You’d think putting together an action ensemble of some of the best muscle-bound men to ever grace the silver screen warrants an effort that goes beyond casting, but that’s not what we got in 2010’s “The Expendables.” The healthy dose of blood spatter and explosions certainly whetted action fans’ appetites, but the film ultimately fell short on a number of fronts.
Well, it seems that Stallone and co. heard the criticism, and so it’s a relief to say that “The Expendables 2” is a distinct improvement and in the simplest way — giving us a story worth a damn.
The two big improvements are so fundamental it’s hard to understand just why they were ignored the first time around: a formidable villain and a purer motivation for ass-kicking. In scouting other action stars of the past to join the fray for the sequel, bravo to whoever’s bright idea it was to not just add them to the list of heroes. Jean Claude Van Damme makes a perfect villain just merely by the esteem in which he’s held in action fans’ eyes. All that needs to be said about his performance is there are roundhouse kicks.
As for the motivation piece, it’s as simple as revenge. Although Church (Bruce Willis) starts the plot going by telling Barney Ross (Stallone) that he owes him, the mission morphs into one of avenging a fallen comrade, and it’s done tastefully enough that we actually care.
From an action perspective, “The Expendables 2” opens with a James Bond-esque pre-credits scene on steroids. The mission in this opening has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but grabs our attention instantly in addition to being all kinds of fun. Director Simon West, who takes the reigns from Stallone in the first film, uses this scene to set the tone early: You will get blood, explosions and badassery of the highest order in this movie — so don’t freak out when we try to give you a story and actually develop the characters later on.
In addition to more Church and a lot more Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the other characters seem to get real personalities. Dolph Lundgren’s character, Gunnar, in particular, is hysterical in this film, whereas in the first he had a weird role as a bipolar freak who turns on his old team. In general, the sense of humor is vastly improved and the camaraderie between all the characters feels more natural.
“The Expendables 2” also gets distinctly more self aware and meta, so much so to the point where you don’t see the characters, just the actors who play them. Gunnar, for example, is painted as a scientific genius turned mercenary, which is true to Lundgren’s life story subbing “mercenary” for “action star.” This instance in particular helps expand the palette of personalities in the group, but other instances come off as just pandering. Pretty much everything Schwarzenegger says, for example, is derived from one of his famous one-liners of the past. At times it’s funny, at others just pitiful.
The script’s preoccupation with both massaging the stars’ egos and jabbing at them with deprecating humor doesn’t take too much away from the blowing bad guys away spirit of the movie. The action still plays out like “Grand Theft Auto” with all the cheats turned on, but there’s something sickly satisfying about that approach, especially in a movie that so clearly recognizes that its audience didn’t come for the realism. Plus, the concept of putting all these actors together in itself is larger than life.
Most every actor gets a moment in the sun, but many do in odds ways. The handling of Chuck Norris’ “lone wolf” character makes no degree of sense, which is consequently amusing somehow, Jet Li and Liam Hemsworth get a chance to look badass but aren’t in the film from beginning to end, and Randy Couture is just scenery.
On the contrary, Jason Statham gets a ridiculously slick knife sequence and Sly and JCVD play a game of fisticuffs in the finale to balance out the absurd degree of gunfire. Not part of the marketing but a major piece in the film is Nan Yu as Maggie Chen, who adds brains to the mission as well as a chance for Stallone to tell a woman he can’t get close to her because of the life he leads.
“The Expendables 2” is the same degree of testosterone-jacked fun as the first film, only this time the cast, writers and directors decide to give us a little extra in the story to make it worth our while.
The Expendables 2
Directed by Simon West
Written by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, Ken Kaufman, David Agosto, David Callaham (characters)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Nan Yu, Jean Claude Van Damme