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Is the success of 'The Expendables' a novelty or a sign?

August 16, 2010 |  7:30 am

  Expen

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
http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: A scene from "The Expendables." Credit: Lionsgate

RECENT AND RELATED:

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Comments () | Archives (28)

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You're way off base. Approximately half of this country self describes as conservative and almost no one in Hollywood is making movies for them. Witness the dozens of anti-war box office bombs that liberal Hollywood has graced us with in the last 10 years. Anybody who says Hollywood is all about the money is kiding themselves. Ideological purity is much more important in the Age of Obama.

Yeah, why would we want more films that offer a positive view of Americans and the basic moral value of courage, integrity and Honesty. Its pretty sad that this is seen as an out dated concept by Liberal film critics who tout craptastic films such as Green Zone and Hurt Locker as true examples of America.

Stallone understand that todays audience is tired of being told that America and our culture is bad. That we are too blame for every evil there is in the world and only by apologizing to the world will we truly be purged of this evil. I hope this movie buries all the crap that people like Matt Damon and George Clooney have been shoveling out for years.

There are many of us who are not confused about the enemy or evil, not even the Vietnam War or the Crusades of Christians or what America has always struggled to be, what we ar confused by, is those among us who strive to discredit through revisionist history or half truths to blame America, to blame the West, to blame Christendom... or make it seem as if America was and is the problem.

"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?"

... You're an idiot, that's my opinion. Reading this artical reminds me of a line in another good movie "Full Metal Jacket" when Hartman responds to Joker's John Wayne comment. Something about "slimy little communist twinkle-toed" something or other. The USA is a great country and even if you don't agree, you should not make fun of those that are proud to be patriots.

We have seen that "moral ambiguity" leads to submission and tyranny. We have been hungering for art that reflects truth. Evil does exist and can be identified by the results it produces. Only a virtuous and moral population is capable of self government. We the people know this, and so does Hollywood which needs moral ambiguity to sustain its crusade against America.

To them, the success of this movie is bad news indeed. If anyone had the courage to make a movie about Iraq or Afghanistan with the Americans as the good guys, it's ticket sales would dwarf"The Expendables" at the box office.

We make mistakes and are not afraid to acknowledge them, but all of the movies, newspaper columns and stories making us out as the bad guys with evil intentions are pure fantasy on the part of people in America who hate America and its patriots and want to subdue us under the soft tyranny of socialism as a prelude to the brutal tyranny exemplified by what we see in the middle east. The left cannot acknowledge the islamist supremacists as evil because they share their objective and see it as noble.

Best regards,
Gail S
http://www.backyardfence.wordpress.com

Objective journalism died long ago. The progressive agenda that the print media and former mainstream media embraces has destroyed it's credibility.

An open letter to Hollywood:

We like the Expendables because it is fun and something we have not seen in a while, don't destroy it like you have 3-D and so many other genres by beating a dead horse. What makes the Expendables enjoyable is the formula and it's not one easily reproduced, in fact I would argue that the next time you dip your hand into the action genre again should be for a film where Schwarzenegger graces the marquee as the title character. We still like our smart films and complicated characters too, look at the success of Inception.

We the audience like a smorgasbord of entertainment, and we will flock to something that hits it's mark and resonates with us. If you notice we tend to favor original ideas over sequels and ESPECIALLY Re-makes...Unless, of course, you are Pixar Entertainment (we will continue to flock there until we're given a reason not to).

The fact is, there is no longer a simple formula to follow for success. Let the film makers make the movies they're passionate about and don't try and be too heavy handed in trying to "create" a "success" by repeating someone elses formula verbatim, I understand it had "worked" for decades, but we simply won't buy it anymore.

aww...poor Californian upset that there are people who don't agonize in moral ambiguity in the world? Must make you feel real insecure. Apple-pie patriotism? As opposed to nuanced European patriotism?

Another elitist left wing ignoramus pontificating. This dolt doesn't know, or doesn't care, that critics are considered parasites by all that don't inhabit their little corner of Smugville. There is no cure for this hyper-opinionated fool's strain of recto-cranial inversion....but he's fun to read just to see what the lunatics are 'thinking'.

I'm going to go with "moviegoer backlash to CG and 3-D effects" as the major reason, at least for me. I heard the A-Team had some truly ridiculous scenes, and the comic book movies have become an indistinguishable blur.

Nothing beats great stunt work - the opening foot chase in Casino Royale, for example. For a good blend, look at Terminator 2, which mixed (early) CG with outstanding action set pieces, and is still one of the best of the genre. Get a good director and let the stuntmen do their thing!

It shows the Culture that what is needed is Patriotism, Real Men who are admired for being MEN not Sissy's or Metrosexuals or Whiney cry babies, but MEN with rugged features a no non-sense approach..The REAL HEROES..MEN of Valor who are admired when they are GOOD Husbands and Responsible Father's and can lead with GOD's guidance..

That is what is needed in this Self Absorbed, entitlement driven, vain and lazy society that does not appreciate the hard work of the *Traditional Family* that made Great Leaders out of humble men.

The reasons I'm excited for 'The Expendables' have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with practical effects and hopefully some non-CG corn syrupy bloodshed. Exactly the reason PG-13 CG-riddled movies like 'The A-Team' hold no appeal to me whatsoever.

The movie was succesfull because it was UNIQUE. The concept was specific and UNIQUE. I can't say it enough. It's not that it's an action movie, it's that the cast and concept cannot be duplicated, except with a sequel.

While it is quite possible that the author and much of left wing Hollywood may well scratch their heads and wonder why a movie such as "The Expendables" would strike a chord with the American viewing public, the vast majority of us who do not cringe at "apple pie patriotism" understand perfectly.

We have grown tired of political leaders and their cohorts in the arts who are apologizing for being a great and powerful society. We are tired of seeing these same forces go before the world stage, hat and hand, and bemoan our way of life in front of those who subject their people to atrocities we in America cannot fathom. We have grown tired of those who seem less concerned with the needs and feelings of the American people than they do the opinions of effete cocktail sipping snobs in Brussels.

We go to the movies to enjoy our limited and precious free time with what minimal disposable income we have left. The LAST thing we wish to do is to be preached at by left wing malcontents who have a distrustful opinion of the same society which has made them millionaires.

While "The Expendables" may never win awards or respect from the artistic elites, it provides its viewers a couple of hours of great entertainment and may leave the viewer feeling fortunate for living in a society that (still) respects freedom and recognizes there IS a clear line between good and evil.

Thanks to this article, I'm going to go see this movie this week. In addition, it will be the first time I see a movie in a theater since I can't remember, rather than waiting for Netflix. Thanks for the advice, Steven!

I went to see "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, in part, because I'm a fan of his wrestling. He must be one of the greatest wrestlers ever. I loved that he gave The Stinger to Vince McMahon and Linda. As a progressive, I hope that Linda McMahon loses her bid.

However, Stallone gave Stone Cold the short end of the stick in a role that straightjacketed his acting. Unfortunately, he dies a villain, being burned alive, in the end. Jet Li, on the other hand was given a too prominent role for his weak presence.

The women were caricatures. The guys were dressed so macho as to make them seem super gay. You know what I'm talking about, where gays dress up in over-the-top macho gear...and they would rather be with each other rather than with a woman, or maybe they are written in as being maladjusted.

The Expendable's sad subtext was "Old actors whom nobody wants do one last movie, this one together." In this way, it echoes the Bucket List, Unforgiven, and the movie in which the James Garner character and his older friends go into space, or any other movie in which the old actors get together to do one more movie because time, and younger audiences, has passed them by.

If you want to see a Rightwing movie, this is it: Not only were most of the actors Rightwingers but the opening scene is right out of political Rightwingerland. It opens with their invasion of Somalia to free hostages, making Somalis look like cutthroats. This is the wrong depiction.

We would have been way better served had the Expendables invaded a Japanese fishing ship and killed their bad guys for stealing fish and/or dumping toxic waste in Somali waters, but, no, this issue is not addressed.

Stallone had to perpetrate the lie that Somalis are the bad guys in Somalia. Somalis killed one or two hostages, and likely by accident. Just how many innocents have the US and its allied killed in Iraq and Afgh? Countless. Many of their heads were severed by daisycutters. These are Stallone's heroes. These are not my heroes.

With Obama showing weakness in the face of thwarting and obstructionist Rightwingers in congress, perhaps this movie serves to compensate.

Regarding content, over all, the movie was the emptiest I have ever seen a movie be. There were zero redeeming features in it so I am not recommending it, and I would avoid any sequel.

So tell us, Steve Zeitchik is your attitude reflective of the mindset of the cowardly, amoral left that refuses to speak out against the stoning and torture of women, the murdering of gays and lesbians, the misogyny, the chopping off of noses, ears and hands, across the middle east, the slaughter of the Iranian protesters?

Are you afraid that standing up against wrongs might resonate with Americans, and in fact the rest of the world? Pro-American films always were popular, around the world as well. Jeez, is it any wonder that we no longer trust the media, and the ratings of so much of what comes out of Hollywood is abysmal, when there are so called "critics" like you promoting things that no one wants to watch.

Steven Zeitchik is clearly not a fan of "Sly" and the Supraphysiological dose of Testosterone that The Expendables flick sprays from the screen and speakers!
The editor should have just let him write up his views on "Eat,Pray,Love" and he would have been much happier for the assignment.

It baffles me that this article and the comment thread are resorting to a political discussion regarding a gimmick movie that had a moderately successful weekend. The Expendables was Sylvester Stallone's last ditch effort to remain relevant. Face it, $35 million weekend is chump change compared to what these actors' films used to haul in for past opening weekends. Audiences went to see this movie to see it's "all-star" cast in one movie, rather than it's political message. The truth is Stallone would never be able to carry this movie alone as seen with the box office from the last Rambo and Rocky films. Let's see if this movie has legs and see what additional action stars Stallone will have to add to any sequels (Van Damme, Norris, etc.) to make the Expendables a dependable franchise.

I'm not sure what you liberals are so worried about? Instead of a 5 to 1 ratio of blame (anti) America themed movies, we might actually see a 5 to 2 ratio with the success of The Expendables. Hollywood will still keep churning out the Anti-American big budget flops, but at least we might be blessed with another movie option once a year.

By the way, John Dingler I'm not sure what a big wrestling fan you were considering you didn't know that Steve Austin would have hit Vince McMahon with a "stunner" not a "stinger." It kind of calls into question your knowledge of a genre....

Comic book movie "Heros" are just that.

Comics.

The "Expendables" are REAL. There are real men like this in the world.

We are tired of the crap ACTION hero REHASH comic book crap.

The "Expendables" also shows "TEAM AND FAMILY!" Not this ONE MAN, ONE HERO crap.

GREAT MOVIE AND YOU ARE SO LOST!

NewsBusters| LA Times To Hollywood: Please Ignore the Box Office Success of ‘The Expendables’
http://newsbusters.org/blogs/john-nolte/2010/08/17/la-times-hollywood-please-ignore-box-office-success-expendables

Only a sad and pathetic hack from the new school of drum-beat journalism could be so oblivious as to reference the incredibly one-note "Avatar" as a deep film of moral ambiguity and zeitgeist.

It was composed of noble "others" and laughable caricatures of the evil Americans who want to pillage and plunder the loving land. You undoubtedly saw this film as a deep exploration of Western imperialism directed with an even hand. A perspective which speaks volumes about your ability to actually display basic reasoning.

Surely even an intellectual failure like yourself can see how ridiculously transparent and one-sided your worldview is?

Steven Zeitchik, you are a movie critic and not a very good one to be sure. Your chosen profession is to critique films, make believe stories with people in them who play pretend for a living. Sounds silly when put that way, yes? Well, then you should not take yourself too seriously when reviewing them and you certainly should not be offering up your political leanings sprinkled with a little bit of condescension and a lot of good ol' fashioned liberal elitism.

This is where I’d typically tell you to go find a job you are qualified to do but, considering you are a movie critic, I’m not sure another job exists for which you do qualify. So instead I guess I’ll just offer you good luck and be happy being irrelevant to the world, even if not in your own mind.


Ohh. A liberal complaining about a film daring to portray Americans as the good guys? Somebody better call Matt Damon.

The reason that the patriotism of liberal is questioned is because they are unpatriotic.

 
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