Saying I love the first Expendables movie is like saying that its body count is a little high. Yet despite my enthusiasm for both its execution and concept, even I couldn’t admit that it was perfect. Sure, it contained all the right elements, including the long-awaited moment when Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger finally appeared on screen together, but it struggled a little under the weight of expectation.
If you’ve seen The Expendables documentary, Inferno, on its Blu-ray, you’ll appreciate that Stallone almost killed himself trying to get it made, while both starring and directing. My hopes were high, then, that by handing over directorial responsibilities to Simon West (Con Air), The Expendables 2 would surpass the original. What I could never have predicted was how superior Expendables 2 would be in every single way.
It’s bigger, better and bloodier, even nailing the humour this time. From start to finish it’s a joy to behold, especially as the much-needed sense of the ridiculous that permeated West’s Con Air is present throughout.
I’m used to action movies starting with bombastic openings – after all, anyone who’s grown up with James Bond simply expects such things – but the opening scene for The Expendables 2 is excellent. If ever there were doubts that the level of violence would drop with the addition of Chuck Norris, then those are soon assuaged in seconds, as Stallone and the gang decimate an entire army with guns, knives and Jet Li.
If you were one of those people who delighted in the explosive pay offs in Rambo 4, then be prepared for the entirety of that film to be surpassed in the first ten minutes of Expendables 2. It’s as if the film’s mission is to build a higher amount of exploded bodies than any of the cast’s previous movies. Indeed, as expected when Liam Hemsworth was added to the cast, he seems to have inherited Matthew Marsden’s weapon of choice from the fourth Rambo, too.
Expendables 2 is relentless in pace, with no time to lost to anything other than setting up a new threat and a couple of new additions to the team. And when there’s finally a momentary ceasefire in the action, the comedy prevails. Every one of the returning cast members seem so much more relaxed, as they set about ridiculing each other, lending a much greater sense of camaraderie to the team, from Toll Road’s ears, to Christmas’ ego and Gunnar’s pulling technique.
It’s an inspired choice to make Gunnar a more comedic foil, with Dolph Lundgren eating up his chances to play for laughs – his seduction face has to be seen to be believed, though it’s an image that no amount of mental scrubbing can remove.
Thankfully, in the midst of the chaos both Stallone’s Barney Ross and Statham’s Lee Christmas still get a few scenes together, which were a definite highlight of the first film, and their relationship combining brothers in blood with a father/son dynamic provides a solid core for the film and a lot of the humour. Their reversion to an old ‘classic’ style of interrogation is a highpoint. Christmas’ love life is also still a mere set up for ribbing and jokes, so poor Charisma Carpenter has even less to do this time, leaving Buffy fans disappointed once more.
Nan Yu, by contrast, as Maggie, fares a lot better. Despite having a character one sheet released, Yu sadly seems to be absent from the final poster line up in order to make way for the bigger names, which I guess makes sense from an advertising point of view, but is in no way representative of her role. She makes a great addition to the team, quietly dispelling any fears of becoming a token female with enough verbal and physical sparring to stand on level pegging. I’m assuming her link with Dolph Lundgren in Diamond Dogs put her on the radar, and rightly so, but I’m still hopeful that the likes of Cynthia Rothrock (who’s just recently returned to acting) and Gina Carano will even the sexes at some point in another sequel.
I did have concerns that, with Expendables 2’s increased line up, the film would become cluttered and unfocused, but the use of every major new name was shrewdly done for maximum effect (and it worked too, as the packed cinema I saw it in cheered and laughed at each reveal). I won’t spoil anything here but everyone was used very, very well. My wife said she felt sorry for Chuck Norris, though, as it did appear that he wasn’t in on the joke, but that’s no bad thing.
Reprising his role as Church, Bruce Willis is still effortlessly cool, and still steals every scene he’s in. His part in the story’s well reasoned, and his character is quite the shit, which is by far the best way to exploit Willis’ sly charm and sarcastic nature.
Now, I have a confession to make – and one which will pain me far more than you – but if there was a weak point in the film, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. There, I said it.
I was absolutely thrilled to see him back where he belongs, but his absence from the big screen does seem to have made him a little rusty, and his part doesn’t help matters. His character, Trench, has dialogue that’s little more than self-referential quips, something he once excelled at, and some, not all, come off as a bit forced. Maybe it’s abandonment issues on my part, but there’s still only so many ‘I’ll be back’ jokes that can be made in the space of 102 minutes.
Then we come to Jean Claude Van Damme. He’s an actor that I’ve stood by since the beginning, so it was a crushing disappointment when he turned down Stallone’s offer of a part in the first film. It turns out it was the wisest decision Van Damme could’ve made, since the subtly-named Jean Vilain provides him with a plum role here – JCVD burns up the screen in what is arguably a career best performance.
The rivalry shared by Stallone and Van Damme in real life doesn’t just stop at name calling. The tension between them is tangible, and when the inevitable time comes for a face off, things snaps in the most brutal and exhilarating way.
I grew up at a time where action movie franchises spawned sequels on the straight-to-video market, mostly without their original stars (just look at JCVD’s own early vehicles such as Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Cyborg) with even the bigger franchises such as Lethal Weapon, Rambo and Beverly Hills Cop deteriorating over the course of several films. This makes The Expendables 2 an anomaly in the best possible way.
It’s hysterical, explosively violent, full of references to its cast’s work (and even real life experiences) and it’s all handled exceptionally well by Simon West, a director who’s already given us one excellent action movie in Con Air. With The Expendables 2, he’s delivered again: it’s a rollicking action movie, one of the most downright enjoyable of recent times. And, for me, The Expendables 3 can’t come quickly enough…
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