Though this reviewer was a fan of Sylvester Stallone's 2010 film The Expendables, it was a rough-around-the-edges experiment which failed to take full advantage of its potential. Looking back, it's best perceived as a warm-up. The Expendables 2 is the real deal: the sequel we wanted and the Expendables film we deserved. At last, Stallone hath delivered on the original promise of a cheesy, over-the-top tongue-in-cheek action picture which revives the macho spirit of the '80s for an hour-and-a-half of awesome mayhem. It's a hare-brained blockbuster to be sure, but its infectious sense of fun never wanes, and you'll be grinning from ear to ear for the entire film. The Expendables 2 is junk food cinema done correctly.
Following their latest mission, Barney Ross (Stallone) and his ragtag team of mercenaries are soon approached by the irritable Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), who presents them with a new assignment: travel to a hellhole in Albania to retrieve a case containing information about the location of a plutonium stash. It's a seemingly easy job, yet things go wrong when the team are ambushed by Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his enormous army known as the Sangs. With the case stolen and the Expendables' youngest recruit Billy (Hemsworth) murdered, Barney can only think of revenge. As Vilain begins harvesting plutonium to sell on the black market, Barney's team - consisting of Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Maggie Chan (Nan Nu) - set off across Eastern Europe tracking the Sangs. Extra muscle also arrives in the form of friendly mercenaries Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Booker (Church Norris), as well as Church himself, all of whom are determined to defeat Vilain.
The Expendables 2 hits the ground running, opening with an astounding extended action sequence spanning several locations as the team rack up a huge body count and blow shit up real good. It's a total gas, one-upping the awesome mayhem of the first movie to announce the return of these bad boys in an adrenaline-charged fashion. The Expendables 2 is mercifully lean as well, progressing at a ripping pace as it works through exposition, tough guy bonding time and bursts of top-notch action which strain believability in all the right ways. Surprisingly, character development is far better here than in the first film. The Expendables 2 is a true ensemble piece, with the team working together and partaking in several amusing group discussions in the space between all the violence. The camaraderie between these tough guys leaves very little to be desired, and each character has a distinguished presence. They also seem to be more cultured and have more depth, with character quirks being introduced through the consistent bantering.
The tone is absolutely spot-on here. The first endeavour was perhaps a little too serious at times when it should have cut loose more often. The Expendables 2, however, is more in the vein of True Lies and Commando - it's delightfully cheesy and tongue-in-cheek, smothered in meta playfulness, one-liners, funny repartee and agreeable absurdity (every second of Chuck Norris screen-time is pure gold). It's hugely entertaining from start to finish, with the Holy Trio (Arnie, Sly and Bruce) even making direct career references, and with Norris playing up his internet meme persona. It also walks the fine line between non-serious and outright parody - there are still things at stake and the action sequences are fierce; it's just that the violence is supplemented with a fun-loving, good-old-boy temperament.
With the now 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone having found The Expendables such a mentally and physically punishing endeavour as writer/director/actor, extra muscle was recruited to take some of the stress off Stallone's shoulders for this sequel. Thus, Con Air director Simon West helmed the picture, and his filmmaking is assured and sturdy. Gone is the shaky-cam of the first film, replaced with a smooth routine of wide shots and coherent editing. When Expendables 2 is locked in action mode, West offers up plenty of carnage and wanton destruction, observing the muscular heroes as they use big guns, knives and even fucking rocket launchers to destroy everyone and everything in their path. The body count is well above two hundred - this is a true '80s action film in spirit which lines up a cavalcade of nameless extras to be slaughtered by our favourite heroes. The result is spectacular. In particular, the airport-set climax has got to be in the running for best action scene of 2012. Brian Tyler's score is also solid, even if it mostly seems recycled from the original film. A good array of classic rock songs are scattered throughout the flick as well, not to mention Frank Stallone's terrific new single is featured.
Despite its strengths, The Expendables 2 is still not quite perfect. Apparently the film was initially intended to be PG-13, and at times it does feel like it's pulling punches, though there are still some agreeably violent action beats (and the blood is a good mixture of practical squibs and CGI blood). Furthermore, while the cinematography is solid in terms of framing, the camera quality is at times astonishingly shoddy, as if a lot of shots were digitally zoomed in leading to a loss of resolution. West and cinematographer Shelly Johnson also bathed the picture in washed-out colours of ashen grey, and one must wonder if the film might have been superior with a more colourful look.
Performances all-round are enjoyable and energetic. Stallone is visibly growing older, but he still has a great screen presence as Barney Ross. Alongside him, Jason Statham is effortlessly badass. But the standouts, easily, are Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Lundgren has a lot more to do here as off-the-rails giant Gunnar, and his performance is hugely entertaining. And as Vilain, a flamboyant Van Damme chews the scenery with gusto, delivering his best performance in years. Jet Li's presence is unfortunately minimised in the film, but he shines brightly for his limited screen-time and is well-utilised. Terry Crews and Randy Couture also return, and, with more room to make an impression, both are fun to watch. Meanwhile, Chuck Norris is the gamest here that he's been in years, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is still a delightful, crowd-pleasing presence who handles one-liners with utmost confidence. Likewise, Bruce Willis seems to have broken out of his acting coma of recent years, and clearly had a tremendous amount of fun as Mr. Church. Even Liam Hemsworth is good here - he brings boyish charm to his small role, and actually looks convincing alongside this team of tough guys. The only weak link of the cast is Nan Yu as Maggie. A more interesting casting decision could have yielded a stronger character - what about a seasoned Asian veteran like Michelle Yeoh? Or better yet, a badass female like Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton? Yu's presence just doesn't make sense.
Against all odds, The Expendables 2 does justice to its phenomenal cast, giving everyone a chance to shine. The actors all get memorable kills and moments to their name, and they're nicely balanced in terms of screen-time. Sure, you may complain that the likes of Chuck and Arnie don't get as much screen-time as they should have been given, but a lean, disciplined movie is better than a long, self-indulgent mess - not to mention Chuck and Arnie are so awesome directly because they're used sparingly. Christ Almighty, The Expendables 2 is one fucking awesome film; a hugely enjoyable action fiesta which delivers, and then some. I couldn't wipe the smirk off my face. And just to top things off, the film ends in true '80s style with a stylish end credits reel featuring a curtain call set to the groovy tune of Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate.