The Expendables 2 is exactly what you want it to be, and nothing more. It’s an extravaganza of big explosions, awful puns, ancient stars and barely-there plotting. Like all good ensemble pictures, there’s an ample serving of cheese to pay off the audience’s nerdvestment in the icons they came to see. Joss Whedon successfully recognised that fact with The Avengers earlier this year, as Stallone does here.
Where Whedon’s dialogue was razor-sharp and his CG-infused spectacle colourful and unashamedly comic book, Stallone’s eye is directed at altogether trashier territory. The film stock is grimy, the dialogue creaks even before being delivered by ageing actors not recognised for vocal finesse, and the only flashes of colour come from bad guys being torn apart by bullets. It’s fun in its own way, and despite struggling to find the iconic moments Whedon brought so effortlessly, a clear step up from its predecessor and a solid example of the giddy pleasures a straightforward actioner has to offer.
The Expendables 2
Director: Simon West
Release Date: August 17, 2012
Expendables is as much a superhero movie as Avengers. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis and their ilk may have sported different names and costumes with each project, but their legacies are as clearly and individually defined as Captain America or Iron Man. No-one has ever been to see a Schwarzenegger movie for the character, only the actor and the characteristics carried over: the accent, the one-liners, the implausibly large guns (muscle and mechanical), explosions big enough to level continents. It’s a point Stallone would do well to recognise, because for all Expendables 2‘s merits, perhaps its biggest disappointment is how interchangeable each of the actors’ roles turn out to be.
True, Lundgren provides some (weak) comic relief and Statham’s Lee Christmas fights in a more balletic fashion than his comrades, but the movie rarely makes substantial use of its stars’ personas. Chuck Norris doesn’t kick anyone, Stallone ignores the blue collar roots which made Rambo and Rocky so winning, as does Bruce Willis with John McClane’s grumpiness. The gang’s all here, firing guns and blowing stuff up, and it’s sufficient, but not as fulfilling as it could be. References to Rambo, McClane, Terminator and even Chuck Norris facts are forced into the dialogue and sit uncomfortably, although Arnie’s first recall of his trademark catchphrase is at least delivered with such stupid bombast it’s hard not to feel a cheer coming on.
The cast is mostly differentiated by the range of lousiness with which they deliver their limited dialogue, with Statham being the best – Christmas’ perpetual huffiness is fun – and Schwarzenegger and Norris tying for dead last. In a class of his own is Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing a villain named Vilain, a touch as magnificent as it is lazy, with the most peculiar syllable emphasis this side of Christopher Walken. Combined with his soupy accent and evil sunglasses, he’s more than enough fun to give the film the memorable bad guy presence so lacking in the first Expendables, even if he doesn’t actually do much.
It’s a shame Van Damme is the only big name on the side of evil, because it leaves few opportunities for the big names to be pitted against one another. The climactic battle between Stallone and Van Damme is passable but over-cut and lacking a sense of danger (but definitely not some curiously blatant homoerotic dialogue), with the only other smackdown of note being between Jason Statham and Scott Adkins, two of the least iconic actors in the series. True, their relative youth gives the fight an energy that the older cast members would struggle to emulate, but lacks the nerdy pleasure of the Lundgren – Li fight from the first movie. Speaking of Li, he disappears from the movie entirely after the first fifteen minutes, swapped out Asian-for-Asian with Yu Nan. She brings a welcome whisper of soulfulness to break up the rampant machismo, but watching her fight (when she’s given a rare opportunity) cannot match the excitement of watching an icon like Li in full flow.
On the plus side, cramming everyone onto a single team does lead to a slightly wonderful sequence near the end where Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger and Norris gun their way through an airport full of heavily armed mercenaries. (They actually start shooting before most of the civilians have fled, but let’s put aside such minor indiscretions). Though it would be an improvement to be able to distinguish even one defining characteristic for each character, watching the genre’s golden generation of action heroes working in destructive tandem is an unabashed delight. The sight of Willis and Schwarzenegger commandeering a smart car in typically furious fashion is as close as the movie comes to attempting an iconic scene on its own terms, hinting at how spectacular the series could be if Stallone and his co-writers were bolder in giving their audience something new to enjoy rather depending so heavily on memories of action past.
Director Simon West handles the action well tidily, ditching the shakycam and giving Statham and Yu enough full body shots to convey the brutal grace of their fighting styles. The grey and brown cinematography captures the right militaristic tone, and while Bryan Tyler’s score is perfunctory, it does what it needs to do, backing up the action without intruding. Despite a brief dip between missions, the pace rattles along at a solid clip and extraneous scenes are at a premium even in the short running time, they’re fun enough to justify themselves without a need for narrative context. Using such terms in an Expendables review is frankly absurd: this is a movie whose sole ambition is to deliver plenty of bang for your buck without such unwanted complications as story getting in the way of the fun, and for the most part it succeeds. A third entry might consider giving its stars a little more room to shine individually and perhaps a slightly more robust plot, but anyone disappointed by the original will find this much closer to their initial expectations, even if it doesn’t aim high enough to exceed them.