Last weekend saw a lopsided box-office collision of two very different types of action hero: In one corner, The Expendables, an old-fashioned 1980s-style action-fest drenched in testosterone, adrenaline and blood; in the other corner, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, starring Michael Cera as a geeky slacker with mad video-game-style combat skills.
It’s a stark illustration of how much the action landscape has changed. A quarter of a century ago, action heroes were musclebound, lantern-jawed he-men like Schwarzenegger and Stallone who weren’t afraid to get down and dirty. Even more vulnerable heroes like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, who actually got hurt or scared and made mistakes, were still two-fisted tough guys.
The musclemen of the 1980s may have been an exaggeration of an earlier masculine ideal, but prior decades were hardly lacking in virility. Broad-shouldered, chiseled icons like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster and so forth might not have been built like Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but they were no pantywaists. Not all male heroes of yesterday necessarily fit that brawny mold—there was also room for more sensitive types played by the likes of Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda—but there was plenty of brawn to go around.
The situation today is markedly different. Many action movies today star youthful-looking actors like Matt Damon, Orlando Bloom, Brendan Frasier and Leonardo DiCaprio. Even comparatively older stars like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt still come off as aging boys rather than manly men. There’s Tobey Maguire’s gawky web-slinger and Robert Downey Jr.’s immature playboy techno-warrior. (Notably, Damon, Maguire and Downey all play heroes who in one way or another find themselves with awesome powers that they must learn to use and/or don’t understand at first.) William Shatner’s signature role now belongs to boyish Chris Pine. Earlier this summer there was a sequel to the Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator starring Adrien Brody, of all people.
With few exceptions—Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman—it’s hard to think of a leading man today who could credibly go toe to toe with Rocky or Indiana Jones. A participant at Arts & Faith puts the blame on The Matrix, which transformed Keanu Reeves from a pasty computer geek into an instant superman by digitally uploading kung-fu skills into his brain. With its video-game milieu, The Matrix in a way set the stage for Scott Pilgrim.
But last weekend even Scott Pilgrim’s target demographic of young males overwhelmingly chose The Expendables, an old-school action flick starring a bunch of guys who in many cases were making movies like this before Michael Cera was born, along with many in the audience. Director/star/co-writer Stallone anchors the he-man ensemble, which includes Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li and Eric Roberts as well as the likes of Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Steve Austin.
Even Ah-nold and Bruce Willis show up in cameos. Notable by their absence are Steven Segal, Van Damme and Kurt Russell—all of whom were offered parts, but turned them down. According to Wikipedia, Van Damme felt there was “no substance” to his character. Uh oh. (Have you seen a Van Damme film?)
Van Damme also reportedly told Stallone that he should “be trying to save people in South Central.” Why South Central? No idea, but whatever he was thinking, the notion of what they “should” be doing doesn’t seem to have figured prominently in Stallone’s thinking about the film, which wastes as little time as possible on plot and character in order to allow the maximum possible number of throat slittings, bodies blown in half, heads impaled, severed and broken limbs, bullet-riddled torsos, etc.
If many of today’s action heroes seem lacking in convincing virility, The Expendables is hardly the healthy jolt of masculinity one might wish for. It’s a movie that panders to all of the worst excesses of the 1980s and none of its better instincts. It’s egregious violence pornography, not only soaked in explicit, gratuitous, bone-crunching, blood-spurting violence, but a movie that sees the whole world through the lens of violence, a movie that presents violence as a worldview.
Manhood is seen solely through the lens of the ability to inflict and endure extreme amounts of punishment involving large numbers of opponents. To be a woman is to have essentially one meaningful choice: to be aligned with the wrong man, who will abuse or at least fail to protect you, or with the right man, who will rain vengeance on the wrong man and those around him. (An alliance with the wrong man may also result in sexual menace, torture, etc.)
Moral concerns are so far from the the film that in the long bloodbath that is the final act the woman whom the heroes are supposedly out to rescue becomes a secondary concern as the body count and property damage piles up. Even the villains’ crimes are less important to the heroes than the real question, which is who can kick whose butt? The way two heroes casually banter at the end after jointly killing the villain, not about his fate, but about which of them deserves credit for the kill, is indicative of this almost total indifference to any moral outlook. By contrast, as trashy and cartoony as a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II was, you always remembered it was about POWs.
Neither The Expendables nor Scott Pilgrim offers us action heroes in the mold of, say, Harrison Ford or Gregory Peck—actors well known for portraying men of honor as well as strength. Peck in The Guns of Navarrone or The Big Country, Ford in The Fugitive or Clear and Present Danger—either of them was ten times the man Stallone is in The Expendables.
Who in our day is capable of stepping into their shoes? Try to think of a leading man of today—someone in his prime, not an older star, but who looks like a man, not a boy—who projects decency and uprightness as well as the physical prowess to fight for what he believes in.
Jackman might, if he can ever step out from behind Wolverine’s shadow. Russell Crowe can do anything, but he isn’t getting any younger. Antonio Banderas has played a couple of heroes (Spy Kids and The Mask of Zorro), but I’m not sure he can do gravitas. Same with the cherubic Brendan Frasier: He’s a comic action hero. Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson are too old. Laurence Fishburne has gotten too fat. Ben Affleck lacks charisma. Is baby-faced Matt Damon our best hope?