If The Expendables (2010) left the burning question of why it even existed, what further reason is there for The Expendables 2 (2012, 103 mins) to exist? Well, apart from making studio shareholders enough cash to roll around in, the only possible reason (wishful thinking, here) must be to correct the wrongs of the first. The most notable difference is that Sylvester Stallone is no longer behind the camera (that duty now with Simon West, of 1997’s Con-Air) and this is immediately an improvement. Where Stallone’s The Expendables, in all its ridiculousness, still wanted to play itself straight this sequel is much more knowing in its sending up of the genre and is better for it.
Excepting Mickey Rourke, the old crew are reunited here. Stallone returns as Barney Ross with main banter buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) by his side. Dolph Lundgren‘s crazy Gunner Jensen is as mad as ever and Jet Li‘s Yin Yang (making only a brief appearance before bailing out) is still the butt of jokes. Surplus to requirements, Randy Couture and Terry Crews both resume their minor roles to round out the original squad. But there’s more, this time, as we also meet Billy The Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and get some female representation from Maggie (Nan Yu).
Part of the problem with the The Expendables was that we never got to know much about the characters. They were muscular guys with guns; what else did you need to know? However, the lack of background plays to the detriment of this movie’s set-up, namely expecting the audience to care for a character that they have been introduced to only a few scenes before. What misfortune befalls this character leads to a revenge story being spun out of some nonsense about Soviet plutonium barrels buried in a Bulgarian mine, with Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Vilain) as villain.
The story drifts from one shoot-out to the next, but The Expendables 2 feels as if it’s less about the action than it is the cameos. Whereas in the first we got a brief scene between Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, here they rack up more screen time, happily trading each other’s catchphrases, no doubt to the delight of the action audience, and getting down and dirty with some weaponry. Charisma Carpenter returns briefly, providing some home life continuity. But the big appearance here — and given recent press releases about who has and hasn’t signed up for the third, big appearances are no doubt the reason that future films in the franchise will exist — is Chuck Norris‘s lone wolf, Booker.
Compared to the gravel-voiced meatheads that comprise the main team, Norris, softly spoken and with a thinner build, seems a far cry from the typical action hero, but he’s a dab hand with a gun and, if the Chuck Norris Facts internet meme is to be believed, the hardest badass in the universe. Therefore it’s fun to see the man himself acknowledge these in the movie’s world. The humour in seeing him deliver one of his own facts is arguably one of the highlights here, especially as much humour still comes from that age old action movie staple: the corny quip (i.e. “Rest in pieces!”).
While there’s not much for most of the cast to do (this is still very much about Stallone and Statham) the action scenes do come across better. Fight scenes no longer consist of the split second shots that marred the first, and therefore we see here actual physical endeavours being undertaken. Jet Li, whose martial arts were ridiculously underused previously are here given a chance to shine. But, think action movie, and it’s less about the action than it is the crazy weaponry, and that is bountiful too.
While guns, explosions, and prolonged fisticuffs are par for the course in such movies, there’s no reason why it should be presented at a cartoonish level. Yes, The Expendables 2 knows it’s aping its cinematic lineage, but in a world where serious things happen (Vilain enslaves a village to retrieve the plutonium from a mine) can’t there be any consequences (for anyone) other than the villain’s eventual death? Is the world at large blind to such goings on? Where has this Vilain guy appeared from or are we just expected to accept he’s bad and go with it? And, once the Expendables roll into town, who’s going to clean up their mess?
These may just be the questions of a mind meandering, uninspired with death after death of unnamed goons. And that may be the issue here — that the movie is not interested in being more than it can be. Why would it, when the story is secondary to the cast and the audience is assured? But the questions keep on coming because the mind, in trying to disengage, needs something to do and The Expendables provides no viable food for thought. Mantras of must kill bad guys and must get revenge leave little to mentally chew on.
If there was a way of blocking sentient thoughts while watching this then maybe it could be enjoyable. There’s some laughs from the occasional meta-humour and it loves a big all-guns-blazing set-piece, but overall it feels like a revolving door where actors come and go based on other commitments, with the storyline dictated more by availability than coherence. If this continues into the next instalment (which is more than likely) then we have a franchise that maintains interest by increasing its stable of flat characters rather than developing what it already has.