The Expendables was wish fulfillment for any hardcore action fan, even if it was about fifteen years too late. Sylvester Stallone gathered together a veritable dream team of badasses from the past and present to commit wholesale carnage. Of course, there were plenty of movie goers wondering where their favorite stars were. Where’s Steven Seagal or Don “The Dragon” Wilson? Also, how about some female Expendables? You’ll be happy to know The Expendables 2 does what all good sequels should do, expand on the concept with a bigger cast and even bigger action.
The whole gang is back: Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), along with a young sniper named Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). The sequel begins with a blood-soaked prologue as the team raids a compound in Nepal to rescue a Chinese billionaire as well as rival mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Following a successful mission, Ross barely has a chance to enjoy the down time when he’s approached by CIA spook Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Collecting on a debt, Church tasks Ross with retrieving the contents of a high-tech safe from the wreckage of a plane that went down in Albania. Church assigns his computer expert, Maggie (Yu Nan), to assist in the endeavor. They are later joined by the enigmatic Booker (Chuck Norris), another soldier of fortune on a mission to take down the organization.
The Expendables are ambushed by a criminal cartel led by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and with a name like Jean Vilain, what else could he be, except evil? Vilain steals the item and kills one of heroes, earning the enmity of Ross. The McGuffin turns out to be a computerized blueprint of a mine containing five tons of weapons-grade plutonium, which he plans to sell to the highest bidders.
Stallone co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, The Mechanic) and it’s more streamlined than the previous film. Gone are the B-plots that futilely tried to flesh out the already thin characters. There aren’t any extraneous side stories this time around, such as with Lee Christmas’s girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter, who only appears in one scene). These guys don’t have time for romance when they have shit to blow up. They don’t have time for existential introspection either so there is no belly gazing or heartfelt monologues from Mickey Rourke (who chose not to return). The script is the type of throwaway junk that was churned out by Cannon Films back in the 80’s, right down to the Cold War threat, the Eastern European setting, and a bad guy with a funny accent.
The main appeal of The Expendables 2 is the chance to see Arnold, Bruce Willis, and Stallone blasting machine gunfire at ear shattering decibels. Yes, John Matrix, John McClane, and John Spartan unleash their wrath on an army of anonymous henchmen. Bodies literally explode into fountains of blood as bullets rip through them. Any worries that the violence might be softened should be put away. Sadly, Jet Li doesn’t get to participate in the fun as he only appears in the opening. The action itself isn’t spectacularly stylish, but it is adequately directed. Stallone handed the reins to Simon West whose workman-like direction is reminiscent of past standbys like Albert Pyun or Peter Hyams.
Any action movie worth its salt is required to have a few cornball one-liners. We get them here with Statham, disguised as a priest, announcing, “I now pronounce you…man and knife.” But, most of the humor is self-referential, delivered with a heavy dose of irony and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly plays each time Chuck Norris, who looks pretty spry for a 72-year old, makes his grand entrance. His character is named after John T. Booker, the role he portrayed in Good Guys Wear Black, and he’s frequently referred to as a “Lone Wolf.” Chuck Norris even gets to tell a Chuck Norris joke. (“I heard you got bit by a king cobra.” “Yeah…but after five days of agonizing pain, the cobra finally died.”). The script hints at a possible love story between Barney Ross and Maggie with the former being apprehensive to let anyone close. Perhaps, it is because he remembers the death of Julia Nickson in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Of course, Arnold gets all the best lines. He chomps into his scenes as hard as the ever-present stogies in the corner of his mouth. The ex-governor of California exchanges catchphrases with Bruce Willis during the climatic shootout. (“You’ve been back enough times. This time, I’ll be back.” “Yippie-ki-yay.”)
The best performances in the film belong to the two guys who probably need subtitles more than Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Lundgren is given a beefier role with his Gunner Jensen now clean and sober. He’s become a lovable lug with references made to his real-life master’s degree in chemical engineering and Fulbright Scholarship to MIT. Van Damme makes the most of his first major theatrical role in years, excluding the meta-textual JCVD. The Muscles from Brussels is immensely entertaining in a rare villainous turn. Plus, it’s cool watching him unleash his trademark flying roundhouse kick to Stallone’s face. For his brief screen time, Liam Hemsworth adds a new dimension as his youthful exuberance helps to amusingly remind his established co-stars of their increasing age.
They may have less hair and more wrinkles than back in their heyday, but the holy trinity of Planet Hollywood still has the charisma necessary to carry a huge blockbuster and the heavy ammunition it requires. The Expendables 2 is well-made schlock cinema for those wanting nothing more than big guys with big guns.