because of this narrative strategy, Kathryn and I giggled and cackled our way through The Expendables. The Stallone-directed film trots out every age-old, corny, macho action convention and plays each one perfectly damned straight. Basically, it’s a modern-day Western, best epitomized by the old chestnut of dialogue, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
Yet the movie’s substantial and unexpected emotional content arises not from the developmentally-arrested script, nor necessarily from the barely-satisfactory fight staging, but rather via the preponderance of loving close-ups we get of our favorite, aging action stars.
Stallone, Rourke, Lundgren, Li and the others wear the years of movie mileage on their faces, and almost instinctively, we respond to seeing them again; older perhaps, but still in fine form. These shots are many, and in their own weird way, the surfeit of the such extreme close-ups accounts for the unexpected heart of the film.
This is an approach, actually, that director Leonard Nimoy also utilized to tremendous impact in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). On first blush, it seems counter-intuitive to stress close-ups in an epic genre film, or a spectacular action picture like The Expendables, but if you think about it for a bit...perhaps not.
The goal here (as in that Trek film) is to foster a kind of nostalgic view of silver-screen beauty. We’ve traveled a long road with these attractive faces, down the decades, and it is good to see them again. I mean really, who has stepped into the void they left behind? Arguably, Stallone looks as good as he did a decade ago; but the new lines on his face only deepen our appreciation of him; our sense of a shared history together.
So the up-shot of Stallone’s decision to remember and champion these beloved action-genre faces is that The Expendables is a wholly entertaining actioner that capably serves as what one evil character in the drama terms “Bad Shakespeare.”
In the Shakespearean tragedy, lead characters must almost universally reckon with their own impending deaths; and in some weird way, this action film is about the action heroes of the 1980s and 1990s rejecting the inevitability of such impending death, resurrecting themselves for one, last, grand adventure. (Or maybe two, if there’s a sequel…).
Only a Grinch could fully resist a movie that lands Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the same room, albeit briefly, for a mission briefing. The heart veritably races to see these three action greats assemble, even if your mind soundly rejects the risible dialogue they mouth.
But again, we bring some irony to their words and performances. While these giants taunt one another competitively, we remember the old gossip about real-life competition between Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The movie doesn’t pluck that note as irony; it’s only there if we remember the history of the 1980s and 1990s: Cobra vs. Commando, etc.
And did I mention that Eric Roberts, Rourke’s co-star in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1983) is also featured in the film? As a George W.Bush-lookalike, drug-dealing, CIA spook-turned-rogue, no less? He’s another welcome presence here, and Roberts gives a pretty terrific villainous performance.
The plot of The Expendables is almost ludicrously simple. After defeating Somali pirates, an elite band of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) scout out a high-paying assignment from the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). The mission: take down a Latin-American dictator, General Garza (Dexter’s David Zayas…) on the island of Vilena (Villain-a?).
The mission appears too dangerous to accept, at least until Barney becomes obsessed with saving the life of feisty Sandra (Gisele Itie), the general’s rebellious and beautiful daughter.
After ejecting the psychotic Gunner Jenson (Lundgren) from the team, Barney and his top men — Christmas (Statham), Yin Yang (Jet-Li), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) — lay siege to the island paradise of Vilena…and it’s all out war!
Now, the first thing to acknowledge about this storyline is that there is more depth and narrative intrigue in the average hour of The A-Team.. This movie lurches incoherently — or lumbers, in Stallone’s case — from one noisy set-piece to another with almost no rhyme or reason, until arriving at an explosive and hugely satisfying final battle.
But the over-the-top gore and Stallone’s bulging, always-threatening-to-explode forehead veins will distract you from the unimportant story details. I mean, if you’ve seen and adored Commando, in which Arnold single-handedly takes out an army in the last act, you’re not going to complain about The Expendables, in which Sly and three or four others do precisely the same thing.
Now, I will never consciously betray The Brotherhood of Adolescent-Minded Male Action Fans — of which I am a card-carrying member, till death — but The Expendables appeals universally and thoroughly to one nagging element of the male psyche: the Cro-Magnon Man Within. And it does so with an attractive sense of innocence and naivete, plus the aforementioned nostalgia.
And lots and lots of violence.
On the less-than-pleasant side, the women featured in the picture are remote, impossible-to-understand Madonna figures who exist only to be rescued, protected and glorified in abstract terms. They are never countenanced as thinking, feeling individuals that men must interact with.
For instance, Charisma Carpenter plays a woman attached to Jason Statham, who decries the fact that he is never around and doesn’t tell her anything personal or important about himself. So — in his absence — she starts dating someone else. Naturally, the new boyfriend abuses her, and Statham sweeps in heroically to take down the bastard. Statham then informs Carpenter’s character, in no uncertain terms, that she made a bad choice. “I was worth it,” he tells her meaningfully, before apparently dropping her off on the curb somewhere.
The character is never seen again. Lesson learned.
What this interlude in The Expendables suggests is that male-to-male relationships are the important ones in life. Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie are saved from danger and physical abuse…and then promptly and not entirely decorously dropped off so that the bro-mance can resume. So that the heroic men can continue to enjoy their brotherhood in peace: an exclusive male relationship of teasing, competing, and triumphantly bumping fists. Yeah!
This is a deeply, deeply childish and narrow view of the world, and of the way men view women (just as childish in fact, as Sex and the City’s view of women: as individuals who endlessly prattle about expensive shoes while drinking hot, designer beverages).
But undeniably, movies are vehicles for dreams and fantasies, not necessarily views of reality; and the idea that The Expendables plucks is the very one that these male-driven action movies always plucked.
It’s the timeless ideal of men of action riding into danger to rescue the helpless (always beautiful women) and living a more exceptional life of “heroism” than society-at-large usually permits. This higher (and undeniably violent) ideal separates these tough guys from the wheat and chaff of ordinary males, and so the brotherhood of guys who “get it” proves important.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that fantasy…as basic as it is.
In an artistic sense, The Expendables is barely above a lot of straight-to-video fare. Yet it is an entertaining and nostalgic effort, and — truth be told — I enjoyed every Neanderthal moment of it. The movie resonated with me on an atavistic level, I guess you could say.
So my advice is simple: enjoy the movie for what it is, and don’t despise it for what it never attempts to be. Try hard not to think about the film’s proud, caveman view of the world in terms of women; and just think about it in terms of action.
If you adopt that critical approach, you may leave a screening of The Expendables with a grin on your face, affirming that — like Statham’s character — the movie was “worth it.”