Of the many action blockbusters released every summer, one of this year’s hits was The Expendables, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, and featuring cameo appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film tells the story of a bunch of ageing mercenaries, led by Barney Ross (Stallone), who are hired to free the imaginary South American country of Vilena from the yoke of evil dictator General Garza (David Zayas). Reluctant at first to carry out this assignment, Ross eventually decides to take it up out of concern for rebel leader Sandra, who has been kidnapped by Garza. The small group of “expendables” go to Vilena, quickly obliterate its national army in combat, and liberate the country. Everything ends happily.

Predictably, as is often the case with this kind of film, The Expendables was received with a mostly negative critical response but performed strongly in the box office across the world (the film had grossed over 250 million dollars by the end of September). As most reviewers and critics noted, it represents a nostalgic return to the 1980s action film, along the lines of Commando, Predator, Rambo (II and III), and Die Hard. This subgenre, characterised by the presence of a lonely, muscular male hero who puts things right by killing the bad guys with an assorted variety of weapons, came to be regarded as the cinematic expression of the conservative political ideology prevalent in Hollywood during the Reagan era. The films are mostly Manichean, patriarchal, chauvinistic, and xenophobic. The Expendables is clearly inscribed within this tradition of action film: a group of bodybuilder-type heroes, violent but righteous, fight against evil Somali pirates and South American drug-trafficking warlords. The only two female characters in the film are there solely to be rescued by the men, and the representation of South American characters is limited to the most obvious stereotypes (General Garza cannot even speak Spanish – his mother tongue – properly).

One should legitimately ponder whether it is worth to complain about this kind of issues anymore. After all, blockbusters tend to be Manichean, unsophisticated, and, hardly being character-driven films, draw heavily on stereotype. Regarding the representation of South American characters and places, The Expendables is merely one example in a long list of movies in which the filmmakers have hardly bothered to make sure they get at least some details right about the subject matter they are portraying. The fact that the supposedly Hispanic characters in the film don’t even speak Spanish properly can hardly be considered unique. To mention only one example, in the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, one of the characters is a Bolivian general (General Medrano) plotting to overthrow the democratically-elected president. Played by a Mexican actor (Joaquín Cosío), he speaks with a strong Mexican accent, and neither the director nor the producers bothered to try to change this. But at least in Quantum of Solace the CIA is portrayed as having close ties with the villains, a global corporation who wants to set up a puppet government in Bolivia in order to gain access to its natural resources. A similar distrust of American military and security forces can be seen in other recent action films such as the Bourne trilogy and Green Zone. But this is not the case in The Expendables, even though the film attempts to moderate its “us versus them” premise by having an evil character that is American rather than South American. This is James Munroe (Eric Roberts), who pulls the strings behind General Garza – but it is clearly established that he is a former CIA agent turned bad, a renegade agent whom the CIA itself wants to put out of the picture. There is nothing critical behind this plotline.

It could be argued that the film, as many reviewers pointed out, is completely incoherent and has no purpose other than to display a series of disconnected action scenes: car chases, hand to hand fights, and shootouts. However, the presence of racist and sexist overtones in works of popular culture should be treated seriously. Popular films both reflect prevalent social values and ideas and help to disseminate them. Even if it is hardly original to level an accusation of bigotry and sexism against a film like The Expendables, not everybody seems to be aware of these subtexts. For example, Sheri Linden, reviewing the film for The Hollywood Reporter, writes that “Americans are both heroes and villains in The Expendables, which avoids political specifics while embracing brute force as righteous retribution — and shows the bad guys resorting to waterboarding. It can be an uneasy mix, but mostly it’s played on too broad a scale to take seriously.”[1]

Linden’s review not only dismisses the film’s overt ethnocentrism (by saying its politics should not be taken seriously), but it also seems to imply that The Expendables is critical of recent American interventions in the Middle East (because it is the bad guys who resort to waterboarding). However, this is far from the case. Even if the politics in the film are not specific, we are still presented with a scenario in which the CIA sends a group of armed men to invade a country and liberate it by overthrowing its dictatorial government, thus justifying American military interventionism. Moreover, it is clear that the South American country of Vilena is completely dependent, for good and bad, on the Americans who decide to intervene in it. The presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, now turned politician and governor of California, serves only to legitimate the political discourse of the film.

As mentioned, none of this is new in this type of film. However, one should be careful not to dismiss The Expendables as a mere exercise in filmmaking nostalgia, or as an attempt by Stallone to go back to the formula that made him a successful star. American military interventionism and the increasing discrimination against Hispanic immigrants in the US are clearly current political problems, not some relics from the 1980s. Despite its incoherent narrative and action-centred plot, The Expendables is indirectly endorsing these issues.

[1] Sheri Linden, “The Expendables – Film Review”, The Hollywood Reporter (August 04, 2010).