It almost hurts to think about The Expendables. It was simply heartbreaking to see such a great concept squandered, buried in a mire of terrible effects, ridiculous over-exposited story and worst of all, poorly shot and cut action sequences. How could they have brought together some of the greatest living action stars for a modern action film, a seemingly simple endeavor, and still managed to screw up? So it was with “fool me once” eyes that we as action movie lovers gobbled up news stories on the inevitable sequel. Expanded parts for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis? Jean Claude Van Damme?! Chuck Norris!?! It wasn’t long before the excitement grew so big that it clouded our collective memory of the disappointment of the first film. With everyone important back, some great new faces and an R-rating secured, we allowed ourselves to hope that maybe they finally got it right. And while The Expendables 2 does deliver more of what we always wanted from these films, it’s still not quite the home run we wanted.
This is usually the part where you get a plot synopsis.
Thankfully, the plot is much more straightforward and takes more of a backseat to the action this time around, but there are still some talky bits to get through before the carnage ensues. These mainly involve Willis, who once again appears to give Sylvester Stallone and his team their mission. This time, they’re headed into Russia to retrieve…something from a high-tech safe lost in a plane crash. Willis sends a girl along, Stallone doesn’t want her, you get the idea. Among the new recruits for part 2 is Liam Hemsworth, perhaps best known as Chris’ brother, though young Liam is starting to make a name for himself on his terms starring in this and The Hunger Games earlier this year. As if being known as Chris’ younger brother in real life wasn’t bad enough, poor Liam is constantly referred to as “the kid” throughout Expendables 2. He’s the new guy that Stallone clearly has a soft spot for, the one all the other guys want to protect and the one who decides early in the film that he wants to get out of the life and marry his girlfriend. If you can’t see where all this is leading then you haven’t seen enough movies. He may as well be wearing a red shirt. After securing the item from the plane crash in Russia, Stallone and his crew are ambushed by the film’s main villain, JCVD. This sets up the film’s plot, namely let’s go get that thing back and kill Van Damme while we’re at it. This is exactly the type of simple plot an Expendables film should have. No dictators, no moral ambiguity, just straight up revenge.
Whoever decided that JCVD should try his hand at villainy gets a gold star. It’s a great idea and Van Damme is clearly having a great time breaking bad. Perhaps the best part is when you realize that JCVD’s character is named Vilain. It’s easy to spot in print, but when you’re hearing it pronounced with a French accent throughout the film, it can be easy to miss that his name is “villain” minus an L. That’s how simple and cheesy we’re getting this time folks. Van Damme’s number two is rising action star Scott Adkins. You’re going to want to keep your eye on him. He’s been steadily carving out a niche in low-budget action flicks like Undisputed II and III, Ninja, and the upcoming Universal Soldier sequel (with co-stars JCVD and Dolph Lundgren). Adkins doesn’t disappoint, and he gets one of the best fight scenes of the third act.
Thankfully, rambling exposition of the first film is ditched in favor of more constant action sequences, which is what we all wanted in the first place. The icing on the cake is that they are filmed and edited much better this time. The action sequences in the first film are poorly lit, poorly framed, and erratically edited making for a bunch of sound effects that have little connection with the chaos flickering across the scene. Here the shots are lit better, framed properly and held longer so you get a much better sense of the geography of the fight which is important if you want to build any tension at all. Knowing where people are and where the enemy is allows for much more enjoyable action, and part 2 delivers the goods.
Unfortunately, the sequel duplicates some of the problems easily visible in the first film. Most notably the effects work is still terrible. Despite most of these guys building careers in the 80s before computer generated imagery, CG sequences are prevalent and poorly executed. Green screen work, water and fire effects and yes, the cardinal sin itself, CG blood are all present. While the cast undoubtedly took a large chunk of the purported $100 million budget, it would have been nice to see some of that cash used on more practical effects. At the very least a line in the sand should have been drawn for all blood work to be done practically.
And finally there’s a completely subjective element of the film that could easily turn your opinion one way or the other…the cheese factor. While there are several nods and inside jokes to the cast’s past work in the first film, Expendables 2 dumbs down the references and cranks their frequency up to 11. Arnold in particular seems incapable of delivering any dialogue that ISN’T some kind of derivation on a past one-liner, whether his or someone else’s.
Ultimately, this is much closer to the film we’ve wanted since the announcement of the first. Sadly, it’s still not quite there yet. Problems like special effects, cheesy dialogue and a general lack of full tilt badassery hold the film back. JCVD was a great choice for the bad guy and is clearly having a great time switching sides for a change. Up and comer Adkins holds his own against the veterans. It’s great to see Arnold, Bruce and Sly all in the same frame guns blazing. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.
The Upside: JCVD and Adkins are awesome villains, action is better and more frequent
The Downside: The CG effects and pretty much everything that comes out of Arnold’s mouth
On the Side: Stallone designed a fountain pen with Italian pen makers Montegrappa for the first Expendables film. He pulls one out and lets Lundgren borrow it in an early scene here. Also, the lines about Lundgren’s character being a chemical engineer are funny because Dolph actually holds degrees in chemical engineering.