It’s common to compare modern action movies to video games. The Expendables 2 is nothing like a video game. Rather, it’s exactly like being a kid playing with action figures - preferably big, clumsy Mego figures, which have minimal points of articulation and are much bigger than the GI Joes and other 3 inch toys that fill the role of bad guys. The Expendables 2 is a kid taking Megos of Sylvester Stallone and Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger and smashing them together, making explosion and gunshot sounds with his lips and occasionally dropping other action figures into the mix without any discernible rhyme or reason.
It’s everything the first film wasn’t. While The Expendables was a tedious bore of a movie that was convinced of its own depth, The Expendables 2 understands that we’re not here for Barney Ross’ inner turmoil. We’re here to see favorite aging action stars engaging in action scenes that are barely a step above direct to video movies. And to see them doing so with full on self-awareness.
In some ways it’s an action star minstrel show; they’re all doing their famous lines and shuffling across the screen hoping for some tiny bit of love from the audience. Chuck Norris even tells a Chuck Norris joke in the movie, and Schwarzenegger drops “I’ll be back" references at least twice. Rambo comes up, as does the Terminator. I’m shocked nobody told Bruce Willis he was going to die hard. It’s almost sad, seeing these old guys scraping for approval, but there’s also a sense that they’re loving it. When Dolph Lundgren’s character talks about being a Fulbright scholar - which Lundgren actually was - you feel his immense relief. These guys were never actors, so it’s nice for them to just play their personas and fuck around a little bit.
Taken at that level - that everybody’s just having a nice time and is happy to be there (except Jet Li, who gets the fuck out of the movie at his earliest convenience) - The Expandables 2 is a bunch of fun. The plot is minimal, the characters arcs non-existant. The action isn’t even particularly good. But it’s fun. It’s a hang out with enjoyable, charismatic (except Randy Couture) guys doing guy things and smelling like cigars and sweat and shitty cologne.
The action truly is abysmal, though. Most of the guys can’t do any actual movement anymore, so you have a number of scenes where old guys, whose skin is tight on them like a flesh wetsuit, stand stock still and shoot automatic weapons off camera. Then it cuts to a random bad guy being shot and splashing CG blood everywhere. There’s no sense of connection between the two shots, and it’s as if each part could have been shot on a separate continent. I think there’s a general sense of lack of effort on almost everyone’s part (Bruce Willis might well have shot his whole role on a green screen stage and been composited in), but it’s charming. The action isn’t very good, but the heroes do the right poses and grunt the right lines and what else do you want from guys whose endocrine systems have been ravaged by steroids and coke and self-abuse?
The script doesn’t try either, but then again this is Expendables 2, so what did you expect. This is the sort of movie where once someone talks about wanting to get out of the life to settle down with a girl you know he's dead. Jean Claude Van Damme’s motivation is, seemingly, that he’s a huge asshole. The script sets up things that, were this a real movie and not just a conglomeration of grunts and cutaways to violence, should be paid off but just drop away into nowhere (why establish Jason Statham always getting phone calls from his fiancee if you’re never ever going to do ANYTHING with it?). The film feels like an entire act has been trimmed from it, but this is a movie where Chuck Norris shows up out of nowhere to save the day and then simply walks out of frame when he’s done, so I doubt anybody was too concerned about ‘structure.’
The pity is that the pieces are here to make The Expendables 2 really GOOD. It’s serviceable and it gets done what you want it to get done (and it vastly improves upon the first in every conceivable way), but Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Crews and Lundgren and JCVD are movie stars (in their own way), and if their powerful charisma had been channeled into something more than fucking about, this film could have elevated itself into something truly interesting.
What’s weird is that the movie still doesn’t quite know how to give the team the right attention. This is Stallone’s show; he and Jason Statham get some buddy moments (which are quite nice), but it’s all Stallone all the way. Which means everything stops dead when one of the Special Guest Stars shows up. Norris’ character says he’s a lone wolf (get it? Whole script is like that), but so are all of these guys. They’re all one man armies. When you throw them together it gets weird. And because the script doesn’t bother taking time to create a good menace or interesting stakes, most of the guys get little to do. I hope that, should there be an Expendables 3, the filmmakers look at the great team movies and realize that everybody needs something special and unique to do. They don’t need character arcs, they need specialties.
That I’m even interested in Expendables 3 is a sign how much better this is than the first film, which I hated. I was not on board for this sequel, so I’m pleasantly surprised at how moronically enjoyable it is. This time around they got the tone right - self-aware, fun, broad - so maybe next time they start working on things like ‘scripts’ and ‘action scenes.’