In a cinematic landscape dominated by computer-generated disasters and spandex-clad super heroes, The Expendables 2 offers viewers a chance to climb on a runaway nostalgia train that’s loaded to the gills with high-powered explosives and manned by aging, muscle-bound action stars. In other words, it comes exactly as advertised. This is take-no-prisoners, kill-em-all, us-against-the-world, whatever-other-cliché-you-can-possibly-name, unapologetic action in it’s purest, and most distilled form.
To say the film hits the ground running is an understatement. It kicks the viewer’s front door in, punches them straight in the face and never lets up until the final credits roll. It’s able to maintain a break neck pace by never having to adhere to the standard rules of logic and plausibility that most movies are shackled by. Each obstacle pops up like a new henchman in a video game, with no requisite context or justification.
There are few times when the lack of any discernable type of plot is actually a benefit to a film, but that seems to be the case with Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables franchise. While the first installment may have made the slightest of efforts to develop the characters of the mercenary anti-heroes, the sequel doesn’t ever really bother to, and somehow, it’s for the best. The storyline basically serves as a loose framework within which Stallone and his merry men can punch, kick, stab, bullet-riddle, and explode their way up the ladder of arbitrarily motivated bad guys. It’s like a two-hour episode of American Gladiators, except with guns. Really, really big guns.
For a regular movie, this far-reaching suspension of disbelief could become a glaring weakness, but true to theme, there is nothing weak about The Expendables 2. While allowing viewers to buy into a universe in which a handful of really bad ass guys can run through what seems to be a small nation (and that’s just the opening sequence), it keeps them just far enough over the top that they know exactly what end of the cinematic spectrum they’re sitting on. It creates a “wink-wink” type of relationship between the viewers and characters that keeps you on their side as they rack up astronomical body counts. That’s about as deep as the character development gets, and that’s as deep as it needs to be.
Most of the original cast is back, with the exception of Mickey Rourke. He’s been replaced with a young rookie sniper character (Liam Hemsworth) whose death is so telegraphed that he might as well be dressed in a red Star Trek ensign’s uniform. His murder at the hands of a very convincing Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose performance was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast, serves as the emotional catalyst that motivates our heroes for the remainder of the film. There’s no deep, underlying subplots here, merely an eye-for-an-eye/America-saves-the-world-from-clichéd-foreign-terrorists, 80’s style actioner. It’s what brought fans out in droves for the first film, and it’s even more prevalent in the sequel.
Jet Li, who again appears third billed on the marquee, pulls a first act disappearing trick reminiscent of Steven Seagal’s in Executive Decision, and surprisingly he’s barely missed. This probably has something to do with the fact that this installment is fairly light on hand-to-hand combat, outside of the Stallone vs. Van Damme final showdown, and Jason Statham in the battle-of-the-second-in-commands co-main event. Even then there are a lot of bladed weapons. Just ask MMA legend Randy Couture, whose greatest talents go to waste as he performs all of one hand-to-hand combat move in the entire film. This edition is far more reliant on gigantic guns as the primary source of action.
The Expendables franchise was built on the idea of a grandiose action star super team-up of epic proportions, and it’s here where this movie really shines. Arnold Shwarzenegger and Bruce Willis each reprise their roles, and are given a lot more to do this time around. Both men get right in the thick of the carnage, and their exchanges provide some of the most memorable moments of the movie (trading signature catch phrases is a cheap trick that hits the mark perfectly). The movie is rife with inside jokes, intentionally cheesy one-liners, and subtle references that not only play into the film’s near-parodic feel, but further enhance the experience for true genre geeks. This is never more beautifully executed than when Chuck Norris himself delivers a thinly veiled “Chuck Norris facts” joke after single handedly wasting an entire squad of bad guy goons. It’s sheer 80’s action bliss.
Fans know what they’re getting into here, and this movie greatly benefits from the extra rope it’s afforded in terms of technical execution. There are plot holes as big enough to drive a motorcycle through, as long as those plot holes lead right off the top of a building and into the cockpit of an attacking helicopter (that actually happens). There are certain sequences that seem like they aren’t even trying to make sense, like having our heroes go from rappelling down a cliff, to marching through the jungle, to approaching those same locations in their plane in what seems like three consecutive shots. But that’s the glory of it: it doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, it works better when it doesn’t.
For all of its technical shortcomings, The Expendables 2 delivers in all of the categories that count. Knife fights: check. Gun fights: check. Excessively large explosions: check. Bad guys with accents: check. Epic cameos: check. Jumping round house kicks to the face: check. Helicopter rotor death: check. Hilarious post-murder one-liners: check. What more could an action fan really ask for? (Steven Seagal, maybe?)
No one is expecting any kind of high drama or method acting, simply big names with big guns kicking ass and taking names. If that’s what you signed up for, then you’ve come to the right place.