2 years ago, ‘The Expendables’ promised to be the ultimate 80s/90s action movie throwback, and, it’s safe to say, totally failed to deliver on that promise. So it’s with considerably lowered expectations that we approach the sequel. With that in mind, I’m happy to report that, while still a far cry from anything worthy of owning said ‘ultimate action movie’ crown, it’s still a significant improvement on the first.
The original went some way to assemble as many of the action heroes of the last few decades as it could, combining ageing former box office titans, their slightly more contemporary counterparts, some straight-to-DVD names and a few ex-sportsmen. Part 2 brings back the majority and adds a couple of the original’s notable exceptions for good measure.
Sylvester Stallone hands over directing duties to ‘Con-Air’ helmer Simon West this time, but remains the clear lead, proving to still be convincing enough as a mercenary despite his advancing years. Jason Statham is really the only modern equivalent of the 80s stars, I can’t think of any other action movie actor to appear in the last decade or so for whom you can refer to a ‘(their name) film’ and know what you’re talking about. Jet Li, (who has impressive back catalogue of dramatic martial arts roles in Asia, even if his American work has never been up to much) still gets a star billing but is actually barely in the film at all, probably fewer than 10 minutes. Rounding out the main team are returning members Dolph Lundgren, (escaping straight-to DVD land again), Randy Couture and Terry Crews (neither of whom I’m particularly familiar with). New members this time around are young ex-army recruit Liam Hemsworth, and sole female member Yu Nan, who gets a good deal of screen time and makes quite an impression.
You couldn’t attempt to have the best action cast ever without one Mr. Schwarzenegger though, and while a neat scene, his brief appearance in the first film served no necessary narrative purpose. You couldn’t quite say the same about Bruce Willis (who, lest we forget, has been very successful in a wide variety of movie genres) but he’s back for more too. Other new additions include the even more geriatric Chuck Norris, fresh from ironic internet popularity, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead villain (called Jean Vilain, in case you weren’t sure).
The plot, so to speak, is kind of a ‘Seven Samurai’ riff involving the team ending up coming to the rescue of some eastern European villages being exploited by Van Damme’s nasty band of baddies, who possess an item that they must retrieve.
It also adds a good deal of humour to the proceedings, for better and worse. The best of this generally comes from the banter between Stallone and Statham, though Arnie does get one great line toward the end. Unfortunately, where ‘Expendables 2’ really creaks, is in its attempts at self-aware meta-humour. Several of the characters reference their actor’s movies with some truly cringe worthy utterances, including mentions of ‘terminated’, ‘Rambo’, and recycled catchphrases. In even goes so far as to incorporate Lundgren’s real life chemical engineering degree and have Norris recite a Chuck Norris fact. Norris is also very irritatingly sound tracked to the theme from ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, iconic music directly associated with a vastly superior screen legend that they should have left well alone.
If I had to pick out one star player from the proceedings though, it would actually have to be Van Damme. Anyone who saw the curious gem that was ‘JCVD’ a few years ago knows that he’s capable of a lot more than many previously thought, and he makes a pretty good stab at a dastardly villain here (playing a man so evil he has to wear sunglasses when underground!) His accent even seems to have improved (in contrast to Arnie’s which seems thicker than ever). Maybe if he’d taken a few more supporting bad guy roles he could have escaped the straight-to-DVD rut he’s been in for a few years (‘JCVD’ and ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ voice work aside).
The one thought that I had throughout the film though, was ‘how would people respond to this if it had been promoted differently?’ Just as the original’s brief cameos were heavily advertised on the poster and in the trailer, the huge cast list and key moments in this are all well-known already, indeed stills from the climactic battle featuring Arnie, Bruce and Sly all guns blazing (above) were released months prior to the film. If this had merely been promoted as a Stallone/Statham film with some lesser known actors in support I feel its stream of action star appearances would have been much funnier and more effective. People would probably be raving about it coming out of theatres. Of course this couldn’t have happened anyway with this being a sequel and all but still…
I doubt any film could ever be what ‘The Expendables’ films are trying to be, but still this does deliver on the action and the entertainment.