The Expendables 3: On the Grim Acknowledgement of the Action Hero’s Setting Sun

Sylvester Stallone’s stubborn, borderline insane refusal to surrender to the normal human aging process is by now well-known. It has been well publicized for years, and the musclebound star has been communicative about it. In fact, a good majority of his work since 2006’s Rocky Balboa has dealt with his rapidly advancing age in some form or another.

Still, the brief, tongue-in-cheek quips and remarks regarding Stallone’s senior citizen status, made throughout films like Grudge Match, Bullet to the Head, Escape Plan and the previous Expendables outings, have always felt disingenuous – as if Stallone included them because he thought he had to, not because he actually believed in them. This changes in the most recent old man outing of The Expendables franchise, which is probably Stallone’s most successful film in five years despite its capitulation to the PG-13 rating. Similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most recent bomb Sabotage, The Expendables 3 showcases the now wizened Italian Stallion at perhaps his most meditative. He at last authentically suggests that the game doesn’t last forever, and that even the big dogs of action cinema get old.

There is a synergy between Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage and Stallone’s The Expendables 3, expressed in how they both evoke a specific type of violent fraternity. Each film focuses on a team constituted by little more than mercenary action, staffed by individuals whose competency with warfare is only equaled by their loutish, immature machismo. This works a little better in Sabotage. Arnold’s team is composed of a batch of killers who are far younger than he is; and thus their incorrigible, frat-boy behavior makes a little more sense due to their young pup status. Conversely, The Expendables (at least the original group) is a team of grandpas; yet their candor and antics are roughly comparable to the team in Sabotage. Basically, these men seem to have never met a sexual inadequacy joke they didn’t love, a disturbing fact due to how at their age sexual inadequacy could be a very real thing indeed.

There is a decisive split however in how the two films use the concept of a military team in order to explore the action film genre. In Sabotage the team functions primarily to deconstruct the Schwarzenegger mythos. It illustrates – in painfully gory detail – the complexities with his particular brand of action heroism. The nearly ludicrous levels of blood, head shots, not to mention tweaked out insanity which springs forth from his team’s ranks disrupts his more established paradigm of lightweight amorality. It probes deeply, particularly the final scene in the film where the former muscle man appropriates the garb of the American cowboy while making a claim for the audience’s continued support.

When the comically savage nature of Sabotage’s world is juxtaposed against such traditionally heroic imagery, it prompts an audience towards a critical reevaluation of its relationship with Schwarzenegger’s on-screen persona. Simultaneously, it parses how action films construct their protagonists and antagonists. Now, this isn’t exactly a new concept; other iconic action heroes such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne faced similar moral reckonings within the Western genre, albeit to more substantial results. Still, this level of self-awareness is refreshing. Sabotage, paired with Schwarzenegger’s 2013 commercial failure The Last Stand, represents the icon’s attempt to unpack a lifetime of joyful yet vacuous movie violence.

This self-awareness also runs like a refrain throughout Stallone’s third Expendables film, although in an expanded capacity. While Arnold’s most recent efforts zeroed in on the complexities and contradictions of his status as an action film hero, The Expendables 3 examines an entire generation of men who have been both made and unmade by their involvement with the genre. This idea plays out in two distinctive ways. First, as in the franchise’s previous installments, each action star included in The Expendables 3 is riddled with self-referential quirks. These are often played for broad laughs, with varying degrees of success. The most obvious example of this is the introduction of the Wesley Snipes character Doc, who the gang busts out of the clink where he had been incarcerated for tax evasion.

In staging the verbal reveal for the reasons behind Doc’s imprisonment, Stallone (and to some degree director Patrick Hughes) keep the focus close on the actor’s face as his eyes burn through the lens and his mouth growls the words “tax evasion” like a drunken demon. The scene is incredibly on the nose, almost to an abrasive degree. It encapsulates the lack of intellectual ambition that is for the most part front and center throughout The Expendables 3.

However, this clumsy, pandering wink to the audience is off-set by other small moments of self-deprecating nuance, which are startling in their pathos and weight. This is the second way that the film explores the various players in action movie cinema, by broaching the double-edged sword of the genre. Underneath the perfunctory high jinks and dick measuring contests, and intermixed with the bloodless, morally reprehensible violence, there is a moving sense of existential sadness that permeates the film. This comes across most clearly during a short scene focusing on the aging original Expendables team, which Stallone’s character Barney Ross “retires” after one of the men is critically injured during a firefight with Mel Gibson’s villainous Stonebanks.

In this striking, all-too-brief montage we witness the men in varying levels of emotional malaise, with each shot seeming to say something about the actor on which it focuses. We see Dolph Lundgren, who here is relegated to a nearly silent, hulking figure, who drifts in and out of scenes, his gigantic form saddled with an outrageous level of weaponry and his lips firmly wrapped around a small flask of alcohol. Jason Statham’s character Lee Christmas also appears in this sequence, bristling with a kinetic frustration at being sidelined by Barney with the rest of the old fogies. The shot focusing on this character is particularly interesting, as Statham, at 47, is not quite at the geriatric level of individuals like Lundgren (57) and especially Stallone or Schwarzenegger (68 and 67 respectively).

Additionally, Statham has yet to experience the artistic self-destruction which defines the filmographies of co-stars like Lundgren and Snipes. While the hardman has more often than not been a complete bottom feeder, who trades in the most clichéd of genre exercises, he can occasionally be found in pieces like Snatch (2000),The Bank Job (2008), or Hummingbird (2013), which possess a potent artistic credibility. Thus, when the montage in The Expendables 3 comes to rest on Lee Christmas, who is lounging on his couch at home (while Barney and the new Expendables prepare for war), his noticeable anger feels particularly raw. He is one of the only members whose demotion feels undeserved on every level.

Still, no shot in The Expendables 3 is perhaps more meta or more eloquent than when the camera is trained on Wesley Snipes, who is shown in the montage to be discomforted by the plush bed of his motel room after experiencing years of harsh sleeping conditions in the big house. In this scene he seeks to remedy this discomfort by transporting his pillow and laying down on the hard, wooden floor. It’s a deeply emotional shot, one which taps into the actor’s real life of financial mismanagement, creative disintegration, greed and megalomania. It also shows the dichotomy which defines The Expendables 3. The obnoxious mugging that Snipes does when he references the cause of his character’s imprisonment (directly following his escape from prison) cannot touch the soulful disillusionment which is conveyed when he sadly tucks himself in on the floor of his room. The two scenes feel like they are coming from two different films.

The character of Galgo – played by the venerable Antonio Banderas – is yet another instance where The Expendables 3 is simultaneously on the nose with its self-referential deconstructions and subtly profound. Like the rest of the Expendables, Galgo is an old, wizened tool, who is unwilling (or incapable) of leaving a life of violence behind him. Yet, one can also correlate the character of Galgo with the actor’s own trajectory. Similar to the character, Banderas exploded onto the mainstream circuit of American cinema by starring in Desperado, appearing in Assassins with Stallone (both 1995), and finally by playing the titular role in The Mask of Zorro (1998), only to implode a few years later with such misfires as The 13th Warrior (1999), Original Sin (2001), Femme Fatale (2002) and Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever (2002).

Thus, because of this shared experience of failure following a professional life dominated by violence, certain emotional dimensions of the Galgo character feel more vivid, more true. In one scene – after being rejected by Barney and Kelsey Grammer’s Bonaparte for the new Expendables team – Galgo screams into the heavens: “All I know how to do is kill people!” This seems to serve as an appropriate summation of Banderas’ career in the 2000s, where he traded in on the rampaging unpredictability of his work with people like Pedro Almodovar for the limelight of hypersexuality and action movie stardom.

This anguished howl feels intuitive regarding how Banderas’ association with Stallone (who more than likely wrote the line) helped shape him. It’s a microcosmic relationship, as many of the stars of The Expendables 3 could make similar claims regarding Stallone’s either direct or indirect influence on their own careers. This impassioned scream helps conflate Stallone with Barney Ross, reminding the audience of how both the real actor/writer and the fictional mercenary are responsible for the lives that have been brought into the action fold.

It’s easy to understand why Stallone occupies a position of importance. One could argue that in the genre of the melodramatic action film there is nobody who looms larger, or with greater auteur power than Sly. Even peers like Ford, Schwarzenegger or Willis, have barely touched Stallone’s prolific output, which has included writing, directing and producing work (in addition to his acting) for over five decades. His considerable status in action film history has produced other important genre stars in its wake, a movement which has then led (for some) to professional marginalization. The Expendables 3 calls this complexity of the Stallone/Ross influence into question, and offers it up for critical evaluation to the audience.

To Stallone’s credit, Barney Ross appears temporarily burdened in regards to the older team of action maestros that he has created. Still, the writer’s analysis of the action genre’s destructiveness is more hit or miss when it comes to his own career trajectory, and in regards to his character’s complicity with creating a new, younger Expendables team.  After retiring his old comrades, Barney doesn’t vacillate for a second whether or not he himself will remain in the game. The omission of moral contemplation also extends to those who become his new partners. This mercenary may acknowledge that his lifestyle has endangered people, but he also isn’t exactly reticent when he begins recruiting a new Expendables team.

Incredibly, figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford, who both have largely avoided the professional malaise experienced by the likes of Snipes, Banderas, Lundgren, and that which often threatens to overwhelm Stathem, use their limited screen time to offer commentary on this myopic fixation on action movie life. In his first appearance, Schwarzenegger’s Trench saunters up to Barney in a hospital hallway, where he is watching over a laid up Terry Crews. After the Austrian Oak asks him lightheartedly if he’s ready to be done with the whole Expendables schtick, Stallone growls: “Not yet,” with straight-faced determination. This becomes an unofficial refrain throughout the story. Later on in the film, once the Expendables have their first altercation with Gibson’s Stonebanks, the villain also sardonically remarks to Barney that he can’t believe he hasn’t given up on the Expendables project already.

This incredulity is legitimate. At nearly 70, the idea that Stallone is the main star of a major action movie franchise is pure madness to say the least. And yet, this lack of intellectual rumination changes briefly by the film’s end. One gets the sense in The Expendables 3’s final scene (which is easily one of Stallone’s most fascinating) that all the bloodletting, not to mention all the careers which have been built and then crumbled upon the action movie alter, has at least ephemerally touched a nerve for the actor.

Set in a karaoke bar and focusing on the victorious Expendables team (both the old and new), the scene is again indicative of how the film is both a tiresome entry of its genre, while also simultaneously one of its most transcendent. Depicted in the scene is the expected tomfoolery: Statham’s Lee Christmas and Wesley Snipes’ Doc engage in a pissing contest over a dart game, while Randy Couture’s Toll Road finally warms to the younger members of the team, after previously being icy and combative. Yet, underneath this asinine silliness is a jaw-dropping moment where several of the younger Expendables take to the stage to sing a rendition of Neil Young’s song, “Old Man.” When the lyrics: “Old man take a look at my life I’m a lot like you,” are sung by the young beefcakes, the camera swings back to Stallone’s face. Underneath the botoxed exterior of leathery skin, the actor’s eyes ache with sadness and regret, but also a poignant glimmer of steely acceptance.

This confluence of music and acting is far from coincidental; it serves not only as an appropriate epitaph for the Expendables project, but also for the professional lives of Stallone and the entire generation of action heroes at his back. Overall, it suggests two critical truths. First: the imagery could not be any more blatant. The new crop of action heroes – which includes acting newbies (but established sports stars) like Ronda Rousey and Victor Ortiz, and up and coming faces like Kellen Lutz – are placed briefly on the stage, with the original Expendables curtailed to the sidelines. This signifies the inevitable ascendance of the next generation of action stars, which Stallone only begrudgingly acknowledges at the end. Secondly, Stallone’s gaze communicates the same sense of burdened responsibility that is felt at other points throughout The Expendables 3’s story. Essentially, he recognizes that the creation of viable action film stars, a process that he has often contributed to, has again repeated itself. He has given a temporal boost to other wanna-be stars, but ultimately he has condemned them to an uncertain fate.

Reading the film this way makes sense, as there is nobody who understands the action genre’s innate uncertainty better than Stallone. The actor has also slowly and inexorably found himself pigeonholed into a small range of films and performance types as his career has progressed. He knows the risks, but he also can’t extract himself or his influence from this particular cinematic world. To do so would essentially negate his very being, which has been predicated on decades of adherence to the STALLONE model. Basically, the actor has become an archetype, and has largely erased the ability of an audience to see him in any other way.

This does give the film’s perspective on the action genre a feeling of inconsistency. While the final scene does parse its star’s acceptance of the limiting and ultimately finite nature of his vocation, it still can’t ultimately commit to it. Stallone’s contemplative look is broken by an off-hand remark from Statham all too soon, which launches him back into the heavily caricatured version of himself that he has played all too often. One of course must give credit where credit is due. This scene (and the film itself) depicts Stallone embracing age in the most realistic and genuine way since Rocky Balboa.  Yet his final vacillation stymies the film from ending on an intellectual high note, and transforms the connotations of its title from being powerfully authentic back into the sadly ironic.

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