Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tinseltown testosterone

What is it about guy movies?

You know the kind I mean. The ones where all the actors with significant roles are male and bulked up. The ones where the line between good guys and bad guys is clearly drawn. Where the good guys can drive a car at any speed through any city or landscape, no matter how many truck or vegetables carts get in the way, and never get stuck in a traffic jam. Where the good guys never come across any piece of equipment (gun, truck, airplane, etc.) that they don’t immediately know how to operate expertly. And, no matter how savage a beating they endure or how many bullets they take, they never slow down or give up or scream for medical aid. You know, movies like the ones that star Sylvester Stallone. You know, movies like The Expendables.

This type of movie has always been around. (Note to literalists: no I don’t actually mean “always” but nearly to the beginning of the film era.) But for many of us they usually remain below the radar. I wonder if this is not now mainly an British-dominated genre. As the likes of Stallone and Bruce Willis have aged and Arnold Schwarzenegger is taken up with governing, the macho movie star mantle seems to fall a great deal on Englishman Jason Statham. He is the only actor who readily comes to mind as a consistent action hero playing variations on the same macho character from movie to movie. American action films seem to have become enamored of the idea of taking well-established more serious (and often slender) actors and buffing them up for action roles. Like Scotsman James McAvoy in Wanted and its planned sequel. Or Adrian Brody and Topher Grace in the recent Predators remake(?)/sequel(?)/reboot(?).

Those actors seem to be slumming or having a lark. Statham seems to have settled into a serious Stallone-or-Willis-like movie career. He burst onto the scene with Guy Ritchie’s geezer gangster opus Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, to be followed by further collaborations in Snatch, Mean Machine and Revolver. He has also flexed his cinematic muscles in three Transporter movies and two Crank movies—as well as remakes of The Italian Job and Death Race 2000 (which dropped the “2000” from the title to avoid converting the story from a futuristic tale to a historical period piece).

If Statham is the current preeminent action movie star (and I don’t see enough of these types of movies to really be the judge of that), we might think of him as the new Bruce Willis. Of course, the old Bruce Willis is still around. In fact, he also appears in The Expendables, if not alongside Statham then at least on the same reel of film. It is probably just as well that the two do not share a scene because, with his shaven pate, Statham actually looks eerily like Willis. At 55, Willis is still in the game. In addition to the odd comedy role (What Just Happened, Cop Out) or cameo (Nancy Drew), he still occasionally flexes his macho muscles, figuratively and literally, in flicks like 16 Blocks, Live Free or Die Hard and Surrogates. Like Schwarzenegger before him, he is close to being more of a pop culture reference point than a vital cinema action figure. Statham’s name (at least in the U.S., as far as I can tell) doesn’t carry that same cachet yet, and so he is free to be a pure action star.

Why do people watch the sort of movies that star Stallone, Willis and/or Statham? Obviously, it’s to get an insight into the plight of the most oppressed and forgotten people in the loneliest corners of the Third World, who are largely ignored by the mass media. Wait, no, sorry, that’s government-funded European documentaries. No, people watch macho action movies for an escape from reality. It’s an opportunity to sit in a dark cinema (or in the comfort of one’s own home) and imagine for a couple of hours what it is like to be strong and savvy enough to stand up to any bully or any threat. While people may go to James Bond movies, in part, to fantasize that they could be cultured enough to know the right cocktail or wine to order or to look good in a tux in any glamorous spot on the planet, people go to macho guy movies to imagine that, whatever their other problems might be, being physically intimidated is not one of them. That there is no vehicle you cannot operate (expertly), there is no foe you cannot stand up to, there is never any doubt in the rightness of your own position.

Within three weeks of its release, The Expendables had already earned back around three-quarters of its estimated $85 million budget, so I guess we can judge it to be a hit. Why have people flocked to this movie? Does its attraction lie in its ultra-violent action movie adrenaline rush? Or is its appeal mainly nostalgia-based, pulling in the punters for a trip down memory lane to the 1980s, not unlike The A-Team and Hot Tub Time Machine? My guess is a bit of both. But there is something about this movie that differs from even other contemporary macho action movies beyond the high average age of its stars. It is a throwback in spirit as well as casting. And maybe there is a collective hunger for the black-and-white moral clarity and we-can-solve-all-our-problems-with-a-show-of-force optimism that came to the fore in past historical periods of economic hard times. Or maybe that is over-analyzing it. After all, despite the severity of the recent recession, there was no apparent hunger for escaping into a fantasy world of the wealthy and aristocratic, as was seen during the 1930s in all kinds of movies, e.g. the ones where we saw Fred Astaire dancing his way through luxury hotels in a tuxedo. If there were, Sex and the City 2 would not still be waiting to make back what it cost to make.

For those of us who watched and enjoyed such classic guns-knives-and-bombs operas cum group bromances as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen, The Expendables is a guilty pleasure laced with nostalgia. But the genre inevitably gets updated. If this flick is any indicator we can, for example, probably expect that, from now on, a standard scene in this genre will include somebody being waterboarded.

-S.L., 2 September 2010

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