As an action movie connoisseur, I was undeniably pumped when it was announced that Stallone had used his reacquired clout (due to the surprising success of Rocky Balboa and Rambo) to bring together a rather large chunk of the actors that made the ’80s such a memorably testosterone-fueled decade for his next directorial opus, 2010’s The Expendables. I was there front and center on opening night, ready to be blown away by the overwhelming amount of machismo that would certainly be on display; firepower that would no doubt leave my head spinning, my ears ringing, and the 12-year-old version of me* wanting to run out of the theater making machine gun noises at the top of my lungs, shooting at an enemy that only I could see and only I could conquer.
This didn’t happen. At least, it didn’t happen to the extent that I had hoped and dreamed it would. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do like The Expendables, but even I recognize that taking the pro-stance on this particular action-fest isn’t the easiest of tasks, even in the film buff world. The movie itself was teeming with issues: muddy cinematography, tight camerawork in hand-to-hand combat sequences that made it nigh impossible for the viewer to gain any sense of action geography, sometimes making it hard for the audience to keep up with who in the hell was fighting and also limiting the effectiveness of the performances, CGI blood (I regret to report they are still present in the sequel. Why the traditonal, time-honored use of squibs and blood packs were retired by most, I’ll never understand), and most important of all, a story that featured an uninteresting bad guy, one of the cardinal sins of a film in this genre. These issues become even more glaring upon repeat viewings, the seams begin to show more wear and tear, making it harder for the fabric of the film to hold up. Stallone has never been a great director or writer; when he tried to juggle a plethora of script and character ideas—not to mention the rewrites that goes along with that particular puzzle—in addition to trying to shoehorn in numerous geriatric, Regan-era action stars as their schedules will allow, well, it’s a minor miracle that the whole thing didn’t entirely collapse on itself.
Now its time for Stallone and company to unleash round 2 on the world, and this time he hands over the directing reigns to Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic), opting instead to only star and co-write the script with Richard Wenk (16 Blocks). The end result is a piece of action cinema that carries with it a better understanding of how to build excitement, to generate those OOOOOs and AHHHHs from the audience that the first film—for the most part—lacked. For example, take the frantic, overwhelmingly violent opening action sequence, one that gives our heroes a worthy introduction to their legend, as they all ride in on a convoy of intimidating battle vehicles decked out in combat gear that would, first, make any enemy’s heart stop just due to unquantifiable admiration, and then run cold due to the precision in which they begin to off their compatriots. I’m not sure how long this battle sequence lasted—my guess is 15 minutes—but it was one of the most well-rounded action set-pieces I’ve seen in an American film in some time. It not only manages to highlight most of the skills each Expendable brings to the table but also features helicopter explosions, driving, shooting, hand-to-hand combat, frying pan to head combat, sniper fire that leads to decapitations, a healthy dose of frantic bipedalism, zip-lining, airboats, jet skis, planes, and a body count that I gave up trying to keep tabs on within the first 5 seconds. In case you didn’t infer this from the last sentence, let me clarify things for you:
IT. IS. FUCKING. KILLER.
The main storyline kicks in right after the audience has time to catch its breath; it involves a McGuffin** that Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team are forced into tracking down by the seemingly nefarious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis, in an expanded role). Not only that, but they are forced to bring along one of Church’s own agents, Maggie (Nan Yu), to ensure they don’t screw things up. The mission seems easy enough (don’t they all?) but shortly after acquiring what they traveled halfway around the world for, Jean-Claude Van Damme shows up as Jean Vilian, stealing not only the McGuffin but the movie as well with a hilariously self-aware performance. Before he flies off, he decides to off one of Barney’s team, finally forcing them to live up to the namesake of their squad. The members that remain above ground swear revenge and commence tracking down Vilian posthaste, which leads to another epic brawl, culminating in a Stallone versus Van Damme showdown that lives up to the billing. That’s it. That’s the entire plot.
Since the story is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent, let’s end this review with a pros and cons rundown:
- The action sets in this go round are vastly improved over what audiences were treated to in the first installment. That aforementioned issue about action geography is for the most part eliminated, although West still uses too much shaky cam and a few too many tight shots during fisticuffs for my liking. Still, it’s a major step up.
- The chemistry between Stallone and Jason Statham is a treat to watch; they foster an easy bromantic sensibility that provides the film with its backbone and nearly all of its heart. It’s so good, in fact, that the series could easily coast on it provided the scripts are as streamlined and simplistic as this one.
- Dolph Lundgren continues to craft Gunnar Jensen into a memorable character, despite having little screen time. Stallone has given him a unique opportunity, one that Dolph hasn’t been afforded all that often over his career, the ability to play an actual character. Interestingly enough, he plays the only Expendable whose back story has been flushed out, not wholly functioning on one distinct characteristic. What’s even more interesting is that Stallone and Wenk have worked in the character’s educational background, identically to the actor’s own in chemical engineering (more on this and on Dolph in an upcoming Profiles in Badassery entry). Lundgren easily gives the most entertaining performance in the movie, taking a deranged, socially inept genius who is always rejected by women and turning him into an action movie hero for the ages.
- Jean-Claude Van Damme continues a late career resurgence with a menacing, humorous performance in what amounts to very little screen time. His role as Jean Vilian serves as the highlight of the film, providing the movie with a much needed weirdness and proving that passing up on the first installment of the series to make a superior DTV effort (Universal Solider: Regeneration) was a good judgment call. Anyone who has seen JCVD knows the karate legend has action chops, and his work here reinforces that notion.
- Replacing the scenerity, heart on its sleave tone of the original is a jokey, self-referential vibe that is overdone and becomes hard to take. At points, the humor is shockingly bad, encroaching on Epic Movie levels, where the “joke” is just a reference to another movie that came out several years or decades ago. This wink-wink, nudge-nudge style of self-awareness that lets the audience know that the actors and filmmaking crew is in on the joke is awful and at times threatens to derail the film entirely and seems condescending to lovers of the genre. True fans know that absurdity is not a crime in films like these, and it always works better when not announced right before hand. Watch Commando again if you don’t believe me.
- Chuck Norris shows up for around 5 minutes—which is entirely too long in my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of the bearded one; he was always much too stiff and lacked any type of personality for me to remain invested in his celluloid misadventures—Code of Honor, Silent Rage, and Lone Wolf McQuade not withstanding. Chuck got a ton of mileage out of his fight with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon—and I will give credit where credit is due—he held his own before Bruce’s blistering speed and stunning narcissism led to victory, but that was 40 years ago. It’s hard to hide 72 years of age in an action movie, and even though he’s game, he doesn’t pull it off. And why in God’s name does the theme from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly play every time his character shows up? That’s not doing him any favors, reminding me of a hall of fame badass like Clint.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench has an expanded role as well, even though referring to what he does here as a “role” is far too kind. Cipher would be more accurate, although I’m not quite sure we have a word in the English language that would best describe what he is called on to do here. His performance exists entirely in the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” universe that I mentioned above, and it hurt the very fabric of my being. In fact, a majority of what he says makes no sense whatsoever when taken in context with the action unfolding on the screen, and it gets so bad that it threatens to stop the film cold on every occasion he opens his mouth. That being said, I look forward to The Last Stand and still believe that “The Austrian Oak” has something to contribute to the genre I hold so dear. Unfortunately for us, this performance isn’t it.
- What is the point of casting Scott Adkins and then botching the dude’s fight with Statham? He’s the one unquantifiable element in the film for most audiences, so why not blow their doors off by allowing him to demonstrate why it was decided to cast him in the first place? Some quick research shows that their fight was shot in one day and without rehearsal time. It shows. Its not as good as it needs to be, shot too dark and too close, minimizing the impact of the vicious kicks he can seemingly dole out at the drop of a hat. At least he has a bit of character to play with and has a killer death (see what I did there?), even if it is cribbed from another classic film.
All in all, The Expendables 2 is a sizeable step in the right direction and an enjoyable night out for any action movie buff. The follow-up effort seems more streamlined, and while it’s not a particularly smart film, it delivers on the promise of action cinema that is built around aging stars coming together to relive their glory years. While it’s not the best action flick of the year—that designation would belong to The Raid—its got some balls on it, and maybe if they had added a bit of subtext, where the action is allowed to serve both theme and character, it would have reached the level of greatness that it undoubtedly wished to achieve.
*Those who know me well also know that this version still comes out a fair amount. Maybe too much, one could argue. But I just think they’re jealous.
** A plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable.