Movie Review – The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2, 2012.

Directed by Simon West.
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Yu Nan and Scott Adkins.


SYNOPSIS:

After taking on a seemingly simple job, Barney Ross and the Expendables are compelled to seek revenge when things go wrong and one of their own is viciously killed.


Warning… here be spoilers.

Getting the call to head into London town for The Expendables 2 press screening was a momentous day indeed. When the first film was announced I think I spent the whole day doing cartwheels if I remember correctly. It was like one of my lucid, adolescent cheese dreams come true. All the action titans coming together to amp the carnage up to eleven! Since the dust settled on the first film and the strong opening weekend takings all but guaranteed a second instalment, this has been the film I’ve been waiting for more than any other. So to get to see this puppy a full 10 days early was an honour, and possibly a medical necessity given I was getting close to exploding like a well primed bomb. So does this live up to expectations?

The first movie was flawed. Its mere existence is almost enough. To have brought together that cast alone earned it enough brownie points from the beginning. The sequel needed to eradicate a lot of flaws from the first as well as up the ante.

The film starts with a bang. The crew are on a rescue mission to break someone out of a Nepalese prison. The opening action scene is fantastic. It wipes out anything from the first film, right off the bat. Everything’s clearer. The cutting flows better. From the word go, the benefit of Simon West directing is clear. In the first film Sly used shaky cam too much. Shot cohesion wasn’t great and wasn’t exactly aided by all too frantic editing. In dramatic scenes, an overabundance of tight close ups became jarring, and hardly flattering on the cast of aging action men. Largely those problems are rectified here for a more visually satisfying action film. When the dust settles from the breakout, The Expendables happen to find a certain Mr. Schwarzenegger imprisoned, after he’d been double booked to capture the same target in the prison. Jet Li’s involvement in the film ends after the first scene, but he’s actually a lot better in his time here than he was in the first, and gets a superb fight sequence as well. I’ve heard of “man up” but Jet has to “pan up!”

When the plot gets underway proper after this opening is where problems that plagued the first film kick in again. There’s little logic and narrative structure is almost non-existent. That’s hardly a new failing in this genre, but even so, there’s too many moments that make little sense and too much poor continuity. Church (Willis) returns and sends the Expendables into Albania to recover a package from a downed plane. In tow is Maggie (Yu Nan) – a safe cracker and in Barney’s (Stallone) eyes, a liability not needed. Things don’t go as planned as they run into a certain Mr Vilain (Van Damme) and his band of villains. The package is a map to a mine housing enough plutonium to blow the Earth clean in half (I might be exaggerating there). That’s pretty much the plot. They have to stop Vilain from escaping with a nuclear arsenal. There’s never much build up to anything. People just randomly appear from nowhere (though in one particular case to good, and very amusing effect). There’s also little arc for any of the characters. In truth the script is pretty woeful. It seems like Richard Wenk wrote a script that was probably mediocre, and Sly just kept on tinkering with it constantly without taking a step back to consider things like narrative structure, continuity and character development and ended up making it worse.

The cast are decent. This time around the balance is far better, whereas the first film tended to shift to the Sly and Statham show quite a bit, or include too many unnecessary subplots like Statham’s troublesome love life, which only aided in eating up screen time that could have been used to flesh out the team more. The group stay together for the movie, so everyone is on screen and there’s a far stronger sense of camaraderie. There’s a lot of banter and good humour between the group. When they all play off each other, the movie is at its strongest (outside of the action that is).

Sly is okay again. Barney Ross still doesn’t really stand out in any way. There’s little development for him over the course of two films now, aside from being a little war weary, but this is the same as John Rambo, only he had this unbalanced, slightly psychotic edge that has made him an interesting and enduring character. Sly takes the lead more so here, as Statham steps back into the shadows. He and Sly still have a good chemistry, but Lee Christmas, with the exception of some good fights, is forgettable here sadly. New members Billy (Liam Hemsworth) and Maggie are pretty decent actually, and two of the more interesting characters. Yu Nan as Maggie is very good. She stands her own extremely well and has some great interaction with her gruff male companions. Hemsworth is pretty much playing action/western/war film cliché number 1. He’s the kid who’s not sure if he likes this business but can’t do anything else. As soon as he tells Barney about his girl back home, you just know the outcome. Despite this, Hemsworth is good and the most genuine in the whole movie. It’s no surprise that he’s the member of the group who is killed and the Expendables want to avenge. In some ways it’s a shame as he’d have been a good addition to the franchise. Terry Crews gets more time here and uses it well, while Couture is just as needless as he was first time out. He offers little personality and seems like a glorified extra.


The standouts who got the best audience reactions were Dolph Lundgren (Gunnar Jensen), Chuck Norris (Booker) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench). Gunnar is just as crazy as he was first time out, and just as socially awkward, minus the drug problem. Lundgren gets a lot of choice lines and ends up stealing a lot of scenes he’s in. His arc isn’t as interesting as the first film, but he gets far more screen time and proves adept at comedy. Norris is brilliant. He’s ridiculous – a cartoon, a ghost almost, but hilarious. His “facts” are played upon to good effect. It’s a total send up but it works. The same goes for Arnold. He’s less John Matrix here, more Jack Slater. The film tonally is quite similar to Last Action Hero at times (there’s no magic tickets, don’t worry!). It plays on genre conventions and personas for comedic effect. Arnie’s a little cheesy, but has fun and the audience lapped it up. Willis is the weakest in the film. Church has no consistency and his moods and motives shift too often for no reason. He’s just really badly scripted and though Willis enjoys himself, ultimately he seems to be there for little more reason than to complete the Planet Hollywood nostalgia fest. Again it’s more a scripting problem than Willis himself.

What of Van Damme? As a fan I hoped to see him steal this movie. People came out of JCVD saying “Wow, Van Damme can act!” It was an indie film, with a small audience in comparison to the viewership expected for this film. I just wanted it to be the case this time too – on the big screen, large scale, wide audience, that people would come out thinking “Wow, Van Damme can act!” Unfortunately the script doesn’t offer enough insight into this character, nor enough screen-time. Van Damme is good but he doesn’t grab all his scenes and walk away with them. Word on set is that Van Damme is different for every take. He gives the editor and director plenty of scope to cut a variety of different performances from him. For me they’ve aired a bit too much on the theatrical / flamboyant side at times, and less on intense.. For me, Eric Roberts was slightly more effective in the first one, and had more screen time. Upon re-watching I actually think he’s one of the best parts of the first film. He’s a very good slimy villain. His eyes really portray his callousness. The trouble for JC is that one of his strengths has always been his eyes, but he spends the majority of the film wearing shades. When we see into Vilain’s eyes, he’s most effective. I enjoyed what Jean-Claude did with his performance here but it’s been overhyped, and he’s been hindered by the script. Still what Van Damme does with style is prove his physical prowess is still great. There’s not one, but two vintage helicopter kicks for fans to lap up. It’s been 10 years since he unleashed it and it’s great to see once more and Sly and Van Damme’s fight is great. Elsewhere, Scott Adkins is decent and effectively intense as JC’s right hand man and he gets a decent showdown with The Stath. There’s just something a little lacking with the villains. Perhaps the addition of a douche bag character could have aided things, or having Vilain as more of a Karl to someone’s Gruber.

The tone shifts in the movie a few times. When it’s funny it works, when they try to be a little more dramatic it falls flat and actually there are some choice moments of fantastically clunky Stallone-penned dialogue that gain rapturous laughter but aren’t intended to. The script here isn’t great at all. It wasn’t expected to be and is probably weaker than the first film. Also like the first film the CGI is very poor and used too much. There are a couple of really bad sequences. The trouble with Millenium/Nu Image films is that whether a movies’ budget is $1 million, or $100 million, they use the same VFX company. Sadly they’ve not stepped into the 21st century just yet. Again CGI additions to on-set effects are used sometimes, but needlessly. Why beef up a real explosion with bad CGI padding? Those with a dislike of CGI blood also might not to look away a few times, though it’s not too bad. Sadly it’s just the way most action films are going now anyway.

Despite problems though, this still delivers more than its predecessor. It starts strong and has plenty of action before a carnage filled finale. It’s great fun and when the CGI doesn’t interfere, the action is very impressive. Moments you want to stand out, manage to stand out. Where Li vs Lundgren in the first was a major disappointment, Stallone vs Van Damme isn’t. It’s a brilliant showdown. The cinematography is better in this one too. It’s clearer and less murky whilst the decision to stay wider adds more group dynamic. As long as you switch your brain off at the door, this won’t disappoint. The film is really violent too and at times deliriously so. There’s also no way that this is one or two cuts away from a PG-13, just to clarify a few worries. Everyone seems a bit more relaxed in their roles. There was almost a sense in the last film that some of the cast felt the pressure of such an epically cast film. The humour fell totally flat last time around. This time though, it’s funny. It has to be taken for what it is, and a great script was never highest priority in the minds of fans. Where it most counts – the action and star power – this delivers.

What next for The Expendables 3? We’ve had fun now and had the big boys together. The next instalment doesn’t need to have Bruce, Arnold and Chuck. They’re not members of the Expendables. Brilliant as they are to see in action again, they’ve not been scripted into the film with any logic or subtlety and from a critical viewpoint, they bog the film down. It would be great next time out to get Shane Black to write and possibly direct (or maybe John McTiernan). The 3rd deserves a great script and to be more ruthless. We need more arc for the core group, and particularly the two leads, Stallone and Statham. Some will have to die. We need to feel more threat. Couture is dead weight. Much as I hate saying it as Lundgren fan, a character like Gunnar is usually written to bow out in some explosive/elaborate manner. It may be time to see Stallone take a back seat as Barney and allow Statham to step up. For the villain there are so many possibilities but using them right is key. Wesley Snipes would be great. Steven Seagal if properly motivated would be good too. Flaws as yet unsolved will eventually not be forgiven. A good script and more dramatically adept direction next time out is a must.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Tom Jolliffe