A film review by Craig J. Koban August 21, 2012


2012, R, 102 mins.


Sylvester Stallone: Barney Ross / Jason Statham: Lee Christmas / Jet Li: Yin Yang / Dolph Lundgren: Gunner Jensen / Jean-Claude Van Damme: Vilain / Randy Couture: Toll Road  / Terry Crews: Hale Caesar / Liam Hemsworth: Billy the Kid / Bruce Willis: Church / Arnold Schwarzenegger: Trench 


Directed by Simon West / Written by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone

I found myself wanting to love, but ultimately resisting the first EXPENDABLES movie, which was, in all fairness, an unapologetic homage to intellectually vacant, politically incorrect, and pro-gore and wanton mayhem actioners of the 1980’s.  In many respects, that Sylvester Stallone directed and co-written affair was a blood drenched, semi-campy, and nostalgic ode to no-nonsense genre efforts of yesteryear.  The sight of seeing borderline geriatric ex-action film royalty return to the silver screen was a giddy sight to behold, even if the resulting film was problematic and faulty. 

Now comes the inevitable THE EXPENDABLES 2, and perhaps what’s even more appalling than film’s inanely high body count is that I seemed less resistant to its over-the-top hysterics this go-around and just went long with the ride.  The sequel – still co-written by Stallone, but now directed by CON AIR quarterback Simon West – is slicker, livelier, and more endearingly self-deprecating about its own inherent hero worship of 80’s action cheese than its predecessor.  It still does much of what it did before and adheres to the very same let’s-blow-shit-up-real-good schlockiness of the original, but now its weapons-porn-happy craziness and overall sly self-awareness for the underlining material feels less standoffish and more perversely inviting.   

The plot is as lowest common denominator as they come, but then again, I think it does precisely what it’s supposed to do: establish bad guys for the Expendables team to eradicate.  Simple.  The basic ensemble remains the same, with a few new additions and some minor deductions (gone this time is Mickey Rourke; Jet Li only makes a brief cameo this time).  Group leader Barney Ross (Stallone) still overseas his gnarly and battle-hardened motley crew of mercenaries, which includes his number two, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture), but this time they are joined by expert sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth from THE HUNGER GAMES) and Maggie (Nan Yu), who’s – gasp!!! – a woman that can actually fend for herself.   



Things go badly south for the team while on what appears to be a routine mission (provided by the enigmatic CIA agent Church, played by Bruce Willis), during which they have to nab a highly secretive item that was on board a plane that crashed in Albania.  Although they do successfully intercept and secure the cargo, they are stopped from celebrating their victory by the appearance of a terrorist name Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme, happily and competently playing a real douchebag antagonist) that manages to not only conspire against the Expendable team to cough up the item they just retrieved, but he also manages to kill one of the apprehended members in cold blood in front of them.  Barney, of course, goes absolutely bonkers and plots his revenge to find the terrorist in a plan that involves tracking, finding, and killing him…killing him real good…before he can extract weapons grade plutonium from an abandoned Soviet mine.  Barney does not know what he hates most about Vilain: the fact that he killed one of his brothers-in-arms or that he uses slave labor to get his precious plutonium.  Either way, Vilain is one dirty sonofabitch! 

The film’s ravenous penchant for bone-crushing, artery-splattering chaos is on full display here, especially during its ridonculously sustained opening ten minutes that’s about as hellishly brutal as about ten ROBOCOPS and TOTAL RECALLS combined.  During it the team – sporting unfathomably large and limitlessly lethal weapons and armored vehicles – venture into a fortified fortress in Nepal housing many a faceless and generic Asian cardboard cut-out villains that are routinely reduced to Swish cheese with relative ease.  During moments likes this it’s clear that Simon West shoots the film with a leaner, crisper and more coherent eye for framing action than Stallone did in the first entry, even though there are times when the screen is awash with a grimy and gritty sheen that makes many scenes look unfocused and ugly to look at. 

One aspect that the last EXPENDABLES picture seemed to lack was a consistent sense of self-referential humor, which is much more apparent now, allowing the actors more breathing room to lampoon both their own respective images as action stars and their lives off-screen.  For example, there’s a great running gag about Gunner’s intelligence and the fact that he has a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering (which Lundgren, in reality, also has), which peaks into the script in some devilishly funny moments (like when he tries to MacGyver him and his crew out of a collapsed cave using his knowledge of the Periodic Table and rock formations that has unintended results).  Chuck Norris even manages to appear as a solo-mercenary – who has a knack for showing up at improbably convenient times - named Booker, which is a clear satiric wink to a similarly named character he played in the 1978 action flick GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK.  Hell, at one point he even cracks a boastful joke at himself that seems swiped from Ian Spector’s THE TRUTH ABOUT CHUCK NORRIS spoof books.   

The drollness doesn’t end there.  Van Damme’s villain is named – ahem – Vilain.  Nice.  Then there is Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the series after less-than-auspicious and generally lackluster cameos in the initial installment that left me really wanting more.  Well, this time they both have meatier screen time to play opposite Stallone et al, and they pop up in the film’s ludicrously erratic and exhilarating action climax where they commandeer an uber-tiny Smart car (“This car is smaller than my shoe,” cracks the former Governator), rip its doors off, uncomfortably climb in, drive off, and mercilessly gun down as many of Vilain’s henchmen as possible…all while inside an airport and while mocking each other’s past classic one-liners from their greatest action films (it's about as absurdly hysterical and satisfying as it sounds).  This all culminates in a final one-on-one showdown between "The Italian Stallion" and "The Muscles From Brussels" that will leave male audience members screeching like adolescent female Twihards. 

Yup, THE EXPENDABLES 2 is a really hard film to resist, all right.  It’s star-studded cast seems more game this time (there’s a lot more spirited referencing to the underlining outrageousness of men their age – who should nearly be entering retirement homes - in an action film like this) and their the quips seem even more uproariously lame and enjoyable (“Rest in pieces” screams Stallone as he and his team enjoy some serious overkill on one unfortunate lone baddie; or another instance as Statham – disguised as a priest at a wedding altar – tells his prey, “I now pronounce you man and knife”).  THE EXPENDABLES is unhealthy fast food action cinema for those craving their guilty-pleasured fixes; it does mostly what its antecedent did, but it mostly does it better.  Just be sure to reclaim your brain that you checked in at the theater entrance before the film started when you leave after it’s over.

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