One of my biggest nitpicks about the first “Expendables” was director Sylvester Stallone’s insistence on shooting the film like some spastic who just got his hands on a new camera. The first movie was shaky and at times unbearably hard to decipher what the hell was going on, who was punching who, shooting what guys, fighting each other, or where guys were at any given time. With “The Expendables 2”, Stallone has wisely given up the director’s chair in favor of genre veteran Simon West (“Con Air”, among his many slam-bang Hollywood shoot’em ups). West brings a much more traditional style of shooting — i.e. you can actually tell what the hell is going on now. Mind you, the whole thing is still patently ludicrous and daft, the plotting simplistic and the many self-reverential dialogue unabashedly geared for laughs, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not entertaining as hell anyway.
Our sequel opens with merc Barney Ross (Stallone) and crew laying waste to an unfortunate town in Nepal during a rescue mission. It’s basically 20 minutes of wanton destruction that blows away anything in the first film. That little bit of business taken care of, the gang soon takes on another job, where they end up face-to-face with a villainous Jean-Claude Van Damme, a bad turn of events that costs one of the Expendables their lives. Van Damme, as you’ll recall, famously turned down Stallone’s offer to show up in the first “Expendables” two years earlier, citing a lack of clarity regarding his role. That’s not a problem in part two, where he plays slimy bad guy Jean Vilain. (Get it? The villain, as played by Jean-Claude Van Damme?) That kind of not-all-that-sly-but-nevertheless-amusing winking is sprinkled throughout the movie, and gets better (or worst, depending on your perspective) as more familiar action heroes pop up. I found them to be real hoots and a half myself.
Whereas they only got a single cameo in the first movie, Bruce Willis (as shady CIA guy Church) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (as competing merc Trench) have bigger roles this time around. But don’t be fooled — this is still about Barney Ross and his small crew of mercs, including Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Jason Statham, and Jet Li. Or maybe I shouldn’t include Li in that list. The actor appears in the film’s opening action sequence, where he gets one kick ass fight, before literally parachuting his way out of the sequel. Ironically, this kind of makes sense to me, since I always saw “The Expendables” as being about good old fashion firepower, and a small, high-flying Chinese guy, as formidable as Jet Li is, just never really felt “right” among this crew. Then again, his fight with Lundgren in the first movie was easily one of that film’s highlights, so maybe he did belong after all. Your mileage may wary.
“The Expendables 2” is pure ’80s Hollywood nostalgia, right down to its revenge plot. Once they lose a member, Ross and company decide to track down and take out Vilan for payback. Van Damme, playing one of his very few bad guy roles, is clearly having a blast in his return to Hollywood moviemaking. After years on the direct-to-DVD circuit, the Muscles from Brussels is on point when his character does make an appearance, and his scenes with Stallone are tremendous fun, especially when the two action titans dispense with the small talk in favor of a good old fashion throwdown. Newcomers to the explode-a-ton include Liam Hemsworth (“The Hunger Games”), acquitting himself surprisingly well as the team’s sniper, while Chinese actress Nan Yu is capable as, essentially, Jet Li’s replacement. Nan Yu’s Maggie is Church’s gal, and her presence, predictably, upends the Feng shui of the (previously) all-male Expendables.
Let’s face it, you’re not going into “The Expendables 2” for heartfelt drama or subtle writing. Simon West orchestrates the mayhem like a man who knows where his bread is buttered. Hint: it’s the explosions, one-liners, and inexhaustible (and at times, magically multiplying) bad guys being riddled with a never-ending supply of bullets. The film is chock full of self-referential nods to the filmography of its huge cast of action stars, from Stallone to Schwarzenegger to Willis, and especially Norris. Despite what you may have heard, “The Expendables 2” did not appear to have been edited to please Norris. The violence is still over-the-top and cartoonishly gory as before, perhaps more so because you can actually see them this time around. Though I did notice a decidedly lack of foul language, so perhaps that was the trade off. If so, I can live with it, especially since Norris is utterly hilarious here, and good on Sly for bending over backwards to allow his fellow action guys to shine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norris gets such a strong reaction to his performance that he decides to un-retire. “Walker: Texas Ranger The Comeback”, anyone?
“The Expendables 2” is exactly the movie you thought you were going to get when you saw the trailer and tried to throw money at the screen. Whereas the first movie sort of gyped fans on a real team-up between the three main guys (Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis) in the first movie, the sequel finally delivers that long-awaited team-up. The trio may not be onscreen together for the entire movie, but it’s doubtful you’re going to be too disappointed when the band does start jamming. Statham and the rest still get their fair share of screentime, and the second time ’round there’s a feeling that you know them a lot more, so the camaraderie between them feels more real. “The Expendables” is one of those franchises that can keep going indefinitely, though I’m not sure if they’ll just be able to continue adding onto the cast. Maybe a rotation of sorts could work out… a roster of badasses, if you will, to be called upon as situations dictate.
Simon West (director) / Sylvester Stallone, Ken Kaufman, David Agosto, Richard Wenk (screenplay)
CAST: Sylvester Stallone … Barney Ross
Jason Statham … Lee Christmas
Jet Li … Yin Yang
Dolph Lundgren … Gunner Jensen
Chuck Norris … Booker
Jean-Claude Van Damme … Vilain
Bruce Willis … Church
Arnold Schwarzenegger … Trench
Terry Crews … Hale Caesar
Randy Couture … Toll Road
Liam Hemsworth … Bill The Kid
Scott Adkins … Hector
Nan Yu … Maggie