1 September 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (Dir. Simon West, US, 2012) - Hard Body Ideologies

Veterans of the action film genre.
It is disappointing to hear that The Expendables 2 is likely to make less money at the box office than the first film. Could this be that the first film appealed to audiences as nothing more than a novelty, bringing together old school action heroes for a nostalgically hungry cinema audience disillusioned by the afterthoughts of yet more Twilight induced films. Nonetheless, Stallone and Lionsgate were wise in green-lighting a second film since it offers yet more juvenile violence and retro action schisms. Another wise decision was to pass over the directorial reigns to Simon West, a filmmaker who is a competent director of the action genre. Although the first film left audiences wanting for more, this second instalment builds on such a promise by adding new faces to the mix. Stallone and Schwarzenegger defined the hard body action image of the 1980s and both are busy at work making films that refuse to chase the habitually under challenged teen demographic. One of the most common ways of labelling a film like The Expendables is by maintaining a critical distance, snobbishly relegating such action entertainment to the satisfyingly innocuous category of filmic trash. I even find myself guilty of such a cinematically treasonous act yet the designation of a so-called trashiness limits the ways in which we could potentially interpret or read such a film. Perhaps such an argument could be applied to a good measure of low culture, not just action films. Action films extend from the chase narrative that was one of the earliest cinema of attractions for audiences. In turn the chase narrative was appropriated by numerous genres especially the western. The Expendables has been marketed as men on mission film but in many ways it could just easily be deemed an action western. Had the film been an outright western then the critical reception may have been markedly different since the western genre has attracted greater credibility unlike the action genre that continues to be in a perpetual mode of cryo-stasis. 

It’s not surprising that a mainstream film critic such as the ever-safe Peter Bradshaw awards The Avengers film four stars whereas The Expendables gets just two. This choice may be personal but in fact it has to do with the inflated higher cultural capital of Whedon and Marvel. Yet again the demarcation between low and high culture is a matter of critical taste tied to zeitgeist concerns. If Stallone’s lazy reputation as a filmmaker has been cultivated by a prejudiced critical consensus then the recent mixed critical response to The Expendables 2 has their origin in a similar critical disposition of obtuse categorisation. When it comes to the action genre, critics generally tend to steer away from ideological discussion preferring to condemn or celebrate action films on the level of originality demonstrated by the set pieces. If Stallone’s action films from the 1980s and the hard body image manifested Reaganite ideology then surely there needs to be a continuation of such contextualised ideological readings? Unfortunately, ideological discussions are somewhat eclipsed by arguments to do with nostalgic, retro inspired filmmaking. If nostalgia has replaced ideology when it comes to the recent films of Stallone then perhaps this also has to do with the way in which democratic American governments offer limited contextual political landscapes when compared to the regressive, reactionary and often fascist overtones cultivated by Republican governments. After all, Stallone’s hard body image was forged and repeatedly hijacked by era of right wing Republican political dogma articulated by film star leaders such as Ronald Reagan. A superficial ideological reading of The Expendables rubbishes claims of nostalgic postmodern reflexivity. Although such notions are readily evident, a superficial ideological reading posits the way such action films are perhaps deliberately rendered apolitical since this would mean having to invalidate the low and high culture debate. 

The Expendables are a band of mercenaries who seem to be available to hire on the global market. This makes them a capitalist commodity operating in a vacuum of geopolitical immunity. As a group they don’t seem affiliated with any particular government but their relationship with the CIA could be regarded as a hegemonic extension of the way America fights wars by proxy today. While Stallone as Barney is coerced by the CIA he also harbours wider reservations of the way his men are seen as cogs in a much bigger military machine. Such mistrust over the CIA and establishments in general echoes John Rambo who questions his position in the system and ultimately rebels (certainly in the first film) to become a survivalist of pity, pain and detachment. John Rambo seemed to get progressively less angry in the films (although he returned with a vengeance in the fourth film) but he viewed his role as mechanical rather than political. Although it would be difficult to label Rambo as anti establishment especially given the jingoism on display in the second film, his marginalised status (made emphatically clear by the motif of having him walk away at the end of each film like a mythical warrior and also recalling Ethan Edward’s actions at the end of The Searchers) resurrects the cowboy loner myth. Barney is essentially a ghostly mirror image of Rambo but in this instance old age presents us with a reflexive postmodern hero who is aware of his fading stardom. Perhaps the most significant departure in terms of male heroism is that the men in The Expendables lack the social and political indignation of having been betrayed by those at the top shown in action films such as First Blood & Predator. The dissipation of anger may reflect old age and their respective status as veterans. Such apolitical politics also supports the argument that contemporary cinema is largely devoid of ideological engagement having reached a point of irreversible creative exhaustion. However, ultimately this is a deeply reflexive postmodern action film that lives and breathes the memories of populist action films such as Rambo First Blood Part 2. Ironically, the once muscular hard body of Stallone is nothing more than a rubbery elasticated one that exists purely to pleasure us falsely with dreams of our own immortality. Here's a mainstream summer film that won't make you leave the cinema feeling short changed; it simply delivers on what it promises.

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