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Action Heroes vs. Villains: Expendables 3 and Red Hollywood
Why does an action-movie sequel have more honest politics than a serious documentary?


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Full of tough talk and righteous kills (such as a head-spinning barrage where Sylvester Stallone takes out four bad guys at once), The Expendables 3 sums up American action movie ethos in ways that confound political correctness. The story toys with the reality of contemporary geopolitical professional warfare when mercenaries (headed by Stallone’s Barney Ross and his comically named pals) wind up fighting their paramilitary counterparts, but it avoids being either jingoistic or cynical.

What it is is meta–a good-time treatise on the vicissitudes of movie stardom for actors, and audiences, too.

As popcorn ghosts punch-in–The Road Warrior (Mel Gibson), The Transporter (Jason Statham), Indy Jones (Harrison Ford), The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Blade (Wesley Snipes), El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) plus some new jacks–they stir nostalgic affection.

They all have one thing in common: aging. It isn’t just that these actors are old but their guiltless ass-kicking also seems redolent of a bygone era and adolescent crudeness the culture may not have outgrown. The mano a mano combat is reassuringly old-fashioned, unlike the CGI-heavy superhero franchises that emphasize inhumane slickness.

The evocation of on-the-ground warfare reflects contemporary media’s safe (politically impersonal) distance from actual military combat while also paying homage to it. What once was targeted as objectionable, jingoistic violence fostered by Sly, Bruce and Arnold is shown equably here. There’s an understanding about political chicanery that isolates soldiers of fortune and then unites them. “There’s more than one kind of family” shapely new recruit Luna (Ronda Rousey) tells Stallone and he concurs.

In spite of its violence, The Expendables 3 offers the pleasure of camaraderie. The neo-Blaxploitation films Original Gangsters and Takers were superior all-star reboots but Stallone‘s never-say-die concept movie gives lots of love to his fellow performers/mercenaries, many (like himself) having lost box-office glory to the next generation. Stallone writes playful dialogue and playable scenes for each of them, and loyal viewers can’t help but respond. Our pasts are being celebrated, too. It feels good to see Wesley Snipes again (first looking like Richard Pryor’s Mudbone); when Arnold and Harrison show up, they still have faces — not smooth-skinned and plump-lipped like young stud Kellan Lutz — but their wrinkles, wattles and eye-strain trace our previous investment in them. Stallone’s generosity differs from how Quentin Tarantino resurrects Hollywood has-beens for camp; Stallone, unafraid of corniness, communicates the professional and emotional reality of movie acting. Banderas runs off with the film playing a motormouth executioner (“I need a job. All I know is killing people and I do it very well”) as if he was indeed Puss N Boots. And Stallone casts Mel Gibson in a villain role that finally gives him his day in the court of public affection–having it both ways is better than cruel ostracism.

The tongue-in-cheek conceit of The Expendables 3 climaxes with a nifty extended battle montage where the die-hards and the young “deletables” airlift from a huge, disused Eastern Europe hotel (shot on a vast backlot in Bulgaria). It’s a complex conceit yet not nearly as overelaborate as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel which congratulated viewer smugness more than their fellow-feeling. Director Patrick Hughes paces this ballistic high point like a finger-snapping musician. Most blockbusters, say Guardians of the Galaxy, are just celebrity paydays we’re meant to approve. Shills who dedicate themselves to these market signals are too hip for Stallone’s forthrightness but The Expendables 3 is a rare movie in which mercenary Hollywood comes clean.

***

Red Hollywood, the film essay by academics Thom Andersen and Noel Burch now presented at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, revives the mythology of the Hollywood Blacklist–a Cold War topic that, after 9/11, should have collapsed into rubble along with the World Trade Center. But much of prevailing Liberal sanctimony is rooted in grievance and paranoia from the Blacklist era. Red Hollywood may be a documentary of sorts but its premise is based on a Red Diaper Brigade fantasy that commands today’s film culture; they and their followers sympathize with the naïve-seditious propaganda to a delusional degree. This explains how Andersen and Burch, learned men, go wrong. Red Hollywood, made in 1994 (refurbished as recently as 2013), reneges on its intro promise: “about the film work created by the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, an effort to isolate their contribution to the Hollywood cinema . . . not about their politics or their martyrdom.”

The choice of the word “martyrdom” gives Red Hollywood away. Only the privileged few affected by Hollywood’s Blacklist feel “martyred;” their persecution complex misstates historical reality: that the Blacklist was a process of insider industry betrayal and standard industry backbiting by agents, producers and studio heads–not government censorship. This fact is obscured by Red Hollywood’s opening scene using Nicholas Ray’s hysterical melodrama Johnny Guitar (1954) as a Blacklist metaphor. In reality, media industries blacklist and ostracize out-of-favor people to this day. It’s only Hollywood sanctimony that makes a Blacklist seem out of the ordinary. 

Red Hollywood furthers sanctimony through film clips and interviews (including that patronizing old turd Salt of the Earth) that collectively confirm the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s contention that Hollywood Communists were creating propaganda. None of Andersen and Burch’s political rationales explain why Tender Comrade (1943) was wretched or The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was good, but the fact is that the former foregrounded its politics and the latter did not (but was a sensual, kinetic tour de force). The clips clearly show a slanted, politicized agenda yet Red Hollywood laments the price that filmmakers and fellow travelers paid–ignoring their enormous privilege, blaming those who escaped censure or “named names” to HUAC. The propagandists and their defenders still extol their unrepentant “radicalism.”

But there’s a new wrinkle in Red Hollywood’s old story: Estimable filmmaker Billy Woodberry from the 1970s L.A. Rebellion movement of black film students at UCLA (best known for Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep) serves as Red Hollywood’s narrator–as if to blame industry racism and sexism as part of Hollywood’s right-wing conservatism. Scenes from the 1947 Home of the Brave and the 1949 Intruder in the Dust are used for Socialist cant. The bold leap of Carl Foreman’s psychoanalyst’s monologue on the shared anxieties of racism gets misinterpreted as socialist realism, while Clarence Brown’s powerful, perceptive Faulkner adaptation is disparaged–a disservice to both films.

Fact is, Leftist Hollywood always proves racist enough on its own. No need to blame the Right, but Andersen and Burch use Woodberry the way Native Son novelist Richard Wright complained that he was exploited by Communists. Neither Home of the Brave nor Intruder in the Dust are part of Lincoln Center’s sidebar program to Red Hollywood, thus preventing viewers from deciding for themselves.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.



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