A Comment on The Expendables (2010)

Here’s the Storyline from IMDB:

“Barney Ross leads the “Expendables”, a band of highly skilled mercenaries including knife enthusiast Lee Christmas, martial arts expert Yin Yang, heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar, demolitionist Toll Road and loose-cannon sniper Gunner Jensen. When the group is commissioned by the mysterious Mr. Church to assassinate the merciless dictator of a small South American island, Barney and Lee head to the remote locale to scout out their opposition. Once there, they meet with local rebel Sandra and discover the true nature of the conflict engulfing the city. When they escape the island and Sandra stays behind, Ross must choose to either walk away and save his own life – or attempt a suicidal rescue mission that might just save his soul.

The Expendables is a moderately entertaining action movie, a “popcorn film”. But, the thing I noticed about this film is that this team is hired, they recon the mission, and decide to pass on it. But, Barney Ross (Stallone) goes back out of some strange sense of guilt over leaving the local guide to die, which she chose to do. The movie then proceeds with lots of conversation about how these mercenaries can save their souls, redeem the moral damage that comes from killing untold numbers of people with a single act of kindness, especially by saving a woman in distress.

There are a number of things bug me in this redemption narrative. First, and foremost, is that one cannot redeem one’s bad behavior with a single act of goodness. It’s like saying Lucifer could become Jesus, atone for his failures and the world’s through dying on the cross. It’s a terrible morality. The Bible asks for an unblemished sacrifice for a reason.

Second, the gendered element is suggesting that saving a woman somehow justifies the brutality and indiscriminate killing of the lifestyle these men are living. It’s an example of why patriarchy is so harmful to all genders. It justifies its oppression by glorifying violent behavior in men as a good, while at the same time turns women into objects for use in salving their moral wounds from that very behavior.

Then, there’s also the matter than Sandra (Itié) chooses to die rather than escape. While it is understandable to want to save her, there’s little in this film that respects her agency and choice.

And the really puzzling thing about this movie is after they have lived through a suicide mission, saved the heroine and redeemed himself, Ross leaves. Mission accomplished. He gives her money and just walks away because she wasn’t “his type”. More accurately, he has to walk away because dealing with Sandra as if she were a real human being would throw into relief the bankrupt ideas at the heart of this movie..

Who would Ross become if he decided to make this relationship work? That might be a real redemption. However, it’s something that would happen on a time scale that wouldn’t make for an entertaining movie. ‘Tis a pity that it is so easy to show evil and so difficult to show what is good about the human experience that you can only come to know of it over time and through lived experience.