Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Chuck Norris, Scott Adkins and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Writer: Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone.
Director: Simon West
Defying their creaky bones and real time logic in equal measure, The Expendables 2 meanders through a reined-in, talky first half before giving the modern action fans (or, more likely, their fathers) the nostalgic bloodbath they have unknowingly longed for.
A pre-credit setpiece reintroduces the ‘old gang’ as they break a Chinese billionaire out of a Nepalese guerrilla compound. About 7 minutes in, the wise-crackin’, guns-blazin’ mercenaries bring down a helicopter with a motorbike, leaving no doubt as to which side of the reality-vs-fantasy divide director Simon West’s noisy film is going to fall (oh, hell, anyone buying a ticket to this knew going in!)
Having dropped the freed prisoner off (literally) and farewelling for the remainder of the film Yin Yang (Jet Li), they pilot their rust-bucket all the way back to the US. That’s right - Nepal to China to North America in three edits inside a heavily-armed aircraft that no government would ever allow to land to refuel. It is one of the many instances when my adult mind kicked in to gear and realised that the 80’s action films I grew up on and which The Expendables films faithfully mimic really were nonsense of the highest order.
No sooner are they enjoying a brewski when Mr Crunch (Bruce Willis) sidles up to Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) with a new assignment - secure a computer hard-drive that holds the secret to the location of five tonnes of forgotten plutonium buried somewhere behind the old iron curtain (or something like that….) With Mr Crunch’s stooge Maggie (Nan Yu) on board (for what emerges as no apparent reason), they secure the device only to have it taken from them by baddie Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme, his character name the most subtle pun in the film). Vilain offs a member of the Expendable family just to rub in what a douche he is, sending all plotting and logic out the window in favour of a good ol’, “now it’s personal” revenge fantasy.
The resuscitated heroes of the VHS glory years acquit themselves with mixed results. Willis seems to float above it all, his screen persona one of the few to have developed beyond his Die Hard days; Dolph Lundgren, riffing on the true-life fact that he has a high IQ, has a couple of oddball moments that are fun; Jason Statham…meh. Popping up specifically for laughs is the rather too sculptured visage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the humourless mug of Chuck Norris. Liam Hemsworth as Billy makes the most of his screen time; relative newcomers Terry Crews and Randy Couture are ok.
Of course, it is Stallone whose fingerprints are all over this franchise. He centres the silliness with a strong, darkly shaded performance that affords the actor some poignant reflection upon the nature of his deeds; the degree to which audiences buy into his angst will vary. The never-ending splatter of bad guy blood looks very much like the grisly aesthetic Sly brought to the last Rambo film (there is a little to much CGI in E2 for a film that homages the great era of practical film effects).
The film delivers in the most expected of ways. It’s big, loud, violent action fun. It is too slick to be totally at one with the era of action films from which it emerged and to which it nods, yet a quick glance over sites like Rotten Tomatoes suggests a strange degree of critical goodwill is being afforded The Expendables 2. We wouldn’t let our modern action heroes get away with this sort of malarkey. I mean, if we could name any….