|Veterans of the action film genre.|
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.