Written by Lee Clifford
In 2010 Sylvester Stallone declared to the world “I’ve still got it!” and the world humoured him. With the release of The Expendables 2, Sly’s still telling us that he’s still got it, but “it” certainly, and understandably, isn’t what it used to be.
Now, don’t get me wrong this early in the review, I’m not saying The Expendables 2 wasn’t a good movie, but behind the chaotic adrenaline and testosterone seemingly flying out of the screen and slapping the audience in the face, there’s a somber, melancholy note to this film.
The first Expendables outing was very cut-copy-paste storytelling: good guys fight bad guys, good guy leader wins the heart of the fair maiden (who required rescuing) and they ride off into the sunset. I quoted that movie as feeling like Stallone’s love letter to himself if memory serves me correctly.
Now, Sly’s not the most creative writer, and though his screenplays are predictable stock, they’re still fun stock.
The return of every other action star known to North American cinema now puts Stallone and his crew against a… umm… terrorist?… crime boss?… mercenary? I don’t know what exactly this guy is but he’s evil; the dude is a civilian-murdering, Satan-worshipping thug who literally has a Satanic tattoo on his neck whose name, translated, literally means John the Villain. Subtlety is still something one will not find in The Expendables scripts.
Anyways, Evil McEvilton wants a massive cache of plutonium to sell to other countries to make bombs, and the good guys have to stop him. That’s it, there are some side plots along the way but the main story is that this guy’s evil and The Expendables have to stop him. I know it’s a moot point arguing narrative merit in a Stallone movie, and it is at least more creative than the rescue-the-princess story of the last movie, but it did leave me thinking “really Stallone, and you had HELP writing this script?”
This is the meat and potatoes of the movie. People don’t watch The Expendables for much more than explosions and crashes, and the film delivers, arguably outdoing it’s older sibling in the kaboom department. Explosions are huge and over exaggerated, exactly what one wants from a movie like this. The environments are nicely done, if not a little on the stereotypical side, and the costume work is perfect to make these characters seem more plausible.
Like all movies these days, there are many green screen and CGI portions, but to give credit where credit’s due, most of it is done very nicely and is absorbed into the real footage in a very tidy presentation; there are a few scenes where the watcher can tell that a vehicle isn’t really there and there is one scene where the backdrop behind Stallone and Arnold is clearly green screened, but the huge majority of the movie supplies very well done special effects. Visuals are the lifeblood of this film, and it executes it well.
I remember coming out of the first Expendables movie with ringing ears. All the gunfire and explosions felt overdone primarily by the sheer monotony of an endless barrage on my eardrums. This film fixed that somewhat, maybe it was just the theatre being kind but this movie felt quieter than the last one, don’t get me wrong the massive explosions still shook the seats, but the spacing between them made the movie more enjoyable from an audio perspective. Endless barrages of gunfire still frequent the film, but it just felt like it was done better this time around.
Like the previous film, when there wasn’t gunshots resonating from the theatre speakers there was an odd collection of background music. It’s clear that the soundtrack selections were made to ease the mood and be ironically funny, but it only works in one or two scenes, leaving the many other times as a sign to the audience that the movie’s still trying to make the background music joke, but that it’s falling flat.
This is a feature normally discussed earlier in reviews, but I had to save it for near the end. The film is still a real who’s who of action stars, but it was nice to see the horizons broadened a little bit and younger and international action stars seeing some screen time. The action icons of the 80s and 90s still get a very generous amount of the screen time, but the others leave a huge impact on the time they do get, which is where things began to get sad for me.
The first Expendables left us thinking “well, they’re still trying, and we love them for it!” where the second one left me thinking “man, these guys are getting schooled by the rest of the cast”. I sincerely feel that Jason Statham still steals the spotlight in every scene he’s in; and maybe I’m reading too much into it but maybe that could explain why he spends more time off screen this time around. Statham’s wit, delivery and ability for action makes him the hallmark of this film, at 45 I agree he’s hardly a kid himself anymore but there’s a reason why I feel he currently holds the torch as this generation’s action star and this movie proves that he’s the one who hasn’t lost a step.
The rest of the expendables supporting cast has comparatively little screen time throughout this movie, and usually just show up for comic relief purposes. UFC legend Randy Couture is great once again and delivers a smart and eloquent performance, leaving some of us joking that the guy who used to get punched in the face for a living is still one of, if not the, most articulate character in the film. Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren are demoted even further down the totem pole this time around and are there almost solely for comic relief and to give us measuring sticks to show how Stallone’s just so much better than everyone else; it feels borderline demeaning, but they have a lot of fun with the roles and make great use of the seemingly little amount of screen time that they get.
And the man we all wanted to see: Chuck Norris. I was apprehensive how this would go, would he try to play it straight, Walker Texas Ranger style, or would he dare accept the social trends and let some jokes be made. I think they knew that audiences would not accept a straight play from Norris, and his time on screen delivers a lot of the funniest moments in the movie; as well as him delivering what was arguably the greatest line of the entire film when asked about a bite from a king cobra. Norris played off nicely, delivering a performance that often seemed straight, but just had that little tongue in cheek that made it a joy to see him on the screen.
Van Damme also put in a strong performance, for what he had to work with. His character was as cookie-cutter bad guy as they came and really left him in a box for how freely he could own this role. The character’s just awful, but that is not the fault of Van Damme, he literally had nothing to work with. His character was textbook evil, as previously stated, the guy’s name is Jean Vilain… his name is John the Villain! I can’t let that go! Seriously, why not just give him a moustache to twirl while you’re writing this, Sly! Every scene he just re-establishes that he’s evil, after a useless scene of him and his men needlessly killing a group of civilians, I announced in the theatre “just a reminder folks, HE’S the bad guy” which sadly got more laughs than several of the jokes by that point of the film, and I am not that funny of a guy. What feels almost like the biggest disappointment for Van Damme is how little he gets to show that he’s still got his chops. In a final faceoff between hero and villain, he is actually given very little opportunity for offense, and spends most of the final battle getting his ass kicked by a puffing and wheezing Stallone; what little he did get to do was impressive and left me thinking “man, this guy could make a comeback” and that at least made for a more entertaining battle than in the first film when Stallone and Stone Cold Steve Austin lumbered on top of each other like drunken oxen, but it felt like yet another opportunity lost so Stallone can assure himself that he still has the goods.
It was great to see Arnold back, but his character felt reserved to just spew out old one-liners from his previous movies; it’s funny the first few times, but by mid-film it became groan-worthy and lost its charm. Regardless it was great to see him back on the big screen and having fun with his role, which I’ll touch on again in just a moment. Bruce Willis’ larger role also was very welcome, as he’s one of the few characters in the move that you can understand from start to finish. Bruce still has that line delivery that’s made him one of Hollywood’s best, and again he was having fun with it. This is where the movie makes me feel for Stallone, as he played this role so straight and really tried to make himself look like the badass he used to be, while Arnold and Bruce are clearly having a good time with it. They know that they’re not the action stars they used to be and they regularly acknowledge it in their dialogue and exchanges. They know their characters are supposed to look weak next to Stallone’s and they have a good time with it, while Stallone shies away from the “I’m too old for this” jokes the others are reveling in it, and it pulls down the experience of the movie.
What I Liked
Sometimes it’s just nice to not have to think. The movie delivers on what it promises: it’s just a solid and exciting action ride. Arnold and Bruce are just a joy to see doing their thing again, and having a great time doing it. Statham is gold as usual, and it was nice to see Van Damme get a chance to shows his tricks again; I would have loved for Statham and Van Damme to face off in a good fight scene, it easily could have been the crescendo of the movie. I also loved that a broader spectrum of action stars got pulled into the fray, and if a third film comes out I think it would be a great pedestal to finally pass the torch to the next generation’s action star.
What I’d Change
The whole movie has a dark, ugly cloud hanging over it that reeks of someone saying “I’m trying to prove a point” and it detracts from the film, when you have such a huge array of talent to work with, us it. I know Sly loves to put himself in the limelight for his films, but the film suffers from a lot of lost opportunities that could have been the difference from being a good movie to a great movie. The balance is very lopsided as the entire cast is having fun with their roles as best they can, while Stallone’s trying so hard to play it straight; it’s like watching a band where the front man really has dreams to someday be a rock star, while the rest of the band know it’s just a hobby and aren’t taking it as seriously.
I know this review feels like I’m picking on Stallone. I don’t hate Stallone, I genuinely do like him and it breaks my heart to type these words, but it’s time to accept that age happens; and as a fan I must submit this heartfelt letter:
Sly, no one will think less of you for accepting “hey, I’m in my late 60s, and I just can’t do what I used to do 30 years ago” no one will think less of you, you don’t owe us any more and we love you for trying to deliver it to us, but there’s no shame in saying “it’s time to let myself take it easy a little”. Keep making movies, keep being in movies, but let others have the spotlight a little bit too, because when you’re trying to outdo everyone else and they’re outdoing you with less screen time, it breaks our hearts. Let Statham be the guy who carries the action, let Randy be the guy who comes up with the great ideas and strategies, you can still be a part of it but it’s time to let yourself let go a little; you have nothing left to prove because you’ve already proven it.
When all is said and done, The Expendables 2 delivers exactly what it promises, and it’s a fun and solid action flick, if you want to just let your brain turn off for an hour and a half and let the rush and explosions hit you, go see this one, if you’re looking for a compelling prose with deep and significant purpose to its narrative, you’ll want to avoid this one.