Alex Stephenson THE MACGUFFIN MEN: The Action Hero Goes BOOM

When I saw the first entry in The Expendables series on opening day back in August 2010, it was one of the best times I had experienced at the movies in a while. It seemed like everybody was there for the same reasons: to watch Sylvester Stallone’s eye droop, see Jason Statham be Jason Statham, and to experience the explosions of a troubling number of human bodies. There were cheers and laughter throughout the movie, and nobody took it seriously, because why would you? This was The Expendables, a movie that was a joke on the Internet before the pitch meeting got past the stage of, “Okay, so it’s a movie that stars Sylvester Stallone…” The Expendables was a throwback, yeah, but it seemed like a throwback that nobody actually wanted to exist, until you realized that pretty much everybody actually does.

I’m going to get something out of the way, lest you think this is going to be another ‘Alex argues for the artistic merits of A Cinderella Story’ situation: The Expendables is fucking ludicrous. This is a movie where Stallone and Statham celebrate their victory/massacre of Somali pirates by cracking Budweisers while they’re flying a gigantic airplane. In the span of 103 minutes, Mickey Rourke calls various people ‘brother’ somewhere between three and four thousand times. This is a movie where Eric Roberts angrily yells, “So your daughter paints, too?!!? This is how it STARTS!!!” implying that a revolution began in the form of one woman’s acrylic hobby. It’s a film that co-stars Randy Couture in a speaking role; a movie that prominently and unironically features the song Mississippi Queen. But it’s worth watching for a couple of reasons, most of which revolve around how you feel about action stars in general.

In the last few years, it has become commonplace to talk about ‘the death of the movie star.’ With increased media saturation, be it through gossip magazines/sites and things like Twitter, we are closer to our favourite celebrities than ever before, something that removes some of the sheen of celebrity. This seems to be a popular topic of discussion these days, mostly because it’s undeniably true. Every time somebody like Sylvester Stallone tweets about his mild frustration with the freshness of the cantaloupe he recently purchased, he becomes less of a superstar and more of a person in our eyes. We might not have ever portrayed a Bolivia-based soldier of fortune, but we too have purchased a less than stellar cantaloupe. But what happened before the death of the movie star was the death of a specialized type of movie star: the unstoppable action star. In the 1980s, this seemed to be a fairly rampant archetype, with Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal leading movies to the top of the box office.

The move essentially began with the release of First Blood in 1982, a movie that is actually good despite being the first film appearance of John Rambo, a character who would eventually become a cultural punch line. The film is solid, and the way it deals with the main character being a Vietnam War veteran is drastically more interesting than its follow-ups would prove to be. Rambo is clearly psychologically scarred from his time fighting Charlie, and we see the full extent of this in his emotional final monologue. As the series progressed, however, John Rambo got more violent, more jingoistic, and more unintentionally comical. In the series’ second film, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, our hero is sent back to Vietnam, albeit not before asking his superior, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

“This time,” his superior says, “It’s up to you.”

In his push for the presidency in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan had been critical of previous administrations, saying that they had been “afraid to let [the military] win” in the Vietnam conflict. In First Blood Part II, however, Rambo gets to change America’s fortunes. He spends the majority of the film shooting the shit out of Vietnam, allowing American audiences to finally watch America win the Vietnam War, if only at the movies. In its follow-up, Rambo III, he battles as a freedom fighter in Afghanistan against an oppressive government, funneling arms to Afghan rebels (yes, really) before driving away while an uber-80s and uber-hilarious cover of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother plays in the background. Arnold Schwarzenegger might be the most famous of the beefcake action stars, but Stallone certainly kicked off the movement toward these super-cut supermen carrying giant fucking guns that make people explode with impunity. And the character of John Rambo seems to be the figurehead for the absurd 1980s action hero, if only because he was name dropped by President Reagan, the first president to be referred to with military-inspired nicknames like Commander in Chief.

Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal all achieved varying levels of success as the 1980s transitioned into the 1990s, but the action hero was still alive, well, and omnipresent until about the mid-90s, despite the cracks in the genre being evident to even the least sophisticated of viewers for pretty much their entire reign. Even as a kid, long before I ever saw one of these actors’ movies, jokes were cracked about accents, biceps, and seeing an odd number of gunfights in commercials featuring a Belgian gentleman doing the splits. We didn’t need to see the movies to know what was ridiculous about them; nonetheless, society continued to demand them, kind of. Stallone, Van Damme, and Seagal, despite repeated box office failures, continued to be cast as the lead in big budget action movies long after it would seem to make sense for studio heads to let this happen. But while these movies kept being produced, the death of the action star was more or less cemented long before then.

There is one action star I haven’t mentioned yet that always tends to get roped into the list of 1980s action stars, partially because he has killed busloads of people on screen, but mostly because he helped to launch Planet Hollywood with Stallone and Schwarzenegger. About twenty minutes into The Expendables, Stallone’s generically named character Barney Ross goes to meet with a guy named Trench (played by Arnie) and the mysterious Mr. Church, who claims to have a job for one of them. That it is Church who is more or less in charge of the scene, despite being the least muscular of the three, is fitting. Played by Bruce Willis, the character works well as a metaphor for what the actor did for the actual genre; he blew it up, like so many Nakatomi Plazas.

When Die Hard was released in 1988, it was revolutionary for the action genre for reasons that quickly became famous. In a decade filled with impossibly jacked, invincible heroes, Willis’ character John McClane was a balding, fit but not unreasonably so, guy who we see feel pain and exhibit more emotion than any 1980s action hero since First Blood’s final Rambo monologue. Despite Willis’ steely glare, McClane is as charismatic as action heroes come, and for possibly the first time in the decade, an action movie showed its hero pushed to his breaking point, significantly worried about whether or not he would actually be able to save the day. We see Rambo get his token ‘small cut above the left eye’ in his films, but in Die Hard, we have to watch McClane scream in agony while he pulls glass out of his bare feet. And while Willis’ future films wouldn’t always give him the chance to show off his generally underrated acting abilities, that this one did made it the film that would slowly, if indirectly, lead the charge of keeping audiences away from the failures Seagal, Stallone, and Van Damme made throughout the following decade. (Even Seagal’s lone blockbuster – Under Siege – wouldn’t have existed if not for the “Die Hard on a _________” trend that swept Hollywood after society fell in love with McClane.) And Willis further kicked the 1980s action hero out of Hollywood in 1998, when the Willis-starring Armageddon spearheaded the charge of the effects-driven blockbuster that Titanic had begun a year earlier.

Today, none of the stars listed have better careers than they did in the 1980s, and Willis is probably the only one of the action stars previously listed who still commands respect from the average viewer. Stallone is too easy to make fun of, Schwarzenegger’s comically childish reactions to his divorce with Maria Shriver have exposed him as somebody who seems roundly awful, and nobody gives a shit about what Jean-Claude Van Damme is up to these days. Well, except for French director Mabrouk El Mechri, and the result of that interest turned out to be a pretty great movie.

The little-seen but pretty great 2008 film JCVD, starring Van Damme as himself and directed by El Mechri, depicts a Hollywood action hero years after he has taken a significant fall from grace. In this film, we see Van Damme dealing with the fallout from all that Bloodsporting and Timecopping he did in the 1980s and 1990s. The film frankly addresses his addiction struggles, the effect his career has had on his family life, and his own fall from grace. JCVD is itself an action film as well, but one with action that is a little more grounded than Van Damme’s adventures with Dennis Rodman ever were. In JCVD, Van Damme’s techniques are proven to be all show, and he reveals to us that he is in fact a human. At a pivotal moment during the heist that occurs in the film, we see Van Damme imagine himself saving the day with high kicks and gut punches, not unlike he would in one of his more famous films. Of course, this doesn’t actually happen, because Jean Claude Van Damme can’t actually do these things. He’s just a celebrity who can pull off a stylish roundhouse kick. After a frank, emotional and fourth-wall demolishing monologue late in the film, we see Van Damme stripped of all the show that comes with being a celebrity, and we see him as a broken man. The film ends up being about the effect the swaying power of a celebrity’s presence can have on the average person, but its end message is that, generally, the real personal fights that all those fake fights bring on simply isn’t worth it.

Around JCVD’s release is when the ideas for the first Expendables film were beginning to be hatched. Stallone had seen enough of the comic book superheroes who just punch people, and he wanted to get back to the roots of violence… He wanted to blow some motherfuckers up. So he called in his old friends, and sent his team to the Gulf of Mexico to give Eric Roberts the business. And while the first film’s use of its old action stars is actually overrated, The Expendables was notable for that reason if only because it managed to get Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis onscreen at the same time, even if that onscreen meeting happened to be pretty awkwardly blocked out. Despite the lack of screen time for Arnie and Bruce, however, the film’s ideology was clearly right out of those star’s past, which is made evidently clear when Dolph Lundgren evaporates a Somali pirate’s upper body in the opening minutes. There was confused applause in my theatre when this happened; while this action used to be commonplace, in 2010 it was a little shocking. By 2012 though, we were used to it again.

The modern North American pop cultural landscape is one of irony. As the internet has grown, it has become simultaneously more useful and more filled with videos of Ukrainian dogs doing parkour to dubstep Godspeed songs. Now you can spend your day reading from a ton of different publications you previously had little access to, or you can think of funny one-liners to overlay on a picture of a cat. As movie studios are business entities constantly trying to find a way to pull money out of as many people’s pockets as they can, they tend to chose the filmmaking version latter, because everybody likes adorable cats. Or Chuck Norris jokes. Or getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to say your favourite Bruce Willis line… Basically, The Expendables 2 is little more than Sylvester Stallone’s personal Tumblr account.

By the time The Expendables 2 was released last week, little of what could be found within it was shocking, with the exception being how terribly low the production values appeared to be at times. When Chuck Norris showed up to deliver a Chuck Norris joke of his own, we could not have been less surprised. When Schwarzenegger continually declared how ‘back’ he was, before walking off-screen so he could come back again, we got bored out of our mind. Only Willis, the most likeable and talented of the three major stars in the film, seemed to be aware of how bad the movie is; he only uses any sort of effort in one scene, which is coincidentally the scene where his dialogue doesn’t sound like it was written by an illiterate eight year old. Jet Li’s character literally jumps from a plane to get out of this movie, and if you know who Randy Couture is, you know he has nothing better to do with his time. The whole film is nauseatingly self-aware; everything that made Snakes on a Plane more of a meme than an actual film is present here, and there are a similarly low number of scenes that are worth watching.

Attempting to remain self-aware is a slippery slope for any type media. If you feed the audience exactly what you think they want, oftentimes that makes for a terrible, boring product; if the viewer can predict everything that’s going to happen, there’s little to enjoy in the film. It’s good to not take yourself too seriously sometimes, but you still have to actually try in order to make it worthwhile to anybody. It’s worth noting that the best aspects of The Expendables are the performances of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, who actually appear to be putting in some form of effort. They’re self-aware in that they know they aren’t the top draw of the film, so they have to exhibit some effort to make people remember them. Van Damme tried so hard in his role that he actually went method for his performance, which seems crazily unaware, but is actually pretty respectable given the lack of substance for his role. And while Lundgren might not have fully committed to his part in the same manner JCVD did, Ivan Drago’s willingness to try at all shines through as he gets some of the film’s best moments. Similarly, co-star Jason Statham is infinitely likeable in all of his films, even to people that don’t care for action movies. Statham consciously stays in his lane, and we respect him for that earnestness. When he says he doesn’t think he can pull off a performance in a romantic comedy, we respect it, because we’ve seen him throw himself entirely into the projects he does select. He’s an action star, he knows it, and he values his place in the Hollywood system. He’s comfortable in his skin, the skin of an action hero, and that’s precisely what makes him cool.

Self-awareness isn’t really endearing anymore, it’s expected. We assume that when Olympian McKayla Maroney’s disgust with her silver medal win turns into a meme, she will publicly join in on the fun, not unlike how we half-expected JCVD’s character in The Expendables 2 to be named Jean Vilain. What’s interesting now is a total lack of self-awareness, or at least a more subtle form of it. Despite not caring for the Twilight series and hating Cosmopolis, hearing Robert Pattinson admit to Jon Stewart that he still doesn’t have a publicist, even in the wake of K-StewGate, made him infinitely more likeable than the over-serious and goofy guy he always seemed like before. That’s weird, different, and almost alarming, given that a publicist could probably save him some personal strife on the press tours he’ll be on until the final Twilight film is released in November. I bet Stallone has a publicist, however. I’m sure Arnie does too, if only to tell him to stop fucking nannies and wearing shirts saying “I Survived Maria.” Like everything in life, the only interesting things in Hollywood, and in movies, are those that we don’t expect. When the unexpected is what we start to expect, everything instantly becomes less enjoyable.

We demanded The Expendables with our collective love of irony, and now that same thing got us The Expendables 2. But we all wish it was as simple as the characters’ beliefs in these movies are, and I refuse to accept any counter arguments. Despite the death and destruction in these films, we want these heroes to save the day; it is only our apathy towards just about everything that keeps us from authentically desiring them any more. In the 1980s, we wanted our right-leaning heroes to actually be right, and for others to have to deal with that. Now, though, we don’t know what right is anymore, and we probably hate the right, with their Mitts and their Chick-Fil-As and their stupid fucking haircuts. The line is blurred, and it has been for years. We wish it could come back, but now we’re simply a more realistic bunch. When Sarah Palin used the Ramboesque slogan “Don’t Retreat – Reload” for her failed vice-presidential campaign almost two decades after Reagan left office, we all knew it was silly. It wasn’t the 1980s anymore, no matter how badly Todd might have wanted it to be. Now, we see that nothing is really as cut and dry as it was in these 1980s action movies, and so we make fun of anything we perceive to be even a bit like them. We make Chuck Norris jokes, or talk about going to see Snakes on a Plane because of its hilarious title, and then never actually do so. We start a Tumblr account for Hillary Clinton’s BlackBerry usage, or for McKayla being pissed at her medal placement. We support movies like The Expendables 2 because it combines our love of irony with things we used to authentically love. I saw The Expendables 2, and despite knowing it’s terrible, I kind of loved it. But I don’t really know why, and that’s precisely the problem.

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