Here’s the bit you won’t see in the ‘Making Of’ documentary: when they were bottling The Expendables in the lab during pre-production, they kept it in a beaker that said ‘Manly’. They injected seven extra Y chromosomes into the solution as it solidified into a feature length motion picture.
Overnight they wrapped it up in a bathrobe made out of sandpaper, sprayed it with Sex Panther aftershave and forced it to watch monster truck races on TV whilst an ex-Navy Seal gym coach shouted, “YOU DA MAN!” at it repeatedly. This, gentlemen and not-so-gentlemen, is how The Expendables developed.
The Expendables has erected itself as ‘The Masculine Movie’ of the year and possibly of all time (at least until ‘The Expendables II: Beyond Testosterodome’ comes out). It’s a gargantuan orgy of guns, explosions, fighting and male action heroes from yesteryear returning to show all the prissy chick flicks, puny comic book adaptations and sissy horror thrillers what popcorn cinema is really about.
If you’re in doubt, just look at the ensemble cast of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and pro fighters, and then consider the cameos of Arnie and Bruce Willis. The cumulative muscle and macho swagger on display is far beyond that of the average throwaway action flick. It’s absurd and I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall in the lab when they opened the cage, unleashed the beast and let it run around the car park screaming “I’M DA MAN!”
Except it’s not ‘The Man’. It isn’t the ultimate masculine movie at all. It’s riddled with hilarious macho insecurity and desperate to overcompensate in order to show that it exceeds what is conventionally identified as ‘male’. For a start, check out how homoerotic The Expendables is with all its phallic symbol fetishising, posturing and the central bromance between Sly and The Stath.
I counted three soft focus shots in the movie, and it’s telling that, alongside the introduction of the female love interest (soon to be smacked and waterboarded for good measure), the other two were the entrance and exit of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are man crushes all over the show in The Expendables.
Beyond secret and shameful sexual desires, once you get past the noise you see that this isn’t a heroic action film. It’s a tragedy. This is men in crisis, a mid-life crisis. It’s the male menopause, sometimes called ‘the manopause’ by trash mags and daytime telly, manifest on screen.
Stallone wanted to resurrect the Rambo-style actioner for the modern age with a starry cast of hard ass icons, but he’s gone and birthed something which is actually a bigger, sweatier brother to films like American Beauty, Lost In Translation and Something’s Gotta Give. This, however, is the quintessential ‘Manopause Movie’ because, unlike the others, it’s in denial about it.
So, Rocky Balboa bought a fancy bike (“It’s a chopper, baby.”) surrounded himself with tough guy friends and hung out in a tattoo parlour. They engage in bloke chat and throwing knife contests to convince themselves that their manhood is still intact. Complete denial.
It’s an on-screen reflection of the stage in life where old guys are reduced to playing games of verbal one-upmanship in dull, safe suburbia in order to get a gratified sense that they’re the bigger man (see the posture party of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger in a church).
In truth, they lost it years ago. They are now sad, irrelevant dinosaurs whose wild action-packed youth has been replaced by receding hairlines and entire weekends spent watching golf on TV.
Every single male character is experiencing a masculinity crisis and suffering, as their sense of self is battered by forces that they don’t know how to deal with because their answer to all problems is ‘shoot it’.
It’s pure tragedy. At least in American Beauty, Kevin Spacey got respite in recreational drugs and fantasies about Mena Suvari in a bathtub of roses. In contrast, The Expendables crew has emptiness: guns loaded with ammo, but impotency and uncertainty in the face of unnerving reality.
The scene that says it all is the moment where Eric Roberts stands in a field and cries, “Where is my growth? Where is my manpower?” All of them are asking the same question, crippled as their all too fragile self-esteem sinks into malaise. They put on a roughhousing front, but really they’re falling to pieces, sensitive inside, screwed up by their individual hang-ups and searching for reassurance that they’re still ‘Da Man’ (or at least one of the boys).
Jet Li has a thing about his height, Dolph Lundgren is a nervous wreck, and slaphead “Stone Cold” Steve Austin flips out when someone mentions his hairdresser. Randy Couture’s character is so upset about his cauliflower ear that he’s in therapy and Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas spends half the movie sulking because his girlfriend shacked up with another man while he was away playing Soldier of Fortune.
Furthermore, former American footballer Terry Crews is so desperate that he’s adopted his customised heavy artillery as his “girlfriend”.
Most poignantly, Mickey Rourke’s Tool says he retired because he wants to die in bed with a woman and not in the “mud and blood”. Yet, Tool’s regrets remain and he’s haunted by war trauma, doomed as well to unfulfilling one night stands with bimbos whose names he can’t remember. He will die sad and alone with some nasty venereal disease, taunted by the ghosts of all those he’s obliterated at the final breath.
Of course, the character who’s most in the grip of the male menopause is Stallone’s Barney Ross. He’s a repressed, emotionless crag barely capable of opening up. The real reason he returns to the island of bad guys is because he’s offended that his would-be love interest ignored him and denied him the opportunity to rescue a damsel in distress.
His life is a bromance with a man called Mr Christmas, the bullets in his gun and the boys’ nights in at Tool’s workshop where they yank each others’ dicks and try and ignore the sound of time’s winged chariot racing around outside.
No amount of new tattoos, muscle flexing or trips to pulp the innards of Somali pirates will save these washed-up fogies and keep their egos intact while their testicles shrivel and their self-esteem ebbs. They need to attend group therapy and admit that they’ve got issues.
This is no victory for old-school balls-to-the-wall action. This is the clearest indication that the male menopause is real and, what’s more, it’s riled Rambo.
James’ previous column can be found here.
James’ movie-spoof comic strips are right here.