‘The Expendables 2′ Review
‘The Expendables 2‘ — the sequel to superstar actioner ‘The Expendables’ — is not so much the celebration of insane, red-blooded violence and testosterone that feeds the nostalgia of the golden age of action films as it is a sobering display of aging action stars struggling to maintain relevancy in the age of computer-generated effects and the influence of Michael Bay.
Yes, all of your favorite action stars are back and then some. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Chuck Norris, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Jet Li, and… Liam Hemsworth, who exists only so the other actors can look upon him as if they are preparing to siphon his life force in a ritualistic cult exercise.
Mr. Church (Willis) is sending the Expendables on a mission with newcomer Maggie (Nan Yu) to collect a special device from a complex safe on a downed plane. But when the dangerous Jean Vilain (Van Damme, obviously — and he’s the villain, obviously) intercepts and steals the fruit of their efforts, leaving one of their own dead, the mission becomes one of revenge. The Expendables set out to track, find, and kill Vilain and take back the device he has stolen — a blueprint that reveals the location of a stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium in a forgotten Russian mine. Vilain seeks to unload this plutonium to everyone who wants some, like he’s the super-villain Oprah.
From the opening action sequence in Nepal, where the Expendables are wrapping up a mission that ends with the rescue of Trench (Schwarzenegger), the juxtaposition of these old-timers against the new action cinema techniques is painfully obvious. CG blood spurts generously, the camera shakes vigorously, and it seems as though these men were transported from a different time into a future where they do not belong.
That’s not to say that these men are not still incredibly talented — they still pack a devastating punch and their agility, especially for their age, is impressive. The ongoing dedication to a craft that is less appreciated now is noble and respectable in a modern era of pretty boys who abstain from getting too dirty lest they hurt their moneymakers.
Fortunately, the story is thin, though the attempts at more emotional beats are maudlin at best, as is to be expected with an action flick of this magnitude. Audiences are not going to see Sly flirt with a pretty Asian companion or grown men mourn the loss of one of their own. Audiences are going to ‘The Expendables 2′ to see asses kicked, guns fired, and punches thrown. If it can be inexplicably exploded, it better be. If there is a vehicle you have heard of, they better be on it — motorcycles, jet skis, helicopters, tanks, jets, boats. One of the highlights of the film is a scene in which Schwarzenegger and Willis hop in a tiny Smart Car and shoot up an airport.
But most of the film is little more than these old guys slurring one-liners (“male pattern-badness”) and making references to their more beloved films (“I’ll be back”), teasing the audience with what could have been under better direction and tighter editing. To put it mildly, the film is not well-directed. Long shots of landscape and objects in the distance are cloudy and almost obscenely unfocused. The camera shakes and jostles during big action sequences in a way that would make Michael Bay nauseous.
There are a few shining moments — namely any time Dolph Lundgren is allowed to speak, and much of the dialogue and the way these guys interact with each other is full of charm and belies a real sense of camaraderie among these old greats. Not everyone gets a chance to really shine, though. Lundgren and Schwarzenegger in particular feel woefully underused, and Yu gets only one small action sequence in which she throws a couple of lackluster kicks and hits some baddies in the head with a big gun, alluding to a potential that was wasted.
Van Damme, notorious for his physicality and his incredible roundhouse kicks gets one lousy kick in the first hour or so, and it isn’t until the film’s final act where he really gets to show off his skills in a showdown with Stallone. But when Stallone and Van Damme face off, it’s fantastic. The film needed more of these sequences that highlight the talents of its stars, rather than big, unintelligible action pieces. With action stars of this caliber, it’s shameful to lose them in the noise of explosions and rapid gunfire, though Schwarzenegger looks strangely serene while firing off a big gun.
‘The Expendables 2′ is filled with action, sure, but so much of the film serves only to show us what these men were and what they mean to us now in the current landscape of action cinema. You need only count the number of times they make self-deprecating references to their age to know that they are painfully aware of it, too. What we need now more than ever is these guys bringing us back to the golden age of practical stunts and the sweat-drenched, hard-won execution of a big action sequence; instead, they simply remind us that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.