(Note: “Sources and Inspiration” discusses the various media Destiny and its campaign settings are drawn from.)
Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables was one of my favorite movies of 2011 (as was Red, another action movie, though with a spy thriller bent.) Though the central idea of the movie — cram in as many current and old-school action heroes as possible — was a gimmick, it was a gimmick that (for the most part) didn’t get in the way of the story or the action.
Jet Lee delights as determined martial arts ass-kicker and sometime comic fodder, Jason Statham’s turn as a jilted knife-throwing tough guy was affecting and sincere, and even the three-sided bickering between Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone rose above a casting stunt to become the second-best scene in the movie (and almost worth the price of admission by itself).
Improbably, what could have been gimmicky schlock managed to transcend action movie cliches and its own gimmick. Unfortunately, The Expendables 2 jettisoned everything that made the first movie memorable and worthwhile. Most critically, it failed to provide any real reason for us to care about even-bigger explosions, gunfights, and action scenes.
What most made The Expendables more than just another action-movie was the themes behind the action: suffering, despair, and sacrifice. Each of the main characters illuminates these themes in a unique way, each is touched by them and makes their own choices in response to the event.
Sustained anguish and pain, and witnessing same, changes people. Sometimes it makes them better, more attuned to the pain of others, sometimes it makes them bitter and angry at the world, and sometimes it makes them cold, calloused, and withdrawn.
Barney Ross (Stallone’s character) is one of the latter. While not cruel or vindictive, he is indifferent to the world. He cares about his teammates (a mercenary group called The Expendables), his personal code (mostly consisting of who should be killed and when), and not much else.
(Warning: Slight spoilers ahoy!)
While scouting a job on the (fictional) Caribbean island of Vilena, Ross sees much evidence of the brutality and ruthlessness of the island’s dictator. His contact, an earnest member of the opposition named Sandra (played by the improbably beautiful Brazilian actress Giselle Itié) refuses to leave the island, despite the regime soldiers hunting her. Forced to choose, Ross and his associates abandon the island, the job, and (at her insistance) their contact (though not without kicking up some fireworks first).
Back in America, he discusses the experience with Tool, their fixer and a former mercenary himself. In so doing, he gains insight into the suffering and despair that burdens his long-time friend and mentor, and where it comes from.
Played by Mickey Rourke, Tool is another one of the virtuoso performances Rourke has been churning out since his rebirth in The Wrestler. Acting is about illusion, creating a convincing false persona that feels real; in Tool, Rourke does.
Rourke’s Tool is a man utterly without faith in the world or himself. He is deeply cynical, not the cynicism of believing honor to be a lie, rather he knows that he and Ross have nothing to aspire to. They don’t believe in anything ennobling, they don’t even wish to be better men, because they don’t believe they can be better men.
It’s a dark thing to believe, deep in your soul, that you are worthless, that you aren’t a decent human being, that you have nothing good or virtuous to offer the world. Yet Tool marinates in such wretchedness, and has for years.
The scene where he describes his fall from decency is short, and easy to overlook. Yet it’s the thematic heart of the movie, the point where Ross is offered a chance to turn back from the darkness that’s engulfed Tool and make a different choice than his friend.
This conflict is a small part of the overall movie, well-concealed among the kinetic violence. The Expendables is an action movie, filled with martial arts bouts, gun fights, car chases, and really cool explosions. Yet what makes the movie something more than well-staged stroboscopic violence is its small, subtle, easy to overlook themes. The more one understands Tool’s despair and Ross’ choice, the more meaningful the movie is.
Since his own career rebirth in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Stallone has directed several movies that evince a deep moral core. The Expendables was one of these; The Expendables 2 (notably not directed by Stallone) isn’t. The Expendables 2 lacks depth (and Mickey Rourke), and despite the amped-up violence (including a truly epic airport shootout with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis), feels smaller than its predecessor — noticeably flatter and less meaningful.
Meaningful themes are hard to do right, and may not resonate with all the audience. Witness the split opinions about The Dark Knight: some people mocked the core conflict of the movie, others responded to the theme of a man who sacrificed his reputation to save his city. As difficult as theme is to implement, the writers and director of The Expendables 2 didn’t even try, and the movie is poorer for it.