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Would you keep a refrigerator if it no longer kept your food cold? Probably not. Would you continue to use an umbrella if it no longer kept you dry in a thunderstorm? Of course you wouldn’t. These things serve specific purposes, and we stop using them when they no longer work.
So why do we still use the MPAA rating when it no longer is able to fulfill its purpose?
Patrick Hughes' The Expendables 3 made headlines recently for being the first installment in the gratuitously violent franchise to avoid an R rating and earn an audience-friendly PG-13. Sylvester Stallone, the driving force behind the films to date, admitted in interviews that the producers, obviously, "want to reach as many people as possible," and promised fans that "it’s very close to an R, believe me. It’s right there."
He’s not exaggerating, Honestly, the fact that the hyper-violent, vengeance-driven action sequel The Expendables 3 somehow escapes the MPAA’s ratings system with a PG-13 proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the current system is broken beyond repair.
On its own site, the MPAA claims to "provide parents with advance information about the content of movies to help them determine what’s appropriate for their children." The MPAA, by their own admission, "want[s] to help make movie-going a positive experience in your family’s life," and that ratings "are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug use and then assign a rating they believe the majority of American parents would give a movie."
Keep that in mind as we discuss the final act of The Expendables 3. Spoilers for the film have to follow, so click away if you don’t want to hear about how Stallone’s new film concludes.
The body count for the last 30 minutes of The Expendables 3 hovers near 500, without exaggeration. Bear in mind that Sylvester Stallone’s mercenary, Barney Ross, and his team of militant guns-for-hire dispatch numerous adversaries in the film’s first two acts – to the point where Mel Gibson’s psychotic villain, Conrad Stonebanks, feels compelled to make a pointed speech about looking at the blood on one’s own hands before condemning another man for violence. This is an Expendables movie, after all. Violence, bloodshed, combat-death… they come with the territory.
Even by Expendables standards, however, the finale of The Expendables 3 borders on extreme. Barney and his team are pinned down in a non-descript high-rise structure. Stonebanks sends in an army to take them down. And the 10-member Expendables team decimates wave after wave of oncoming "evil" soldiers using machine guns, hand grenades, tanks, swords, knives, their own bare hands (the better to snap your neck, dear)… you name it, the Expendables use it to kill an enemy. HUNDREDS of enemies. Every enemy on screen, in a sustained combat sequence.
The MPAA reacts by giving the film a PG-13 rating. It urges "caution" for parents, as some of the material on screen may be "inappropriate" for pre-teenagers.
Full disclosure. I’m a parent, and as I raise my two sons, I readily admit to viewing content through different eyes. I wasn’t personally offended by the violence in The Expendables 3. I knew what to expect. There’s no chance I’d want my 10-year-old child absorbing the wonton carnage that’s on screen in The Expendables 3. But in no way am I trying to condemn Patrick Hughes or his film. Expendables 3 does what Expendables films historically do. And when you buy a ticket to a chapter in this saga, you hopefully are prepared for excessive amounts of action-movie violence, the kind that have sustained the careers of centerpiece stars Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes and more for decades.
There’s nothing wrong with R-rated violence, carnage and gore… so long as it receives the R rating that it earns.
The argument for The Expendables 3 is that the violence – or huge chunks of it – occurs off screen or avoids gratuitous blood. We see Wesley Snipes slit a man’s throat with a massive blade, but the movie doesn’t linger on the wound, or show any blood. Does that make the act any less violent? Only a fool would think so. As the film’s conclusion plays out, Stallone, Statham and their crew fire millions of bullets into the bodies of hundreds of foes. The results aren’t telegraphed in bloody fashion – limbs aren’t severed and bodies don’t explode – but does that mean younger audiences won’t understand that hundreds of characters in this movie are being killed? That their lives are getting snuffed out on screen in a PG-13 movie?
I’m not the first person to take the MPAA to task for its lax stance on violence versus language or nudity. Hopefully I won’t be the last. These arguments may sound like a broken record, but it’s one worth playing – again and again – if disturbingly violent films like The Expendables 3 reach the marketplace with an audience-friendly PG-13 rating.
The MPAA essentially admits, with this ruling, that the organization -- which pretends to make decisions to protect families and inform parents -- places harsher boundaries on bare breasts and curse words that begin with "F" than they do on genocide. You can murder an entire country’s military in violent (but largely bloodless fashion) and still earn that PG-13. But don’t dare let your hero say "Fuck" twice while doing it. To claim anything else in the wake of The Expendables 3 is impossible.
I don’t want to point to the current hot-button issue of Ferguson, Missouri as a reason the PG-13 rating for The Expendables feels more misguided and grotesque than usual. Because the truth of the matter is that a PG-13 rating on a movie as violent as The Expendables 3 would have been as urgent, as detestable, and as flawed in any other time period as it is right now. The fact that The Expendables 3 walked away from the MPAA with a PG-13 qualifies as a joke. But it isn’t a laughing matter. I don’t have an easy solution. Nor do I have any use for the MPAA and its broken system. They made an inexcusable mistake with The Expendables 3. An inexcusable mistake that shows the policies they rely on no longer work.