REVIEW: Stallone & Co.'s Shtick Gets Old Fast In Hammy, Lazy The Expendables 2
To even describe The Expendables 2 as a movie seems to do both the medium and this strange, smirking effort a disservice. It isn't a movie — it's more like the world's most expensive, elaborate viral video, making a detour to the big screen before being broken up into more easily consumable segments to be consumed on YouTube.
2010's The Expendables, directed by its star Sylvester Stallone, was built around the meta-joke of its cast being a who's who of past and current action stars, particularly ones associated with the more iconic of '80s muscle movies. But it also had characters with rough personality designations, it had settings and a plot that actually crescendoed toward its violent conclusion. Helmed by Con Air's Simon West, The Expendables 2 has none of these things.
Instead, what it has is Chuck Norris making a cameo as a character named Booker (a hat tip to Good Guys Wear Black) to shoot a few dudes and then recount a Chuck Norris fact (it involves a king cobra). It has Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also briefly appeared in the first film, showing up to joke about being back and terminating people, and ending a bickering session with Bruce Willis by muttering "Yippee-ki-yay." Whatever throwback charm the first film had has been utterly Snakes on a Plane-d by this sequel, which from the start is far more pleased with itself than audience members are ever given a chance to be.
So Stallone is back as Barney Ross, leader of the mercenary group of the title, who've become (with one key exception) hammily invincible in the time since the last film ended. Along with his bantering best bud Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ross heads his team up on a mission to rescue a Chinese billionaire in the opening scene, a sequence that turns into an orgy of automatic weapon fire, armored vehicles smashing through walls and a chase that eventual takes to the water, no element of which sustains even the illusion of putting the preening main characters in harm's way. If you've been in the game this long, it seems, you no longer need to even pretend you could get shot by those extras gamely firing blanks.
Dolph Lundgren is still on board as Gunner Jensen, gone from turncoat to comic relief, while Jet Li has a fight scene or two before making a shrug of an exit. Terry Crews and Randy Couture are given little to do other than flex their biceps and fill in the background in this iteration. And Liam Hemsworth shows up as the new team sniper, whose place as "the kid" in a film that's all about decidedly grown (and slightly creaky) men suggests he's in a position of peril even before he ends up taking one last gig before retiring to start a new life with his girl.
The Expendables are given a mission by Willis' CIA agent Mr. Church, and head off to retrieve a valuable object from a downed plane at the direction of token female Maggie (Yu Nan), a motorcycle-riding Chinese agent who charms Ross with her ability to efficiently torture information out of informants. When the plan goes awry, Ross and company set out for revenge, targeting a swaggering villain who's actually named Vilain, and who's played by a scene-chewing Jean-Claude Van Damme in sunglasses, a duster and a Satanic neck tattoo.
In an age of overabundance of CGI, in which neither physical presence nor prowess is required to take the lead in an action film, the appeal of something like The Expendables is clear. Stallone and his buddies aren't just waving the banner of nostalgia, they're a stand-in for practical effects and martial arts training, for being able to hold the camera with bulk and charisma (if not necessarily acting range) while delivery cheesy one-liners with a dearth of irony. They represent an outmoded form of the blockbuster, one that's become replaced by something even more slick, calculated and forgettable — consider the new Total Recall versus the feature on which it was based, the remake a film in which everything is possible and yet nothing seems to matter.
The longing for more tangible entertainments is what makes The Expendables 2 feel so damnably lazy — it trades on the quirk of being able to assemble cast-members who've devalued enough over the years to become affordable in a single movie, and then barely bothers to actually make that movie. It's not a joyless effort, but it's one in which (with the exception of the always admirably present Statham) most of the joy feels self-directed — just a group of guys pounding each other on the back between takes and reassuring themselves that they've still got it. Maybe they do, but there's little evidence of the fact on screen here, in this smug attempt to power a franchise on novelty value alone.