The Expendables (2010)

We’ll have to suspend the normal heated criticism, we’ll just leave it as a Sylvester Stallone movie franchise incorporating all the once upon a time action stars.  Never mind, most of them are still working.  If we get caught up in whether it’s a good movie this time, we’ll miss some of the interesting questions it raises.  The plot is a little rocky and over the top but as his team draws first blood, this demolition man leaves no cliffhanger at daybreak as Barney Ross helps his team avoid a bullet to the head and burial in a tomb.

It does beg a lot of questions.  What happens to ex-paramilitary operatives?  Is it really wise for the CIA to be training all these men and women around the world in covert action and killing?  What happens to their leftovers?  What happens when CIA operatives retire?  What kind of fucked up lives do these guys live?  How many ex-soldiers or operatives end up working for private contractors?  How often do those contractors actually care for more than the money involved?  What is the collateral damage in all of the Latin American, African ex-colony and Middle Eastern nations after the varied world powers get done?  What are the costs for the aggressors?  What kind of violence do they internalize in their actions on behalf of policy?  How much damage was caused in pursuit of zealous policies that ended in unforeseen clusterfucks that made things worse for the years to come?  When does isolationism get revisited?

I will say it’s oddly suitable to have aging acting stars playing the roles of aging paramilitary types trying to get by.  There are a lot of parallels in their ascendant utility, the zenith of their work for their employers, the eventual blowback and decline into the nadir of their once greatness which then usually involves a submersion into their bad habits acquired via the excesses of the glory days or coping mechanisms acquired to deal with what they did on a day to day basis.  Sometimes they are capable of transmutation to a different life and sometimes they just wither on the vine.  I doubt Stallone meant for a lot of depth in this movie (it would repel his target audience) but I do think some of his choices were intentional which means that he was trying to tell several stories at the same time.

But is it really a story of redemption?  Would it be better if the covert forces went back and massacred the dictator they originally enthroned?  Maybe if they killed the entire native army?  Stallone’s promise to always be around is basically what the CIA always promised and never delivered.  I’ve heard it said that the US should never attempt covertly what it’s not prepared to support overtly.  In a sense that’s true but it sort of ignores the essential function of secret intelligence and covert action.  The whole point is for nations who are ideologically opposed (and politically, financially, whatever, etc.) to basically avoid killing everyone by having these dirty little side battles that no one ever officially acknowledges.  It’s how we got out of the Cold War, a sort of venting what shouldn’t explode.  But still, is it an attempt to listen to Rourke’s advice to avoid ending up hollow and dead inside?  To paraphrase another movie, is it really possible to wipe that ledger out that is stained and dripping in red?  By saving one girl, not the country, just one girl?  I think I hear the Comedian laughing.

Yeah, it’s some dumb action flick but when the inspiring ideology fades, what’s left but a very unpleasant reality?

As a final note, I wonder how the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities would have felt about Bruce Willis’ choice of pseudonyms as a CIA agent employing a paramilitary group to overthrow a foreign regime in order to cover it’s trail of activities in the area?