The Expendables 2

**1/2

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Having racked up a huge kill count and over $250m across the globe with his assemble-the action-stars-of-old concept movie The Expendables, Stallone's return to action in the sequel this year should surprise no one. After all, one thing the action heroes assembled in that film and this follow up are known for is their endless reappearance in sequels. Old heroes never die, they just turn up in more and more films to fight the law of diminishing returns, and their own failing physiques.

The first Expendables film introduced us to the titular gang of contemporary New Orleans-based soldiers for hire, played by a beefy truckload of action heroes past and present. Stallone starred as Barney Ross, taciturn and mumbling to the point of incoherence at times, but still quick with a pistol. Under his command were henpecked knifesmith Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and martial arts expert Yin Yang (of course he knows Kung fu, he's Asian) played by Jet Li. Looming in the background was the ludicrously named Gunnar Jenson (played in a nice touch by Stallone's old Rocky IV nemesis Dolph Lundgren). Rounding out the team were perhaps the odd ones out- the wrestlers turned actors who don't yet have the action filmography of their peers: Terry Crews as Hale Caesar and Randy Couture as Toll Road. Yes, those were and are the character's actual names. Intriguingly, the film was actually co-written - along with David Callahan - and directed by Stallone himself. You can't accuse the guy of being lazy.

But as my earlier review concluded, The Expendables failed to fully live up to its promise- bringing the stars into alignment by cramming in all of yesterday's action stars into one two hour bullet fest. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, two corners of a sort of weird Hollywood action film cosmic triangle that one can imagine forming with Stallone at the other end, only appeared in the film in brief cameos as mercenary Trench and CIA Special Agent Church respectively. This left Stallone to soldier on with the younger bucks. The five minutes the three were together on screen towered above the rest of the film, which, despite a refreshing anti-CGI attitude and a Dirty Dozen atmosphere, in itself never laid on enough unique action scenes or one liners that might dislodge memories of more iconic moments from any of these action stars' back catalogs.

The Expendables 2 should theoretically have the tools to fix all those problems. Theres a big budget and studio behind it, though Con Air director Simon West has the director's reins this time around, working to a story from Stallone Richard Wenk, Ken Kaufman, and David Agosto. All the original Expendables are back- despite being expendable, none of them died last time. And it has been made clear that Willis and Schwarzenegger have beefier supporting roles this time around, in fact they are front and centre on the posters. Jean-Claude Van Damme, who missed out on appearing in the first film, was given a second chance by Stallone this time around and plays the villain whose surname you'll never get past your Iphone's autocorrect - Jean Vilain. Even Chuck Norris is squeezed in here, playing mercenary lone wolf Booker, whose job is to turn up suddenly and utter Norris-isms.

Having survived the previous film's mission (which involved blowing up an island that was sort of like Cuba), this sequel sees Barney Ross roped into another CIA-backed outing by Church, who is not best pleased that the last mission he sent Ross' team on went seriously off-message. Threatening Ross and his team with a world of pain if they don't co-operate, Church orders Ross to retrieve a downed CIA plane and its safe's top-secret contents from the Albanian crash site. Tagging along for the ride are CIA Special Ops expert Maggie (Yu Nan, new to the franchise) and The Expendables' younger rookie sniper Billy (Liam Hemsworth, also new and looking very fresh faced compared to the grizzle he's surrounded with). Of course it all goes wrong, and before long The Expendables have lost one of their own and unintentionally helped gift the location of a dangerous cold war stash of plutonium into the hands of Euro-terrorist Vilain. Aided by the magically-timed appearances of Willis, Schwarzenegger and Norris, Stallone goes after Vilain guns blazing.

With all that in mind and given that nobody is pretending that this film is anything other than an action hero tribute song and a glorious two fingers up to testosterone-lacking PC attitudes, surely at a minimum a whole lot of shameless fun is guaranteed?

Well... only partly. The Expendables 2 has the cast you feel the first one should've had - though Steven Seagal is really needed to complete the alignment of the planets - but it fails to craft anything really unique on its own with these assets. There are some nice touches - the Expendables' inexplicable use of old prop-driven seaplanes to take them into action being one of them - but most of the action sequences boil down to the same thing. Waves of enemies are mowed down by Ross and his men, aided, usually after the film has paused to allow for a humorous entrance, by Norris, Willis and Schwarzenegger. The thrill of seeing these veterans united in the pursuit of mayhem soon fades when it becomes clear they aren't going to repeating any of their memorable stunts from their prime, they simply stand and shoot, and enemies walk into their bullets. In the gun battles it's not always clear who is going where or where the enemies are relative to the main cast, something that was never the case in, say, Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator or Stallone's First Blood. Perhaps this is why the scenes involving vehicles, particularly the pre-credit teaser assault set in Nepal, are more viscerally exciting, coherent and imaginative- armoured war machines can do what these tired bodies no longer can.

This is also a very weird film. Apart from the fact that Stallone's heavy accent seems to have got even thicker between movies, making it hard to make out his dialogue, he and his elder statesman co-stars really are odd to look at these days - a mix of frown lines and implausible biceps. Then there's Jean Claude Van Damme, acting as if receiving a different radio frequency to everyone else. He's actually one of the more entertaining aspects of the film, his villain harking back a little to all the Eurotrash villains who have menaced straight-talking and shooting American heroes ever since Alan Rickman dominated proceedings in Die Hard. The film's plot and narrative flow dispenses with logic immediately - Norris, Willis and Schwarzenegger turn up at various signposted moments in the proceedings with little explanation given as to how they got there and are given space to utter their catchphrases before getting on with more killing, making this more of a theatrical walk-on gag piece than an actual film. The parodies, catchphrase mangling (and catchphrase borrowing and swapping) and winks to those audience members who might actually know who these old people are, are funny enough – for the first time. Actual sharp and character-defining dialogue and one-liners spread out across the cast would have been more welcome. Some of the funnier lines themselves, like Stallone grunting beside a comrade's grave “Why do the good guys die, and guys like us who deserve to die go on? Whats the lesson in that?”, are just so out there its hard to know if they are supposed to be funny at all.

Its still hard to be too harsh The Expendables 2, though that may be purely a result of this reviewer's age putting him squarely in this film's target market. There is also something weirdly noble, at least in principle, about Stallone giving old action stars a chance to come back in big way - in fact Stallone has gone on the record as stating he is in part motivated by giving actors who have had little A-grade success recently a chance. The list of stars he approached to appear here but didn't make it in for various reasons is not a short one. Maybe next time they'll get Nicholas Cage.

Reviewed on: 14 Aug 2012
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A mission goes awry for the Expendables when the death of a colleague leads to a quest for revenge.
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Director: Simon West

Writer: Richard Wenk, Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Liam Hemsworth, Randy Couture, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Year: 2012

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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The Expendables