Before it hit theaters in 2010, many pegged The Expendables as the return of the 80s and 90s action movie that fans had been clamoring for. Its cast was the biggest group of cinematic heroes ever assembled (like The Avengers, but without any spandex), and I even wrote a now-embarrassing editorial expressing my hopes for the film before it entered into production in 2009. After a disappointing first film, The Expendables 2 reunites the action hero cast and adds even more big names to the fray, thankfully correcting many of the problems in the first entry and this time realizing that for a movie like this to be entertaining, everyone just has to have a little fun.
The Expendables 2
Director: Simon West
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis
Stallone stepped down from the director's chair this time and handed it over to Con Air helmer Simon West, who directed a bigger, louder film this time out and the result is perhaps the best movie of his career. Gone is the Bourne-style shaky cam that Stallone weirdly used as a crutch last time, replaced here with a more traditional visual style that makes you believe this film could have actually been made in the 80s or 90s instead of just trying to evoke the old days through the name recognition of the cast. The script, co-written by Stallone and Richard Wenk, wisely excises much of the dour and bleak tone of the original and substitutes a healthy dose of fun, with silly one-liners that succeed because they're self-aware instead of trying desperately to sound badass. The characters and situations are all still gloriously ludicrous, but at least everyone seems like they're having a genuinely good time.
The film opens with a violent rescue sequence that sets the tone for the entire rest of the film: the Expendables roll into a small village and completely decimate all of the enemies in sight, ramping a motorcycle into a low-flying helicopter and bashing through walls with the subtlety of a Mack truck barreling through a pane of glass. Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture provide the muscle, while Jet Li's Yin Yang character gets one terrific hand-to-hand combat scene before he's unceremoniously booted from the film. (He's in it for probably 10 minutes total, so if his banter with Lundgren was your favorite thing about the last film, you'll be sorely disappointed here.) We get a couple of new recruits in his place: The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth as Billy the Kid, a sniper who wants nothing more than to settle down with his French girlfriend, and Chinese actress Yu Nan as Maggie, a woman equally skilled in combat and tech who joins the team to retrieve a mysterious package at the behest of Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Stallone and Statham lead the pack again, but when Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his team gets the drop on them and murders one of the Expendables, the crew launches into some old-fashioned revenge with the plan being, as Stallone growls in the trailer, to "track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em."
When Liam Hemsworth joined the cast, it seemed that Lionsgate was simply throwing one of their franchise stars into the mix in order to capitalize on his popularity in a blatant attempt to draw in a young female crowd. (I call it the Abduction effect.) But I'll be damned - this guy does some really good work in this movie. He doesn't get much to do, but he's the most believable and well-realized character on the screen. Even though his scenario (wanting to quit "the life" for a girl) is one that any action film fan is familiar with, the youngest Hemsworth is convincing and heartfelt, and it helps that he's the only male member of the cast who doesn't mumble or gurgle out most of his dialogue.
Streamlining and simplifying the plot of a sequel can be a risky move, but it paid off very well here, especially with the new cast members. Van Damme hams it up as the bad guy, Willis and Schwarzenegger get larger roles (still mostly sidelined, though), and Chuck Norris rolls in to save the day in one key sequence, complete with puns about him being a lone wolf and a direct shout-out to the Chuck Norris Fact craze of the mid 2000s. This isn't an isolated incident - the movie is filled with references to the actors' past personas, with callbacks to Rambo, Die Hard, The Terminator, and more. Many of these screenwriting winks and callbacks to previous films that these actors are known for went over very well in my screening, almost a direct opposite reaction to the crickets heard during cheesy one-liners in the first film.
There are a ton of action sequences, and all of them deliver exactly what you're probably looking for in a movie like this. The violence is over the top and certainly brutal at times, but not in the same way that Stallone's 2008 Rambo made you actually think about real-life atrocities. Bodies explode and heads are blown off without a second thought here, and it's all for entertainment - bread and circuses for fans of the old guard and the new school alike. The pacing moves along at a quick clip, leaving little time to think about the strangeness of the crew stumbles across what is clearly a Hollywood studio backlot in the middle of Eastern Europe. (An explanation is given, but it comes off as lazy screenwriting to explain why the filmmakers needed to save a few bucks and film on a lot instead of on location.)
The Expendables 2 improves on the original in every conceivable way and actually makes me want to see these guys team up again for another adventure, a prospect I was not looking forward to experiencing after the bitter letdown of the first film. This second installment proves that even with a mediocre director and a half-decent script, the charisma of these larger-than-life performers can light up the screen and leave us with an entertaining, funny, and thrilling action movie. I'll leave most of the puns to Schwarzenegger, but I'm shocked to say that I'm actually looking forward to seeing the team come back. Until next time...