“The Expendables 2” is one of the very few films that gets better as it gets dumber. Serviceably directed, horribly written and barely acted at all except for a standout performance by (of all people) Jean-Claude Van Damme, it mostly delivers in the way that the original failed to, which is by enabling action stars to charm their way through an incredibly hackneyed and conventional storyline. Nevertheless an irresistibly fun alternative to the so-called grown-up fare that has attempted to replace the escapism of '80s and ‘90s blockbusters, “The Expendables 2” offers a welcome roundup of action stars who simultaneously – and satisfyingly – celebrate and send up their former glories.
Sylvester Stallone returns as Barney Ross, the leader of a ragtag bunch of mercenaries who have settled into a comfortable routine of traveling to far off destinations, meeting people from exotic cultures, and killing them for money. After redeeming himself at the end of the first film, Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) pines for romance while dispensing racist jokes to former partner Yin Yang (Jet Li); Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) crack wise with one another and provide heavy artillery; and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s starting to be outpaced by ambitious upstarts like sharpshooter The Kid (Liam Hemsworth).
After successfully rescuing Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from a militant sect, Barney and co. look forward to some well-deserved r&r. But when employer Church (Bruce Willis) adds Maggie (Nan Yu) to their team and blackmails them into retrieving a map, they find themselves battling against a terrifying new adversary: Jean Vilain (Van Damme), who plans to unleash several dozens tons of plutonium upon the world.
The great thing about “The Expendables” is that as a concept it feels like the fulfillment of decades of fantasy-football showdowns/team-ups – what would happen if Marion Cobretti went up against John Matrix, for example, or even just what might theoretically have occurred had Stallone and Schwarzenegger been able to find a project big enough to contain their heyday egos. (It certainly helps these films that the pedigree of virtually everyone involved has fallen somewhat from the peak of their success.) But the first film was a case study in “better on paper than in practice” thinking — even with most of the highest-profile ‘80s and ‘90s action stars sharing the screen, it suffered from a lackluster story that barely gave everyone enough to do, much less allowed them to have the kind of fun that audiences anticipated. And the absences – including Van Damme and Chuck Norris, who make notable appearances here – felt oddly distracting, even if in someone like Van Damme’s case, he was simply occupied with something else, not deliberately excluded.
While early reports suggest that an “Expendables 3” might also include Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes and Clint Eastwood, the second film feels close to complete, at least for nostalgia purposes. (Eastwood, like, say, Harrison Ford, always felt more like a dramatic actor who did action–to me, anyway.) Willis and Schwarzenegger actually participate in the mayhem this time around, and every one of the stars is given a hero moment or some sort of reminder of their particular skills (which means yes, Van Damme gets to unleash that roundhouse kick of his). But more importantly, the movie as a whole acknowledges the age of the characters – and the people who play them – and even sends up their iconic pasts and current personas. Stallone continues to work as hard as an aspiring action star half his age, but the multigenerational aspect of the story – embodied by old-timers like himself, advancing-age stars like Statham, and newcomers like Hemsworth – adds a certain kind of perspective that at once makes its ensemble larger than life and remarkably, relatably human.
But the writing as a whole is pretty terrible; while a film like this one doesn’t need to be more than a serviceable showcase for its stars’ personalities, it should be marginally competent in terms of basic dialogue and plotting, and there are big, important scenes that drag on without escalation, or even conversations in them that could charitably be described as engaging. Although the absurdity of the set pieces – including the juggernaut-like opening where Barney and his team basically level a remote military stronghold with minimum opposition and maximum destruction – is fairly hilarious, what’s in between them drags, and worse yet, it doesn’t need to; there are real topics of conversation introduced amidst the testosterone-fueled camaraderie, but none of them are ever examined with any substance, or even wrapped up in a satisfactory way.
And yet, the performers are clearly having so much fun that such artistic considerations seem almost beside the point. Where in the first film Statham was sort of the anchor that held the rest of his predecessors in place, here he’s little more than part of the team, and his insecurities about Hemsworth (not to mention the imposing physicality of Vilain henchman Hector, played by Scott Adkins) offer a welcome rejoinder to his general cinematic invincibility. Couture is sort of a nonentity in the film – at best he’s enjoying being part of the team – but Crews offers some welcome levity, and continues to demonstrate that he’s an actor who might have been merely a cartoonish tough guy (or even just a cartoon) but has carved a niche for himself as a versatile and fun performer to watch.
Lundgren and Norris, meanwhile, effectively lampoon their off-screen identities, Lundgren referencing his masters’ degree in chemical engineering and Norris essentially goofing on his legendary mythos (“I was once bitten by a king cobra… but after four long days, it finally died”). And Schwarzenegger and Willis demonstrate an unexpected sort of esprit de corps by throwing in Stallone and the rest of the actors for an action set piece that makes Michael Bay’s destructive impulses feel positively understated. But Van Damme is the film’s real MVP, adding flourishes to his dialogue that are obviously improvised, and which breathe life into what might otherwise be rote hero-villain exchanges. Not only does he retain every bit of the physical dexterity that he demonstrated in his youth, but he has noticeably improved as an actor, and proves here that he deserves to be more than a straight-to-DVD star.
Whether or not a third film ever happens, “The Expendables 2” feels like the sort of stupidly great sequel that would be produced (or perhaps overproduced) in the 1980s: more stars, more action, and less imagination – “Die Hard 2” if it had followed “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” perhaps. Needless to say it feels counterintuitive to think that a movie with less artistic ambition would surpass one with more, but this sequel more or less rights the wrongs of its predecessor and sets the stage for a franchise that could be the best sort of totally unnecessary, and yet inexplicably enduring fan-fiction fun. And ultimately, the film pales in comparison to more competently executed fare such as this spring’s “The Raid,” which streamlined existing action conventions and gave them a new visceral edge. But as a film that even passingly acknowledges the disposability of stars in a genre whose artistic merits are considered negligible (if they’re considered at all), “The Expendables 2” is indispensable entertainment. [B-]