The Expendables 2 forces us critics to look deep down into our souls and confront the dark realties lurking there. We thus find ourselves saying unthinkable things like “Dolph Lundgren really steals the show,” and “I’ve missed Jean-Claude Van Damme’s roundhouse something fierce.” That kind of dirt won’t come off. Ever. But if we’re honest – and no critic worth his salt should be anything else – we must admit that The Expendables 2 does exactly, precisely what it sets out to do. Its specific brand of 80s action nostalgia smells a whole lot sweeter the second time around, and if you’re of a mind to jump in on the fun, you won’t find a better bunch of guys to do it with.
That doesn’t mean it’s good in any rational sense of the term. But bad is the new good for films like this, and director Simon West (along with project guru Sylvester Stallone) expects the audience to understand that. In exchange, they get down to business right away, as Stallone’s Barney Ross and his band of mercenaries set out to avenge one of their own. (You know when somebody starts talking about how close he is to retirement that he’s gonna get iced like Haagen Dazs before the end of the first reel.) With Jean-Claude Van Damme’s villainous Vilain (yes, really) angling for the MacGuffin du jour it’s all the good guys need to start blowing manhole-sized chunks out of every faceless punk they see.
The first film never quite found the right energy to make that work. It coasted too far on nostalgia and refused to poke fun at itself often enough. This time, the Meta plays a more prominent role, and West charges the copious action scenes with buoyancy that Stallone’s directorial efforts in the first film lacked. We pause only to keep the plot points clear before leaping back into the mayhem, and said mayhem carries a lot of polish and imagination with it. Yes, the machismo grows suffocating at times, but twinkles come more readily to everyone’s eyes and the jokes feel more self-effacing this time around.
The Expendables 2 also tones down on the gimmickry… or, more precisely, plays with it more brazenly. The cameos lack the desperation of the first effort, and the script gives them a little more to do. So when the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris swing by for a hello, they acknowledge the flimsiness of the pretense before jumping into the action. West gives everyone their moment to shine, which keeps the brevity of some perfomers’ screen time from mattering too much. (It’s hard knowing that Jet Li has only two minutes, but it gets a lot easier when he spends it beating a roomful of goons to death with a frying pan.)
The atmosphere readily reflects the heyday of 80s action, with swarthy baddies ripe for the pounding and exhibiting no discernable human traits beyond their ability to bleed when shot. The political subtext is appalling, but that too becomes part of the fun… nudging our ribs rather than shouting in our ear. Perhaps most importantly, it juggles its bevvy of aging icons often enough to keep the gunfights, knife fights and fistfights from wearing out their welcome.
As for the performances… they’re about what you’d expect. The dialogue hardly matters; everyone simply grunts, growls or rasps like Tom Hardy’s Bane (Bane-ese?) until the next opportunity to shoot someone in the face arises. It would be more off-putting if we needed to understand any of it, but the plot is such that your average howler monkey could grasp the subtlest nuance without a second thought. And the assembled squad carries enough sweaty charisma to dispense with those silly talking parts. Lundgren really does better than he has any right to – mugging like mad and reaping perversely effective rewards in the process. Stallone and Jason Statham (playing Barney’s stalwart second-in-command) reprise their Mutt-and-Jeff routine to general applause, while the remainder of the crew are content to bludgeon their way to the finish line with nothing more than a few well-placed one-liners. (Statham barely edges out Willis for Best Post-Murder Quip honors, for those keeping score at home.)
They promised all that in the original Expendables, and resolutely failed to deliver. A little tweaking fixes the formula surprisingly well, however, and gives these aging stars the curtain call they really deserve. We may be ashamed to admit it, but many of us who grew up in the 80s owe at least a small debt these guys for helping ignite our love of the movies. We moved on to more sophisticated fare, but the journey would have been poorer without those early popcorn-munching steps. The first Expendables squandered that nostalgia; the sequel gives it proper due, which is eerily fitting considering the genre to which it pays homage. It’s a guilty pleasure to be sure, but weren’t they all? And if Stallone and the gang took more than one film to find that earthy groove again, at least they make sure the wait was worth it. Damn you goofy bastards; how can we stay mad at you?