The Expendables 2, Lionsgate’s lighthearted sequel to the 2010 aging action-star hit, may dominate the box office just like its predecessor did. However, unlike the first blockbuster, this surprisingly enjoyable film actually deserves the millions it will undoubtedly earn, as its missteps are outweighed by amazing set pieces, stellar action and an ability to poke fun at itself.
Director Simon West’s film begins in mid-mission, with the mercenaries infiltrating a Nepalese army base with all the subtlety of an explosive-strapped bull. Led by Barney Ross (played once again by Sylvester Stallone), the team includes knife-happy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li), heavyweights Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (the forgettable Randy Couture) and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), as well as fresh-faced young sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). Successfully rescuing their objectives, a Chinese businessman and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the head of a rival mercenary outfit, the team does some male bonding over a job well done and Billy confesses his doubts to Ross about the Expendables’ lifestyle.
That’s when the CIA’s morally dubious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) appears to threaten Stallone into doing another job, this time retrieving a mysterious case from a downed plane. Forcibly assigning computer specialist/multilingual explosives genius/martial artist Maggie (Yu Nan) to the team, Ross expresses misgivings about having a woman but sucks it up as the group heads out, Maggie impressing him with her fearlessness in the face of danger.
Unfortunately, the Expendables aren’t the only mercs seeking the case, and terrorist Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Dame) takes both the object and the life of one of Ross’ team members. Fueled by revenge and the need to retrieve the case, which holds blueprints for a cache of missing Soviet-era plutonium, the Expendables lock and load, man up, and engage in all sorts of action-film clichés in their quest to save the free world and avenge their fallen comrade.
Refusing to take itself seriously, The Expendables 2 learns from the mistakes of the past and serves up the movie audiences should have gotten the first time, a fun romp through action tropes that both mocks and celebrates the genre. Gone are the weird dark undertones surrounding Lundgren’s character and the half-hearted attempts to comment on age or find deeper meaning within. This is a simple revenge flick with no message other than “Don’t kill a member of Stallone’s team,” and the movie is better for it. Absent the arrogant brooding and forced character development of The Expendables, the sequel is transformed into a very silly, and very fun, movie.
As an audience member you know what to expect here: You’ll get plane crashes. You’ll get thrilling firefights and death-defying high-speed boat chases. But you’ll also get a lot of fun banter between teammates that, outside of one unfortunate Hemsworth monologue, stays well away from the melodrama of the first film. It’s light enough to keep the audience entertained and the story moving forward (even if the best recent send-up of the ‘80s action genre remains the brilliant Tropic Thunder). The Expendables 2 finally hits the funny action/comedy/homage tone of those golden-age movies and elicits some genuine chuckles out of its audience to boot.
Along with lessons learned from the first film, The Expendables 2 thankfully jettisons the god-awful Charisma Carpenter plot, although it’s apparent that, despite the inclusion of Chinese action star Nan, Stallone and co-writer Richard Wenk still have a hard time wrapping their heads around women who aren’t merely damsels in distress. Adding a heroine but refusing to showcase her fighting prowess does not fix problems with women the way this sequel thinks it does. Nan’s tough and ambitious Maggie is a great new character, but we never get a good look at her “enhanced interrogation” techniques or the unique rifle martial arts combat she uses to dispatch the bad guys. And with Li disappearing from the movie early on, it’s a criminal waste of a martial arts superstar to relegate Nan to the background.
But the fact that the movie knows exactly how ridiculous it is goes a long way toward redeeming its worst flaws. The interplay between Nan and Stallone is weirdly sweet, less sexual tension and more a sad collision of hopeful youth and cynical old age. Outside of Hemsworth, who emotes “rookie” so hard you expect him to start glowing, the rest of the cast emotes “slabs of meat,” slapping together during fight scenes like hundreds of pounds of leathery beef in exotic locales -- and I mean this in the best, most positive way possible. Stallone and his compatriots are not acting so much as coordinating body slams, but their fight scenes are extraordinarily enthralling; again, The Expendables 2 knows you’re here for the fighting, and in this realm director West does not disappoint.
The movie also knows you’re here for the catchphrases -- yes, Ah-nold will intone “I’m back,” and he will be referred to as a “terminator” -- and for the delightful Chuck Norris cameo, which you better believe is spent mainly making Chuck Norris jokes. This is the no-holds-barred, B-movie romp that should have been our entry into the world two years ago, and it’s nice to see Stallone and his fellow action stars finally find their footing.
If you never saw the first film, skip it and revel in the violent and campy absurdity of The Expendables 2. But even if you hated the original, you just might -- against your will and despite your better judgment -- find yourself taking a shine to this scrappy sequel.
The Expendables 2 opens Friday nationwide.