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.
Sent to track down a safe that holds the key to global power, the Expendables come up against a group of shady mercenaries led by Jean Vilain who are after the same thing.
The Expendables 2 is a brilliant postmodern pastiche and also a wonderful statement on masculinity, aging, and cinema itself. That might be a slightly surprising statement, but let me explain why.
From the opening scene, where the group recover a colleague held captive, The Expendables 2 sets out to satisfy and exaggerate the tropes of the elaborate 80s action films that made the cast famous. The first set piece echoes Schwarzenegger’s Commando and Stallone’s First Blood, and sees bodies fly, blood splatter everywhere, scores of stereotypical Asian henchmen are knocked off without a care in the world, jeeps jump off ramps, planes barely miss bridges – you’ve seen it all before and that’s the point. It’s bloody brilliant.
Everything in The Expendables 2 takes place in a hyper-realised, knowing, postmodern world. Where the Stallone directed predecessor was a mixed bag tonally and technically, everything here has been taken up a notch by Con Air director Simon West. The Expendables 2 occupies a Grindhouse-like space of celebrating the genre pic. West manages to get as much as possible from placing well known stars, now aged and haggard (just look at Stallone’s face!), back in their natural habitat but going even more crazy with the explosions and bullets. The budget is clearly huge – much bigger than it has any right to be – but it’s certainly well used.
Elsewhere in the film, references to actors’ past roles (guess who’s ‘back’?) or popular internet memes (you know who I’m talking about) practically break the fourth wall. The performances and script are purposefully bad, with uniformly terrible acting, lines that don’t make any logical sense, and a plot hole appearing within the first five minutes. It’s almost Brechtian stuff. A painfully awkward exchange in a jeep between the acting abilities of Sylvester Stallone and series newcomer Nan Yu underlines that.
I haven’t covered the story yet because there’s really no need. There’s a MacGuffin which our heroes are after and, surprise surprise, some bad guys (led by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s excellently named Jean Vilain) want it too. But the movies that The Expendables 2 ape were never about plot anyway. The simplicity of the setup here is that it allows us to lurch from set piece to set piece with minimal effort. Why would we need characterisation or backstory? We already know who these characters are, we’ve seen them a million times before. It’s like the opening scene of Rio Bravo where the characters are set up practically without dialogue through simply relying on archetype. Why indulge in what is essentially redundant?
As I’ve said, everything here is done knowingly, if the film was directed by Quentin Tarantino it would probably be hailed a masterpiece.
So if I’ve qualified The Expendables 2’s postmodern properties, but what about the bold claim that it’s also a statement on masculinity, aging, and cinema?
I think you can often a find film’s underlying message contained within its final shots, and a Schwarzenegger quip about belonging to a museum near the end tells us a lot. Schwarzenegger’s character in particular has a tone of melancholy to him throughout the film. There’s a kind of sadness in his face, and the fact that Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk’s script goes back to Schwarzenegger’s past as an actor more than any other character instils a sense of something lost. This is also apparent in Chuck Norris’ empyreal role which explicitly suggests that the 72 year old actor is in his later years.
But there’s also yearning for a mode of filmmaking that, despite its extremities of violence, was somehow innocent and wholesome. Simply, contemporary audiences don’t feel comfortable with the representations of machismo and black-and-white plots that were abundant in the 80s. Now, if studios are placing a picture in the ‘real’ world rather than a super-hero fantasy, characters have to be grounded, get hurt, experience emotional turmoil, and violence must be contained within believable confines. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Van Damme and Willis were the superheroes of their time with indestructible bodies and an inevitability to succeed. To these actors, The Expendables series is a last chance to do what they do best. They play out the fantasies of yore, have a great time with their mates whilst doing it, and the audience buys it because of the specific faces (and bodies) on screen. The Expendables 2 is a last gasp at unrestrained masculinity, and a last gasp at uncomplicated cinema. For both audience and actor.
The busy opening night multiplex audience I watched The Expendables 2 with lapped it up, clapping, cheering and laughing throughout. With the audience mostly made up of males in their late-twenties everyone was in on the joke – an ecstatic celebration of the joys of youth was had by all.
The Expendables 2 is a superb achievement in cinematic nostalgia and the postmodern, and I’m entirely serious when I say that.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Arnold Stone blogs at spaceshipbroken.com and can also be found on Twitter.