Movie Review: The Expendables 2
By Matthew Huntley
August 29, 2012
The Expendables 2, much like The Expendables, wants to work on two different levels: 1) as an extremely violent, heavily stylized action extravaganza, which it easily lives up to; 2) and as a self-referential, tongue-in-cheek homage to the aging action stars from the 1980s and ‘90s, who seem desperate to prove they’re still very much alive and kicking (one of the running themes throughout the movie is “a classic never dies”). The movie achieves its goals and delivers what it promises, but the question I have is does it set its goals high enough?
I didn’t care much for the original Expendables, criticizing director and co-writer Sylvester Stallone for taking the plot too seriously and not making the action fresh or innovative enough to really excite us. He seemed to think it was enough just to blow stuff up. The Expendables 2 suffers from the same problem, only less. It works better than the original because it actually takes the time to develop its characters – somewhat - by breaking from the action and allowing us to hear these guys talk and discuss things like what their last meal would be or what frightens them. I know what you’re thinking: how profound can a movie like this really get? But even a little profundity can go a long way.
The plot, of course, is just an excuse to reunite the cast for another round of wall-to-wall action, big explosions, digital blood and lots of special effects, but at least the actors are enthusiastic about it. To us, it’s semi-amusing, even if it gets old rather quickly. Stallone is back as Barney Ross, who heads the group known as The Expendables, a mercenary unit whose only job, it seems, is to infiltrate small villages in Asia and rescue billionaires from nameless, faceless terrorists. The Expendables come equipped with their own rugged planes, trucks and weapons, which they use to blast through gates, blow up buildings and shoot hundreds of bad guys. All this, plus making it out in the nick of time, is just another day at the office.
Stallone, who again contributed to the screenplay but has since handed directing duties over to Simon West, is joined by fellow action heavyweights Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews and Randy Couture. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are back and given more substantial roles this time around, though their parts could still be categorized as cameos. Speaking of cameos, Chuck Norris makes one and reminds us of two things: 1) he’s still his number one fan; and 2) he still needs acting lessons.
Joining these bad boys is a lone female fighter named Maggie (Nan Yu), who accompanies them to Albania so she can retrieve a computer from a safe. The computer contains blueprints for an underground mine full of plutonium, which an evil man known only as Villain (one Jean-Claude Van Damme) wants to sell to the highest bidder. Things turn personal after Villain intercepts the blueprints and kills Ross’s young, sharpshooting protégé (Liam Hemsworth). Now The Expendables’ mission is to hunt, catch and kill Villain in the tradition of the staple 1980s action flick.
The revenge plot is more or less straightforward, but there’s a surprisingly effective sequence around the middle of the film when The Expendables pass through a war-torn village and help the local women and children, whose husbands and fathers have been kidnapped by Villain and are being forced to work in the mine. I suppose you have to give the movie credit for trying to add some level of meaning and humanity to its story.
On an action level, the movie delivers some goods. It’s more kinetic this time around, thanks especially to Li, who’s unfortunately given limited screen time, and Statham (or perhaps Statham’s stunt double), who has a breathtaking martial arts sequence in a church and does some real damage with his seemingly endless supply of knives.
But as far as its humor and self-awareness are concerned, the movie only takes these elements so far before we start asking ourselves if there’s more to it than this. There are some funny lines here and there, as when Schwarzenegger says, “I’m back,” to which Willis responds, “You’ve been back too many times.” But the movie relies too heavily on these references and thinks they can make up for the lack of substance and overall freshness. Did the filmmakers think this is all we came to see - iconic action stars making light of themselves? Instead of a movie that simply prides itself on being hip to its own genre and cast, why not make a more original, fully realized action movie that we can really get behind? Make us care about what happens in the movie first before trying to make it clever.
Still, as I mentioned, The Expendables 2 is better than the original. Stallone and company seem to be onto something and know that in order to make a movie that really stands out, they have to lighten up on the whole “characters being hip to their own image and universe” thing and focus on the characters and story. If they can do this and continue to make the action more inventive, they’ll have a winner on their hands. The Expendables 2 isn’t quite a winner, but it’s a respectable runner-up.