Let’s be honest. Movies like The Expendables aren’t for everyone. But they are made for a specific target audience, namely people who like seeing s#!t blown up good, with occasional winks from the onscreen players. Sly Stallone and co-writers David Callaham & Richard Wenk seem to understand this better than most. They don’t make these movies to enlighten audiences, deliver any form of moral message or attempt to even call this stuff art. They are the purest form of popcorn entertainment, a disposable pleasure that even lovers of good cinema are guilty of enjoying.
Over the past six years, Stallone has once again become a viable commodity in Hollywood, starring and directing sequels to both the Rocky and Rambo franchises that not only brought some closure to those series, but turned modest profits as well. The Expendables seemed like a harebrained scheme that only a fan of 80′s action movies would dream up: pack a number of big and small named action stars from the last three decades into a film and see what happens. The film wasn’t perfect and Stallone and Callaham’s story of a band of mercenaries hired to bring down a dictator needed work. But by God, it was dumb, bloody good fun. Heavy on the blood.
Serving as both star and director, Stallone barely made it through the production of The Expendables after suffering a back injury during a stunt with co-star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Realizing he had a potential franchise on his hands, after the film enjoyed strong success at the box-office, Stallone stepped aside, handing the reigns to director Simon West as he cooked up a new story with writer Richard Wenk. Wenk wrote forgettable films like 16 Blocks and Just the Ticket, but he made his debut with the cult movie Vamp, which back in the 80′s featured a perfect blend of horror and comedy making him the perfect choice to expand upon the tone established in The Expendables. Bigger, better, funnier, bloodier. The Expendables 2 is even more outrageous than it’s predecessor and wild time at the movies that’s definitely not for the faint of heart. It improves upon mistakes made in the first film and although it features a handful of new ones, they’re forgivable because the film is an exercise in popcorn entertainment.
Stallone returns as lead Expendable Barney Ross, leader of a band of mercenaries that include Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hail Caesar (Terry Crews). Tasked with rescuing a kidnapped Chinese billionaire from a fortress in Nepal, the film opens with one of the most outrageous over-the-top action sequences in recent years. This twenty-minute pre-title assault will give you more bang for your buck than the first Expendables in its entirety. Stallone and Wenk are practically winking at their audience saying “have a look at this crazy s#!t we’ve cooked up.” It’s as if the characters themselves know they’re in a movie, hitting all the right comedic and action beats in a symphony of ultra-violence.
New to the Expendables team is former army sniper, Billy “The Kid” (Liam Hemsworth) a wet behind the ears, yet noble young lad who Barney has taken under his wing. The main story gets going when Bruce Willis as CIA operative Mr. Church returns, a little sore at Barney from stealing $5 million from him in a previous operation. To settle his debt, Barney agrees to locate a downed aircraft containing a safe, whose contents you can bet must not end up in the wrong hands. Joining them on the mission at Church’s request is Maggie (Yu Nan) a Chinese agent who may be a girl, but can hold her own quite well with the boys. Just as they’re about to complete their mission, the team is ambushed by another team of mercenaries, known as “The Sangs”. Their leader is an outright villain and we know this, not because his name is Jean Vilain (Get it?), but because he makes an example out of one of the Expendables, killing him in front of the team. I’m not even going to tell you which team member it is, only that I never liked him to begin with. Even when the character is given a monologue, revealing his back-story, I tuned out and began thinking about what I was going to have for dinner.
Just as the story begins to slow down, becoming familiar and even generic, Jean-Claude Van Damme lightens up the proceedings as Vilain, a cocky yet formidable antagonist whose plan to go into business for himself threatens the world. The MacGuffin of the piece is a cache of weapons grade plutonium, left behind by the Russians after the cold war that Vilain and his goons plan to make a fortune from. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that after losing one of their own, Barney and the team are in the mood for a little payback and we’re eager to see how they’re gonna do it.
Expendables 2, doesn’t make the same mistakes as the first film, by incorporating such unnecessary story elements like a father-daughter conflict, a romantic interest for Stallone or Statham taking a side trip to teach a lesson to his cheating girlfriend. Charisma Carpenter as the girlfriend, now fiance, is only seen once in a bar scene, and though Nan’s Maggie displays some form of a crush towards Barney, it’s never explored. There’s a sub-plot involving the Sangs using villagers as slave labor and their women pleading for the Expendables to help, but thank God they don’t go as far as having wives packing AK-47′s joining the fight. This is about a group of bad-asses, blindly going in to fight another group of bad-asses and the mayhem that ensues.
Expanding upon his cameo in the first Expendables, Willis’s Mr. Church get in on the action late in the game as does Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench, a rival mercenary, who much to his chagrin discovers he now owes Barney one. If you asked me twenty years ago would we ever see action juggernauts like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis, share the silver screen, guns blazing, I would have told you, “no”. Yet here they are, onscreen in several shots that will no doubt become iconic as the trio take on Vilain and his army during an assault at an airport. Again the three of them seem to be aware that they’re in an action movie, delivering the iconic lines they’re known for.
Schwarzenegger: “I’m almost out of ammo. I’LL BE BACK!”
Willis” “Wait a minute, you’ve been back already. It’s my turn. I’ll be back.
Also making an appearance is Chuck Norris as fellow mercenary and friend to our heroes, “Booker”, who has one of the most hilarious introductions in the film. Lines are thrown around like “I hear you are a ‘Lone Wolf’”, but it’s another exchange between Norris and Stallone that perfectly represents the tone of this film. Stallone: “I heard you were dead. Bitten by a cobra? Norris: Yeah, and after five days of agonizing pain…the cobra died.”
Think I’m spoiling it for you? Don’t worry, there are plenty of other great lines found in Expendables 2 and this time the banter and humor amongst the team is just perfect. Couture and Crews have their bickering going on, while Lundgren, who went off the deep end last time, reveals what a crazy genius Gunnar really is. Stallone’s fleshed out his Rocky IV co-star’s role a bit, making Gunnar a former student at MIT who dropped out to become a bouncer “because of a girl.” His performance is a little more reserved this time out, even the manner in which he reacts to Schwarzenegger calling him “Frankenstein”, but it’s some of Lundgren’s best work in quite some years.
Where Expendables 2 slips up is that there’s not enough of Van Damme. Though he’s given some really strong support by Scott Adkins – a bastard of a sidekick who has a very good fight with Statham – you can count the number of scenes Van Damme appears in on one hand. It’s also a bit of a cheat that Jet Li’s Yang disappears early in the picture (he doesn’t die, but I guess he had that 3D wuxia movie to make with Tsui Hark), but films of this type are often as good as their villains and a little more of “the muscles from Brussels” would’ve been a plus. What’s remarkable is that one forgets what an underrated actor Van Damme really is. (See JCVD is you don’t believe me) He has such presence that the threat of his character is felt even when he’s not onscreen. Yes, Van Damme was foolish for turning down Stallone to play in the first film, but that was probably a good thing. Here is a role tailored just for him. Tension slowly builds over the course of the story to that crucial moment when Van Damme will finally face off with Stallone and though it’s quick and dirty, their final conflict gives the story some emotional juice.
With this sequel, Stallone and Wenk seemed to have ironed out many of the wrinkles found in its predecessor. Simon West’s direction keeps things moving, with banter and character beats that feel natural and action sequences that snowball into incredible mayhem. On occasion, there are moments that induce eye-rolling, but one has to realize this is something you absolutely can not take seriously. Sure, the actors involved may be getting more than a little too old to be doing this – one of the characters even acknowledges they all belong in a museum – but they all accomplish their tasks of delivering some great fun. It ain’t high art, man, just an entertaining assault on your senses and funny bone. Do like I did and see it with the biggest, loudest audience you can.