Following an explosive opening sequence that matches just about anything from the first Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of mercenaries are sent to a dark corner of Europe by the enigmatic Church (Bruce Willis) to recover crucial data from a crashed plane that could pinpoint the location of abandoned Cold War-era plutonium. But what should have been a routine mission soon turns sour after they are ambushed by a ruthless arms dealer known as Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Now, with the data stolen and one of their own murdered in cold blood, the Expendables set out after Vilain on a personal vendetta to avenge their comrade and, purely as a bonus, prevent worldwide anarchy.
Directed by Simon West (friggen’ Con Air), there’s an assured sense of cosy familiarity to The Expendables 2. With its central cast of likeable beefcakes now settled into a firm groove and a simplistic revenge story there to keep things running smoothly, we’re past the teething pains encountered during the original. The chemistry between Ross and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) feels more natural than before, while screen time is more evenly spread throughout the cast (it never turns into The Stallone & Statham Show).
Though it could be argued that Expendables 2 delivers too much too soon. That aforementioned opening packs enough vehicular carnage, knife battles, exploding heads, pyrotechnics, bad one-liners and Schwarzenegger to make Michael Bay go take a cold shower. But from then on, it’s a while before we even begin to approach those same giddy heights of carnage. Despite being thrown a pacing curveball, so to type, this does give all those supporting characters room to breathe.
It might be the He-Man fan in me, but I was particularly pleased to see how expanded Dolph Lundgren’s role was. He’s great as the deeply unhinged Gunner Jensen, though he’s seemingly lightened up since their 2010 shenanigans, and so gets to add a surprising amount of comic relief. The addition of Lundgren’s own real-life background in chemical engineering (the dude’s apparently a genius) to the character adds a welcome extra layer of depth, even if it does jar somewhat with his penchant for killing while bellowing “INSECT!”
Like before, Terry Crews and Randy Couture are given the least to work with, though they make the best of what they get. Crews gets by on crowd-pleasing enthusiasm alone, anyway, and his exploding doom shotgun makes a brief return (though sadly no concrete watch towers get blown up this time). Elsewhere, Jet Li’s early exit from the plot may come off as abrupt, but at least he got a proper send off, rather than one of those typical “Oh, uh, he moved back home to retire” variations of throwaway exposition.
But what of the new recruits? Liam Hemsworth may be Botox-free, but he fits in nicely amongst the grizzled veterans as Billy ‘the Kid’, and gets to prove his acting chops (clearly being handsome with perfect stubble isn’t enough). Providing the necessary influx of girl power is Yu Nan as Maggie – a company agent proficient in everything from hacking to torture. In other words, she's no Willie Scott, and doesn't feel like pointless female fan service either. Hey, maybe they can get Sigourney Weaver in on the fun next time.
As for Van Damme, I’ve got three mind-boggling nouns for you: Belgian Mola Ram. No, really, that’s what he is! In his search for the buried plutonium, Vilain has assumed a dictatorship over a nearby village and enslaved its male population to work as miners. At one point, he plans to round up the remaining women and children and force them into labour too! How any of this is even possible in 2012 Europe, I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. All this guy needs is a horned headpiece and the ability to rip hearts out, and you’ve got one round-house kicking Thuggee high priest!
The Muscles from Brussels might well be the highlight of this ensemble piece. As an actor, he’s only improved with age. I know his direct-to-video output in the past decade might be lacking in budget, but he’s always given those roles his best (check out Until Death if you don’t believe me). As Vilain, he delivers a suave and threatening performance that made me question if this was really the same goofball from Street Fighter. We knew he was on a comeback trail after the dramatic JCVD, and Universal Soldier: Regeneration proved the man was by no means out of the action game, so it’s great to finally see Van Damme back in a major production – hopefully the first of many.
Oh yeah, and Chuck Norris shows up too. As ex-Expendable Booker, he juggles the role of dues ex machina personified and the exposition fairy rather well, it must be said. But I can’t fault his entrance – appearing right outta nowhere amidst a heap of corpses like the bearded angel of awesome he is to help our heroes on their quest to Vilain’s mountain lair. It is pretty creepy how he hasn’t aged a day since 1985, mind you...
You might recall a great brouhaha surrounding Expendables 2’s rating several months ago. Less-than-manly tears were shed when Stallone himself declared this would be a PG-13 affair, rather than the hard R that fans were hoping for. But then the news broke that it would be R-rated after all (receiving a 15 here), and all those tears were quickly sucked right back up.
Watching it now... you can tell they filmed this with a lower rating in mind. If the notable lack of foul language in this manly man-fest doesn’t strike you as even a little odd, then the abundance of computer generated blood should. In fairness, these effects don’t look dreadful, and mark a big step up from the first film’s digital squibs (remember the giant knife penetrating Eric Roberts’ sternum? Good Christ, that looked bad). Regardless, you can tell this was doctored in post-production to keep the internet in a good mood.
To be honest, I think Expendables 2 would be oodles of awesome whatever the rating. Remember that brief scene in the original between Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis? It seemed to be hinting at greater things to come. After two years, such greatness has finally come to pass. I know I, a 90s kid, was excited when those latter two stars commandeered a Smart Car to perpetrate their own little drive-by massacre, but I can only imagine how anyone old enough to clearly remember these guys in their prime felt during that scene.
Topping it all off is one final, brutal duel between Ross and Vilain. The thought of two middle-aged men in a no holds barred death battle may sound grimly hilarious, but this is anything but. There’s nothing fancy between these two action legends – just raw violence. The only way it could be better is if it took place in another abandoned steel factory. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of time before Van Damme faces off with fellow DTV overlord Seagal. If that did happen, Jean-Claude should fight sans shirt, and Big Steve gets a sword. It would occur in the Jamaican nightclub from Marked for Death, or maybe the ice rink from Sudden Death... sorry, bit of a weird digression.
Okay, so Expendables 2 isn’t quite ‘high art’. Indeed, ‘high crap’ might be a more fitting summarisation. But hey, I went in expecting one hundred minutes of cheese, and that’s exactly what I got. I’m trying not to think about the threadbare (read: Zoe Saldana anorexic) story, because I know such stupidity will give me an aneurism (or worse). Luckily the memorable characters, playful tone and satisfying action is enough of a distraction. If you want a fun time that successfully harks back to the Golden Age of cinematic violence, then do give this a try.
Since it’s got me in the appropriate mood, I’m gonna go watch Timecop... or maybe Tango and Cash... ooh, The Last Boy Scout’s on.