The Expendables 2: A Stockpile of Weapons-Grade Nostalgia

This summer has been packed with great action heroes, but as is increasingly the case, they were all in masks and plucked from the pages of comic books.  That’s all well and good, but as all the adaptations pile up I find myself growing nostalgic for those bygone days when the movie stars themselves were the superheroes.  Growing up, most of the cast of The Expendables 2 were just as iconic to me as any member of The Avengers.  As a kid, I wouldn’t have wanted to see Sylvester Stallone playing a character in a Batman movie, I wanted to see a movie where Batman enlists the aid of Stallone himself to take out some bad guys.  For the last fifteen years or so, the cinematic landscape has been missing so many crucial elements.  Air strikes set to classic rock songs.  Characters pausing momentarily to stitch themselves up or cauterize a stab wound with gunpowder.  Arm wrestling.  Slow motion jumping roundhouse kicks.  Helicopters getting destroyed via improbable means.  When the 80’s action film gave way to the independent wave of the 90’s, an unmistakable void was left in American cinema, and the modern action genre often feels weak and sterile.   Sometimes, if you want something done right, a bunch of 60-year-old dudes just have to get back in the gym and do it themselves. The Expendables 2 brings back most of the stars of the original film (minus Mickey Rourke), brings in a few more (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Liam Hemsworth, and Chuck Norris), and supplies expanded roles for past cameo actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis).  The film itself follows the same trend as the cast, adhering to a safe policy for successful sequels: do what you did before, just bigger and better.  Jet Li unfortunately bows out early this time, and I still can’t quite figure out what Randy Couture is bringing to the table beyond being huge, but for the most part this is an improvement over the original in every way.  In particular, Liam Hemsworth is a great addition to the cast in his role as Billy, a young ex-Army sniper looking to make some extra cash to start a new life with his girlfriend.

The plot is simple enough: Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew of guns-for-hire are recruited by the enigmatic Church (Willis) to retrieve the top-secret contents of a safe from a downed plane.  The safe requires special expertise to open, so Church sends along Maggie (franchise newcomer Nan Yu), to act as the team’s tech expert.  Ross initially protests, but it isn’t long before Maggie proves to be a more than capable addition to the crew.  After finding the safe and securing its contents, the team is intercepted by another band of mercs led by the villainous Vilain (hah!), played by the always entertaining Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Vilain steals the goods, murders one of the Expendables, and takes off, adding revenge to Barney Ross’ growing to-do list.  Oh, and there’s still the important matter of the safe’s contents, which as it turns out are blueprints to an abandoned mine where the Soviets stockpiled an incredible amount of weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War.

The Expendables 2 is a near-perfect homage to the Reagan/Bush era of Hollywood action, and it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this sort of thing can still work.  So why does it work so well?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First of all, the camera stays on the action.  Most of the stars here are hardened action vets, doing many of their own stunts where possible.  This fact, combined with the “R” rating that has so terrified recent action films, allows the action to play out in such a way that is impossible for the quick-cut PG-13 output of today.  The knife-fights, jump-kicks, and intense vehicular combat are the focus of the film rather than an embarrassment to be avoided wherever possible.

Second, and possibly most surprising, are the performances.  Since Stallone’s theatrical comeback in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, it’s been clear to anyone willing to give him a chance that this guy loves what he does and is still more than capable of holding his own on screen.  Dolph Lundgren puts in what is probably his best performance ever as Gunner Jensen, the socially unstable genius of the group, and I now find myself sincerely hoping that he can make at least a modest comeback beyond the confines of this franchise.  Ex-NFL star and current Old Spice spokesman Terry Crews is also better here than I’ve ever seen him, this is a guy I hope they remember when the inevitable Gears of War film adaptation rolls around.  Van Damme makes a great villain, and this performance should prove to everyone who never saw 2008’s JCVD that he’s still got a lot of good movies left in him.  Last but certainly not least, Jason Statham steals just about every scene he’s in (much like in the series’ first entry) as Lee Christmas, expert knife-fighter and the team’s second-in-command.  Statham has been one of the few holding the action torch high in everyone else’s absence, and he’s in full effect here, showing that he’s not only capable of hanging with the old guard, but also of elevating the performances of those around him.

Admittedly, not everything works out quite so well.  Chuck Norris’ appearance is, as I feared when he signed on, little more than a self-conscious nod to the Internet memes and college dorm posters that made him a household name again long after his actual career had faded.  Thankfully he’s only trotted out briefly, and they manage to keep the “Chuck Norris Jokes” to one.  Still, it’s one too many.  A post-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his non-cameo film comeback in this movie, a comeback which I’ve anticipated entirely non-ironically.  Unfortunately, nearly every line out of his mouth or directed at him is a Terminator reference, which gets old pretty quickly.  I realize that the bulk of his film career was hinged on one-liners and puns, but they couldn’t have leaned on it any harder here without naming his character Terminator von I’llbeback.

Still though, the overall result here is far more good than bad, and as I said earlier the improvement over the first film is clear.  If you’re at all an action fan, absolutely go to the theater and see this film, don’t wait for Netflix or Redbox.  It’s of the sort best enjoyed on the big screen, and it’s the return of a genre that’s going to require everybody to get out and push for a bit before it’ll get much of anywhere.  We’ve got to start voting with our dollars if we’re ever going to see the end of modern action films made without an ounce of fake blood and edited in a Slap Chop.  If you had the misfortune of being born after the entire genre went family-friendly, here’s a helpful primer on what you missed: Expendables 101.  Most of these are available either via Netflix instant streaming, or are incredibly cheap on Blu Ray.  Do yourself a favor and check ’em out!

Sylvester Stallone: In addition to the obvious Rocky and Rambo franchises, you’ll want to see Cobra, Over the Top, Demolition Man, and Cop Land

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Hard Target, Bloodsport, JCVD

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Terminator 1 and 2, Predator, Conan the Barbarian, Commando, Total Recall, The Running Man

Bruce Willis: Die Hard (the last one is skippable), Pulp Fiction, Armageddon, The Fifth Element

Dolph Lundgren: Universal Soldier, Rocky IV

Jason Statham: Crank, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, The Transporter, Death Race

Jet Li: Once Upon a Time in China, Fist of Legend, Hero

Chuck Norris: The Way of the Dragon, The Delta Force, Lone Wolf McQuade 

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on August 20, 2012, in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Agreed, onethousandmillion percent on all counts.

    You nailed the highs and lows exactly as I saw them. Jet Li apparently scheduled a family vacation too soon, or something… I was sad he never popped back in. Chuck Norris was awkward, matched only by Arnold’s confused performance. It was like they woke him up from his afternoon nap and handed him the worst lines in the movie and said, “go! go! go!”

    JCVD was awesome as the cliched villain, Vilaine. (teehee) I loved JCVD vs. Stallone.
    As always, many of my favorite scenes were of Statham being a NinjaBrit, throwing blades, and ducking pretty much anything that comes his way… while wearing a ridiculous costume.

    So… yeah. Now I want to see it again!

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