Everything you need to know about "The Expendables 2," the latest cinematic reunion of Sylvester Stallone and his band of '80s misfits, can be summed up by looking at the characters' names. Hale Caesar. Trench. Toll Road. Yin Yang. Series newcomer Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a devious villain ingeniously named Vilain.
If you manage to shut down your thinking parts for two hours, you'll probably find a lot to enjoy in "Expendables 2." Does it come through completely on the promise of '80s action heroes kicking butt in the name of justice and a good time? Not quite, but it's close.
The second film finds our aging heroes (Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Crews, etc.) dragged into a search-and-recovery mission by a grumpy CIA agent named Church (Bruce Willis). They find the package, a map to some plutonium, but it's immediately stolen by Van Damme, the master of the roundhouse kick to the face. He also murders a member of Stallone's motley crew in the process.
The testosterone team chases down Vilain not only to stop him from selling the nuclear material, but also for sweet revenge. Along the way, they run into numerous old friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, the walking meme.
The plot description makes it sound like there's more story than there really is. There's a few moments with a local town forced into slavery by Vilain, as well as a very minor subplot involving a new female member of the team (Nan Yu). For the most part, though, the story is just "Van Damme is bad; let's go kill him." It's just enough to give reasoning to the bloody, mindless slaughter.
Normally, I'm strongly on the side of story, but in the case of "Expendables 2," the plot can only get in the way of what audiences want from the movie. The first film made that mistake, providing a dull, uninteresting story and phony attempts at depth (most notably Mickey Rourke's tear-filled speech, which seemed to come from a different movie) instead of the fun, goofy action and adventure audiences craved.
"Con Air" director Simon West, taking the helm from Stallone, finds just the right tone for the film. It moves fast, lightly moving through the script's heavier sequences to get to the ridiculous action set pieces. The movie is at its winking best when Norris shows up, cueing Ennio Morricone to play in the background and a glorious excess of slow-motion walking.
The screenplay, written by Stallone and Richard Wenk, helps by laying off the hammy speeches and drama, and laying on the explosions and tough guy quips thick (even the crew's tank comes covered with one-liners). Statham gets some of the best moments, including a mid-movie knife fight featuring the wonderfully absurd line "I now pronounce you man and knife."
Of course, the desire for an action-heavy script comes at the price of the film's other elements, mainly the characters. While it's nice to have more Willis and Schwarzenegger, they don't add much. Arnold seems especially superfluous; after one nice quip in the beginning ("I need a weapon ... yours!"), he disappears and comes back only to say "I'm back" a lot. It'd be nice if Wenk and Stallone had written Arnold some new corny one-liners instead of forcing him to repeat the old, tired ones.
Jet Li fans will probably be disappointed that, after a cool opening fight sequence, he vanishes from the film forever. Audiences would also be forgiven if they forgot Randy Couture was in "Expendables 2." These aren't the most egregious of sins, but it does somewhat undermine the team's manly bond when members seem so, well, expendable.
West, for all of his success with the film's tone, struggles with some of "The Expendables 2"'s visuals. The action, though not as chopped up as in the first movie, can still get disorienting with all the edits. A plane crash sequence near the end could be easily confused for "Cloverfield." It's that shaky. It may have just been my particular screening as well, but the overall color palette is oppressively dark.
The content is fun, but the presentation dampens my enthusiasm. It's enough to make me wonder if the final product is less than the sum of its brawny parts. Is a movie in which Van Damme kicks a knife into a character's chest enough? I think I just answered my own question.
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