I was at the movies yesterday watching The Expendables 2, and I thought, “All these guys are rich and famous and they use the power they have to make pernicious, evil myths like this.” It is impossible for me to relate just how much I hated this movie. It was bad on every level. Watching all these aging action stars smirk and mug for the camera was hard. The repeated attempts at humor were pathetic. Arnold Schwarzenegger says “I’ll be back” a few times during the film. The “payoff” comes when Bruce Willis is talking to Schwarzenegger. Arnold says, “I’ll be back.” Willis responds, “You’re always back. This time, I’ll be back.” Willis leaves and Schwarzenegger says, “Yippee-ki-yay.” It is painful.
The movie starts with scenes designed to show that the newest member of the team is some kind of badass. And so we know that either he will turn out to be a villain or he will die. When he tells Stallone that he’s going to quit after this next job, we know that it is the latter. But here’s the thing: this character—Billy—used to be in the army. And so, much is made of this in the way that much is done to support the troops by putting a yellow ribbon on the back of your SUV. It’s a concession to those who might say, “Shouldn’t securing nuclear materials be the responsibility of the military rather than a group of misfit vigilantes?”
Indeed, after Jean Vilain (Oh, that’s so clever!) steals the map to where weapons grade Plutonium are stored and kills Billy, Stallone seems far more concerned about avenging Billy’s death than stopping five tons of Plutonium going on the market. (Ridiculously, Vilain claims they will get $4 million per kg. I’m not up on the market in illegal Plutonium, but I tend to think it would be more expensive than that.) This sets up the stupidest climax I have ever witnessed. Vilain is out of bullets, so instead of just killing him, Stallone puts down his guns so they can beat the shit out of each other before the bad guy is killed. (Spoiler! You thought there was a good chance Stallone would die, right?)
In the first five minutes of this film, our heroes kill 100s if not 1000s of people who made the mistake of being in the employ of the bad guys. It is an evil sensibility that modern action movies take for granted. I have made my peace with racism in otherwise great action movies from the past like Gunga Din. At least in those films, stereotyped characters actually are trying to kill our heroes. Today, the assumption seems to be that they are better off dead. Given what we know about modern conscripts, I cannot see them as anything but victims. When the audience cheers their annihilation, I am sickened.
One of my long standing complaints about movie villains is that they treat their henchmen poorly. If you treat your friends as bad as you treat your enemies, you will soon have no friends. We get a similar dynamic in this movie. Vilain is conscripting men from the villages to dig down to where the Plutonium is stored. But instead of just paying them and letting them go home, the villains kill one man who is exhausted and then bury alive all the men after they get the Plutonium. There is no reason to do this unless you happen to think that villains don’t have reasons for doing things.
These workers greatly out number the villains. But they do nothing. They just watch themselves die and continue working. They don’t act the way real human beings do. They don’t rise up. They don’t even demur. What they are doing is unclear. It seems the writer thought they intrinsically knew that our heroes were on the way to save them.
Action movies almost always elevate men to the status of Gods. But in The Expendables 2 they do it largely by reducing regular men to nothing more than props. And this is what these stars are doing: using their power to tell the workers of the world that they are nothing more than garbage and shouldn’t we all be thankful we have them to save us from the futility of our lives.
There was one scene that was funny. Stallone is talking face to face with Willis. And they are the same height! Don’t believe what they say on IMDB. Stallone is about 5’6″. Willis is about 6′. Stallone must have been standing on a box. I bring this up only to show that these men are well aware of the mythic nature of their work. So when they create evil myths like The Expendables 2, they know what they are doing. And that makes them evil.
Update (21 November 2015 10:48 pm)
It turns out that the going price for legal Plutonium is about $4 million per kilogram. The price on the black market, would of course, be vastly more.