Destroy All Monsters: Expendable Equalizers Walk Among Tombstones

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Destroy All Monsters: Expendable Equalizers Walk Among Tombstones

Is Hollywood's fascination with the older male asskicker a new thing? Its resurgence certainly seems to be. I know there were Death Wish sequels in the '80s; and before that, I know John Wayne kept shooting at people long past the age most people stop. Unforgiven took the form and turned it into meaningful criticism. Et cetera, et cetera.

But this thing that's going on now, where Liam Neeson has a particular set of skills and/or Denzel Washington works at Home Depot but secretly kicks ass? It feels new. And it feels like it has something of a surly, selfish purpose.

I mark the start of the operation at around 2007, or Live Free Or Die Hard (sometimes called Die Hard 4). We could also, more charitably, tag Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI), and in both cases we'd be looking at films that were notable for a few common reasons. The lasting impact: they were the prototypes for a now-omnipresent Hollywood trend of excavating '70s and '80s pop culture franchises, and tossing out a new, late-in-the-game sequel that paid little particular heed to the fact that its lead character was now fairly explicitly stale-dated. Indiana Jones IV followed in short order (and we all know how that went), and plans to do the same for the Ghostbusters fermented for half a decade before finally burping up enough swamp gas to sideline the project into reboot status.

Of these, Rocky Balboa was the only one that really worked - however tenuously - in that it legitimately addressed the life of its character, and attempted to close the loop on an arc that began when Rocky was in his twenties and believably beating the shit out of people.

Die Hard 4, however, was the interesting one, and is the film that I think gave birth to all the elder-asskicker semi-franchises that followed in its wake (The Equalizer, The Expendables, and the loose conglomerate of Liam Neeson films that seem to be their own weird, extradiegetic saga: Taken, The Grey, and A Walk Among the Tombstones among them, with Tak3n on the way).

Die Hard 4 was interesting because it seemed to be a reaction to something. I'm not convinced it was intentional (in fact, given Len Wiseman and Bruce Willis' respective track records, I'm fairly convinced it was not), but with its focus on Homeland Security, metrosexual digital terrorists, and wayward adult offspring running amuck (from a pissed-off fiftysomething dad's standpoint, anyway) in the social media age, Die Hard 4 seemed less like a sequel and more like a resurrection.

It was a resurrection of a set of ideals in American action movies from the 1980s that had thinned and diluted in the years since. The 1990s and 2000s saw the ascendance of the sensitive male hero, usually gifted with supernatural powers (the Spider-Mans, the Frodos, the Harry Potters), all of them lily-white nerds whose non-traditional masculinity never seemed to disrupt their ability to become ballerina-like killing machines (Legolas, Jason Bourne, and Neo).

But the 1980s were ruled by a different breed. The Reagan breed! The American foreign policy breed! The Rambos, the John McClanes, the whoever-the-fuck-Chuck-Norris-was-playing-this-week! The movies where Sylvester Stallone literally beat down the Soviet aggressor in a title match that would decide the fate of world domination (or something). The ones where the heroes had biceps, and frequently ripped their shirts off (and hoisted a grimy machine gun) to prove it.

It's the collision between these two eras that made Die Hard 4 interesting, because John McClane seemed to have wandered into 2007 without noticing that the previous 15 years had gone by. He was pissed off, and became more so as the movie went on; and he evinced a conservative, patriarchal worldview that skates thinly on the far side of politically correct. At one point, he fights, and kills, the lead villain's half-Asian girlfriend - a person half his age and a third his size - ripping out some of her hair and later taunting the bad guy about how completely he killed the fuck out of her.

The whole movie played like that fight: an overwrought wail, of nearly sexual frustration, with the erasure of older, clearer values and the impotence this had wrought. John McClane seemed to be placed in the film to rewire (or, at least, mock) all the elements of social progress he stumbled across in his race to the finish.

Die Hard 4 wasn't an enormous success (and all of its subtext above, again, I presume to be entirely unintentional), but it was successful enough to mint a sequel and perhaps convince Hollywood on some subliminal level that people will pay to see men over the age of fifty wail on people younger than them. Or, more accurately, the mission statement would be: "set things right."

There's a presumptive subtext to a Taken or an Equalizer (or even The Expendables movies, though at a greater remove) that slings all the way back to Father Knows Best, and underlines exactly that. Semi-retired or no, these Sylvesters, Denzels, and Liams know things about how to deal with an aggressive and unfriendly world that the younger generations in each case has either forgotten or never knew in the first place.

Their methods are light on negotiation, and perhaps more importantly, entirely absent any obligation to emotional empathy or contextual reasoning. There's just Good, and Bad; Right, and Wrong. Back in the '70s, this kind of free-handed moralizing was reserved for the Travis Bickles of the world; nowadays, Travis would easily be able to raise himself an army if he took a notion to (and if they cast De Niro in Expendables 4, he probably will).

And why does it work? Why is it appealing?

Well, for those reasons, if nothing else. It's simple. It doesn't require empathy, or reasoning. There's just Good, and Good tends to be older, and American (or at the very least, expat British, per The November Man) and obviously male; and Bad, which tends to be Eastern European (because, I guess, using Middle Eastern terrorists would flip the "subtext" right over into "text" territory), or the "wrong" kind of (younger) American.

There's little room for women, except as victims, body parts or whores (Taken, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Equalizer, respectively), little room for racial minorities except in Denzel-level movie-star turns (though Jet Li and Wesley Snipes get to play in The Expendables franchise). The films tend to force, through the enormity of the elder males' hero deeds, the younger generation to acknowledge a debt of respect they may not have been paying at the start of the film.

Most importantly, of course, the films succeed because there's no room given for the basic reality that underpins the entire wish fulfillment exercise in the first place: firstly, that a guy my dad's age could ever kick my ass, even if he were Denzel Washington; and two, that things will ever go back to the way they were.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto, just turned 38, and has given up on his particular set of skills.

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
A Walk Among The TombstonesDenzel WashingtonLiam NeesonLive Free or Die Hard

More about Destroy All Monsters (Matt Brown)

More about The Equalizer

Around the Internet