The Expendables 2
Directed by Simon West
Screenplay by Richard Wenk, Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger
How long is The Expendables 2? 102 minutes.
What is The Expendables 2 rated? R for strong bloody violence throughout.
The Only Prescription Is… More Van Damme?
Sylvester Stallone chose not to direct the sequel to The Expendables, his 2010 class reunion of great action movie stars. In both films, Sly heads a team of edgy, ultra-dude mercenaries who excel at daring daylight raids and wholesale destruction. They butcher the terrorists and military oppressors of the world with alarming speed and ferocity, hardly ever putting a scratch on hostages or innocent bystanders. It sounds too outrageously fun to be true, and it is. What Stallone achieved two years ago was a pitch-perfect homage to the peak achievements of the boys-and-their-guns genre, which thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a return to the world of Tango & Cash, Delta Force, and Raw Deal.
For the sequel, Stallone handed the reins to British director Simon West. For a sample of West at his most focused and effective, try The Mechanic, a Charles Bronson remake starring Jason Statham as a vengeful hitman. The Expendables 2 leans closer to West’s problematic breakout feature Con Air, but are you really surprised to hear that?
The high-powered trailer for Part 2 promised several new faces and loads more insanity. It delivers on the first promise, but falls short of sustaining the rollicking pace of its predecessor. To the familiar roll of Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture, it adds long-rumored appearances by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris, as well as expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Liam Hemsworth also appears, failing to fill Jason Statham’s rookie shoes from the previous film. He seems very out of place as a misty-eyed wimp who happens to be a crack sniper. Stick to those hunger games, young man. Yu Nan also joins the cast as a taciturn, catlike operative sent mainly to roll her eyes as if to say, “Ugh, boys…” The script gives her some decent fights, but little else to add in a narrative sense. Simply being there to make all the bros self-conscious and sexually tense makes her too passive a character to be memorable.
Consider your own favorite sequel from the 80s or 90s, be it Robocop 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Predator 2, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or Rambo: First Blood Part 2. In all likelihood you love the original movie and have allowed some aspect of the sequel to charm you as well. This may be a certain action sequence, a wild new villain, or perhaps even a high-profile sidekick intended to raise the stakes. However, the plot almost invariably jumps through hoops trying to recapture and top the appeal of the neatly crafted original. Plot logic takes a backseat to massive increases in violence, humor and general scale, often with laughable results. Sometimes, as in T2: Judgment Day, this also requires the story to become unbearably maudlin in parts. Liam Hemsworth plays this part for the Expendables, and his poorly sketched sensitivity blights the movie’s inciting crisis. The Expendables 2 operates as a parody of a sequel to an already outrageous film, but it would be nice if it it stood more solidly on its own merits, with no intellectual dissection required. Diligent analysis of a film like this seems contrary to the point.
After a thrilling introductory sequence on par with any part of the first film, The Expendables 2 slows to a crawl for about an hour, pausing at intervals to settle the odd score, until the fun resumes in an all-out final act worthy of its ancestry. Stallone’s attempts to probe the characters in the first Expendables were concise and meaningful. The ultimate thesis was that upon examining their own lives, they realized that tramping around the world with a team of unstable mercenaries was probably the safest and most useful career any of them could pursue. In the sequel, the quiet scenes are too focused on cute jokes like how awkward Dolph Lundgren’s character is around women. On the other hand, the film does give a nod to Lundgren’s real-life credentials as a scientist, Fulbright scholar, and all-around superman. Speaking of self-referential, consider this movie your one-stop shop for corny throwback quips and puns, mainly centered around Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yes, Chuck Norris.
Curiously, it is Jean-Claude Van Damme who steals the show. He plays a quietly unhinged, James Bond-class villain – complete a vague world domination agenda involving mass murder and hijacked plutonium – with relish and conviction. This kind of antagonist does not fit as smoothly into the Expendables framework as Eric Roberts, the ex-CIA druglord of the first movie, but Van Damme is far and away the most entertaining member of this cast.
Are the Expendables planning a trilogy? Presumably the success of Part 2 will determine that very soon. There are plenty more action heroes to coax in front of the camera – Kurt Russell, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Danny Trejo, Tom Hardy, and so on – but Stallone must have knocked on all these doors once already. Supplying a generic action story peppered with outrageous set pieces seems easy enough, but in what direction would a third installment take the tone of the series? It could hardly be much sillier than Part 2. Perhaps it would have been better to make this movie downbeat and dour like Rambo 4, kill a few characters who actually matter, then bring things back up to a high-five, bombs-away conclusion for Part 3.
All in all, The Expendables 2 is simply too clever for its own good. It mimics a classic action sequel perfectly. Never mind that such sequels are generally a little hard to sit through, and must appreciate in cult status for twenty-five or thirty years before their legacy can be judged fairly. Does this film have the starch to become a Rocky IV? Probably not. It is a deftly executed sequel if you really think about it, but one thing a film like this should not require of audiences is too much thinking.