Aug 252010

Aging action stars: “Will work for food”

By Stan Heaton

Sly Stallone is back as the grizzled hero of The Expendables, a testosterone-charged action flick about a group of mercenaries hired to eliminate a brutal dictator on some arbitrary South American island.  During the job, Stallone encounters the dictator’s daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), a beautiful woman trapped by the misfortune of her country and the power of her evil father.  In an effort to save this woman and his own soul, Stallone assembles his crew of bad-asses and attempts to liberate the island.

In many ways, The Expendables resembles action movies of the 80s.  The stars (and there are a lot of them) have almost as many muscles as the cast of Predator (1987).  The most sinister villain in the film, played by the always sleazy Eric Roberts, is really an ex-CIA operative, mirroring the corrupt officials in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and so many other 80s action movies.

And most important, The Expendables is much more about how something happens, rather than what is happening.  In other words, the focus of the film is not that the Expendables are guns for hire who take the law into their own hands.  Instead, the focus is whether or not Jason Statham’s knives or Stallone’s guns killed more bad guys.

Each scene is simply a vehicle that allows Stallone, who directed the film, to show us the next exploding body part, dangerous car chase, or old man wrestling match.  There are a small number of scenes in which we actually get a pinch of character development; any time Mickey Rourke is on the screen, we know we’re about to get some exposition.  But for the most part, the movie is all about the action.  The entire plot revolves around who is going to get beaten up next.

For many movie-goers eager to see the old guard of Hollywood action films back in the saddle, the explosions and gunfire will be enough.  However, for the rest of us who need more than automatic shotguns and obnoxiously loud motorcycles, The Expendables has another, more intelligent layer.

I’ve been following the production of this movie for many months, and when I heard that the cast of a movie called The Expendables included Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis, I immediately thought of the trend in Hollywood to use action stars to make gobs of cash before tossing them aside to usher in the next wave of tough guys.

It seems that this film is so much about movie stars that using the names of the characters is pointless.  In fact, many of the character names, such as Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), seem like bad jokes meant to point out the farce of giving big action stars character names at all. I find myself writing Sylvester Stallone’s character or Jason Statham’s character, underscoring this subplot about macho men getting work in films.

No one embodies the struggle of the action star in The Expendables better than Dolph Lundgren.  In the film, Lundgren’s character gets kicked out of the Expendables because of some questionable morals.  Out of work and down on his luck, Dolph joins the bad guys and squares off against his former team.

Jet Li’s character is also motivated by work.  In one of the movie’s funnier moments, he tells Stallone that he deserves more money because he is smaller and has to work harder.  These characters, then, don’t just kick ass for thrills: they do it to eat.

Stallone and Statham, actors for hire.

In the 80s, action movies often put characters in revisions of the Vietnam War so that they could “win” it and help ease the pains of a culture that had just lost a war.  The Expendables takes the same approach to our current economic recession.  Have you been laid off from your job?  Have you lost your home?  Are you struggling to feed your family?  Well come watch how REAL men solve those problems!

That’s not to say that this film is brilliant for its dissection of American culture.  Much like those 80s movies The Expendables emulates, the solution to America’s problems is escapist and kind of stupid.  I doubt highly that bigger muscles, louder guns, or quicker punches will help families rebound from such a depressed economy.

But, to be fair, that’s not quite the purpose of the film.  It’s abundantly clear from the funny dialogue, the all-star cast, and the elaborate stunts that The Expendables is meant to be fun, which might be just what unemployed, out of work, or struggling people need to reduce the stress born from realizing that they too are expendable.