I used to get directors Michael Bay and Simon West mixed up. Laura Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Con Air (1997)...those West films could easily be Bay films. But not The Mechanic (2011), and certainly not The Expendables 2. This is more Sylvester Stallone's style of directing made genius at times for its volume and velocity of guns and guts. But it does verge on low-fi Rambo: First Blood II (1985) messages—“You not expendable Rambo”—mixed with Cobra (1986) absence of soul, but big on cool, stylings. And for its ability to gather and showcase a bunch of incredibly fit old guys, most of them having earned their cred in the late ‘70s, who are a who's who of Hollywood action movie stars. Or as we’re learning in The Expendables franchise, a not-as-dirty-as-you-would-like dozen. The only one missing from 2010’s The Expendables was Chuck Norris. He's here in 2 as is the returning cast of muscle: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Bruce Willis.
The Story: Our friendly group of mercenaries led by skulls-as-fashion-statement wearing Barney Ross (Stallone) must pay a debt to Special Ops CIA-type leader Church (Willis) to retrieve potentially hazardous spy stuff that villain, the appropriately named Vilain, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, is determined to use to his evil advantage (even if it might be the equivalent to a For Your Eyes Only (1981) McGuffin).
The Goods: Here you get what you pay for, which is old-school action heroes blowing bad guys away and I mean really smoking them like Saving Private Ryan (1999) type of blood squirting, head exploding bodily destruction. Knives, cannons, missiles, tanks and guns of every caliber are displayed here in all their ‘80s action film parody-like glory. What sets this film apart though from its contemporaries, or its predecessors, is the ironic speed and volume at which bodies are blown away and blood splattered. It’s a freakn’ freak show of carnivalesque gore that has that “something to see” spectacle about it making the visual piece to The Expendables 2 nearly complete.
The jokes between characters are not funny but the innocent camaraderie and poking fun at one another is sort of family oriented...though there could be some real conflict like there is in real life. It all comes together and moves like the average Golan and Globus films of the ‘80s but with well-steeped veterans of the action genre killing it when they need to. And by killing it I mean selling their characters’ on-screen expertise at weaponry, even if it’s amongst the choreographed stunt fighting between stunt men who are most likely filling in. Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas knows how to use knives and he proves it by going Ginsu on dozens of bad guys at a time.
The Flaws: There's no sense of realism what so ever. Lighting, atmosphere is all studio oriented, all form. Fog rolls in, a shaft of light just right, bright fill lighting in dark rooms and on old faces to soften the shadows of wrinkles…. These aren't really flaws because some of it is art...real high kicks by Van Damme for instance in these retro lighting designs are almost made to look like pop art, like something Warhol would posterize. And those are the best moments...the pop icons of Hollywood once again being immortalized on the big screen. The film is severely flawed because there isn't enough of that.
We get that the entertainment is mostly seeing these guys on screen together wielding large artillery and annihilating armies of corrupt soldiers and we get the references to their Hollywood halcyon days. But we don't need more than three or four smart bursts of that. Outside of knowing who these actors are and the extent of their famous film roles—and famous one-liners—there's little else to glue yourself to, character-wise. Unlike say Kelly's Heroes (1970), The Dirty Dozen (1967) or even the A-Team remake from 2010. Part of the fun of those movies is seeing how each character changes as the story develops. That's this script's problem as written by Oscar winner Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk (16 Blocks (2006), The Mechanic). The rest which is mostly guns and visually-overt mortal woundings are pretty decent effects that make you laugh with delight at the "no-way" shock of what these dudes do and do with little to no effort. All in the name of good vs. evil.
I say add more reality, more humanity like we know reality in present day; stronger dialogue with overlapping conversations and the kind of character sketches you see in a Robert Altman or Quentin Tarantino film rather than what these cardboard characters convey to audiences here. And we’ll have a better movie. And they are unfortunately doing it on a second grader's level. See spot run, see Jane play, see .50 caliber bullets obliterate bad guys like we see in shooter-splatter video games.
The Call: If you want ‘80s action film nostalgia and want to see what aging celebrities still have in them this is your movie. The spectacle of high-count enemy kills and the shear pace at which they are smashed is this franchise's best offerings. That and its consistency of secrets and brotherly bonds among strong men that assume we’re in on their past “mercenary” exploits. In a sense we are because The Expendables is based on what it’s like to get extraordinary militants together to save the world while assembling extraordinarily famous action heroes to entertain audiences. When characters hint at the past and the hidden stories between them they are also nodding to the films between them. It’s a fine balance of trying to suspend disbelief in fictional characters while also distractingly pointing out the traits of the genre. Next time maybe we can get Rutger Hauer in on the action. Anyone up for a Nighthawks (1981) reunion? I say stow the dough but add it to the top of your rental queue.
Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout. Running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
Return to: Jon Lamoreaux's Movie Blog Blog