About an hour into the 80’s-loving action smorgasbord that is The Expendables 2, Chuck Norris shows up, playing a guy named Booker (an homage to his 1978 film Good Guys Wear Black) and telling his own version of Chuck Norris jokes. Now this is what I’m talking about!
I didn’t really care for the original Expendables movie. It felt too bland, too contrived, and out-of-touch with the goofy charm of the movies it was trying to honor. Stallone, Statham and the rest were in good spirits, but the entire enterprise felt like a bar crawl with a bunch of washed-up action stars, punctuated occasionally by ill-fitting drama and really choppy action scenes. Stallone took the story too seriously and tried to inject it with soul, which just didn’t work. Expendables 2 shows up on the scene wearing its intentions on its sleeve, replacing Stallone as director with the far less competent Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider), embellishing Arnold and Bruce’s roles and bringing on Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme and the aforementioned awesome of Chuck Norris.
Expendables 2 is a louder, dumber, more ‘roided-up entry than the previous flick. And you know what? I enjoyed it much more. It’s as glaring and obvious—and often as gloriously insane—as the silliest of Stallone or Schwarzenneger’s epics. But what works here is the general tone, which gives us more action scenes with more regularity and variety. West conjures a serviceable look for the film and channels a kind of trashy b-movie flair that replaces the more mannered action of the original.
There’s more clarity to the fight scenes and a welcome distribution of all the main players. Even Jet Li, who appears only briefly in the opening, gets to have a worthy sequence where he’s fighting off goons with pots and pans. Guys like Dolph Lundgren, back playing for the good guys after Stallone’s Ross nearly killed him, and Terry Crewes get more screen time and more things to do, adding a relaxed comic identity that prevents the film from devolving completely into violent video-game style shenanigans. Van Damme as the villain—whose name is, I swear, Jean Vilain—is all lithe menace and over-the-top sneer, which is just the way you’d expect it from JCVD. His henchman is played by Scott Adkins (Undisputed) as one more grunting mass of mean. Liam Hemsworth is the newbie and he acquits himself admirably, trying to distract from the fact that his lack of marquee presence labels him ‘most expendable’. There’s even a female codebreaker added to the action in the form of Maggie (Nan Yu), sent on this new mission at the behest of FBI agent Church (Willis).
There isn’t any depth or real character development going on in The Expendables 2 and the plot is even thinner than it was before. In many ways this works better because the motivations are clearer, the stage less cluttered and the bad-guy’s oppression more to-the-point and relevant. Eventually one of the team is expended (this is an improvement over last go-round where every main player arrived at the conclusion intact, even the guy we thought bought it) and it pushes Barney into revenge mode, sputtering ‘Track’em, find’em, kill’em.” Each event flows nicely from one to the next and although Barney and his best bud Lloyd (Statham) still retain dramatic focus, their relationship isn’t as central this time.
Everyone really gets effective screentime even if the amount of it varies. Li is around for maybe four minutes, and Norris somewhere around six or seven, but they are grand, goofy, go-for-broke minutes and we aren’t really disappointed by the brevity. Some of these guys probably couldn’t manuever around much more, both physically and dramatically. Willis and Ahnuld and Norris show up for a big firefight and the emphasis of their scenes aren’t memorable moments of bad assery but punchlines and sight-gags that poke fun at this antiquated set of studs playing a young man’s game. Watching the Austrian oak rip the door off a car as if he were Frankenstein’s monster is far more amusing than hearing him butcher English with a too-aware ‘I’ll be back.’ Norris, dyed beard and all, is just as much fun as you’d hope a 74 yr-old non-actor with an overheated internet mythology would be. He’s a good sport and his scenes get the most smiles.
At the end of the day, Expendables 2 is just a ton of fun for those looking for a retreat back to that lunk-headed brand of 80’s thrills we remember. It’s not a revival really, more like a retrospective and a requiem and it really does work, mostly because these aren’t spring chickens and they know it. In fact, this lurching beast achieves a measure of real excitement even if it also reminds us we can’t really go back and have our heroes as they were. In Expendables, the goal is to make us grateful we still have these guys at all. Mission accomplished.
Roll your eyes if you want, but this series is finally on track to becoming the beer and pizza pleasure we all hoped it could be when Stallone first started rounding up the troops back in 2009. It’s one of the year’s best b movies.