Double the Van Damage
Twenty one years ago this weekend, with his career at its zenith, and our love affair with human special effects not yet withered, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an action colossus, barely contained by Panavision, bestrode the world’s screens as a reformed cyborg, a sort of artificial new man, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. That James Cameron had felt the need to soften the inhuman killing machine, re-writing his murderous sub-routines to process the nurture instinct, to contemplate compassion, should have alerted us to the beginning of the action hero’s decline. Then it seemed like a harmless wheeze, a rug-pulling inversion of the original film’s central relationship, but with hindsight it marks the moment that Arnie, along with other 80’s action alumni, started to look like anachronisms. If filmmakers no longer felt comfortable championing ultra-right fascist heroes who exercised their masculinity without doubt or apology, then the actors who’d made their name with such roles were doomed.
In 2012 Schwarzenegger, now an inanimate lug, rubbery muscle wrapped around calcified bone, cameos in The Expendables 2, Simon West’s continuation of the Stallone project to resurrect the shit kickers of yesteryear for today’s action nostalgists: an original take on self-employment. Several things strike you about the Austrian’s appearance, observations that double as shorthand for the movie’s woes. For a start, Arnie’s forgotten whatever he knew about acting. Granted that wasn’t the motherload, but his delivery is as laboured as his quips. We’re left to wonder if he really was a robot and the internal mechanics have now rusted.
Schwarzenegger moves like he’s been animated by Ray Harryhausen. That’s not his fault, he’s 65, but the undignifying spectacle, added to the beef jerky torso of Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren’s full body decrepitude and the face of the muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, freshly imported from Gunther Von Hagens’ Bodyworks exhibition, remind us that these men were never intended to be blown up in their dotage. Watching them grind out the lines, failing to form words and massacring faceless militia, a hairless Bruce Willis looking on, feels like walking into a photographic studio and finding a glamour model from the 1970s, now of pensionable age, posing for topless photographs. Boys, you can lie to yourselves but not the camera.
The Expendables 2 has read the 80’s action playbook well enough; it’s daft and inconsequential like its predecessor, a plot centred on revenge and a mission to stop the ingredients to a bomb falling into the wrong hands; but like Stallone’s first pass, there are too many concessions to the modern marketplace, compromises that make no sense if the audience is who Stallone thinks it is, and too much on-screen effort employed in reviving what once came naturally.
Those concessions, rapid cuts and CGI (didn’t Sly see that documentary about those squib making families who have been living on welfare for 20 years?), preclude the possibility of recapturing the archive spirit. There’s simply too much 21st century glaze on the old meat. Meanwhile, only the newbies, the likes of Jason Statham, move convincingly and vomit out the one-liners with any zeal. Proof perhaps that a surfeit of testosteronic slaughter is one thing (I grew a full beard watching the first 10 minutes), but that mass murder is a young man’s game. “I’ll be back,” says Arnie during the climatic shoot out, ironically, inevitably. Let’s hope not too many more times for the sake of those teenagers who saw T2 all those summers ago and couldn’t imagine the Terminator ever getting old.