Out of action: The Expendables has thrown cinema back to the bad old days of muscle-bound 1980s bombast

Did you really think the macho overkill of 1980s cinema had been terminated? As 'The Expendables' lumbers on to the big screen, Shane Danielsen laments the return of the steroidal action epic

Around about 1980, Hollywood movies either fell into decline or became awesome. And where you stand in that debate might have as much to do with your age as your preferences.

For anyone born after 1970, too young to have experienced the New American Cinema of the first half of that decade, a trip to the multiplex (itself a recent development) promised a steady diet of blockbusters, designed for speed, spectacle, and not much else. Big stories, big budgets; action, heroism; clearly defined heroes and villains. Jaws and Star Wars built the stage; The Terminator and Die Hard lined up to fill it.

It didn't hurt, of course, that this bombast marched in lockstep with the times. To call films such as Robocop and Top Gun examples of Reaganite cinema might smack, today, of lazy critical shorthand – yet how else should we view them? Once a mere supporting player, an unexceptional second-stringer, Ronald Wilson Reagan was now a kind of unofficial studio head, with producers such as Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus eager to export his vision of Yankee triumphalism.

Now jump forward a quarter-century, to 2010. New wars, new economic pressures, an American administration ostensibly very different to that of Reagan – and The Expendables, perhaps the strangest throwback of the year. Teaming 1980s action vets (Sylvester Stallone, inset right, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger), with marginally fresher faces (Jet Li, Jason Statham), it promises widescreen mayhem in the grand old style: big guns, big explosions, and a couple of pithy one-liners.

You might think this film is 20 years too late, that it has no place in the America of Obama, Jon Stewart and National Public Radio. You'd be wrong. Rather than the crude throwback it appears at first glance, its strong initial testing, combined with the "fuck YEAH!" tone of its online champions, suggests it might still speak for something in the American psyche – and do so, furthermore, far more passionately, if not eloquently, than any number of wizard, superhero or teen-vampire franchises. The appeal of Tobey Maguire's sensitive, troubled Spider-Man and Robert Pattinson's troubled, sensitive blood-sucker may still be lost to a Baltimore dock-worker.

Only one thing has changed: though most of its cast identify with the Republican party (Willis, Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin are all GOP supporters – while Arnie's fealty is a matter of electoral record), this can no longer be regarded as Republican film-making. It's Tea Party cinema: manichean in its worldview, pissed off in a directionless, agitated way, and eager for immediate and definitive solutions.

Midway through its second act, the film makes a vague nod in the direction of official sanction: the team has been sent into a Latin American hellhole by a CIA that's curiously unwilling to dirty its own hands. But this is smoke and mirrors. Mostly, the set-up revisits the old, familiar formula: a bunch of mavericks playing by their own rules, and achieving results that traditional means cannot. The inference here being that government, with its pesky procedures, its at-least stated allegiance to international treaties and the rule of law, is impotent, out of touch, and best ignored.

As such, The Expendables aligns itself squarely with the get-out-of-my-way inclinations of a significant part of Middle America right now – an audience frustrated, in recent years, by the absence of uncomplicated heroism on screen. And commercially, at least, its timing could hardly be better. After a spate of feel-bad War on Terror-themed dramas – some of them (Syriana, In the Valley of Elah) coming as close as anything in the past 30 years to the baffled, reflective tone of post-Vietnam Hollywood cinema – both audiences and the studios were looking for a change.

Downbeat, self-castigating, sincere in their intentions, those films seemed to unnerve the public, both at home and abroad. Reality was too harsh, its lessons too harrowing. Easier, by far, to retreat into fantasy, where the most pressing choice was whether to cast one's lot with Team Edward or Team Jacob.

There have, of course, been big-budget action movies this decade – the Bourne franchise, for example. But the paranoid, trust-nobody tone of those films is unsettling rather than reassuring. The world it depicts lacks obvious heroes and villains. The motivations are too complex; there are too many shades of grey. And Matt Damon is no Chuck Norris.

The Expendables is Stallone's response. He co-wrote it. He directed it – though not especially well. And, like any proud parent, he's slightly defensive about any perceived shortcomings. A few weeks ago, shortly before the first reviews appeared, he made a pre-emptive strike, not only arguing that the film marks a deliberate return to 1980s-era heroics, but acknowledging that it was a genre in dire need of resuscitation, having been sidelined for years by "comic-book movies".

But what was Rambo: First Blood Part 2, if not a comic book? Or Cobra? Their heroes might not have worn masks or capes, but their superhuman ability to withstand pain, their seeming imperviousness to injury or superior odds, their clear-cut sense of good and evil, manifest destiny versus godless avarice, were all right out of the DC Comics playbook.

Stallone, however, was insistent. Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, he said, represented the asteroid to his dinosaur – not only because of what he called its reliance on "Velcro muscles", but because it subordinated the hero to production design and special effects: "The visuals took over. The effects became more important than the single person. That was the beginning of the end."

As amusing as the star's plaint might be, he has a point: the onset of CGI irrevocably transformed the action-film genre. To a fan of Bullitt back in 1968, Transformers might be the product of an alien culture, at once more advanced and more dim-witted than their own.

Given this mistrust of technology, it's not surprising that The Expendables is a distinctly analogue movie, not only in the remarkable cruddiness of its images, but in the resolute low-tech of its spectacle. A film where considerably more of the budget was spent on gunpowder than on digital rendering, its terms are plainly quotidian: no lasers, just bullets.

But Stallone misses the bigger picture: the audience's movement from willed simplicity to a kind of post-ironic cynicism. Burton's Batman has not aged well – and frankly pales beside the sophistication of Christopher Nolan's two efforts – but for all its flaws, it did provide a timely counterpoint to the square-jawed, unvarnished heroism of most 1980s action blockbusters. It changed the genre more than just visually: its brooding, conflicted tone urged a reconsideration of the viewers' sympathies, and made over-stuffed mesomorphs like Stallone and Arnie seem as outdated as John Wayne.

Likewise, the films they made. When the Cold War ended, it took with it the idea of the dread adversary... at least for a while. And as the US economy improved, shaking off the recession of the early 1980s, anxiety gave way to the complacency that accompanies consumption. By the time Bill Clinton was returned to power, American cinema was in a phase as comfortable and decadent as the 1960s, and churning out films such as Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption.

Yet, times have changed again, and it's the very ambiguity of America's current situation – the seeming impossibility of victory in Afghanistan or resolution in Iraq, the ever more ephemeral and capricious nature of personal wealth – that makes easy answers suddenly desirable. Action movies are hardly noted for the subtlety of their political opinions; they are, by definition, simplistic texts. But recent releases such as The Expendables, The A-Team and The Losers all conjure a believable yet simpler world, one in which discussion is for pinheads, and artillery speaks louder than words. Which, of course, it does.

What they have in common is the feeling – long cultivated by conservatives – that America is alone in the world: unable to depend on its allies, encircled by threats. One should never underestimate the usefulness of an adversary. It is the very essence of US foreign policy – and, increasingly, of its film-making.

Consider Red Dawn, a 1984 action flick directed and co-written by noted Hollywood conservative John Milius, in which a band of plucky youngsters form a band of guerillas to resist the occupation of America by Soviet forces. The film became a favourite of right-wingers everywhere, and its legacy endures to this day. Not only did it provide the name, 19 years later, for the US military operation to capture Saddam Hussein ("I'm deeply flattered and honoured," said Milius at the time), but a remake has recently been shot – though the film is currently stalled in post-production, pending the sale of its studio, MGM. It's the same premise, but with one significant difference: this time, the invaders are Chinese.

'The Expendables' is out now

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