Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Expendables

(Sylvester Stallone, Rambo: First Blood Part 2/Tristar Pictures) 

     Just look at that face. Sylvester Stallone has the face of a man who could have just finished oiling your car, thought it was tough, but wants you to know he’s okay with that. He looks classically paternal, as if he could be teaching his son how to shoot a bow and arrow and telling his daughter to be careful around boys at parties, even when he’s actually blowing some baddie’s brains out. He has always passed as an underdog star who just pushes on despite how much work it all is. In other words, he’s an action hero of the old-fashioned sort. It is probably because of his face and his ragged, pragmatic way of delivering lines that keep our eyes on the screen for the length of The Expendables, even if the film itself is not very classical or modest, and even though all those eyes enjoying it belong to other men.
            The Expendables is the most recent film Stallone not only stars in, but also co-wrote and directed. The story has something to do with a group of mercenaries known as The Expendables who are based out of some sunny suburb, but have been hired by Mr. Church (an uncredited Bruce Willis) to go take out an army headed by an FBI defect (Eric Roberts) that has taken control of a remote Spanish-speaking island. Whatever. The point is that we laugh at the outrageous sequences of face-painted soldiers getting their limbs blown off, of Stallone leaping from a dock on to the hatch of the Expendable’s airplane as a whole army chases him and the plane spews water against the tirade of bullets. We can also laugh at some of the non-action scenes, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger walks in and out of the film, or in which Jason Stratham’s Lee Christmas walks on to a basketball court where his former girlfriend’s abusive new boyfriend emphatically calls him ‘some punk.” Scenes like these give the impression of an unabashed, self-referential male fantasy that only the dourest soul wouldn’t find amusing. 

(Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables/Lionsgate Films)
Yet would be unfair, in the midst of this testosterone surge, to dismiss Stallone outright as a craftsman. At least he has an idea of how artists function. It is interesting, for instance, that he thought to temper the film with vague gestures towards feminism. Several key developments attempt to put every movie bad guy and misogynist in their place by sending the message that it is not okay to abuse women. Unlike the paint-by-the-numbers dullness of most other action films, Stallone is so hooked on his chosen genre that he isn’t afraid of occasional kookiness. Within the endless action scenes, the camera whirls over and gets shot at directly, or cuts abruptly to the point of view of a security camera being shot to static. As bizarre as it sounds to call Stallone a visual stylist, he at least has a grasp of how to cut things up, thrillingly.
Yet cutting things up thrillingly may be Stallone’s only actual cinematic skill. His morals and compassion don’t quite translate to artistry. The overall effect of The Expendables is a ludicrous story that the filmmakers clearly have poured their hearts in to; there is more than money at stake for them. But this translates, like Stallone’s paternal, weary persona, in to a way of being, not in to a skillfully made film. Here is a film that we like because it is, not because it does anything useful. Characters are under-developed, the plot starts predictable and stays that way and the film inevitably exhausts its hilarity by the end, turning a gun battle outside a large palace in to a set piece of boredom. Lord knows we will forget every single image in The Expendables in due time, because again, Stallone didn’t do anything useful for movies, he just did things effectively. He pulled it off by being him. Yet one gets the sense that he has never had any greater intent in his entire career. Judging by the expression on Stallone’s face, he knows he has always been a guy whose only skill is to cut things to pieces and then move on, hoping his limitations might somehow be transcended. He is like Buster Keaton minus the grace. He is a man who speaks for other men and that’s his way of making sense of life. Stratham in The Expendables/Lionsgate Films)