I’m not even sure what to say at this point, besides thank God summer’s over. It has been quite an ordeal, and I suppose it’s only fitting that that the season goes out on a grossly disappointing note involving a sub-par sequel. Now we’ve just got to contend with that uneasy transitional period between the summer and fall movie seasons, and we may actually have some good movies to talk about. I’m waiting with breath that is bated.
I’m pretty much the world’s biggest fan of “The Expendables,” a rip-roaring throwback to the action movies of yore that almost claimed a spot on my annual top 10 list a couple years back. Writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone hit just the right note with nearly every scene, crafting an effective homage to ’80s-style action flicks while at the same time ensuring that the film would also appeal to fans of contemporary action. It was an impressive balancing act, and the viewer could tell that everyone involved was having one hell of a good time. The sense of old-school, rock ’em sock ’em fun was palpable, and instantly contagious.
“The Expendables 2” seemed inevitable, and the idea of a franchise was most welcome — especially after it was promised that the sequel would amp up the action and camaraderie with the addition of full supporting roles for genre icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme (the first two appeared in the first film in cameo roles). The idea of these guys uniting for a giant orgy of ass kicking and bubblegum chewing was enough to make any action fan giddy with excitement, and it seemed like the kind of thing that couldn’t possibly go wrong: assemble the players, give them lots of guns, make a lot of stuff go boom — voila, instant awesomeness! There’s no reason it shouldn’t have been exactly that easy, but wouldn’t you know it, they still found a way to screw it all up.
The action itself is adequately engaging and well-choreographed (a relief, considering that the movie was helmed by studio hack Simon West after Stallone vacated the director’s chair for reasons that remain unclear), starting with an elaborate rescue mission involving a whole lot of armored tanks and delightfully cheesy CGI blood, and ending with a showdown between main hero Stallone and chief baddie Van Damme that won’t leave fans disappointed. However, when it comes to violence and mayhem, “The Expendables 2” prefers quality over quantity, and the long stretches between set pieces start to wear thin pretty quickly.
Ironically, the all-star cast ends up as a burden instead of a boon. Granted, Stallone is just as effective as he was in the first film, and the always awesome Dolph Lungren is given far more screen time this go-around (he even gets the best jokes, many of which riff on his real-life status as a Fulbright Scholar and all-around secret genius). And Van Damme, as a cocky, villainous mercenary named Vilain who enslaves an indigenous population in an effort to unearth a cache of nuclear materials, is an absolute blast to watch.
But the rest of the cast would have done better to stay home and get some much-needed rest. Returning team members Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Terry Crews are given almost nothing to do, quickly fading into the background, while Willis is bland and obviously bored with the entire affair. The worst fates, though, are reserved for Schwarzenegger and Norris, who flat-out embarrass themselves with shockingly limited mobility and atrocious line readings. (Obviously these guys were never skilled thespians, but we’ve gotta draw the line somewhere.) They only have a couple scenes each, including the climactic showdown, but they still manage to cast a gloomy shadow over the whole movie.
The biggest problem with “The Expendables 2,” though, is the overall tone. Whereas the first film functioned beautifully as genre homage and sly satire, the sequel goes so far overboard with the tongue-in-cheek silliness that it often verges on unintentional self-parody. Far too much emphasis is placed on wink-wink-nudge-nudge “jokes” involving the stars’ status as genre icons, which might be okay if said jokes were slightly more creative than Schwarzenegger referencing “I’ll be back” not once but twice, or Norris deadpanning a particularly lame “Chuck Norris fact.”
With more action and less “comedy,” “The Expendables 2” could easily have been a worthy and welcome follow-up to a modern classic, and kept the momentum going to ensure a successful franchise. Instead, it’s a borderline-depressing charade of a film that will please only the most indiscriminate action fans.