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Non-Review Review: The Expendables 2

There’s a very thin line between being a tribute to something and becoming an example of it. The Expendables sold itself as an affectionate homage to the cheesy eighties action movies that you’d find populating the godforsaken post-midnight hours on a local television station. They’re the kind of movies we remember with a sense of casual fondness – we don’t lie to ourselves that they were great, but focus on the cheesy one-liners and the ridiculous stunts and the scenery-chewing bad guys. Unfortunately, those movies generally weren’t as good as we remember them. We omit certain details – the terrible pseudo-political subtext shoehorned in, the cringe-worthy character work, the pacing issues, the performances that aren’t so bad they become good, but are instead so bad that they remain bad. The Expendables felt like a revived eighties late-night action movie, rather than a tribute to our cultural memory of one.

So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed The Expendables 2, the sequel to the all-star actioner. It seems to have learned a lot from its predecessor and feels like exactly the sort of light and brainless entertainment we remember, rather than the mind-numbingly bad films we actually watched.

Eighties action movie reunion!

The first thing that The Expendables 2 does right is that it embraces its clichés rather than struggling against them. The Expendables took itself far too seriously as it played out a recycled eighties plot featuring the CIA operating a sinister scheme south of the border, a throwback to those old jungle action movies delivered in the most earnest manner possible. It was trite and clichéd, but it seemed to struggle against those clichés. The characters were barely two-dimensional, and yet we spent an inordinate amount of time getting to know them… only to learn that they weren’t anywhere near as compelling as the film thought they were.

Part of this came from the script, but it also came from the fact that it relied on actors who aren’t necessarily of the highest caliber convincing us to invest in boring characters. The Expendables 2 immediately makes better use of its cast. Jason Statham is no longer angsting about his ex-girlfriend, because he’s too busy getting involved in brutal knife fights involving gleefully terrible one-liners. Statham can’t necessarily play the most nuanced soldier of fortune, but he delivers a kick-ass “I now pronounce you man and knife!” Similarly, Dolph Ludgren was woefully miscast as the bitter traitor to the group in The Expendables, and works much better here as the zoned-out comic relief.

Airport insecurity…

There’s not a moment in The Expendables 2 that isn’t easy to predict. It’s simple enough to deduce which member of the group is marked for death the instant he receives some character development. The bad guy is literally named “Jean Vilain.” His evil scheme involves plutonium, because it’s the most efficient illustration of how evil he is. The climax features a fight near a helicopter with rotating blades… you know how it ends. Just when our heroes are trapped in the most dire situation imaginable… well, don’t worry, somebody will likely show up to help. There is, of course, one death that serves to motivate the plot and to make the central conflict personal, but there’s never even the hint of a threat to the rest of the cast.

And yet, somehow, the film works a lot better than it should because it’s a lot more honest and up-front than its predecessor. The original film teased us with the big-screen union of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis – only to reduce the latter two actors to tiny cameos. The sequel has the decency to follow through. It isn’t quite as momentous as it should be (Schwarzenegger and Willis are reduced to taking out lots of mooks), but it does seem a bit more honest and dutifully celebratory. Similarly, the story of The Expendables was an homage to the jungle action movies of the eighties, but the movie treated it relatively seriously. The Expendables 2 instead gives us a European bad guy stealing nukes, the most rudimentary movie villain in the modern canon.

He’s back!

Somehow, however, it feels appropriate. This is, after all, something of a victory lap for classic action stars. When Bruce Willis presents Stallone with a parting gift – an old plane – Stallone comments, “That thing should be in a museum.” Schwarzenegger smiles in that way which lets you in on the fact that he’s in on the joke. “So should we,” he tells his friends. And he is, of course, right. Willis seems to agree, but maintains a positive outlook. “This was fun, huh?” And it was. Taken for what it is, it is remarkably fun. There’s no real sense of peril – no notion that any of the stars might not make it through. Instead, it’s just an excuse to get a bunch of ageing action stars together and celebrate the glory days. And I don’t mind that at all.

You’ll notice that I haven’t used the characters’ names. I haven’t cited the sources of the lines. That’s because – to be honest – The Expendables 2 really embraces the idea that these aren’t characters. They’re thin sheets that serve as an excuse to pull action movie personas together. There are off-hand references to past victories and shared histories, but the meat of the interaction comes from playing these archetypes off one another. Dolph Lundgren has a degree in chemical engineering – so does his character. When Chuck Norris shows up, he shares an anecdote that seems in character. He was bitten by a poisonous snake once, you see. “After five agonising days,” he explains, “the snake died.”

Good luck, Chuck!

Arnie is the worst offender. Borrowing a teammate’s gun, he’s advised to return it in good condition. “Or your ass is terminated.” He shows up at a pivotal moment, declaring, “I’m back.” He even uses the same line again later on, prompting Bruce Willis to reply, “You’ve been back enough!” Looks like somebody saw Terminator 3. That’s the true extent of character interaction here, with eighties macho stereotypes playing off one another. I couldn’t help but smile for most of the runtime, as The Expendables 2 managed to do it all in good spirits, and an inoffensive manner.

(Although, to be fair, I did like a small moment in the middle of the film, where our heroes stumble across a village that has been ravaged by the bad guys. Mothers are frightened, protecting their children. The guys in the team start making the stereotypical alpha-male posturing remarks – and Stallone tells them to shut up. Twice. It’s a nice little moment because it doesn’t make a big deal of itself. It just acknowledges that sometimes this ridiculous ego-posturing is completely inappropriate. It also infers, on the other hand, that there are times when it is appropriate and – to the credit of all involved – most of the film is composed of that time.)

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Van Damme…

Another major advantage the film has is Jean-Claude Van Damme. I think, with due respect, Van Damme might be the best bad actor of his generation. He has tremendous screen presence, and he’s completely unafraid to be over-the-top or ridiculous. That’s normally a bad thing, but here it works almost perfectly, given his character is a giant walking cliché. The Expendables had the team taking on Eric Roberts in one of the worst performances of a career filled with low-lights. Roberts wasn’t trying, and didn’t seem to enjoy himself. Van Damme seems to love every goddamn moment he is on-screen.

He relishes playing a character so ridiculously over-the-top evil that he never removes his sunglasses (until the climax) and is actually named “Vilain.” As he confronts Stallone, the bad guy mocks him about a fallen comrade. “What was his name? What did you call him?” Van Damme asks, playing with his knife and seeming delightfully disinterested. “Ah, what does it matter?” Van Damme’s thick European accent and exaggerated body language make the most of lines like “Get the plane in the air! I want to make some money!”

Can he stow those in overhead baggage?

He even gets to administer perhaps one of the most ridiculously over-the-top mundane executions in cheesy action movie history as he roundhouse kicks a dagger into his victim’s heart. It’s not the most nuanced performance, and it’s not one for the ages, but it does evoke the best of Van Damme’s work. The man made some terrible films, but he was always a natural showman. He seems to be enjoying to opportunity to be that sort of villain once again.

There are flaws of course – outside those inherent to the premise. The cast is pretty terrible. Terry Crews remains the only member of the title bunch who can act, with Dolph Lundgren in particular struggling a bit. (Although he does nail some moments, to be fair.) Yu Nan, in particular, struggles with her lines. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to approach this role as a non-native English speaker, and she really struggles with the mandatory cheesy one-liners. Especially her last line.

Driving the action…

Although the script is a lot more efficient, a lot leaner and a lot better constructed this time around, there are still moments when it seems a little too earnest in trying to get us to emotionally invest in Stallone. Stallone is, of course, a great writer – but this project doesn’t suit the sort of pseudo-complexity that he’s going for. Thankfully, most of the awkward pseudo-philosophy is kept to a minimum, as he eulogises a fallen colleague wondering why the best die young. Almost immediately, Jason Statham puts the movie back on course by asking, “What’s the plan?” Stallone stares at the camera, seeming genuinely angry. “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.”

Simon West takes over from Stallone as director, and I think he’s better suited to the material. Stallone can be a solid director, but he struggled with the cast and the demands of the script last time. Here, West is effective and efficient. He opens with a rather superb action sequence that is the very epitome of “80s action cinema homage.” Which, I admit, is a very narrow subgenre. Even the vehicles carry eighties action one-liners. “Knock knock” is written on the batter ram. “Coming soon”adorns the cowcatcher.

Jet fighter…

It’s full of noise, explosions, punching, stabbing, shooting and celebrating. Of course, don’t think too hard about it. Statham and Stallone seem to have magical off-screen teleportation powers, and one wonders where you hide something as big as that jet in such a densely-patrolled area. It’s to West’s credit that these questions occur after the fact. And it’s done with a minimum of exposition with a wonderful energy. The opening sequence is everything that The Expendables should have been.

There are problems. The music is occasionally too overwrought. There’s the really weird use of CGI bloodsplatter, which remains curiously unconvincing. It looks like Jet Li must be punching a bowl of ketchup off-screen or something. It feels strange because there’s really no need for the repeated use of the special effect, except to make the violence only a tiny bit more graphic in places. It isn’t as if the rest of the film is subdued.

Man of war…

Still, I liked The Expendables 2 for what it is. It’s a celebration of those cheesy and terrible eighties action movies, while managing to evoke our fonder memories of them rather than the more sour reality. It’s a very flawed piece of cinema, even by action movie standards, but it is enjoyable on its own terms. Certainly much moreso than the original.

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