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The Expendables: Review and Analysis

August 11, 2010

A few weeks ago, Racebending.com was invited to a pre-screening of The Expendables. This is the upcoming action film starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Jet Li. It premieres in the US on Friday, August 13, 2010.

The Expendables

This post will give a quick review of the movie, as well as take a look at deeper gender and race issues in the film.

A quick review:
Basically, it’s a huge action flick with minimal plot, exploding bodies, and casually sliced up limbs. In terms of violence, it’s somewhere just shy of Sin City-level. It’s a pure testosterone flick, hearkening back to the heyday of pure guy movies in the 1980s.

Watching the movie was mindless fun, and there’s some fun action there. If you have a ton of nostalgia for 1980s action movies, it’s definitely worth checking it out on the big-screen. Otherwise, it’s probably a rental.

Oh, and if you’re a Jet Li fan? Prepare to be disappointed.

And the “racebending” angle:
Now to break down the racial and gender issues. The following includes spoilers, although there isn’t really much of a plot to discuss and that’s not the point of the movie anyway.

In many ways, The Expendables is a huge improvement over how women and people of color were characterized in 80s film. This was pretty surprising, given its lineage from those “pure guy” films. Even with the improvements, it was far from perfect.

Women in the Film
There are two women in the film. Charisma Carpenter has some screentime as a love interest for Jason Statham. She becomes involved with an abusive boyfriend. Statham has a fight scene with the abusive boyfriend and his cronies, then tells the girl that she made the wrong choice.

I honestly don’t even know why this plot thread was in the movie, since it’s completely independent of the main story. It feels like an excuse to give Jason Statham his big “badass” fight. We never get to really know Carpenter’s character, except as a victim and motivation for Statham. Men watching the film get to feel the thrill of telling off ex-girlfriends who left them and kicking the living crap out of the replacement boyfriend, who clearly deserves it.

The other woman is Sandra, played by Gisele Itié. She’s a young South American woman, quietly working to subvert the dictatorship of her father. She has far more agency than Carpenter’s character. She passionately believes in bettering her country and is willing to sacrifice her life for this cause. She’s not there as a romantic interest, but to inspire Sylvester Stallone’s character to a higher moral calling instead of simple mercenary work.

Of course, she is never strong enough to fight her own battles. She is captured and needs to be rescued.

Men of Color in the Film
Again, good and bad. Jet Li and Terry Crews (aka, the old Old Spice Guy) definitely have their “badass” moments. Their screentime is of course less than the “real” leads (Stallone and Statham). This was especially striking for Crews’ character – it’s easy to forget he’s part of the team for large sections of the film. He does have one moment where he gets to rescue the rest of the team.

Still, Crews felt very much like a “token” character. Couture also had little characterization, but at least he had an all-out fight scene to claim as his own. Crews never gets his own fight, but he does have the gun battle rescue moment, which may be a result of him not having much stunt experience.

Jet Li’s characterization is mostly positive. My main complaint is this: he never gets to win his own battle.

All the white action heroes have a major fight scene against some form of big baddie, where they emerge victorious. Jet Li has two encounters with Dolph Lundgren and, in both cases, he is rescued by Stallone’s character.

It would have been very easy to make Li’s characterization a little better. The first “rescue” from Stallone felt unnecessary and could have been mitigated if Li was shown to have equal advantage against Lundgren. The second – where Stallone actually shoots Lundgren – has this dialogue:

LUNDGREN: You shot me.
STALLONE: You were gonna kill him.

I hated this line, because it again established that Li needed rescuing. How about “You were trying to kill us“? A small tweak that’s actually more factually accurate given that Lundgren just had a big shooting car chase with Li and Stallone. And it has the benefit of putting Li on equal ground.

There’s some dialogue later where Li says “I would’ve won,” but the responses from the other characters feel really condescending.

And David Zayas (Dexter) plays a South American dictator, who almost gets to redeem himself, but fails. I’m not sure how I feel about this character – pretty much a cardboard cutout for a typical dictator villain, but with some small moments that show greater depth here and there. He’s bankrolled by a white ex-CIA agent, who is the “real” villain.

The other men of color are just foot soldiers and lackeys, to be killed off in waves of dozens at a time.

The Overall Plot
There’s nothing I can say about this plot – about evil white men manipulating a South American country and good white men coming to liberate it – that hasn’t already been said better in this article:

“When Will White Men Stop Making Movies Like Avatar” by Annalee Newitz

Categories: Current Diversity Highlights
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About the Author

Mike Le is the Media Liaison for Racebending. A native-born Californian, he objects to shoveling snow and is a strong proponent of pollo asado fries. Mike has been interviewed about media diversity by dozens of news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, BBC Radio, and Public Radio International.

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