The Expendables is an odd beast. Marketed and pitched on the idea of bringing a group of 80s and 90s action stars together for a big explosive jamboree of violence, it is, instead, mostly recent action stars accompanying the random stars of the past in a pretty much modern action film. The first film seemed to have issue with this conflict, not sure where it should sit on the sides of 80s excess and modern flash. The sequel seems to have found a better footing though. Click the link below for my full review.
The plot to The Expendables 2 is largely straight forward. Actually, it’s entirely straight forward. The Expendables themselves, a team of stupidly named mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), like doing action things and shooting bad guys. They get coerced into a mission by CIA Agent Church (Bruce Willis) to go find some Macguffin in a crashed plan. This mission requires the help of a woman one called Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), which some of the boys have an issue with but then don’t. Stallone thinks she’ll get hurt because people get hurt around him. Although that doesn’t make sense because the character that gets hurt around him hasn’t been hurt yet. It’s like pre-emptively preparing for death. Around 30 minutes into the film Stallone realises they’ve hired the wrong Hemsworth brother and Liam’s character Billy The Kid (yes) is killed by the villainous Jean Vilain… I shit ye not… they literally called him villain. Oh, also he played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Which is awesome. The Expendables chase after Vilain to kill him until he is dead and stuff.
There’s a sure footedness to this Expendables adventure that the previous film lacked. Whilst it still leans on cliché it doesn’t do so to groan worthy extremes. There’s no characters coming back from the dead for no good reason here. Vilain is very much in the 80s villain mould. Likes to talk at length to infer evil. Kills indiscriminately. Enjoys wearing shades. All standard classic action movie villain tropes. Van Damme actually does a pretty excellent job playing the bad guy too. The last few years I’ve come to realise that he’s actually pretty damn capable as an actor. Shame that this is about as big a role as he’s likely to get these days. I suppose he has to commit to all those straight to DVD Universal Soldier films.
If there is anything groan worthy in the film it generally comes attached to the cameos. At least half of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris’ dialogue is quotes, references or memes. Chuck Norris even quotes a Chuck Norris fact. Their presence is welcome, as it helps with that nostalgic action movie film feel the Expendables would like to aim for, but they’re just here for a paycheck and to make a few funnies. Arnie and Bruce Willis put in the most screen time but this is still just expanded cameo territory. Another awkward element is Billy’s entire existence. He’s a new character and the film has 30 minutes to make us care about him and Jesus Christ do they lay it on think. He quips a little. He shoots stuff really well. He wants to retire from the merc life cos he has a girlfriend in Paris. This guy was pretty much born to be killed. He even refuses to give Vilain anything and invites his death cos he’s just that loyal. It’s layered on so thick that I was begging for his death. Goes out in a cool way though.
So there’s a certain amount of groan worthy content here. That’s to be expected. It’s not like you’re watching the film for its tense drama and gripping storyline. Thankfully director Simon West realises this and makes sure that all the action scenes are pumped full of testosterone. The action scenes are much better directed and staged than in the first film and actually have stages of escalation to them quite often. We also get Jason Statham, as Lloyd Christmas… sorry Lee Christmas, in a priests gown going all knife fight crazy on a group of bad guys. All of this is a step up from the shaky cam monstrosity of the first film that made everything Gary Daniels and Jet Li did during their fight just look like random blurs. You don’t blur those two guys when they go toe to toe. Everyone’s favourite stunt actor Scott Adkins plays Vilain’s right hand man Hector, but he feels under utilised. That guys is the modern Gary Daniels as far as I’m concerned. Cuts an intimidating figure for the little time he gets to shine though. Not bad for a guy that’s appeared on Hollyoaks and Holby City.
Despite the silliness at times there has been an effort to keep an actual maintained mood throughout the film. For whatever reason it is a mood of a downbeat World War 2 drama, all muted tones and old times clothing, but it’s a consistent mood non-the-less. It also serves as a stark contrast to the constant swinging back and forth the previous film had between sunny adventure times and old war dogs being old. The opening scene is really the only one that looks like the last film and from there the tone mutes and the film settles into a comfortable pace. There is an odd sense of genuinely, dangerously reckless abandon at times, such as The Expendables opening fire on the enemy in a currently in use airport at the film’s climax. That’s probably the wrong way to show the hero characters. Still, that is followed by the sight of Arnie and Bruce shooting guys from a smart car, so it sorta balances out by returning to silly as soon as possible. That’s kind of the key to this type film. Maintain a tone for the dialogue and character driven pieces, use action scenes as a relief from that. That way we get some actual character work and for anyone bored by that they get to watch Chuck Norris murder loads of people.
The violence is pretty satisfyingly extreme at times, although it comes at a cost. The film was clearly shot for a PG-13 cert with all the violence being digitally added in post. It really is strange how Sylvester Stallone seems to be obsessed with having digital blood effects in all his films now. I guess removing a head in post is cheaper and simpler than coming up with an actual effect on set. Never been keen on this approach. When you can remove a limb in post most directors will not shoot to give that moment of violence its chance to shine. Whereas when the effect is done on set the director will know that he will want to get that effect on film and let it shine. As bad as it sounds, we’re here to watch bad guys getting annihilated and the more practical and extreme it looks the better. When everything is digital you might appreciate the frenzy but you’ll feel the cheapness of it all. Apparently their aiming for PG-13 again with the third film and showing no signs of not sticking with it. Worrisome.
Overall The Expendables 2 is much preferred by me over the first film. It at least knows what film it is and has a villain that actually works. Van Damme and Stallone have a nice and brutal, if a little short, first at the films finale that is the sort of fight scene these films were built for. Jet Li bowing out 10 minutes into the film is a disappointing moment but he likely would have just been another person to kick and punch people with and the film was already bursting at the seams with them. I would really like to see an Expendables set in China though. A dream sequel would be the team taking on a gang on kung fu masters. Giving Asian stars like Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and the like a chance to kick and punch Jason Statham in the face. I would really like to see that. 2 hours of Jason Statham being punched in the face.