The Expendables (Stallone, 2010)

As a series of kill shots, explosions, and one-liners, Sylvester Stallone’s action mosaic The Expendables works best in small fits of furry, individual sequences where physical prowess and illogical movement transcend story concerns and character development. Within this context, Stallone’s massive cast of icons each get solos on the dance floor: Statham’s Lee Christmas strafes an entire dock full of enemy soldiers from the nose of an airplane, Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen revels in his deadly sniper fire with a catatonic grin, and Mickey Rourke’s strangely named Tool throws knives with deft precision across a dank tattoo parlor. All of these scenes stand alone, but never together as a cohesive unit. Stallone’s fails to use even the most plausible story devices to connect his grandiose vision of genre nostalgia, opting out for ridiculous jumps of time and circumstance merely to position his characters in familiar narrative situations. It seems simply showing up for work was enough for this production. Leave the realistic details and cost overrides for the pussy’s.

Yet The Expendables contains an abrasive, rigid charm, a rough neck attitude of honor that represents an incomplete vision of the modern warrior. Like the criminal underworlds of Michael Mann, Stallone’s testosterone infused mise-en-scene references actions but never reasoning, the faces of men but never their souls. These characters pull the trigger because they must, and no other explanation is required. This makes The Expendables both a fascinating dissection of action cinema and also a maddeningly incomplete example of unsuspecting auteurism. Stallone’s failure as a director becomes even more apparent in the film’s crazy-lazy opening and ending action sequences, which fall apart from a visual standpoint only to be salvaged by the charming allure of its maniac stars. In turn, political or social commentaries are blown to smithereens, wonky anchors for a film completely obsessed with fantasy land hand-to-hand combat.

As one of the few who found Stallone’s Rambo (2008) a well constructed and dynamic action throwback with half a beating heart, it’s disappointing watching him retreat back to the unfocused laziness of the abysmal Rocky Balboa. But while not as hackneyed as that unnecessary film, The Expendables still never fulfills its amazing potential. There are too many gaps in the carnage, too many holes between the machine gun fire and explosions to sustain a lasting impact, even for those of us weened on this sort of bloody mother’s milk.

Rambo (Stallone, 2008)

Who knew Sly Stallone could cloak a disturbing allegory for soldiers returning home during Post 9/11 Iraq under the guise of a blood-soaked franchise picture? Rambo, the fourth incarnation of Stallone’s iconic American super-weapon, sets its sights on third world genocide and the conflict in Burma.

The film opens with a brutal slaughtering of innocents by the corrupt Burmese Army, lambs being cut down by cowardly wolves. We get used to the gore fast because Rambo only speaks in such simple, cutting visuals. When naive Christian missionaries come to bordering Thailand and ask recluse Rambo for a ride up river to help the suffering natives who’ve found Jesus, the stage is set for the inevitable scenario: the creation of POW’s, then their bloody and chaotic rescue.

Stallone throws in a fascinating sequence on the boat ride up river, when missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) asks Rambo if he ever wonders about home. Rambo, as is the case throughout the film, stands speechless, hounded by the near three decades of movie violence which has engulfed his world. “Home” has become such an alien aspect to the man a mere mention of it feels like a challenge, much more than the countless Burmese villains he obliterates throughout the film.

Atrocities are met with more atrocities, and even the surviving Christians get into the action, producing the unsettling paradox at the heart of this American exercise in violence: when well meaning righteousness fails, does extreme brutality mend the wounds with blood, or cause more irreparable damage? As in First Blood, the great origin story for Rambo, this latest film blurs the boundaries of such an ontology. It has always seemed Rambo carries the weight of a nation’s malpractice on his shoulders. Now, when faced with this haunting reminder once again, our human killing machine finally decides to go home and face the music. It begs the question, in Rambo 5, will we welcome him with open arms?