In 2010 the star-studded action flick "The Expendables" hit theaters. Obviously, one movie about aging action heroes reliving their glory days just wasn't enough so now "The Expendables 2" is in theaters. Fr. Steve discusses the new Sylvester Stallone film and contrasts the violence of the movie with the true heroism of Christ. (SPOILERS)
“The Expendables 2” is a violent fantasy and intentional parody of a genre that was itself a parody: the 1980’s style action hero thriller — short on dialogue, plot and featuring an abundance of testosterone accompanied by explosions. I suppose that I should admit that I saw the first installment of “The Expendables.” How could I miss it? I sharpened and then dulled my cinematic teeth on these types of films in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I do not remember much about the first “The Expendables,” other than that a lot of things were blown to smithereens.
The lead actor in this franchise is Sylvestor Stallone, who headlines a cast comprising actors who populated the action hero films from days of yore. Included are some of these
elder’s contemporary heirs, like Jason Statham (who Father Barron and others are convinced has just the right look and demeanor to be cast as yours truly, should my life ever warrant cinematic treatment).
The creators of the film opted not so much to impress us with a cast of thousands, but a body count in the thousands, which is what greets the viewer in the opening scene and every scene that follows. Stallone and his team of mercenaries kill hundreds while suffering barely a scratch. They also manage to bring down a helicopter through a rather ingenious, but entirely implausible, use of a motorcycle. This is followed by a dramatic reveal — no one less than the grandfather of the action hero genre: Arnold Schwarzenegger himself!
Heck, the gang’s all here! Later reveals will include Bruce Willis and Jean Claude Van Damme. Dolph Lundgren is also along for the ride (Remember him from the "Rocky" franchise? He uttered the immortal line to Rocky: “I must break you.”) Chuck Norris even shows up! Am I giving too much away?
The film is not just an aggregate of celebrity blasts from the past, it does have a story to tell. That story is about revenge. The actor who is the kid brother of the guy who played “Thor” is the youngest member of “The Expendables” team. Liam Hemsworth’s character is a marksman by the name of Billy. Billy is captured, humiliated and killed by a villainous Jean Claude Van Damme. Van Damme’s character is the leader of a mercenary team that is presented as the antithesis of our heroes. The good guys set about making sure that there is some serious comeuppance delivered. It is.
The occasion of Billy’s death allows Stallone to wax eloquently about injustice that seems
to characterize life in this world — questioning as to why the wicked prosper and the good die as victims of evildoers. His answer? “Track em, find em, kill em.” Pay back time!
Stallone’s character’s question and answer demonstrate that “The Exendables 2” is not only a recapitulation of its precursor or of the entire library of action-hero flicks that preceded it, but of an ancient story in which evildoers who perpetrate violence can be dealt with effectively with a response of more violence. Not only can violence be wielded to effectively counteract violence, but it can also be redemptive. Order can only be restored in the microcosm of “The Expendables” universe when the ancient “lex talonis” is carried out to its proper end.
The film creates a villain for whom no other reasonable option exists but to destroy him utterly and completely. This allows the audience the pleasure of seeing Stallone and Van Damme in all out fisticuffs, but it also permits the audience a cathartic satisfaction: the strategy employed by the “good guys” worked — at least this time. Good triumphs over evil and all it took was superior muscle and firepower!
The Gospel narrative contains its own share of redemptive violence. How else can one describe the cross of Christ but as an act of violence? In this respect, humanity plays the part of the bad guys and Christ is the good guy who is a victim of our cruelty. Lucky for us, the Lord’s response is not to “track em, find em, kill em.” The violent death of Christ becomes redemptive for us in the measure that God wills that we be forgiven, even for what Christ suffers. And not only is this forgiveness offered, but also that God in Christ transforms the violence that we cast at him on the cross into a means by which suffering and death become creative, rather than merely destructive.
This Gospel narrative is meant to overturn and subvert the story that undergirds “The Expendables 2” and much of the action-hero genre. The challenge to us being that there may be a way for good people to protect the innocent and promote what is good and right without becoming the mirror image of evil. In the cinematic world (and maybe in our world as well) of “The Expendables,” this does not seem possible. The Gospel insists that in a world that belongs to God, Christ can make what seems to us to be impossible, possible. We will have to trust him and imitate his own response to machinations of evil men.
The Gospel also spiritualizes or allegorizes the ancient narrative of redemptive violence by transporting the conflict from the physical to the metaphysical plane. In this regard, Christ does battle with dark and dangerous powers, but these powers are not flesh and blood, but sin, death and the devil. The metaphysical nature of these powers in no way makes them anything less than real. The conflict between Christ and fallen powers impinges on the temporal order in ways that are immediate to our experience. Christ fights and defeats what has defeated us. In the heat of this conflict, Christ permits himself to suffer, even die, but this is all part of a strategy by which the full force of his divine power is unleashed and the defenses of evil fall before him. Christ is something of an action-hero in this rendering of the Gospel narrative. Unfortunately, an action-hero of Christ’s type is not a member of the “Expendables” team. He rarely ever is. Maybe the inclusion of his kind on the team would mitigate the number of explosions and diminish the body count? Less fun for audiences accustomed to such amusements.
“The Expendables 2” assaults the senses with an intensity of violence that is meant to render it implausible, even comic. It is so over the top that is becomes surreal. The film also serves as a kind of “memento mori” as it displays before us a cast of characters whose vitality has diminished with time. Schwarzenegger is now 65. Chuck Norris is 72. It gives us comfort to know that the cinematic heroes of the past can still serve and protect. We want to see them take on at least of few more adventures, knowing that their time, and our own, is running out- but not yet. If last weekend’s box office receipts are an indication, there may just be a "The Expendables 3."
Father Steve Grunow is the Associate Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.