Only Women Bleed? The Expendables, Salt, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Posted by Charles Reece, August 22, 2010 09:11pm | Post a Comment
Over the past couple of weeks I've watched the latest action films: Phillip Noyce's Salt, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables and Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Each is sort of aimed at a particular target audience, at least to the degree that one accepts that we like to identify with an action hero who's more like us. Respectively, that means woman, man and teenager/young adult. I'm not so sure about that, since I just like to see people beating each other up, regardless of demographics. And I'm still hoping for a gay action film, but not one made for video or that takes place in prison. That is to say, I don't much care how close I am to the protagonist. But I still find it fascinating how these three films reflect age and gender.

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The most old-fashioned of the bunch is The Expendables (if the 80s is considered old), not just due to the waxy countenances of its stars or to Stallone's preference for building sets and then destroying them with real-life explosives, but because women in his film are not to be hit. This rule isn't so much a moral one, but an effect of the way the women characters are used. Since we're dealing with a group of mercenaries, and killing for money isn't exactly a sympathetic endeavor, the script provides women for the star members -- Stallone, Jason Statham and Jet Li -- to care about. Although we never get to see Li's wife and kids, we're made aware that he kills in order to support them. Statham has a girlfriend (played by my favorite ex-Buffy cast member, Charisma Carpenter) who's shacked up with a new boyfriend due to the former's tendency to mysteriously vanish for months at a time. Her new beau is a yuppie who beats on her. In the scene that received the most cheers from the audience, Statham exacts punishment on the yuppie and his bros on a basketball court while the girlfriend watches in admiration. His comment to her is something like, "you should've waited for me." Using Rambo's moral calculus, bruising one woman's eye is far more evil than murdering a bunch of anonymous individuals for cash. As former Expendable turned tattoo artist cum team guru Mickey Rourke explains, if he had just saved one woman's life, his soul could've been saved. Thus, Stallone finds redemption in rescuing a Third World dictator's daughter (Giselle Itié) from being tortured by Eric Roberts' rogue CIA agent and his henchman, Stonecold Steve Austin. In order to do this, the Expendables have to lay waste to the imaginary Latin American country's capital, which will probably have disastrous effects on the country's infrastructure for years to come. But what's possible mass starvation and the death of who knows how many innocents when it comes to a man's soul? Perhaps if you feel bad about killing, you just shouldn't kill.

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Salt is everything the Black Widow should've been in the last Iron Man movie. There's a cornball plot about Russian sleeper agents infiltrating the highest ranks of the United States' security divisions, which is ultimately to serve the goal of starting a mass nuclear war. Somehow that's supposed to serve the agenda of Party purists. Rather than two capitalist countries going to war, if we're believed by the Russians to have struck first, they'll decide to be communists again. One would think that if the communists were so adept at rising through the ranks of rival governments rather than having to settle on opening a Russian bakery or driving a cab, they wouldn't have to start wars to take over the world. But I digress. Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is clearly a compromised agent (I won't spoil how much so, but suffice it to say there'll be sequels) who attempts to kill the Russian president (the story's set in the near future). Unlike the women in The Expendables, she has her own agenda, resisting the attempts of the men (both the Russians and the Americans) to subjugate and define her according to their respective ideologies. That she should receive an occasional fist to the face is a sign of progress, of woman as action subject rather than object.

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Despite its ironic retro-video game stylings and nerd-boy hero (Michael Cera, again), Scott Pilgrim is closer in spirit to Stallone's more earnest chivalry than Noyce's seemingly more contemporary feminism. Basically, Scott has to fight off all challengers -- the seven evil exes -- to win the love of Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). To modernize this fusty view of romantic conquest, one ex is a girl from Ramona's bi-curious phase. However, despite her having superpowers, striking first and the fact that no one bleeds in these battles, Scott won't fight her, so Ramona has to do it for him, sometimes using his body as a weapon. The ironic phrasing of the scene (including Scott saying, "I can't hit a girl") certainly makes it seem youthful, but it's just a mask for nothing much having changed with gender roles in action films. As Marx suggested of philosophy, awareness doesn't mean shit if it's not followed by action.

Relevant Tags

The Expendables (2), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2), Salt (2)