A totally worthy sequel that still hasn’t quite found a consistent tone for the franchise, this big bad blow-em-up flick is straight out of the 80′s, complete with a laundry list of the biggest names of that decade’s action films. The movie launches us into the action with a massive opening set-piece, showing the titular Expendables rolling into a desert town in armored cars machine gunning baddies left and right; immediately, things are larger in scale and more unabashedly violent and intense. Just as Jet Li’s Yin Yang retires from action in the aftermath, we meet the new blood, a young sniper named Billy The Kid, and he proves his mettle by covering the rugged crew from a safe distance with his massive rifle. Mr. Church, Bruce Willis’ character from the original, hunts down Sly’s Barney Ross and reminds him that he owes him for that film’s botched job; he gives him a chance to redeem himself by reacquiring some missing plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands. Lo and behold, in the process of said mission, it falls into the wrong hands, an arms dealer appropriately named “Vilain”, and the crew sets out to, as Ross puts it, “Track him, find him, kill him.”
If you are wondering whether the big dogs in the cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris) get more of a chance to get in on the action this time around, well, they do. Far from the throwaway cameos they were given in the last film, Sylvester Stallone recontexualizes them and the rest of the crew with more parallels to their real life personas as well as giving them more opportunities to show off and be badasses again. Norris, in particular, gets the same “living legend” treatment the memesphere has bestowed upon him, complete with a riff from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly every time he appears on screen. That aspect of the film, for me, is it’s greatest success; utlizing these heavy-hitters’ screen personas in a new setting, self-aware puns and all, without radically altering them or forcing them into the plot. The problem is, a movie cannot exist on one-liners and action beats alone; there is a story here, and the first act, in particular in painfully drawn out, obvious, and hackneyed when not merely focusing on the guys trading barbs and posing. I cannot remember, in recent memory, a more obvious example of the “Goose” character being paraded around trying to make us think he’s not going to bite it (you’ll see). There is a funeral speech, delivered by Stallone at about the 40-minute mark that is as bad as anything I’ve ever seen in an overly-sincere action movie, and I’m not thoroughly convinced the racous laughter at my midnight screening was what they were going for. But it easily could’ve been! There’s enough of the film that is self-reflexive and knowingly self-aware that it seems near-impossible the writers thought that kinda scene would fly. So who knows; the film was fun enough (and those laughs were hearty enough) that I will give them the benefit of a doubt.
You also get the original team returning in full blast, save for Mickey Rourke. Stallone, free of the painkiller-affected speech patterns he adopted in the first film (he broke his collarbone while directing, and pushed through anyway, creating this franchise), is a stronger lead this time around, and has a handful of action scenes that force you to remember that this guy is well into his 60s. Statham, once again, gets the most love (and screen time), and he delivers some excellent one-liners amidst his badass knife-throwing and kung-fu habits. Jet Li has a showstopping one-take fight scene in the opening, and then disappears for the rest of the film, while Randy Couture gets maybe 5 lines and just as many action beats. Terry Crews is still kind of a scene-stealing badass motherfucker with his massive build and A+ sense of humor, but the arguable star of the team is, once again, Dolph Lundgren’s Gunnar. Stallone not only had his character survive the gunshot to the heart he gave him in the first movie, but he added Lundgren’s real life academic credentials to the mix (Gunnar, like Lundgren, is a MIT grad and Fulbright Scholar…better believe it). In a series that seems to be happy celebrating old action icons as well as younger ones, he seems to be the one guy who, with these movies, is actually getting better than ever. He’s still a big, scary sommbitch, but his delivery and sense of physical menace are getting sharper with every one of these movies. He cannot match Arnold or Bruce in terms of star-power, or even nailing one-liners, but damned if he doesn’t look like he could kick their ass and have fun doing it.
He doesn’t get a fight with his Universal Soldier co-star, Jean-Claude Van Damme (that honor goes to Sly), who is an exceptional villain; a marked step up from Eric Roberts (who was nice and sleazy but not, you know, threatening), JCVD rocks his leather jacket and shades, and rips into one of his rare villainous roles with relish. When he finally drops some kicking science on the Expendables, the audience (and myself) responded with 100% sincere favor, as it is obvious he still has the goods in his 50s. Scott Adkins, as Vilain’s henchman, gets a great fight with Statham, but not much else, and I doubt this will do that much to boost his profile. There’s also a lady Nan Yu playing an operative who Church assigns to the mission, and she functions as a sort of de facto love interest for Sly (we see that Statham is marrying his cheating GF from the first one). Yu can fight convincingly, but she is little more than a distraction, a lame excuse to get a female on the team, especially when the narrative introduces a local desert girl who seems more than capable of fighting herself. Other than her, the cast is fairly ideal and well-used. BUT I STILL MISS MY MICKEY ROURKE!!!
Recommended to fans of the first one, of other big-budget Stallone actioners, or the extended cast (who doesn’t wanna see Bruce drive around Arnold while they both fire machine guns? Anyone?). I have an inkling there’s another director’s cut out there (as there was for the first one) that shows us the real movie that should’ve existed had the final film not had to have clocked in at less than 2 hours. Here’s to that being the no-holds-barred, slyly self-aware action flick that this film almost wholly succeeds in being. Or, if not, then the next one (my vote is for Steven Seagal as the villain, and Clint Eastwood as a veteran Expendable…we shall see), which they’re already developing.