Rated R for Ridiculous amounts of violence
‘The Expendables 2’ is a movie starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, etc. That sentence might as well serve as a plot summary and manifesto. This is a film about Big Men with Big Guns, who shoot everyone and blow everything up. Some bad guy does something bad and the good guys have to kill minions until they rack up enough points to unlock the boss fight. Why doesn’t matter so long as the bullets and banter fly thick and fast.
In the 10 minutes before the title card is shown at least 100 henchmen have been shot, multiple walls have been driven through, and many things have exploded, leading to an outrageous sequence where Statham takes out a helicopter with the creative use of a motorcycle. If, perchance, you have wandered into the wrong cinema, and you are not aware of this until the title ‘Expendables 2’ appears on screen, you may not be the sharpest knife in the windpipe. But if you like gunfights, boat chases, knife fights, car chases, fist fights, high speed zip-lining, explosions, and a plane with a nosecone-mounted cannon blowing up a bridge, then this film is just the ticket.
In between the carnage and explosions there are scraps of plot and meaning, but these might have been included solely to meet the requirement of a feature film, rather than simply a munitions advertisement. (The United States recently announced a trebling of international arms sales in 2011, to around $64 billion, or 78% of the world market. This can’t be a coincidence.) Regardless, we are certainly not here for emotion and sentiment, we want the explosions. All of them.
And there is a constant barrage – ‘Expendables 2’ is like a sonic shiatsu massage. Just when my ears became used to the ocean roar of gunfire/explosions there was a brief moment of dialogue; partly to remind you there was reason for the action, but also to allow the ears to recover so that the next percussive wave could assail them anew. This is in no way a complaint.
The film contains no grey areas. There are no mitigating circumstances, no tortured pasts to explain, no nuances to contend with. The bad guy here is a Bad Guy. This is a guy who uses slave labour to steal 5 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and sell it to the highest bidder, who wears sunglasses even when he is inside, and who executes someone by roundhouse kicking a knife into their chest. His name is even a slight mispelling of “villain”. If this were a straight parody he’d probably be wearing a shirt that said “BAD GUY”.
In line with recent trends of action films, the score is heavy on orchestral strings and pounding percussion. It conspires to give the film a gravity not quite in line with the popcorn action and dialogue. The music isn’t necessarily out of place, but it is unnecessarily maudlin. If we’re going to hark back to 80s action movies, I would’ve liked more electric guitar wailing and synthesiser.
There are moments that aspire to poignancy but come off as absurd. Some lines delivered in total seriousness elicited the biggest laughs from the audience. However, these scenes are still endearing – like a dog seeing itself in the mirror – and the ernest moments never spoil the fun in the film. There is an almost gleeful absurdity to Stallone uttering lines like “Why is it the ones who deserve to live, that want to live the most, die – and the ones that don't deserve to live, keep on going??” Deep, bro. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if he had perfect comic timing or was just failing to emote what was supposed to be a tender moment.
Just when I started to worry that perhaps this might turn into the same laboured and stilted film as the first ‘Expendables’, Chuck Norris turns up literally out of nowhere, introduced by the iconic theme of ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’, and saves the day, declaring “I always work alone”. Until this moment the film seemed burdened by some unrequited desire to be grave, which caused it to lag. It is the sly winks to the past and the cheesy references that provide the most enjoyment. At times stomping haphazardly between parody and straight action, it is more enjoyable as parody.
There is a lady (Nan Yu) to provide the things a lady does in an action film. She’s a tech expert grudgingly accepted into the team by Stallone at the insistance of Bruce Willis, and serves as a target for the men to open up to and express their feelings. She may have been the cause of sexual tension among the group, but I can’t be sure. There is so much testosterone among these guys that the lines between arousal and aggression are blurred beyond comprehension. Sex had no place in Reagan-era action films, and happily, it doesn't get in the way of all the shooting going on this time either. Anyone expecting satisfying character development might be left feeling undernourished, so perhaps they should purchase a jumbo sized popcorn before entering.
By the final showdown, nothing is held back, and the nameless/faceless henchmen (who we need to assume are all terrible people, or these scenes would feel a bit uncomfortable) are mown down in ridiculous numbers in the biggest display of contempt for human life I have seen for quite some time. If you see this with a friend who complains that the body count was “a let down”, you might want to keep an eye on them.
If a worthy way of valuing art is to weigh up what a work sets out to achieve against what it actually produces, then it’s pretty hard to fault ‘The Expendables 2’. It delivers pretty much everything you would ask from it, and anyone who doesn't like this sort of film has enough warning just from the list of actors who are in it. Everyone in the film appears to be enjoying the fact that they are in it, and that alone makes it enjoyable to watch. This is a marked improvement on the first ‘Expendables’, and if the third instalment continues this trend . . . I’ll be back.
With the visual assistance of Monty Gomer