Being a man isn’t what it used to be. When my grandfather was born ninety years ago, he was pushed into a world which expected certain things from him because of his gender. He was a man, he had to stand on his own two feet. He would be a provider, a fixer, and when it was called for, a fighter. A man had to be independent. A man had to be strong. A man had to be in charge. A man had hair on his chest and even more hair on his balls. He’d take care of women, knowing that they couldn’t take care of themselves. He’d keep his emotions to himself, because there were things to be done and no time for tears. He’d make a living with his hands, he’d grow calluses on his finger tips. A man’s role was certain, you were born knowing what kind of a person you were supposed to be. But even then, the world was changing.
I wonder what the world would look like now, to my grandfather. Could he understand it? Could he comprehend it? Even before he died a decade ago, my grandfather seemed like a stranger lost in a strange land. He stayed trapped inside a cocoon of his own devising because the world had moved on, and there was simply no way he could move on with it. Most of those changes have been for the better. Men have, after a little prodding, willingly sacrificed their dominant place in society and moved over to give women an equal place next to them. In doing so we’ve gradually modified what it means to be a man, and that’s mostly been for the better too. But inside every guy there’s that caveman waiting to get out, that testosterone fueled badass who wants to take charge and grab hold of the universe with his own two hands. For awhile, movies provided an outlet for that. Stallone and Schwarzenegger built their careers on it in the 80s. But then that too, changed. And maybe that wasn’t always for the better.
Movies are, to those funding them, an investment. You put money in and you hope that, if the people you’ve given the money to use it right, you’ll get even more money back out. At some point, someone in Hollywood figured out that the best way to make the most money was by filming something which catered to the widest range of tastes possible. You can make an action movie, and a lot of men will want to see it. But action movies, more than any other type of movie, cost a lot of money to make. If you’re going to spend that much on a film, then you want to make sure you get as many people as possible buying a ticket. So you take that action movie, add a female character, give her a romantic subplot, and then maybe women will want to see it too. Or if you really want to get the girls battering down the box office, you make your male characters softer, weaker, better looking, better dressers, chiseled chins, smaller muscles, and more relatable to more types of audience members. Make your male lead a pale, frail-looking, well-mannered, tortured vampire. Make your male lead someone even your mother could love. Sensitive is sexy, isn’t it?
These days Hollywood has all but done away with the male-centric action movie. Guys looking for a place to refuel their testosterone tank have nowhere to go, and they probably haven’t even noticed. They haven’t noticed because the explosions and violence are still there, but movies aren’t really made for men anymore, they’re made for everyone. An action movie without romance is unheard of and our action heroes look increasingly like they could at any moment be cast in the next Twilight film. Adrien Brody, yeah that skinny, sensitive guy from The Pianist, just starred in a Predators movie. The Rock spends his days dressed up like the Tooth Fairy and there’s no one else to fill the void. That means this weekend when The Expendables opens, it may well be the last ever Man Movie.
The stars of The Expendables are not pretty, and the movie doesn’t try to clean them up. It tells the story of men who are old, and worn, and wrinkled, and meaty. The film’s heroes are balding and calloused, their faces made of leather and stone. Their idea of fashion sense is wearing Kevlar vests over Hawaiian shirts. The Expendables contains no romantic subplot. The closest it gets to romance is in the decision to help a girl because she’s pretty, and even then it’s only because protecting girls is what real Men do. When one of the Expendables wants to say I love you, he does it by beating up a bunch of other dudes. Expendables is a movie for men. There’s a plot, but they don’t pay much attention to it. There are characters, but more often than not The Expendables is happy to ignore names and simply refer to its major players as “Men”. When Eric Roberts calls Steve Austin “this man” he says it in a way that you know MAN was written on his script in all capital letters.
The Expendables is a manly movie in every sense of the word. It’s a film about Men taking action, Men blowing things up, and Men punching what’s wrong. It’s the kind of movie you just don’t see anymore. The explosions and gunfire are still there in our modern, action-movie world, but the guys are always secretly sensitive and there’s always a girl. He’s socially responsible, maybe he even recycles. I bet he’s a good dancer. Not the Expendables.
Every second of The Expendables howls caveman; it screams muscles, and sweat, and grit. You’ll never see any of the Men in this movie in a Toyota Prius. They ride motorcycles whenever possible. If one of these Men needs drive a four-wheeled vehicle, then that vehicle must be a vintage pickup which growls with unseen power as it prowls down the road. Their guns blaze across the screen with a throaty, manly noise. Every bullet fired is like the roar of a lion, echoing across the savanna. But technology is never used, by anyone, when muscles will do. Why fire off a rocket, when you can hurl missles at your enemies using only the power of your bulging forearm? Characters grunt their lines at the screen, they wear their manhood on their sleeve. If someone gets a tattoo, they get it while sitting on a motorcycle, because while tattoos are manly chairs are for sissies. When the Expendables need to relax, they don’t rent a movie. They drink beer and hurl sharp objects at a wall, because that’s what a Man would do. When one of the Expendables screws up these Men fight it out, these Men may even try to kill each other, and then these Men forget about it, drink up, and move on. Emotion is as irrelevant as pain. They know the code. Men stick together. It’s not a façade, it’s not some act, these are simply Men, and the Expendables behave the way they do because that’s what a Man would do.
Except in the real world, Men don’t exist anymore. We’ve scrubbed them from our society. Those that are left, we mock and ignore. Sensitive is sexy and modern men are probably more like Patrick Dempsey than they are like Sylvester Stallone. I know I am, and I like it that way. But even a weakling nerd like me has a little Stallone inside him somewhere, and I need him. It’s the caveman inside a man that gives him the strength to stand up and do what’s right, when it isn’t easy. It’s the caveman inside that gives a man the endurance get up every morning and go to a job he hates, just to make enough money to put his kid through college. It’s the caveman who propels our soldiers, bravely off to war, defending their country in the face of certain death. Women do those things too and since I’m not one, I won’t pretend to know what it is that pushes them to be better people; but for men, I think a lot of what keeps us going, what keeps pushing us to achieve, is that inner caveman.
I’ve still got a little of that buried somewhere inside me, maybe in part because I’m over thirty, and old enough to remember the glory days of barbarians and badasses in my movies. But where are our sons going to find their inner caveman? How will your boy know what being a Man is all about? He won’t get it by shaving off all his body hair, oiling up, and watching So I Think You Can Dance. The Expendables is not a great movie, maybe it’s not even a good movie, but it’s a MAN movie in all capital letters. For fathers, The Expendables is a rare opportunity to share a little bit of the manly movie magic they shared with their dads, with their own sons.
It’s violent and gory and utterly reprehensible, there’s no denying it. And it’s true that the story’s a mess and the characters are two-dimensional. Everything Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich wrote in her negative review of the film is absolutely true. She’s dead on. Yet I’m not sure I’d want it made any other way. The Expendables should be like this. It must be this way. Cavemen are two-dimensional, black and white, on or off. From that dogged, admittedly dumb, often careless simplicity comes their power. So it is with The Expendables.
You could take your son to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and let him live in a world of hipster dufus imagination, and that’ll be a lot of fun. But there’s plenty of time for fantasy. This weekend, for one weekend, maybe even for the last weekend ever, it’s the weekend of Men. Don’t let your son grow up without a little bit of The Expendables swinging a club somewhere deep down inside him. He’ll need that inner caveman. The world is changing and that’s a good thing, as long as we hang on to a little piece of whatever it was that made us men to begin with. This may be your last chance to share what that is, with your kid. Leave the women at home and growl your way into a theater with your son. Be Men.
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