I think I’ve covered my fandom of the greatest action hero of all time or twice before, so I won’t go off on any more tangents about how he was personally responsible for the digital renaissance in film thanks to his brilliant implementation of the medium in Rocky Balboa. I won’t even mention how his skill behind the camera is as underappreciated as his writing. And you won’t hear a peep about how he caters to his fans better than any other actor alive.
Of course, other than my past musings on the man, there’s another reason you won’t hear any more praise for Sylvester Stallone’s past work in this review—there’s very little evidence of it in The Expendables 2, part of which is because nitwit Simon West is in the director’s chair.
What many people saw as a money-grabbing sequel to a money-grabbing original, myself and a few other loyal fans saw as the follow-up to a brilliant throwback to the adrenaline-pumping action of the genre’s best decade, the ’80s. It made no compromises in its story (disconnected mercenaries fighting for a country’s freedom), characters (musclemen doing violent work), or actors (every action star you could hope for). Like the best films of the genre, there was plenty of cartoonish violence, random bits of humor, and moments of honor where a man’s sincerity can really shine through.
In the 21-minute making-of doc, “Gods of War: Assembling Earth’s Mightiest Antihereos”, included as a bonus feature on the DVD edition of The Expendables 2, Sly says the first film “didn’t have as even a tone as the second.” Though this is true, what made the best movies of the ’80s the best movie of the ’80s was how they balanced the violence, humor, and sincerity in a single, enjoyable picture. Die Hard, Rocky III and IV, and Rambo II and III are prime examples.
The key, though, was the focus on violence and sincerity, with the humor as a sprinkled-in afterthought. The Expenadables 2 is heavy on humor—and not great humor. It’s obvious meta-humor with a heavy dose of winking at the camera. I can’t even count how many times Arnold Schwarzenegger says “I’m back.” It’s eye-rolling fun in its own right, but it isn’t what fans of the original signed up for when they bought a ticket to the sequel.
The allure was seeing Arnold, Sly, and Bruce Willis fighting together as Barney Ross, Trench, and Mr. Church. Instead, we get the actors pretending to be heroes as they continuously reference their real-life work. It’s much more entertaining when 90 percent of their lines are in character and ten percent were providing homage to their status as action icons. Now the script is split closer to 50/50. It takes the audience out of the story, which is only a good thing when the story is absolutely worthless and the movie is a lost cause.
That’s simply not the case here. We already have an established and likable group of characters, and the start of their new adventure is a solid one. The pre-title explosion-riddled extravaganza is something to behold. Impressive stunt work and even more impressive sets help make the opening the best part of the film, even if new director Simon West wastes an excellent opportunity for eight epic star turns to introduce his incredible cast—West and his DP Shelly Johnson actually fail to craft a professional product on every level, including providing a clear picture instead of one filled with grain.
From there, the tale turns into your typical revenge tale, a welcome trope considering the genre, but one that’s based around a character and actor who is absolutely expendable to everyone involved (early press releases for the film said they would be avenging the death of Tool, Mickey Rourke’s tattoo artist from the original, but hopes for his return in later sequels must have squashed that more relevant angle). Even after the sub par thespian is terminated, the film goes joke crazy and the movie references pile up as high as the body count (yes, including the one made earlier in this sentence).
These references are spelled out in a much more pleasing, engaging, and thought-provoking manner in two of the disc’s plethora of bonus features. The aforementioned “Gods of War” doc and “Big Guns, Bigger Heroes: The 1980s and the Rise of the Action Film” are excellent features absolutely worth checking out. The former features interviews with the cast, crew, and producers about the original film, the sequel, and even a possible third installment. The latter — which clocks in at an admirable 25 minutes — focuses on a group of film scholars discussing how the social and political climate of the late ’70s and early ’80s brought about the ripped action hero icon. They even talk about how that still works today in movies like The Expendables.
“On the Assault: The Real-Life Weaponry of The Expendables” and “Guns for Hire: The Real Expendables” are based more in reality. “On the Assault” shows Randy Couture discussing and firing many of the guns featured in the film at a private range in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you’re into guns, you’ll be in heaven here (and probably plan a trip to the gun shop in Vegas). “Guns for Hire” has interviews with real-life mercenaries (who prefer to be called Private Security Contractors) who discuss how they run their business and go about hiring recruits. Five minutes of deleted scenes and a gag reel cap off the abundant and thorough special features section.
What worries me the most about The Expendables 2, though, is the attitude its creators take toward the future. They acknowledge why the first two work — the draw of seeing these old action icons be their old selves again — while dismissing it for the future. Sly and the gang repeatedly mention in their interviews that seeing Arnold, Bruce, and Sly together on screen is a one-time only event. When they mentioned this before the film’s release it felt like a marketing stunt. Now it sounds like they’re not interested in doing it again.
Sly even mentions how he thinks the next Expendables should feature a fresh infusion of young blood in “apprentice”-type roles. This simply won’t work. The Expendables was one of the best action films ever made not only because of the nostalgic allure of its stars, but because we don’t have any young action stars to watch anymore. It reflected the current state of America’s workforce where aging employees have to keep going well past their planned retirement out of demand (granted, the demand for most Americans is based on fiscal necessity whereas for Sly and the gang it’s the demand of hungry audience members).
If The Expendables 3 goes the route of Liam Hemsworth and co., it will undoubtedly be one of the worst films of whatever year it’s released. It pains me to say it, but there simply aren’t any appealing muscleheads out there to take over for Sly, Arnie, and Bruno. I wish there were, but Sly needs to keep punching until a replacement better than Vin Diesel surfaces — and maybe even after that. He, after all, is anything but expendable.