Allow me to begin by saying that I am a fan of The Expendables and of Sylvester Stallone. When he writes and directs his movies, I think he exhibits a curious mix of intelligence and ineloquence. His movies frequently deal with complex issues like feelings of inadequacy, the legacy of violence on the human psyche, fatherhood, whether or not the “most” sinful people can be saved, forgiveness, and how humanity can best deal with the horror and injustice of death.
Unfortunately, Stallone deals with these things using rough and unrefined language. I think audiences often overlook his philosophical underpinnings because of all the people being blown in two by fifty caliber rounds. In The Expendables, for example, characters wrestle explicitly with forgiveness – how to offer it both to each other and themselves – but they have these discussions while the echo of machine guns is still ringing in the audience’s ears. I will forever maintain that The Expendables is a movie concerned primarily with personal and communal reconciliation, but the only language Stallone has to talk about these things, or perhaps the only language that audiences will accept him using, is the language of the blockbuster action extravaganza.
So, I was excited to see The Expendables 2. I went into the theater hoping for more of Stallone’s life-affirming philosophy camouflaged in fist fights and fatigues. I almost walked out of the theater an hour later thoroughly disheartened by what I found instead.
The Expendables 2 is every terrible thing you might fear a movie like it might be. It is cliche ridden, thinly plotted, gratuitously violent, and filled with almost nothing but superfluous action sequences. However, the part that particularly distressed me was the attitude toward death and violence at the story’s center.
This movie asks explicit questions about mortality. Stallone’s character, Barney Ross, is presented as being consumed with death. He questions, vocally, the point of all this killing and dying. Characters wonder aloud how people are supposed to deal with death. The answer given is tragic. Barney says, “You keep it light until it’s time to get dark, and then you go black as night.” To the movie’s credit, it adheres to this philosophy to the bitter, disappointing end, offering not even a sliver of convinced hope.
I suppose, yes, if one has abandoned themselves to the kind of violence on display in The Expendables 2, becoming soul-numbed is the only way to deal with the pain. But there is another way, and it rests in a rejection of violence as the only recursive action.
In the most dispiriting scene in the movie, a group of villainous soldiers has descended to attack a village full of women and children. Stallone and crew decide to stick around to do what they do best and kill the marauders. In one of the interlaced action sequences, Jason Statham’s character, Lee Christmas, dons the robes of an Orthodox priest and ambushes a pack of soldiers in the sanctuary of an Orthodox church.
Lee attacks and kills the bad guys using the censer, the silver ball on the end of a chain filled with burning incense that is meant to be symbolic of prayers rising to Heaven. In Lee’s final victorious maneuver, he throws two knives at the final two living bad guys and ends in a kneeling position in front of the altar. I found this scene so offensive, I almost left the theater. I stayed in case the movie managed to redeem itself. It did not.
As I watched this scene, I was reminded of another movie which offers a way out of the eternal darkness that haunts Barney Ross. That movie is Of Gods and Men, a French film from 2010 about the true story of a group of Trappist monks in Algeria who wrestle with their faith in the midst of the Algerian Civil War in the mid-nineties. The monks heroically refuse to take sides, opting to serve both sides of the conflict and the people in the village under their care. Ultimately, they give their lives for each other, for the Algerian people, and for their faith.
If only Barney Ross had seen that film, he might have recognized that nonviolent self-sacrifice is the intrepid action that breaks the cycle of violence and death that consumes his life and the lives of his friends. If Stallone had been thinking of that film when he made this one, he might, at the very least, have decided to leave such a morally offensive sequence out of The Expendables 2.
Sylvester Stallone has proven himself capable of so much more than this movie. I pray his next is more hopeful than The Expendables 2. I don’t expect whatever he makes next to be nonviolent. That’s not his style, but I do expect it to evidence more intelligence than what we see here. I truly believe that somewhere in that muscular physique is Stallone’s Unforgiven. I’ll look forward to that film and try to forget The Expendables 2 ever happened.
Instead of including the trailer like we usually do, I’d like to end this review with the following promotional image, because something this ridiculous needs to be laughed at by as many people as possible.