Is the success of ‘The Expendables’ a novelty or a sign?


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Talk to anyone involved in the action-movie glory days of the 1980s and the first thing they’ll say is that it’s time to bring those days back. “In today’s world. we need heroes,” Aaron Norris, brother of Chuck and an important behind-the-scenes figure in that heyday, told us when we interviewed him recently. “Our action movies have gotten too artsy.”

Artsy sort of left the room this weekend, when Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables,” which assembled a team of muscle-bound mercenaries to fight indisputably evil (but ideologically harmless) enemies in far-off lands, got audiences excited, to the tune of $35 million.


Until this weekend, old-school action movies -- defined, for argument’s sake, as films with a slew of explosions, a shortage of moral ambiguity and a triumph of physical effects over digital ones -- had seen better days. It’s been nearly two decades since pictures of this sort were produced with any regularity by the studio system, and a lot longer since they were stateside successes. Many of the attempts in recent years have been, at best, mid-budget passion projects with circumscribed audiences (Stallone’s own “Rambo,” which topped out at $42 million domestically) or post-modern winks (the French-language “JCVD” from 2008, a hostage movie in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a version of himself). The few large-scale attempts, like “The A-Team,” underperformed. (The biceps-and-bullets remake grossed $77 million domestically, a number that will likely be easily surpassed by “The Expendables.”)

But the Stallone picture -- with its hard-charging, take-no-prisoners patriotism unbothered by the vagaries of the real world (it takes place in a fictional country, for starters) and its caricature of freedom-hating enemies (“We will kill this American disease,” as the TV spot enticed us) -- planted itself squarely in the old-school genre. And this weekend, the movie showed that there’s life in that category yet. That “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the tongue-in-cheek, pop-culture-referential, decidedly 2010 creation -- the one for, of and by arch fanboys -- trailed well behind “The Expendables” only drove home the point more loudly.

On one hand, it’s understandable that a movie of easy American heroism (OK, first-world Western heroism) would catch on. In fact, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner. Apple-pie-patriotism already is behind the success of a cable news network and supports large sections of the contemporary country music industry. Why not a film hit too?

But among all the factors to which one might point in explaining the success of “The Expendables” -- a cast harvested from so many demographics and eras; a moviegoer backlash to 3-D and CG effects -- it somehow doesn’t feel that the demand for neat heroes and villains is one of them.

Norris and his ilk would submit that in our current period of ideological and geopolitical upheaval, in a time of blurry lines between enemies and friends in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, that black-and-white heroes slake a patriotic thirst (and that, indeed, the movie-going world can support a lot more of them). But history argues the opposite: Those movies succeed when the culture at large is filled with clear-cut distinctions. On the other hand, when the zeitgeist is more cloudy, an entirely different kind of cinema prospers.

The post-WWII era and its mainly straightforward distinctions between good and evil, to take an example of the former, yielded a flowering subgenre of movies with morally uncomplicated gunslingers. And 30 years later, the ideological simplicity of the Cold War and its larger-than-life Evil Empire gave rise to the very action movies on which “Expendables” is modeled (not to mention the ultimate in us-versus-them confections, “Rocky IV.” Yes, there’s a Stallone-ishness to all of this). There are plenty of reasons why these types of movies faded from view in the 1990s, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the the Soviet Union certainly played a part.

The examples are just as abundant on the other side. The ambiguities of the Vietnam War and the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s undoubtedly offered up the moral murkiness of “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” and scores of others. In the post-9/11 world, meanwhile, movies like “The Dark Knight” -- with its themes of a destruction-bent enemy that can’t be bargained with, and the question of what constitutes an acceptable ethical compromise in fighting that enemy -- have captured our imagination. You can throw “Avatar” in there too, to the degree the movie was a contemplation of Western interests in the Middle East.
Political eras are, of course, rarely just one thing or another, and the movies we want to see in a given period are hardly monolithic. But as tempting as it is to infer that the success of “The Expendables” shows a deeper cultural need, it may well be the wrong inference. When times are confusing, we want movies to reflect that confusion, and even to make sense of it. But we probably don’t want to pretend that confusion doesn’t exist.

-- Steven Zeitchik


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