THE EXPENDABLES 2: More Action, More Stars, Less Ambition

Making The Expendables 2 was a foregone conclusion once the first film became a box office hit.  It was also inevitable that the follow-up would get better resources and add more action stars to the equation.  Thus, it should be no surprise that The Expendables 2 boasts bigger and more complex action sequences as well as new additions to the formula as Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme.  Unfortunately, it’s not as inspired as the first film and it also makes some mistakes that the first film avoided.

In keeping with its predecessor, The Expendables 2 focuses its large ensemble around a simple plotline.  This time, Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Lee (Jason Statham) and their motley crew of mercenaries – which includes Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, etc. – are out on a mission when they run afoul of Vilain (Jean Claude Van Damme), the icy leader of another, more nasty mercenary gang.  He ambushes Barney’s group and kills Bill The Kid (Liam Hemsworth), the newest of the group, just to be cruel.

Of course, this necessitates revenge.  Not only do they need to avenge their comrade’s death, Vilain (yes, that is his name) also is undermining the security of the world with a textbook Evil Plot of his own.  Thus, Barney and his crew go after Vilain on his own turf – and they’re able to call in favors from shadowy government boss-types Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Church (Bruce Willis) this time.  They also get help from a legendary but elusive fellow known as Lone Wolf (Chuck Norris)…

The result is the kind of sequel where the pros and the cons of the film line up on an fifty/fifty basis.  On the plus side, Stallone has handed over the direction to Simon West, an old hand who gives the action sequences a structure and precision that was often lacking in the first Expendables (they’re also edited in a more coherent, less-ADD fashion).  The Expendables 2 also capitalizes on the nostalgia that action fans feel for their 1980’s heroes more effectively than its predecessor: the powers that be were smart enough to know that what fans really wanted from a movie like this is a finale where Stallone, Statham, Willis, Schwarzenegger and Norris all fight side by side – and that’s exactly what they get here.

Unfortunately, The Expendables 2 is also a totally by-the-book, predictable affair.  For example, once Hemsworth starts talking lovey-dovey about his girl back home, you know he’ll be getting killed a few scenes later.  In fact, the storytelling here goes for a borderline moronic level of simplicity, with the dialogue scenes serving as timekillers between action setpieces.  To make matters worse, screenwriter Richard Wenk goes for dumb-humor overkill, with a lot of lame wisecracks and painfully on-the-nose references (Schwarzenegger says “I’ll be back” – multiple times).  He’s also tweaked characterizations for the worse, like transforming Lundgren’s somewhat scary crazy-guy character from the first film into a dim-witted, lovestruck goofball.

The performances are also a mixed bag: Stallone and Statham turn in solid performances while Willis and Schwarzenegger sleepwalk through their (admittedly simplistic) roles.  The big surprise is Van Damme, who brings an impressive darkly-hued gravitas to what would otherwise be a stock villain role.  It’s also worth noting that Norris gives a truly awful performance here.  He’s always been wooden, even in his glory days, but his often painfully awkward performance here suggests that whatever acting chops he had withered away during his hiatus from the big screen.

Thus, The Expendables 2 is disappointing despite its effective action.  Whatever its problems, the first film had its heart in the right place and worked hard at giving dimension and a certain comic-book soulfulness to its tough-guy hero archetypes.  In this film, everything is played for simplistic camp, as if everyone involved is too embarrassed about what they are doing to play it straight.  As a result, it feels like an overblown direct-to-video action flick instead of a nostalgic update of past glories – and everyone involved here already has plenty of those on their cinematic junkpiles.

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