Universal Soldier was a fun movie. It’s probably one of my favourite action movies. One thing I always thought about it was that it was definitely made in the Eighties, However, it turns out it was actually made in the early Nineties, an unsung era of action movies, or at least not as fondly remembered as its immediate predecessor. Nonetheless, the Nineties gave us such gems as Speed, Terminator 2, Demolition Man, Face Off and Point Break.
The more and more I thought about action movies, I found myself asking the same old question,
“Whatever happened to those movies?”
Then I remembered that I’m living in the 21st Century and I still have lots of great action movies to enjoy. Unfortunately, that got me thinking about The Expendables franchise, the films that were supposed to herald the return of the Golden Age of Action. We’d get to see Sylvester Stallone fight alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, one-liners and gun fights so insane they’d make your eyes water. Testosterone, muscles, explosions and each film in that franchise utterly failed to deliver.
Whilst I did enjoy The Expendables when I saw it in the cinema, in 2010 when I was younger, I’ve watched it since and it is bad. Not in a good way either. The action is badly edited, the atmosphere miserable and nobody in the main cast looks like they’re having fun. Which is the reason I went to see this movie. I always remember the action movies of yesteryear being straight up fun. Even films like First Blood, Robocop, Blade Runner and Escape From New York were fun even if they had something to actually say.
I can’t recall a single memorable action scene from any of the three Expendables films, even from the third one which was apparently better than the previous two. I remember seeing the second film and finding that one to be enjoyably bad, not as enjoyably awful as The Room or Troll 2 but silly enough to turn off my brain to. Having said that though, don’t bother with it or the trilogy in general.
So considering that these movies failed to bring back the action movies of the past, why did they fail? Personally, I think they were trying too hard. These movies are a prime example of how trying too hard makes your final product look less like you know what you’re doing and more like you’re a teenage boy trying to convince their parents that “I’M AN ADULT, I’M AN ADULT”.
It makes me wonder what the pitches for these movies were like. Roadhouse for example. Roadhouse is probably one of the most earnest films I’ve seen. It has a confidence in itself that feels like the writer knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t shy away from how silly his film sounded. Because if I told you that Roadhouse was just a movie about people beating up other people in bars, you’d probably look at me incredulously and wonder how on earth I could find a film that mindless. But Roadhouse turns out to be extremely well put together. The characters are memorable and likeable; the villain is an entertaining slime ball; the fight scenes are well-choreographed and Dalton, played by Patrick Swayze, is very likeable and there’s a lot of chemistry with Elizabeth Clay played by Kelly Lynch. The entire film just exudes confidence and flair.
Now look at The Expendables franchise, which lacks any kind of entertaining character. the plot just plods along due to an abysmal pace, and the editing during the action scenes is horrific. It feels like these films are falling back on their one-liners and old action stars as an excuse rather than a strength. That’s not to say those tropes didn’t have a hand in making action films the household names (in their own genre at least) they are today, but you can hardly sell an entire product on those things alone and then expect us as an audience to take them seriously whilst set against an insanely dark backdrop full of espionage, torture and try and play it straight.
That’s the real problem of those films. They play their silly jokes and gun fights completely straight without an ounce of irony or humour. Admittedly, that isn’t what the films they are trying to emulate were made with. Those films were also played straight and supposed to be taken seriously. Which they were. For the time they were made.
During University, I viewed a clip from Rambo: First Blood Part II and was asked to analyse its themes of masculinity and how the politics of the day had an influence on the film itself. We surmised that the action films at the time were themed around the idea of the hyper-masculine alpha male, a very traditional role model that mass audiences would identify with on a basic level. The man who would stop the bad guys, save the damsel and get justice no matter the cost! As entertaining as that concept is, it is completely outdated. That’s all it is at this point in time: very basic entertainment. Some would argue that Hollywood has grown past that mentality, others would argue that it has not. I would argue that Hollywood has a lot more growing to do before it fully grows out of that particular phase.
The Expendables, to its immense detriment, did not grow out of that mindset. Those films took the tropes and moments that made older action films stand out and then played them out against a modern background. It felt akin to attempting to win a Formula One race with a mule drawn cart. Just because it used to be the standard does not mean it’ll work now. There have been countless films in the last twenty plus years that do not subscribe to that outdated standard that have been brilliant, but the more we try to make that standard relevant again, the more it will hold us back from progressing forward in our own personal standards as audience members.
The action classics of yesteryear have not and will never go away, they will always be fondly remembered. By us and our parents, in the same way our grandparents remember the codes and conventions of the classics they admire and remember. We may decide to show them to future generations as they enjoy what they see as classics. But if we attempt to emulate as The Expendables did, all we’ll really be doing is going backwards. I prefer forwards.