The Expendables 2 delivers precisely what you might expect from a sequel to Sylvester Stallone's red-meat roundup of over-the-hill action stars from two earlier. There is plenty of the same-fiery explosions, massive weapons, heavy artillery, deep voices-and what the film now lacks in rumination about age and loss courtesy of Mickey Rourke is replaced with a slightly jokey, self-aware attitude pumped up by the increased presence of Stallone's fellow Planet Hollywood tycoons, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who actually get in on the action this time (that is, they kill people, rather than just talk). The pleasures of watching the action-movie past getting one more shot at silver-screen glory is undeniable, but like its predecessor, The Expendables 2 is a better concept than it is a movie.
This time, Stallone has handed over the directorial reigns to Simon West, who began his career under the aegis of Jerry Bruckheimer in the late '90s directing slick schlock like Con Air (1997). His biggest hit to date, the video-game adaptation Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), was more than a decade old at the time, and he had spent most of the last 10 years working in television, although he had recently returned to the big screen with The Mechanic (2010) and Stolen (2012), action vehicles for Jason Statham and Nicolas Cage, respectively. West has a sharp eye and an unpretentious sensibility, which makes him a perfect choice for The Expendables 2, which rests its laurels gladly on the backs of recognizable, weathered faces and a pleasurably familiar back-and-forth between violent mayhem and the kind of genial wisecracks that congratulate the audience for being in on the jokes (Schwarzenegger and Willis exchanging signature quips, references to Chuck Norris's character as a "lone wolf," etc.).
The story this time around finds cigar-chomping commando Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team of soldiers for hire in the former Soviet Union, where they are sent by Willis's covert agent to retrieve something from a downed plane. The mission runs afoul of Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme)-Vilain, villain, get it?-a ruthless baddie who has plans to dig up five tons of Soviet-era weapons-grade plutonium and sell it on the black market. Ross and his team, which once again includes right-hand-man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), slightly unhinged Swede Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), generally monosyllabic hulk Toll Road (Randy Couture), and burly comic relief Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), take it upon themselves to stop him, not just for the good of the world, but also to avenge one of their own fallen comrades. New this time around are Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), a fresh-faced veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and Maggie (Nan Yu), who supplies a jolt of estrogen while proving she can hang with any of the film's testosterone-laden heavies.
West handles the action admirably; he actually does a better job than Stallone did in the original by not allowing the violence to devolve into complete incoherence. At times it feels like he's simply phoning in all the bullets and explosions, but there are a few moments of inspiration, such as Stallone ripping the wings off a plane while piloting it into a tunnel (shades of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but without the absurdist comedy). Unfortunately, he makes the same mistake Stallone made in the original by making some of the bloodshed too explicitly gory; the delights of CGI blood spatter were simply too tempting, and it renders some of the film's comic book carnage too grisly for its own good. Similarly, West and veteran cinematographer Shelly Johnson (Captain America) don't do the film any favors by bathing it almost entirely in tones of ashen gray, which provides an unpleasantly dour visual counterpoint to the film's otherwise goofy meta-playfulness (the Tarantino-esque faux-retro poster had more color than the whole movie).
Ultimately, there isn't anything terribly memorable about any of it, with the exception of several sequences that take place in a crumbling recreated American downtown used by the Soviets for training purposes during the Cold War; it brings to mind both an old Mission: Impossible television episode and the forgotten late-'80s John Travolta comedy The Experts (1989), both of which play with the idea of Soviets constructing American towns for the purpose of training spies to "act American." It makes literal the specter of the Cold War, which hangs over The Expendables 2 and its rogue's gallery of gnarled Cold Warriors, none of whom seem quite ready to retire their artillery.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Lionsgate
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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