A Few Old Men
In terms of quality, 2010’s The Expendables is not difficult to top: it coasts on nostalgia for faded action stars embarking on bloody missions to save a few people by blowing a lot more people to bits. But in marketing terms, this year’s sequel faces an uphill climb. After the first film offered the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime teaming of action movie icons, The Expendables 2 can only offer a second-in-a-lifetime reteaming of those same icons.
And so: once more, the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) recruits Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of mercenaries, this time to retrieve a high-tech map of a plutonium mine and battle a villain named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). This may seem on the nose until you realize co-writer Stallone used up every ounce of his cute-names wit on original Expendables named Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). After Vilain commits an act of violence the likes of which his opponents haven’t witnessed since the mass murders they committed last time out, this second mission becomes one of revenge—though Expendables out for revenge behave much like Expendables pursuing heroic ideals or money.
One of these ideals may be “equality,” and so, this time the ultimate boys’ club reluctantly (and at Church’s insistence) welcomes Maggie (Nan Yu). She represents the only female role Stallone knows how to write these days: the tough, beautiful woman who develops an affection for the grizzled Stallone character.
He, in turn, keeps the relationship platonic, either in a chivalrous attempt to keep the woman from getting hurt, or because he’s more comfortable in the company of guys whose activities include marble-mouthed bantering and knife-sharpening. The latter might explain why Barney keeps ribbing Christmas about his perfectly nice fiancée (again played by Charisma Carpenter, demoted from subplot to accessory this time around). But it’s hard for us to see why Barney might feel threatened; even if Christmas ever opts out, plenty of other Expendables might keep joining the group.
One such newbie in The Expendables 2 is Chuck Norris (who appears on screen for just long enough to remind everyone how little actual charisma he has). Other changes in personnel and allotted screen time include the expansion of Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s roles, and the reduction of Yin Yang’s. He bows out of the movie after cursory participation in the opening action scene. In just two minutes, Li reminds us of still-impressive martial arts skills, here with a room full of pots and pans. He also takes verbal abuse from Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), who last time tried to murder him; that episode is all but forgotten here, as the others laugh off Gunner’s creepy madness.
Perhaps separate from that madness, Gunner’s backstory includes a detail drawn from Lundgren’s own biography: late in the movie, Barney reveals that the semi-psychotic Gunner holds a master’s in chemical engineering, like Lundgren. In a similar vein, Norris makes reference to one of many “Chuck Norris Facts,” a popular Internet meme, and during the film’s climax, Willis and Schwarzenegger swap catchphrases from their most famous roles.
These crowd-pleasing winks have no context within the world of the movie; instead, they emphasize the pleasures to be taken in watching these stars play themselves. The very existence of old action stars becomes a bizarre, recurring deus ex machina: if the Expendables find themselves up against a wall, a last-minute reprieve will arrive in the form of yet another elderly man, along with a few machine guns that appear as if from nowhere. The Expendables 2 is a long-form Chuck Norris Fact, about the mythic awesomeness of its cast.
This awesomeness manifests itself almost exclusively in the guys pointing gigantic weapons at anonymous henchmen and blowing them apart. While the movie’s many explosions are less obviously CG-heavy than many modern spectacles, any claim them might have for old-school legitimacy emerges not from stunts or expertly choreographed fights (the sort of action that these guys used to perform), but rather from the mere presence of Stallone and company. Li and Statham, relatively young here, get their token fisticuffs, and Stallone has a gun-free showdown with Van Damme, but these pieces are exceptional rather than typical.
In its efforts to replicate the gimmicky success of The Expendables, the new movie also compounds its stupidity, even if it is, mostly, a better crafted stupidity. Stallone has replaced himself in the director’s chair with experienced journeyman Simon West (Con Air), who has a finer eye than his star, using grainy film stock (or the simulation of it) to emulate the cruddy action movies of years past. West isn’t a great director of action, but his ‘90s-honed ADD chops now seem almost classic, especially compared to Stallone’s smash-and-grab approach in the first movie.
That’s not to say The Expendables 2 is good; the story is half predictable, half nonsensical, the action sequences are competent but not inventive, and the strongest cast members have had more effective outings elsewhere (this while some of its weaker members, like Couture, have barely appeared in any other movies). Yet its stupidity, its faith in its blockheaded star power, also has its charms, perhaps especially for loyal fans of these guys. In this, The Expendables 2 essentially functions as fan fiction; its sometimes delight is that Stallone and company are better fans than fiction writers.